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Managing risk to maintain peak water quality

Ensuring the provision of safe drinking water to communities requires very detailed water quality management planning, one leading expert says, but an essential step in the development of any effective water quality management plan is understanding the risks.

AWA Water Quality Specialist Network member and Altogether Group Water Operations Manager Audrey Killeen said developing water quality management systems in line with the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (ADWG) and the Australian Guidelines for Water Recycling (AGWR) is a large piece of work.

“I got involved in water quality management at the beginning of my career. I’ve always loved systems and processes, but developing and implementing a system to ensure public health and environmental outcomes was a new challenge,” she said.

“The Australian Drinking Water Guidelines are extensive, with the Framework for Management of Drinking Water Quality boasting 12 elements with 32 components and 76 actions. It covers not just risk assessment, but everything else, from training and competency, to emergency response, validation and even documentation.

“What’s more, the development process is not just about operators or water quality teams, it is a journey that needs to include all aspects of a water business. Other teams, like customer service, marketing, project delivery and billing also have a role to play in managing water quality.”

Effective risk management

Killeen said that risk management is the fundamental principle of effective water quality management, for both drinking and recycled water systems.

“Risk management really needs to underpin any work conducted by a water service provider. When you know your system and you know your risks, then you can understand and manage them to ensure the water you supply meets the ADWG and AGWR,” she said. 

“The ADWG provides the framework of requirements for the management system. Typically, a utility is going to have a plan or suite of plans to show how it meets these requirements.

“It might be an asset management plan for preventative and corrective maintenance, a water quality database to manage all of the data streams and response protocols for incident management. It even includes the CRM system for managing customer interactions."

Killeen said risk-based water quality management starts with understanding the water supply system, from the catchment characteristics and inputs to the system to treatment processes, bypasses and network storages.

"It is about having a very clear idea of the system from catchment to tap,” she said.

“If you don’t know your system, you don’t know your current or emerging risks or what you might be missing. Further, you may not recognise the criticality of those risks. Understanding the system allows for the development of improvement actions to reduce those risks.

“Once you know your supply system, each unit process or step within the system then needs to be risk-assessed. From there, high-risk areas are identified, as well as the control measures that might need to be introduced for the ongoing daily management of the system.”

Making the system a reality

While the process of assessing water quality risks within different areas of the system is a large task in itself, Killeen said one of the most difficult aspects of the process is ensuring the effective implementation of the management system.

“One of the biggest challenges is making sure the system doesn’t end up sitting on the shelf and that’s it’s being implemented effectively,” she said.

“This means finding a balance between managing water quality risks, implementing the requirements of the framework, while also meeting budget and resourcing constraints. This requires analysis of what can be achieved quickly and the identification of the improvement actions that are of high benefit.

“Ideally, you want to find high-benefit, low-cost solutions. Deciding upon actions and implementation also requires consultation and engagement to make sure the plan is understood and implemented appropriately.”

Killeen said the introduction of drinking water management systems in NSW highlighted the importance of ensuring buy-in from all business units in a water service provider.

“When it became a requirement in NSW to have a drinking water management system to meet requirements in the Public Health Act 2010, it was a big transition for some to engage their teams and ensure they understand the importance of the development and implementation of the management system” she said.

“A lot of the time, many of the requirements were in place already. For instance, they had incident management protocols. The challenge was really to bring all the different pieces together and ensure that the people understood their part in the process, too.

“It’s about bringing the whole team along on the journey. The responsibility for water quality management belongs to everybody.”