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Hunter Water develops plans to ensure region's long-term water security

Faced with a growing population and an uncertain climatic future, Hunter Water is working on a major review of the Lower Hunter Water Security Plan as part of a whole-of-government approach to long-term water planning in the region.

The utility aims to reduce the region's demand for drinking water by working towards implementing a diversification of source options, as well as investigating ways to supplement their existing water supplies, including water sharing with other regions, groundwater, recycled water, dams and desalination.

Hunter Water Acting Water Resilience Program Director David Derkenne said the water security challenges the utility now faces have called for a renewed approach to planning.

“Our water supply system performs well in average conditions, but it's vulnerable to drought. Our system can drop from typical levels to critical levels in around two-and-a-half years,” he said.

“This includes a range of measures in the current Lower Hunter Water Plan around water restrictions and operating a water sharing scheme with our neighbouring region, as well as delivering an emergency desalination plant if storages get to critical levels.”

A secure future

Derkenne said the Lower Hunter region managed to make it through the Millennium Drought without implementing water restrictions, but the recent drought and emerging evidence around climate uncertainty has introduced the need to rethink water security planning, particularly in light of a growing population.

“In the Lower Hunter our catchments are quite close to the coast and we were fortunate enough to catch some of those big storms which helped us ride through the Millennium Drought. Coming into the most recent drought, our community hadn't seen water restrictions for 25 years,” he said.

“Being able to service a growing population in the face of an increasingly uncertain climate is one of the particular challenges that we face. We are servicing just under 600,000 people in our area of operations. And that's predicted to grow by around 100,000 over the next 20 years.

“Our current planning is considering how we respond to those risks, but also ensuring that we're able to respond to opportunities that might emerge in the future, whether they be technology changes, new water sources, or changing community values and expectations.”

In developing the new plan, Hunter Water has focused on engaging and learning with the communities it services about their views on water, Derkenne said.

“One of the things we considered moving into our new water security planning is working with our community in terms of the resilience of the system,” he said.

“Not only are we looking at the resilience of our water system and the number of sources that we can use, but also the resilience of our community and how they respond to times of stress and change.

“Our community consultation initiative is more than a two way conversation about the options and our community’s preferences. We want to have deep and ongoing conversations with them.”

Derkenne said Hunter Water has taken a "learning with the community" approach to its consultation program, with the aim of discovering what water means to them, how they use water now and what they want for our water future.

“Community engagement is a critical part of planning and our decision-making into the future. We have used deliberative forums as a key part of this consultation process,” he said.

“The deliberative forums enable a deep dive into water security issues with a cross section of our community; they’ve helped guide our decision-making and they've been really important touchstones. We’ve engaged with the community on their values to inform the goals and objectives that we set for the plan and their preferences for a range of demand and supply options.”

Engaging the community

The feedback from the forum process has been used to develop a range of options portfolios that will be an integral part of the new water security plan, Derkenne said.

“We’re currently running a community survey seeking feedback on their preferences for a range of options portfolios. And we'll use that feedback to inform further analysis,” he said.

“In terms of these options portfolios, a key principle that formed this work was ‘all options on the table’. Our view is that it would diminish the trust and the confidence that stakeholders and our communities have in the process, and therefore the outcomes of the process, if we didn't follow this principle of putting all options on the table and presenting how each of those options perform under a range of metrics.

“The Lower Hunter Water Security Plan is a complex piece of work. We're not looking to satisfy one objective. There are multiple objectives in this plan, and we're trying to achieve the best social, environmental, and economic outcomes for the community.”

In terms of options, Derkenne said the Lower Hunter community has already expressed a preference for water conservation, recycled water and stormwater harvesting.

“We’ve made sure these options feature in all of the seven preliminary portfolios that we've developed. Each portfolios is defined by a particular investment logic, or policy statement,” he said.

“The investment logic ranges from making the most of what we've got, to rainfall independence, and increasing our storage buffer.”

Derkenne said the portfolios also include a mix of desalination, water-sharing with neighbouring regions, purified recycled water for drinking, as well as new surface water storages, with a focus being on adaptive planning to ensure water security policy works into an uncertain future.

“The portfolio represents the backbone of major demand and supply augmentations, but there are other things we’ll be looking at into the future, too,” he said.

“These include policy and planning reform, ongoing engagement with our community, and R&D into new and emerging technologies, like atmospheric water generators, and evaporation control, as well as investigating new groundwater sources.

“We’ve structured each portfolio around an adaptive approach. What options do we take now and what other actions do we need to take now to keep options on the table for the future?”