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'None of us can control where the rain falls, only what we do with it': Lessons from the Southern Downs

Catherine Travers from Southern Downs Regional Council shares the impact of recent drought on her community.

I live in the Southern Downs. Approximately 160 km west of Brisbane, it is just west of the Great Dividing Range and only a couple of hours drive to Queensland’s largest urban centre.

Agriculture forms the heart of our region and is a key driver within our economy. Without fail, every day, conversation includes comment on the weather and of course, the focus is always on water: Are our tanks full? How much feed is around for livestock? Have crops been planted? How is the garden going?

The Southern Downs region has three main dams that supply most of our residents. These dams supply our two main urban centres and several smaller communities are supported by streamflow and bores. Our water supply system is vulnerable to extended dry periods and the past eighteen months has demonstrated just how true that is.

As a water supply provider, history has always provided the foundation on which to base plans and decisions. In times of severe drought, however, we quickly learn that history can only be used as a guide during such exceptional circumstances. To plan appropriately, plans need to reflect current situations and include current climatic conditions, not a forecast based on the average of the past 100 years.

In mid-2018, Sunwater (the dam operator for our main water supply dam) advised that Leslie Dam would reach minimum operating level in less than twelve months. This was not the forecast that council models were providing and meetings were held to review data and information sets for all three dams. As consumption levels were placed under the microscope, the lack of accurate modelling data took council by surprise.

Southern Downs Regional Council Water Restrictions 2018-2019 Figure 1: Southern Downs Regional Council Water Restrictions 2018-2019

A number of immediate actions took place while the council sought to rectify the information gap. The pace was swift and initially focused on demand management. Water restrictions were introduced in June 2018 and by November of that year, the community was expected to reduce their water use by just over 25%. Council expected communities to respond to the call for action but we didn’t yet have good data to clearly explain why. This resulted in community backlash. The unprecedented series of events associated with the drought was perceived as poor preparation and poor planning.

The changes were too quick and modelling data to justify the shift was still being refined by the state. What was known was the weather forecast for the upcoming summer and it was not looking good. Higher temperatures were predicted, and it was likely that evaporation rates of the dams would be far greater than expected. Whilst the council was trying to manage the information, the community did not yet understand the forecast situation, and many did not believe this level of water restriction was warranted. The lack of meaningful rain meant that rural residents were quickly running out of tank water too. Models needed to be adjusted to reflect the increased draw on our town water supplies.

What played out was one of the hottest and driest summers on record and consumption rates were increasing. The message was not getting through to all and water use in some areas was more than double the set target. To try to arrest this trend, extreme restrictions were adopted in mid-March 2019. The restrictions level was announced simultaneously with some improved modelling data which enabled council to clearly demonstrate that this target was required to draw out supplies to the next summer season and which would hopefully bring with it a decent rainfall event. Finally, it resonated, and we saw some sharp declines in water consumption. The tide had turned, and we were on the right track.

Every region is different and has different operating obligations and responsibilities. The take-home point here is that Southern Downs Regional Council is not just a water service provider. Decisions were made which would affect each resident, each business, our economy and our ‘liveability’ status as a community. In March 2019, there was enough information for council to determine a clear framework for action and the following decisions proved to be a pivotal turning point in community engagement:

  1. Water supply is a region-wide issue which requires a region-wide response – water restrictions would apply region wide to every water supply, regardless of depletion dates.
  2. Council is committed to providing water to both urban and rural residents (reticulated and non-reticulated supply)
  3. Events would continue to be supported and encouraged across the region and historical usage would be included into demand management scenarios.
  4. SDRC drinking water was for SDRC residents only to be use for domestic purposes
  5. Businesses would be asked to reduce their consumption by 30%
  6. Provide a single point of truth, in our case the SDRC website, so there was a reference point for community questions and information.

These decisions were bold and brave, and caused quite a bit of division across the community. Questions included:

  • Why should rural residents be provided town water as they don’t pay an access fee?
  • Where can water be sourced for agriculture and construction?
  • What exemptions will be applied?

Whilst controversial for some, the decisions clearly demonstrated council’s commitment to keep the health and wellbeing of our community in the forefront of any water security decision. Further it reduced the fear within the community that rural residents would not be without water and the town would effectively “die” if events were not supported.

These decisions laid a foundation for both staff and the community. Additional signage was installed across the region to emphasise the region wise approach. Clear guidelines were developed for rural residents and discussions were held with bulk water carters to ensure consistency in messaging. Exemptions were sought from the State government to reduce requirements for certain activities such as the washing of vehicles and sources of non-potable water were identified to help support businesses.

