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Are we doing enough to protect water catchments for the future?

A webinar held by the AWA Catchment Management Specialist Network last month questioned whether the water industry, as a whole, is doing enough to protect water supply catchments given the apparent ever-increasing pressures on their integrity.

The Australian Drinking Water Guidelines advocates that source waters should be protected to the maximum degree practical. However, the Network Committee has observed a recent trend away from this and a greater reliance on water treatment solutions. With no national position statement or agreed principles to guide source protection across the water industry, the Network Committee believed it was time to question whether we doing enough and what principles should guide future source water protection initiatives.

The Network Committee had originally planned to do a deep dive into this very question at a workshop planned for Ozwater 20 in Adelaide. With the challenges presented by COVID-19 and Ozwater going online, the Network Committee decided to proceed with holding the workshop as a webinar.

The two-hour webinar attracted more than 60 attendees with a wide mix of expertise and experiences from across the country. Chaired by Fiona Smith, Water NSW’s Executive Manager Water and Catchment Protection, the webinar included a range of guest speakers, a Chatham House Rules style debate and interactive breakout sessions, as well as the use of online polling.

The first online polling question saw 83% of participants polled conclude that in their experience, water utilities are more likely to implement enhanced water treatment rather than source water protection, reaffirming the need for an informed discussion about this issue.

"Nothing about us, without us"

One of the highlights of the Webinar was an inspiring and challenging keynote address from Phil Duncan, a Gomeroi man from Moree and Chair of the MDBA Community Committee. Phil’s key message was “nothing about us, without us” calling for deeper Indigenous involvement in catchment management and respecting how Indigenous people value and manage water. A recent article was published in Water Source with some of Phil’s reflections.

Another highlight was the Chatham House Rules style debate, which saw a "catchment team" and "treatment team" present arguments for and against the topic:

The Australian Drinking Water Guidelines state “Prevention of contamination provides greater surety than removal of contaminants by treatment, so the most effective barrier is protection of source waters to the maximum degree practicable”. Is this principle still relevant in 2020, and are we doing enough to support it?

The catchment team’s case centred around the lack of assurance that water treatment systems will work 100% of the time, and when those barriers are breached the consequences for communities can be severe. The team argued that "prevention is better than a cure" and that protecting source water catchments is intergenerational for the betterment of the broader community.

The treatment team’s case challenged the idea that "prevention is better than a cure", saying that catchments alone cannot prevent contamination and you need that "cure" provided by water treatment. The team also argued that water treatment involves a suit of measures, providing multiple contingencies in the treatment process with years of science behind it. The treatment team concluded that the most effective system is a multi-barrier approach with water treatment playing the large role supported by catchment protection.

The need to do more

A poll taken after the debate saw 80% of participants polled conclude that we are indeed not doing enough to protect our source waters to the maximum degree practicable. This also reaffirmed the need to consider drinking water source protection as a national issue with guiding principles needed to ensure this critical barrier of protection was not overlooked in favour of treatment solutions alone.

The Network Committee sought input from the expertise brought together at the webinar to review and discuss ten principles proposed for a National Statement on Source Protection, centred around preventative risk management and increasing the resilience of the entire water supply system.

The Network Committee will be finalising the Statement in the coming months and exploring avenues to promote these principles The Network Committee will seek the collaboration of water utilities and others who have a role in managing catchments to protect water quality, to have regard to the principles when developing and implementing their catchment programs and activities.

If you are interested in reading the national statement, please email networks@awa.asn.au and direct your enquiry to the Catchment Management Specialist Network Committee.