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TasWater launches largest community engagement initiative in utility’s history

Tasmanians have been invited to join the conversation about shaping their water future with the launch of TasWater’s largest ever community engagement initiative, as the utility strives to strike the right balance between price and service that will help the state thrive.

TasWater General Manager Customer and Community Matt Balfe said the utility is taking the opportunity to better understand community experiences and expectations ahead of the next Price and Service plan submission in 2025.

“Water isn’t just our thing, it’s Tasmania’s thing, and we want to make sure everyone has a say about what’s important to them and how we should be shaping the future of water in the state,” he said.

“Every four years our Price and Service Plan is approved by the independent Economic Regulator, spelling out our commitment to our customers. This time around we want all Tasmanians to have an input into the plan, so it truly reflects the needs of our customers, communities, and the environment.”

“By understanding local experiences and expectations we will be better able to deliver a plan that meets their needs when it comes to the supply of water and sewerage services and our contribution to the Tasmanian community as a whole,” he said.

“We have unique assets, our climate is changing, and customer expectations are growing.

“Tasmanians have a huge affinity with water. It’s closely connected to what they value about the place. We are also all very proud to have some of the best drinking water in the world. Our customers care about these things.

“This community engagement is all about preparing for tomorrow while being fair to customers today.”

The plan

Almost 3500 residential customers have signed up to have their say so far with TasWater now set to embark on a three-month program of engagement, including community pop-ups, surveys and forums, with a citizen’s jury set to provide final recommendations.

“From July to September a representative community panel will take a deep dive into what matter most to Tasmanians based on what we’ve heard,” he said.

“Participants can influence things such as the method for calculating water and sewerage charges, the right levels of service, and how we prioritise our efforts.”

Aside from pricing, Balfe said other key themes of engagement will be around water security, and future infrastructure development.

“We have published a draft water security strategy, so we will talk with the community about their expectations on acceptable water restriction scenarios. That will drive our investment decision making from a capital point of view,” he said.

“There will also be engagement on our services, including managing breaks and blockages, and performance levels. Our performance levels aren’t where we’d like them to be, so we are investing in this area, but we also want to know what’s acceptable to our community when it comes to service interruptions.

“The rest of our engagement will be around future generations, including the areas of work our community wants us to focus on, such as emissions and resource recovery. We also want to know if the community wants us to do more for them in terms of the role we play in education.”

Collaborating with community

Balfe said the engagement initiative is larger than anything the utility has attempted before, not just in terms of scope, but also in terms of the amount of influence the community will have on outcomes.

“We are moving into more of a collaborative space with the community, rather than just informing them of what we plan to do. There are significant things on the table here for our customers to influence,” he said.

“For example, the fixed component of our bill is very high, it’s at about 85% fixed. We are asking our customers to conserve water, but the incentive for that is low, because the variable for their bill is only makes up 15%.

“It means that if they save a lot of water, their bill doesn’t change much to reflect that. We are very interested in encouraging people to conserve water, so we are keen to hear from the community about what they would like the variable rate within their bills to be.

“There are also areas where we need to weigh up investment decision making, and we want our customers to inform us on how we spend our time and their money.”

Working alongside the community also creates a remarkable opportunity to develop deeper water literacy, Balfe said.

“We are taking this as an opportunity to help people understand the investment that is in front of us to build water security into the future. Hobart is the second driest capital in Australia and we do need to be thinking about how to create water security for future generations,” he said.

“So we are using this as an opportunity to educate. We’d like our customers to understand the investments we need to make, so they can help shape our capital investment program, as well.”

One of TasWater’s most pressing asset management issues is the sheer volume of wastewater treatment facilities under its remit. Of major water utilities in Australia, TasWater owns 38% of treatment plants for only 2% of the population, Balfe said.

“We have had such a strong focus on drinking water quality over the last 10 years, but now we need to focus on sewer and environmental outcomes. We have a real focus now on needing to rationalise our treatment plants over time,” he said.

“If we were designing our network today, there is no way we would include the number of plants that we have. We have cases where there are two separate treatment plants looking at one another across the river. It’s by no means efficient.

“We have an opportunity to plan for how we mitigate this issue, but we need to plan with the community and our local government partners on how we do that to make sure that we are planning for growth in the right areas.”

Deep engagement

Balfe said, like all other water utilities across the country, TasWater is grappling with big challenges, but has now reached a level of maturity where it is able to dive deeply into community insights to shape the next era of water in Tasmania.

“We are a relatively young utility facing some big challenges. We want to use this as an opportunity to share those challenges with our customers, help them understand the choices in front of us, and then be guided by them,” he said.

“For a long time, our organisation has been gun-shy about telling our story, and the value we create every day for Tasmanians. The best way to do this is through dialogue with the community.

“We’ve taken a unique approach, including a multi-channel advertising campaigns to reach every Tasmanian. Bearing the tagline ‘Water. It’s Tasmania’s Thing’ the campaign branding will then be applied to all our infrastructure works for the life of the next price submission. It’s so important that the community can see their fingerprints on our future plans and investments.

“We don't expect all the conversations will be positive, there will be hard conversations involved in this work. But we are ready to have them. It’s a great opportunity for us to reshape our relationship with our customers and how people think about our organisation.”