In addition, council was proactive in offering a range of water saving initiatives. These included the distribution of free 4-minute shower timers, a sprinkler exchange program (Wobble-tee), a showerhead exchange program (WELS 3-star rated), free buckets, and a rainwater tank rebate for those residents on the reticulated supply. Some were more successful than others and in future more consideration needs to be given to timing and eligibility to ensure maximum take-up.

The “Be Waterwise” campaign was launched early 2019 to curb water use during a major international event. The initial focus was to support accommodation providers and local restaurants. Since then, there has been quite a variety of "Be Waterwise" marketing collateral and general information produced providing an assortment of information and checklists for both residents and businesses to help inspire action. Council even translated one into multiple languages to support our backpacker population.

Southern Water Downs Regional Council 2019 Waterwise Campaign Figure 2: Southern Water Downs Regional Council 2019 Waterwise Campaign

Council was determined to empower residents to make their own decisions regarding water use within the home. Two things stand out as being the most useful. The first is the waterwheel which provides an indication of how much water could be used within the home that would meet the residential target. The waterwheel identifies the main uses from laundry to brushing your teeth and provides an indicative daily water use figure against it. It is not meant to be prescriptive but adaptable for a household. The second was the provision of information to help people understand how to read their own water meter. We had completely underestimated how difficult it was not only for people to do but for people to calculate. Supporting people to read their own meter was empowering and placed some control back into the hands of the community. Property leaks were fixed and people became much more aware of how much water was being used on a daily basis in their house.

We received several questions from other councils across Australia about our monitoring and compliance program. Whilst it has received some criticism, the focus is not to fine but to change behaviour. Council’s compliance team have been very proactive in working with households and businesses to reduce consumption by identifying leaks as well as providing information on how household practices can be changed to comply with the restrictions. As a community being crippled by the drought, the issuing of fines was not seen as appropriate unless no change was demonstrated.

It is important to remember that almost every staff member was also a member of the community. Council lead by example ensuring internal practices were governed by the water restriction permissible and prohibited uses. Facilities audits were undertaken, appliances upgraded and alternative water sources found for construction. This meant that we effectively had staff indirectly acting as waterwise champions by sharing the messaging amongst their families and friends.

There were many lessons learnt through this process and council continues to adapt to external circumstances beyond our control. Some of them are simple such as being mindful of the use of language. Initially our region didn’t want to mention the word drought as it may impact negatively on tourism. By not linking the two events there was no cause and effect which resulted in a lack of understanding across the community.

The community needed a plan not just a decision. They needed council to provide reasons why they had to reduce water use when their gardens were dying. They needed timeframes and understanding of where their water came from and just how much was in reserve. They needed to understand where the water was going to come from if a particular community was in need. They needed to know the consequences of their actions.

Some final thoughts… The concepts of “liveability” and being on “auto-pilot” when considering the way we use water have really resonated and I think they are both important when identifying and planning for aspirational values associated with water security. For those who haven’t lived it, residential targets look doable on paper. And it is, but it is hard. It is easy to drop from 230 L/p/d (litres per person per day) to 170 L/p/d. It is so much harder to drop below that and maintain it for an extended period of time. I don’t think many of us regularly consider our water use. If we take a moment to consider the reality of living at 100 litres this is what it actually looks like…

At 100 L/p/d, we use hand sanitiser instead of turning on the tap. We shower standing in 45 litre containers to capture shower water which can be used to flush the toilet or put in the washing machine. We bucket our grey water to keep pot plants alive because our gardens have all but disappeared and we air our clothes between washes as we can only wash once or twice a week. We use waterless cleaning products and some of us use paper plates to save on washing up. Our drink bottles are emptied into pet bowls and meal plans are considered so water use can be minimised. We capture condensation from downpipes and inwardly cringe when visitors arrive. Our water restriction targets serve as a reminder to self-check if old habits have crept in.

We are very much at the pointy end but we don’t have an end point. We moved to emergency water restrictions of only 80 L/p/d in December and whilst much of the region received rain in February our restrictions have only been lifted to 120 L/p/d in response to additional hand washing and cleaning needs due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Living west of the range is different to living in the city. We seem to be more connected as a community and more aware of our environment. Living west of the range often makes us more appreciative of our natural resources and the associated weather patterns which define how we work, how we do business and how we plan our activities.

Living west of the range has both gifts and challenges. Full water tanks mean that rural residents can wash curtains, enjoy baths and clean the dust from their houses. Urban residents are still living with restrictions where outdoor use is prohibited and our windows and houses still have a tinge of brown.

We see the impact of this drought on our families, on our friends and colleagues. Every one of our decisions impacts not only our community but each and every one of us. Community connection is the key. None of us can control where the rain falls, only what we do with it. At the end of the day we are one region. The weather doesn’t discriminate and nor should we.