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Water security tops Infrastructure Australia priority list

Water security is a key focus of Infrastructure Australia’s 2020 priority list, with the organisation calling for a national water strategy to increase resilience and help tackle the challenges of a changing climate.

The latest edition of the Infrastructure Priority List set out a record 147 infrastructure proposals worth nearly $60 billion. 

This includes two new high priority initiatives focused on water: the creation of a national water strategy and a focus on town and city water security.

Infrastructure Australia Chief Executive Romilly Madew said the aim of putting a spotlight on water was to drive real change. 

“In response to this call to action, we’re expecting a range of solutions to be considered for capturing, managing and distributing water, along with improvements in reporting and use of data in the water sector,” she said.

Madew said the list, which also includes initiatives on waste, road maintenance and coastal inundation, reflects the diversity and urgency of the nation’s future infrastructure needs. Its release follows a summer of extreme weather events that put the resilience of Australia’s communities to the test.

“What is clear from recent events is that our infrastructure networks face unprecedented risks,” she said.

“Compounding issues of unprecedented infrastructure demand, severe drought and other environmental changes require a focus on our resilience strategies and a consensus on where to invest now for our nation’s future prosperity.

“As an independent advisory body, it’s our role to bring these problems and opportunities into the national spotlight to spark investment and coordinated action from industry and government.”

National approach needed

The myriad challenges facing the Australian water sector require a national response, according to Infrastructure Australia.

“The demand for water across many water systems is increasing as a result of population growth and relocation, increasing agricultural demand and requirements for environmental and cultural uses,” the list states.

“The water cycle is also being altered by changing climate, changes to run-off and evaporation due to land and forest management.”

It said the 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit found events such as mass fish deaths had undermined Australians' confidence in the governance and management of Australia’s water resources. 

In response, a national water strategy should be established to guide governments, the private sector and the community on how to efficiently and sustainably capture, use and manage water.

The strategy should consider:

  • the current availability, quality, regulation and use of water within various catchments and aquifers;
  • changes in run-off levels linked to changing land-uses and climate volatility;
  • modelling of demand based on population, environment and industry requirements;
  • the condition and performance of existing water infrastructure, including storage, sourcing, stormwater, distribution and treatment;
  • the role of various water sources and potential opportunities, including dams, catchment transfer, stormwater harvesting, water recycling, groundwater and desalination;
  • potential regulatory and planning changes to the water sector;
  • potential investments, ranging from smaller augmentations of existing systems to more major infrastructure for capturing, diverting and distributing water; and
  • opportunities to improve the collection, consistency, reporting and use of information and data in the sector.

The Australian Water Association (AWA) has long called for national water reform to help deliver a coordinated response to challenges in the water sector.

In its submission to the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into national water reform in 2017, AWA said there were “clear benefits to be delivered from greater levels of national leadership, collaboration and facilitation” that could be seen under the guidance of a national water authority. 

“The future of Australia’s water reform journey is now at a critical junction after 20 years of positive gains under Australia’s nationally coordinated water reform agenda,” the submission stated.

“The association considers that further nationally coordinated water reforms are required to address new and emerging challenges and also to prevent the backsliding of the reform achievements to date.”

The Federal Government went some way to addressing this when it launched the National Water Grid Authority (NWGA) in September last year.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure Michael McCormack said at the time that the NWGA would play a key role in shaping national water infrastructure policy and identifying opportunities to build critical networks that secure long-term water supplies across the country. 

While the NWGA is only tasked with overseeing infrastructure, AWA CEO Jonathan McKeown said the country-wide approach was a step in the right direction.

“It’s a good thing to start planning nationally, and we need to encourage all governments to get behind a national strategy for water resources in Australia,” he said.

Town and city water

Infrastructure Australia’s list also named town and city water security as a priority. It said a strategy is needed to deal with challenges including the impacts of climate change, population growth, ageing assets, and changing community needs and expectations.

“Failure to adequately address these challenges could lead to rising water bills, as well as exposing users to risks of declining service quality and reliability,” the list states. 

It also highlighted the risk of communities relying on a single water source, the impacts of which were seen this past summer with towns such as Tenterfield in New South Wales staring down the possibility of ‘day zero’.

"For regional towns, water utilities often rely on a single supply source, with no physical link to an alternative bulk water supply,” the list states.

“The lack of supply diversification creates further water security risks for these communities.”

To address this, Infrastructure Australia proposes a mix of infrastructure and other responses, such as demand management, to improve water security across the country.

“Infrastructure interventions for towns and cities could involve new water sources, such as recycling and desalination,” it said.

“Collaboration and knowledge sharing will also be important to achieve the best outcomes, taking into account the roles and responsibilities of state, territory and local governments.”

AWA’s McKeown said it was important to keep all water supply options open and that water recycling has a big role to play in meeting the needs of a growing population.

“We need to go beyond looking at water infrastructure in terms of dams in regional areas and think about better utilisation of aquifer recharges, better groundwater use and, most importantly, the opportunity to embrace a whole range of water recycling options,” he said.

This includes recycled water for industrial, household and community use, which will be an important resource in the future. 

“The most important thing for the country is to recognise that our needs going forward will be much greater than the available surface water, and that we need to embrace water recycling to get the maximum usage out of this water.”