How these water utilities found success through community engagement
From potable reuse to increased water restrictions and planning for the future, as these three water utilities show, it pays to pay attention to – and engage with – your customers.
School of hard knocks
The Millennium Drought (2001-2009) hit Australia’s major cities and agricultural areas hard, none more so than Adelaide and South Australia (SA). Water flows in the Murray River system over the border into SA virtually ceased, threatening Adelaide’s water supply.
As well as building piping and desalination infrastructure, SA Water put in water restrictions that the utility says have continued to see more efficient, sustainable water use long after the drought broke.
According to SA Water, users in the state continue to be more efficient since the height of the Millennium Drought, with recent modelling showing the overall demand from customers has been declining since the 2000s.
“The 10-year average for bulk water demand for SA Water customers since the Millennium Drought was 212 GL, compared to the average for the decade leading up to the height of the drought (1997/98 to 2007/08) reaching 257 GL,” SA Water Water Security Specialist Michelle Irvine said.
“Despite customer connections and the population continuing to increase, the average efficiencies of around 45 GL demonstrates a savvy shift in customer watering habits.”
At the peak of the water restrictions, the utility distributed information on building resilience and enabling efficient water use through direct customer communication, advertising in traditional media, public engagement workshops, a dedicated Water Wise Hotline and a comprehensive water education program.
“Our Water Wise Measures have been in place since 2010, and are a permanent reminder to adopt smart watering practices for around the house, gardens, vehicles and boats, and pools and spas,” Irvine said.
While recycled water may be a sensitive topic in many parts of Australia, one water utility has managed to successfully launch a potable reuse project that supplies water to one of Australia’s capital cities: Perth.
Water Corporation’s groundwater recharge project sees wastewater treated to drinking water standards and then stored in underground aquifers that naturally purify the water further. The project supplies 2% of the 312 GL of water Perth and surrounding agricultural areas need each year. So how did the utility successfully execute a potable reuse project? Water Corporation Customer and Community General Manager Karen Willis said an 18-month research program that included 45 focus groups, 7000 online survey responses and 14,500 visits to an online portal were essential.
“We were heartened to find our own understanding was relatively consistent with the findings of the research,” she said.
“This included the increased use of recycled water, sustainable water practices and reducing our water use, in the face of declining rainfall due to climate change.”
During the three-year groundwater replenishment trial, education and engagement with the local community was essential. Water Corporation built a custom Visitor Centre at the site that saw over 11,000 community members visit.
“Surveys taken of people who visited the plant indicated support of over 90% once they had a thorough understanding of the processes involved in groundwater replenishment,” Willis said.
“Water Corporation was conscious of not forcing the idea on the community, and the three-year trial gave the opportunity to see how it could work in reality.”
The model is based on experience from Orange County in California, where a similar scheme to supply 50% of local drinking water also included a successful community engagement program.
Water Corporation worked with the Departments of Health and Environmental Regulation to develop a Memorandum of Understanding for the trial that established guidelines for drinking recycled water specific to the project.
“Having the scrutiny of our regulators while ensuring any results from drinking water monitoring remained open and transparent were also keys to gaining people’s trust in the process,” Willis said.
Engaging with the community and getting their input on water policy and management is vital for driving literacy and innovation. Sydney Water’s Customer Council provides such a forum for input into policy, planning and service decision-making processes.
“The Council helps foster trust with our customers and provides opportunities for Council members to raise matters on behalf of representative groups,” a Sydney Water spokesperson said.
Sydney Water’s Act requires the utility to establish a Customer Council, which has historically included members of environmental advocacy groups, businesses, developers, local government and minority ethnic groups.
The Council meets quarterly and is chaired by the utility’s managing director or a general manager. While the council isn’t a decision-making body, it provides an advisory function and helps shape Sydney Water’s strategic decisions.
“For example, some members are actively involved in our regulatory submissions cycle,” the spokesperson said.
The utility also conducted a large-scale customer engagement project last year with groups of customers as well as smaller, more focused sessions with small business owners, economically disadvantaged customers and non-English speakers to help inform and shape Sydney Water’s 2018-20 regulatory submissions.
The project also functioned as a proof of concept for an ongoing customer engagement program designed to enable direct feedback from customers as part of business planning.
“We are also recognised as a leader in involving the community in local area decisions regarding projects or developments such as the Vaucluse and Diamond Bay remediation project and the upgrade work at Woolloomooloo to separate [the] combined wastewater and stormwater system into separate collection systems,” the spokesperson said.