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Securing drinking water by taking catchment management to the next level

Protecting drinking water supplies via catchment management has always been an important element of Australian utilities’ potable water supply strategy, but one group of catchment management experts asks: are we doing enough?

The AWA Catchment Management Specialist Network Committee has set out to create 10 principles for source water protection in catchments in a bid to establish a unified direction for preventative risk management and provide more resilience to water supply systems.

Introducing the principles at the AWA’s recent Catchment Management Specialist Network Digital Debate and Workshop, AWA Catchment Management Network Committee Chair and NaturalLogic Director Karla Billington said it’s important for stakeholders to work together on multiple measures to ensure catchment health.

“The effective management of our water supplies requires governments, water authorities, Indigenous people and land managers to work together to put in place a range of measures across the multiple barriers,” she said.

“The Australian drinking water guidelines [ADWG] advocate that source waters should be protected to the maximum degree practicable and that full reliance shouldn't be placed on water treatment alone.

“But what does this mean in the current context? In many regions of Australia, there appears to be a trend away from this preventative management stance with a greater reliance on water treatment solutions to manage current water quality risks and to implement enhanced water and treatment to enable further catchment development.”

Aside from the tendency towards treatment rather than prevention, Bellington said catchment use is also changing rapidly, which must be considered and managed appropriately.

“Development is occurring in catchments with higher intensity land uses, development in inner catchments is a particular concern,” she said.

“Recreation, particularly the inner catchments, is also increasing in some regions of Australia, with water systems having to manage increased risk associated with high impact activities.

“Extreme weather events must also be considered. These events can cause water quality parameters to move outside the normal treatment range and it's certainly likely that there will be more of these events in the future and that their consequence could be severe and prolonged.”

Protection principles

AWA Catchment Management Committee Member and Seqwater Source Protection Planning Principal Greg Greene said the committee’s principles for source water protection aim to provide an industry-specific focus on catchment management to help bolster utility and government efforts.

“While the ADWG contains overarching guidance around the importance of source water protection and the critical role that catchments play, the AWA Catchment Management Specialist Committee believed there needed to be more of an industry-specific position around the key elements of what source water protection really looks like,” he said.

Greene said the first two principles aligned with the ADWGs in highlighting the need for protection to the maximum degree practical and taking a preventative approach to management, as well as confirming the multi-barrier approach as the foundation for ensuring safe drinking water.

“Treatment plants can fail for a number of reasons. So we can't just rely on a single barrier as such,” Greene said.

“But the third principle is fundamental. Any risks to human health must be regarded as serious and given priority over other objectives and decision making. Some water authorities prefer a more balanced approach to all management values. But, wherever possible, complementary outcomes should be sought.”

New context, new method

Further to covering the fundamentals of catchment management requirements under the ADWGs, Greene said the fourth principal is built around the need to avoid complacency.

“Good historical performance should not be a reason for permitting increased development in the catchment. We also need to maintain those areas that are already well protected and are good, rather than just focusing all of our attention on addressing degraded areas.

“Next, and related to all the principles so far, the precautionary principle should be applied to decision-making concerning our water supply catchments and development being undertaken within those. The precautionary principle tips the balance of favour to protecting our water quality in the absence of certainty.

Furthermore, Greene said the final principles aim to position catchments and source water as assets, a stance which will help to connect catchment management with broader capital considerations.

“The next principle really relates to catchment lands and source water should be considered as assets. The value of such should be clearly articulated and investment and decision making should maximise benefits and minimise costs to the whole water supply system,” he said.

“Investing in our source water catchments can make economic sense when compared with additional water treatment and also contributes to a whole range of other catchment objectives.”

Safe standards

Greene said the water sector needs to set the standards of catchment protection and take responsibility for best-management practices.

“Water providers need to set the standard for our catchment protection and we should be implementing best management practices as well as partnering with others, with government agencies, community groups, industry groups, and our Indigenous stakeholders and catchment land holders to achieve source water protection.,” he said.

The AWA Catchment Management Specialist Network Committee principles for source water protection are currently in draft stage.