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Opinion: It's time to change the way we approach water management

Having grown up on a cane farm in North Queensland, Ashley Zanetti has seen firsthand how essential water is to the economy, the environment and to the fabric of society. For National Water Week, he shares his thoughts on how water management could be improved to solve future challenges.

Thirty years ago, no one seemed worried about water supply. I distinctly remember playing on a lush lawn with the garden hose on most summer days and taking long hot showers. Maybe I was lucky, or too young to know otherwise, but it’s clear that those days are gone. The supply of water is scarce and the inefficient use of water is crippling to both the private and public sectors, particularly agriculture.

We have a landscape of extremes and there is no single solution to Australia’s water problem. We also need to acknowledge, as the data suggests, that this problem will continue with droughts getting harsher and more prolonged, and rainfall and floods becoming more extreme.

Considering this, we need to actively look at better ways to capture, connect, manage and replenish our water supplies, especially in high-risk areas. Our prosperity as a nation is directly linked to the management and use of this precious resource. Large nation-building water schemes have again become a talking point to solve our water problems. However, it would be naïve of us to think that we will solve our problems just by capturing more water and distributing it. We need to actively invest in efficiency measures and opportunities to re-use water.

Today’s water management problem

In times of climatic variability, we need a visionary approach to managing Australia’s water resources. This means looking at cross-border and cross-catchment opportunities, not just focusing on standalone projects such as a new dam or desalination plant.

We need policies that encourage the efficient and effective use of water and stimulate private investment. We need to better manage water at macro and micro levels. 

As an example, urban water management and on-farm water management strategies are often more advanced, efficient and cost effective than those of retailers or bulk water suppliers who own the infrastructure that distribute and deliver the water.

Sustainable water management requires an integrated approach between stakeholders at every level to create cities and towns that are resilient, liveable and productive.

Climate resilience will be achieved when we better connect and integrate our assets with our natural environment, and actively interconnect storages, pipelines, sources and water types. This requires power sources to move that water around, which can be offset by utilising the many hydro-electric opportunities that come with additional water storages and pipelines.

A more integrated approach

We need to think longer term, with a multi-disciplinary, outcome driven focus, and not be short-sighted when investing in new infrastructure.

Investment drives growth. Available water drives agriculture and lifestyle, and the economic prosperity that goes with it. Without additional reservoirs and interconnectivity, we are more vulnerable to the forces of mother nature and lose the ability to manage ourselves out of a problem.

Catchment-based planning should be undertaken by local governments and water authorities to identify gaps, pressures and strategies to improve the management of water in the long term.

This planning will allow for interconnected projects and for communities to work together to solve chronic and acute issues and manage our water better.

Pushing the boundaries of government and industry

The Federal Government recently established the National Water Grid Authority (NWGA), which I think is a great initiative. I hope the NWGA will assess both the current and proposed storage projects and, more importantly, the possible interconnectivity and benefits of managing water across larger grids.

One of the key tasks for the NWGA should be to develop and map out boundaries, which may reflect future water grids and their standalone risks and opportunities, to inform the best type of drought-resilience and drought-prevention response for that network. 

Once these networks are established, underpinned by a clear vision, government policy and support, infrastructure can be developed, opening the door to trade and the allocation of water across networks.

It is currently National Water Week in Australia, and it’s fitting that this year’s theme is ‘it’s time to change the world.’ The time for action and change is now.

There is no denying we need more infrastructure, but this infrastructure should be interconnected and varied in size, scale and type.

This is possible only through genuine collaboration across government agencies, catchments and authorities at a national level. If we can solve our water problem, I back our farmers to solve one of the world’s other great problems – the shortage of food.

Ashley Zanetti is Water Manager, Queensland/Northern Territory at SMEC.