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Survey reveals Orange community open to PRW for future supply

Building on the success of Orange’s pioneering stormwater harvesting scheme, a new study has found the New South Wales Central Tablelands community is open to purified recycled water (PRW) being part of the city’s future water supply.

Commissioned and independently conducted by Aurecon in 2021, the survey asked 393 residents about their attitudes to PRW, revealing a high level of community trust in Orange City Council to deliver quality water supply.

The survey also confirmed the Orange community has an understanding of water security risks and, while PRW is not currently the community’s preferred option, people still support continuing the conversation around PRW as a potential option in future.

Aurecon Engagement and Change Advisory Team Principal Kylie Cochrane said community views on PRW have changed substantially over the past decade, which is exactly what Aurecon wanted to test.

“It’s what we have been seeing and hearing from communities in a whole variety of projects, so we wanted to get some certified data to back it. We wanted to test perceptions on using PRW for drinking water versus other potential applications, too,” she said.

“When PRW was being discussed in communities 10 years ago, people were only talking about PRW in terms of drinking water, but there are multiple uses we could have for that water.”

Aurecon Urban Water Resilience Market Lead Darren Romain said the independent survey aimed to establish current community opinions to help drive further action on PRW.

“Cities and towns should have the confidence to initiate discussions with their communities to gauge their understanding and opinions of existing water supply and alternative water supply, in order to inform long-term decision-making on which source supply mix is right from a social, environmental and economic perspective,” he said.

“The community of Orange is thinking strategically and openly about its future water supply to ensure resilience. Conducting this research with the community did not generate a negative response – if anything, quite the opposite – and the survey data provides a useful, balanced perspective of the range of views in the region.”

Survey results

In terms of how community perceptions of PRW have shifted in the past decade, Romain said the consultation behind the stormwater harvesting scheme has led to an increased level of water literacy, but more time and education is still needed.  

“People’s lived experiences have changed in the past 10 years. There is now a better recognition that solutions need to be found to ensure water security – and people care about where their water comes from,” he said.

“The water literacy results showed that the community in Orange was higher than the national average on water literacy. The stormwater harvesting scheme contributed to that, but there is still a way to go. 

“People's initial reaction, regardless of what their water literacy level is, it’s not necessarily overly positive toward PRW. It takes time and learning by the community to get them to the point of understanding to be able to contribute to the solution.”

Romain said involving the community in the conversation and supporting education around where their drinking water comes from is crucial.

“It’s important that we bring the community along on the journey, so that they can understand that the water they drink, regardless of the source, meets all of the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines and health requirements,” he said.

Cochrane said that while more consultation and education is still required, the survey showed that the community wasn’t necessarily adverse to using PRW for multiple other uses.

“In the survey, we broke apart the multiple uses people could have for PRW to understand where their thinking is at. Not everyone is ready to drink it yet,” she said.

“But the clear finding was people are quite prepared to use PRW to wash their car, water the plants, flush the toilet and wash their clothes. So there has been a staged progression in their thinking about the resource.”

Keys learnings

Romain said one of the big findings from the survey is that gaining informed support from communities takes time, which is why the conversation needs to continue, even when there’s no sign of the next drought.

“Regional communities may have a higher awareness of water issues due to their proximity to the effects of drought, but our survey found that this doesn’t necessarily translate to a higher understanding of the water that comes out of their tap,” he said.

“This work takes time. Historically, the rule of thumb was assumed that it would take a decade of community engagement to get endorsement for a PRW scheme. We are seeing from this survey that the baseline acceptance for PRW is at a higher starting point. We are optimistic that the timeframe for engagement to get community acceptance would be shorter as a result, but the time frame is still expected to be several years.

“If you are planning for your next drought, you need to start the conversations while the dams are full so that you have a shot at starting to have some of the infrastructure in place for the next drought.

“It’s not something you can do at the last minute. And communities don’t like it when authorities try to push these things through.”

Romain said Aurecon has identified three things that are important in terms of PRW acceptance.

“They are: trust in the utility, water literacy levels and awareness of the problem. You’re not going to engage a community about PRW if they are not aware there is a water security issue,” he said.

But, regardless of the level of water literacy present within a community, Romain said even the smallest amount of explanation can result in quite a bit of return in terms of acceptance.

“We asked the community if they were comfortable with PRW at the beginning and the end of the survey. In between, there was a small amount of education – we explained regulations, that the product would taste the same and that there would be management practices to make sure the water was safe to consume,” he said.

“Just by making a few small points of education throughout a 15 minute survey, we could see a noticeable difference at the end of the survey of people being willing to one day accept it.”

Cochrane said another learning gained through working with politicians and industry leaders is that everyone has different views on what the community thinks: “But we can’t be sure of those community views until we have the data to back it”. 

“We think it is really important that we arm our industry leaders with this information so that everybody is making considered and well thought out policy decisions,” she said.

“We can’t stop community engagement. The community is not going to stop talking about it. The energy is there, the interest and urgency is there. We must engage; there is no longer a choice. They are engaged; it is now about how we use that information.”

What's next?

Orange Deputy Mayor Gerald Power has welcomed the findings of the survey and looks forward to continuing to work with the community on long-term water security options.

“While projects such as increasing the height of the Suma Park dam wall, the Macquarie pipeline, new connections to Wyangala and the proposed new East Orange wetland, already put us in a very secure position to deliver water over the long term, I’m pleased to hear the community is open to the idea of exploring PRW as another part of the mix,” he said.

“Due to the success of our network of wetlands and our nationally recognised stormwater harvesting scheme, Orange residents are already very comfortable with the idea of drinking water that’s come from streets and car parks. That puts us in a good position to explore how we could move to adding recycled water into the mix.”

Cochrane said Aurecon is very interested in continuing to work with Orange Council, as they progress through next steps and how they are going to use the survey results.

“We are also looking to work with other councils around Australia to see if we can do some comparisons. We are interested in working with water agencies and utilities to see how this fits with their research, too,” she said.

“We want to work together as an industry to educate, inform and drive improvements on how people view PRW and its uses. It’s through the process of having the discussion that people’s views shift.”