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Adaptive value-driven stormwater strategy leads the way for regional council

Many regional councils are facing ageing stormwater management assets combined with fast-growing development and environmental challenges, with a growing need across many areas for more proactive, sustainable and adaptable stormwater management strategies.

In order to address this need, Bundaberg Regional Council’s recent award-winning Stormwater Management Strategy produced in collaborative partnership with AECOM has homed in on creating an adaptive plan for value-driven infrastructure investment.

“Managing water assets and stormwater runoff is a challenge for a lot of local governments. A number of our clients across the regions are trying to gain a better understanding of their historical base of stormwater assets,” AECOM Water Infrastructure Sector Leader Ben McMaster said.

“In a lot of cases, they’re not 100% sure on the condition or age of those assets. Our work in these contexts is to assist our clients with ways to manage those assets, and look after them so that they are fit for future generations.

“It’s also to help manage the impacts of climate change on these systems, both in terms of what is occurring now and in the future.”

Bundaberg Regional Council sought a forward-looking stormwater management strategy to enable them to prepare a response to current and future challenges, and to move towards proactive asset risk management and investment.

Like many regions, Bundaberg has developed over areas where communities are increasingly faced with localised stormwater drainage issues, with urban densification and encroachment of overland flow paths resulting in significant community exposure to rainfall run-off.

But Bundaberg is also situated on the base of the Great Barrier Reef, AECOM Senior Engineer Jordan Maultby said, which is a crucial consideration for stormwater management.

“In one way or another, all that water is connected. The last few decades have seen a focus on the use of grey infrastructure to support development and to move water away from the urban environment as quickly as possible,” he said.

“But what happens between the rain falling to the ground and meeting the reef is important, and blue and green stormwater management options are key in that regard. Bundaberg is also a coastal community – a lot of people choose to retire there, or spend time there during the year for recreation or work.

“These coastal communities are growing fast.  We needed to find ways of protecting the environment ahead of future development and working with those catchments.”

Doing things differently

The Stormwater Management Strategy has provided an essential framework for best-practice asset management, catered to future growth while maintaining and improving existing stormwater infrastructure, including new pathways for management.

“While traditional stormwater management has been about moving the water away from urban areas quickly with drains and tunnels, we know now that this approach doesn't necessarily give us the best overall result,” McMaster said.

“And so, this strategy is also about changing our overall thinking and approach to stormwater management. There is certainly still a place for grey infrastructure, but we need to ensure we are also providing benefits to the environment and the community.”

The strategy designed with Bundaberg Regional Council is multifaceted, Maultby said, but it has a strong focus on helping the Council make more informed decisions about infrastructure investment.

“The strategy is made up of a number of moving parts. But it started with taking a close look at the investment profile of stormwater assets in light of condition assessments. These are important steps to take to make sure the right decisions can be made about allocating funding,” he said.

“We’ve helped the Council develop a 10-year capital works program, with renewals and upgrade recommendations based on asset condition data. This means that they now have a much more informed and effective management pathway moving forward.”

The 10-year plan employs a holistic approach by increasing awareness and education within the community, capturing social and environmental values in investment prioritisation, and identifying critical infrastructure needs.

“One of the opportunities we took hold of was to build a prioritisation framework based on the values of the community, including the environment, the economy, and society,” Maultby said.

“Based on those values, we're able to clearly identify what’s important, and consider investment in works that better align with those values. As they review their capital projects and needs, they're putting it through our adaptive community values tool to help them prioritise projects.”

Ensuring action

McMaster said there's always a risk that a strategy will become just another document that sits on the shelf, which is why the stormwater strategy has been designed with operationalisation in mind.

“Our particular focus here was making sure that as we were developing the strategy was also being operationalised as we went. This is one of the key strengths of the project,” he said.

“The project was also about helping Council do some change management within their organisation so that they're ready to take the strategy and drive it forward beyond our commission finishing.”

Furthermore, McMaster said the strategy development was also about bringing together various stakeholders to strike the right balance on what's most important.

“There’s always competing demands when developing a strategy across a whole asset class. Various stakeholders will all have a slightly differing view of what they need out of stormwater infrastructure,” he said.

“But Bundaberg Regional Council worked with us on this. The Council had some very strong leadership on this strategy, which was crucial in terms of ensuring everyone landed on the same page. It really was a collaborative effort.”

Next steps for stormwater

Maultby said the future of stormwater management will require consideration of all management solutions, including grey, blue and green, and the strategy is set up to enable the most cost-effective adaptation possible, depending on future needs.

“You need to have a combination of grey, green, and blue infrastructure. There's a place for each, and it has to be fit for purpose. In the future, best-practice will be a blur of all three. And all of them will have nature and the environment at the foundation of their design,” he said.

“That’s where we are heading and this strategy is about enabling that future.”

The new approach to stormwater management is no longer about having a problem and fixing it, McMaster said – "it's about understanding the range of challenges and using resources as best as possible to produce as many benefits as we possibly can.”

“There's a variety of benefits that will come out of this strategy. More efficient use of rate-payer funds is an obvious one. But the approach is about getting the biggest bang for buck, and ensuring social and environmental outcomes are achieved as well,” he said.