As Victoria experiences a rise in climate emergencies, population growth and threats to food security, it’s now more important than ever for the rural and urban water sectors to work together, says Cameron FitzGerald, Managing Director of Southern Rural Water.
The urban-rural link
Operating across 88,000km2 of southern Victoria – a landmass greater than Ireland – Southern Rural Water services the needs of diverse customers via the regulation of access to surface water, groundwater and management of irrigation districts.
The utility’s operations support food and fibre production, contributing more than $14.2 billion to the Victorian economy each year.
Its operations also power generators critical to the electricity grid operating across Australia’s southeastern seaboard, as well as providing raw water to a number of urban water authorities who transform this water into high-quality drinking water for metropolitan customers.
According to Mr FitzGerald, excellence in water management requires a whole-of-sector approach, where the urban and rural sectors identify opportunities to learn and grow from each other.
“Drawing on my fifteen years’ experience in the urban sector, I see opportunities for the two parts of this industry to work better together,” Mr FitzGerald said.
“Drought response and climate emergencies are a significant part of this. How we manage irrigation water and how urban utilities manage water for cities and towns are fundamentally interlinked.
“When impacts of climate change take their toll, all communities face challenges in how they deliver water.
“Rather than making these challenges either rural or urban issues, we must shift our thinking and look to solve problems holistically.”
According to Mr FitzGerald, the urban and rural landscapes are not only linked through physical pipes and assets, but through customer expectations and the provision of services.
“From the CBD to the furthest tips of the state, customers want the same things. They want their utility to be easy to deal with and to demonstrate value for money,” Mr FitzGerald said.
“They want to know that the rules that apply to them are applied fairly to others, and that the rules won’t be changed without effective consultation.
“Most importantly, all customers require dependable water services that ensure the water gets to where it is needed, when it is needed.”
Megatrends and working as one
The impacts of climate change don’t discriminate. Whether a region is faced with increased average temperatures, low rainfall or flooding, the management of both rural and urban water is put to the test.
“We don’t need to look too far to see the impact that climate change is having on our customers. Last year, the Glenmaggie Weir failed to spill for the second year in a row – the first time this has happened in four decades,” Mr FitzGerald said.
“If there is less water, we as an industry have to get better at identifying opportunities to work together and to efficiently deliver the water we have.”
According to Mr FitzGerald, the water industry’s response to the current bushfire emergency is a strong example of what can be made possible when the sector works together.
“I was really pleased to see the industry stepping up to support the bushfire emergency and recovery efforts,” Mr FitzGerald said.
“At Southern Rural Water, our teams came together to assist in delivering critical water to livestock.
“We did this by opening up emergency supply points for farmers that took the pressure off main supplies.
“By doing this, we were able to meet an important community need while also supporting East Gippsland Water’s systems.
“It was a small contribution in terms of the overall response, but it demonstrates what can be achieved when our colleagues and the industry work as one.”
Technology drives network modernisation
Southern Rural Water currently assists with climate emergencies, providing real-time information to the Bureau of Meteorology on local flood conditions, as well as using new technologies to enhance the value of the data it provides.
“The use of remote sensors and big data offers us all the opportunity to build better models and enhance the value we create not just for the Bureau, but for all stakeholders,” Mr FitzGerald said.
“Additionally, our ability to use the Bureau’s data analysis to drive our own decisions during climate emergencies will be critical to a successful emergency response.”
Southern Rural Water is looking to the future to plan how it can manage its assets, focusing on resilience in the long term for customers and communities.
“Over recent years, we’ve committed to an extensive modernisation program, ensuring the districts across our network are more efficient, reliable and resilient to a drier climate,” Mr FitzGerald said.
“For example, the Macalister Irrigation District, the largest irrigation district in southern Victoria, is undergoing an upgrade consisting of pipelining, channel automation and regulator upgrades.
“More than $92 million in works have been completed to provide 22,000 megalitres of water savings for irrigation use within the district.
“Investments of $30 million and $12.3 million into the Werribee and Bacchus Marsh Irrigation Districts have also been made to complete piping and modernisation.”
Supporting people to deliver excellence
Mr FitzGerald knows that building a passionate, knowledgeable team and high-performing culture is vital in supporting collaboration across the sector.
“Southern Rural Water’s people bring our vision to life, and I believe that our success comes from being able to pool our wide range of expertise to collaborate and solve common problems,” Mr FitzGerald said.
“Great practices inside one irrigation district, for example, can be transferred to deliver better outcomes in others, and it’s really important to recognise and share these synergies.”
In recent months, Southern Rural Water’s senior leaders have also been involved in a significant leadership program focusing on self awareness and equipping participants with individualised coaching to assist them on their leadership journey.
“With such a large area to manage, leading an inspired team spread across the state can be a challenge,” Mr FitzGerald said.
“There is no right way to build a great culture, but it does start with self-awareness and meeting people where they are on their journey, then encouraging them to explore their potential.
“As leaders, we must remember that it’s our people who are the ones delivering value to our customers. They are in the field installing, developing and managing our assets, and it’s critical that we are equipping them to thrive.”