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Local councils proud to bring sewage treatment back in-house

Two north Queensland councils have collaborated on an ambitious project to take back control of their wastewater treatment plants.

Whitsunday Regional Council (WRC) and Mackay Regional Council (MRC) joined forces to transition their four sewage plants from an external contractor to an in-house team.

The transition was years in the making but had near instant results. One of WRC’s plants was environmentally non-conforming when it was handed back to the council, but the team had it back in spec within three days.

WRC Principal Engineer Janice Wilson, who led the project, said the councils were driven by a desire to get better value for their assets. 

She said the councils saw the assets as high-value and beneficial to the community, and wanted better control over them, rather than managing them through a commercial contract with a third party.

“We looked at how the plants were operated and maintained, and we found a few efficiencies we could implement,” Wilson said.

“There are a few caveats, but we found that over the life of an asset it’s actually better for a council – or for these councils – to take care of it.”

Janice Wilson at Cannonvale Sewage Treatment Plant during a membrane condition assessment.

Wilson, who will discuss the project at the Australian Water Association’s North Queensland Regional Conference in August, said this is because the councils had a strong sense of plant pride. 

“It’s really hard to quantify and put a value on this thing that we found drove positive outcomes for each council,” she said.

“It’s about caring for what you’ve got. That care means you spend money on maintenance, but you get a better long-term asset profile.”

In the trenches

While it would’ve been possible for the two councils to complete the projects separately, Wilson said collaboration was key

As two relatively small councils (WRC covers an area the size of Belgium but has a population of just 35,500), taking on a project like this alone would have been a much bigger challenge. 

The organisations were used to working together, having partnered through the Queensland Water Regional Alliances Program, but Wilson said they were “guinea pigs of a collaborative project of this scale”.

Janice Wilson.

They were able to split the costs and staff, and worked together to negotiate with the contractor to get the best outcome for their communities. Both councils are now able to provide backup and support to each other across all of the plants, with combined spares and procurement tenders. 

“This was collaboration in the trenches,” Wilson said.

“We were really communicative, chatting and sharing notes. That was really valuable.” 

Wilson is keen to share what she’s learnt with other local councils considering taking their plant operations in-house. She said ensuring you have enough people working on the project is important, as well as properly understanding the contract.  

It’s also about knowing what you stand for. 

“It’s important you understand what’s important to you, because then you can ask for it,” Wilson said.

“We want well-maintained kit because it means we can provide continuous service and give more value to the community.”

Although it took a mammoth effort, and more weekend hours than the team would like to remember, Wilson said the results have been worth it. 

“We’ve got more surety of our assets; we know what our one-to-three-year replacement and renewal profile and our 10-year financial profile look like,” she said.

“We’re very happy to have the plants back … It really comes down to plant pride – that’s a core value.”

To hear more about the Transition Project, don’t miss Janice Wilson’s presentation at the AWA’s North Queensland Regional Conference next month. To learn more and to register, click here.