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How Urban Utilities drew on community knowledge to rethink a sewerage upgrade

When South-East Queensland’s Urban Utilities looked to upgrade its sewerage network near Brisbane’s Cannery Creek, it was determined not to approach the project with a business-as-usual mindset.

The resulting solution — a wetland integrated into the wastewater network that naturally filters and better controls flows after wet weather — was developed after three years of community consultation, in a process that the utility says it is looking to repeat with other projects.

“It's not just the typical obligations around providing wastewater services,” said Urban Utilities Executive Leader Integrated Solutions Chris Bulloch.

“We actually want to make sure we can provide additional benefit, which goes to the heart of what we're trying to do, which is enhancing the liveability of our communities for our customers. It's something we're really serious about.”

The utility ensured the upgrade would deliver community, environmental and operational benefits by working with its Community Planning Team consisting of local residents.

“What we wanted to do is to create this approach where the community could get behind this, and, in turn, we could actually use that local knowledge and wisdom into the way we incorporate a solution for them,” Bulloch said.

“We find out what's important for our customers. If we truly believe that the customer is at the heart — in the middle — of everything we do, then I think we found the things that are really important to that local community in that process.”

No traditional solution

Something that quickly emerged from discussions with the Community Planning Team was that the community did not have much interest in a traditional sewer solution that would contain the water and transport it to a central facility. Creating the wetland instead allows Urban Utilities to relieve its network closer to where the water was being produced and used, before being treated and eventually discharged into Moreton Bay.

“Which is just a much more efficient way to deal with it rather than having to transport it all out to Luggage Point Resource Recovery Centre,” Bulloch said.

“The rest of the system is already under pressure because of rainfall across the whole of the catchment areas, so, that's why that localised solution allows us to deal with it in a much more efficient way.”

He described the collaborative process with the Community Planning Team as being one of “co-creation”.

“The insightful commentary we got and input to our design was the genesis of this solution coming together,” Bulloch said.

“Because despite the utility having many, many years of experience working in delivering these services, your local community and what happens in your local community are the things that, we as a water utility, really need to make sure we listen to.”

The consultation process had the advantage of ensuring different stakeholders in the community could be properly heard and would remain fully informed about the project.

“There was a very good understanding that we were there to try and help solve the problem,” Bulloch said.

“Which is a big part of involving our community and co-design with our communities — making sure we go through that process to bring out those types of things like competing interests, or what might happen with various alternatives and what that really means.”

Meeting community expectations

As well as helping the utility better meet community standards and expectations, the wetland solution will also handle heavy rain more effectively.

“And then, when you consider climate change, where we see more intense rainfall patterns, then it becomes pretty evident that this becomes the best solution overall,” Bulloch added.

“All jurisdictions obviously always struggle with wet weather management and it's always tough because you're dealing with different rainfall patterns. But particularly in Queensland … we're tropical, essentially, so we can see a lot of heavy rainfall in short periods of time.”

Bulloch said Urban Utilities hopes to use a similar approach of community co-design in future projects.

“It's really allowed us, as an organisation, to make sure we can shape our business to utilise this approach in the future,” he said.

“We do it all the time with our integrated catchment planning teams: making sure that we understand what the problems we're trying to solve in our communities [are] rather than just a one-size-fits-all approach.”

The outcome, Bulloch said, is an innovative one of which the utility can be proud.

“I really thank all the community members that were involved in this, where insights and involvement has created some great learnings for Urban Utilities,” he said.