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How Ozwater'19 inspired these water professionals to transform our world

Dr Sandra Hall is Operations and Business Development Manager at Advanced Water Management Centre, The University of Queensland.

Ozwater is undoubtedly the premier water conference in Australia, and when you combine this with thousands of professionals and the city of Melbourne, you have an outstanding celebration of our industry.

Ozwater’19, held from 7 to 9 May in Melbourne, attracted 4724 professionals with 1100 attending the gala dinner. There were 380 presenters from our industry across the nine streams, 21 workshops and an exhibition with 237 displays. The conference celebrated the best of our industry and at every turn reminded us that we are passionate, collaborative and inclusive.

Some of the highlights for me included:

  • AWA’s commitment to sustainability by choosing to reduce plastic waste and opting for upcycled conference bags.
  • The opening ceremony performance celebrating our cultural differences. Although I am not a John Farnham fan I still got a little choked up.
  • It was the first time I cried during a keynote speech, not because it was bad but because it told the story of how Orange Sky Laundry helped a mother and her daughter by giving them back some dignity. This keynote also made me laugh because the founders talked about how they did this by technically stealing water from QUU.
  • The very first hologram keynote and the very first presentation talking about an LGBTIQ+ Pride Network at Yarra Valley Water.

Ozwater 19 1 Lucas Patchett and David Tubb from Orange Sky.

Every Ozwater has different highlights for different people, and for me the program continues to inspire.

The Queensland branch of the Australian Water Association (AWA) also wanted to inspire people, so the committee invested some of the surplus from this year in providing a number of bursaries. Three professionals were chosen through a competitive process to attend the full conference – Maddie Greenlee, Adam Wassef and Nathan Litzow – and their accounts of their experiences are below.

Maddie Greenlee

As climate change, population growth and environmental uncertainty increase in Australia, communities are suddenly more at risk. Developing strategies for resilience and having the knowledge to implement the work is imperative.

Under the umbrella of an uncertain and changing future, Ozwater’19 brought together key themes of resilience planning, climate change adaptation, and water security, highlighting positive implementation and change, and pathways to get there. It was an honour to be selected as a feature water professional and sponsored to attend the event and have the opportunity to reflect on my learnings.

Resilience planning

Monday began with a Young Water Professionals (YWPs) session that was filled with inspirational speakers, including Kelly Maslin and her comment that “diversity is ineffective without inclusion”.

While we all know that to plan for resilience, we must have a diversity of input and understand the wicked problems from many angles, the discussions around genuine inclusion were quite moving.

Troy Brockbank, the New Zealand Young Water Professional of the Year gave a talk about Māori history and the importance of a holistic catchment view and nature-based solutions. There is much to be learned from indigenous cultures as we consider planning for resilience.

The last speaker of the day for the YWPs was Duncan Smith, who ran a workshop on unconscious bias. Endeavouring to understand each individual bias we experience or perceive throughout a day was a brilliant exercise and very interesting to hear.

There were many women at the table who felt they were treated differently by men in their offices, and many men worried about speaking to women in light of the #MeToo movement. We had attendees from other countries who immediately noticed they were a minority in the room, while perhaps not every Australian noticed the same discrepancy. Awareness of these differences, and perhaps more importantly embracing them, is key to creating inclusive, resilient communities.

Ozwater19 2

Katrin Doederer also discussed communication and collaboration techniques to influence change and the importance of not only our verbal cues, but non-verbal as well. With my own research in the behaviour change space, it was wonderful seeing the room eagerly nodding along about the importance of communication.

Think about climate change: there is a great deal of data available on the subject, yet so little understanding on a global scale about what climate change is or isn’t, what it means, and when.

When thinking about how we plan our river basins, communities, cities and nations for a resilient future, one of the first steps must be creating a strategy for how we communicate the complex, technical science in a way that is transparent, simple and effective at influencing change.

Building on community engagement, Iain Walker, Director of new Democracy Foundation, gave a keynote presentation encouraging the room to rethink how we engage. Many engagements are a surface-level courtesy with a small reference group of 30 select people willing to be involved, rather than a truly representative sample.

Walker presented five principles of community engagement, or rather five questions to ask yourself next time you are engaging a group of stakeholders:

  1. Representative – is this the most representative group? Who is not in the room?
  2. Are you grounded in diverse information sources?
  3. Time – give your group time, this is not a five-minute conversation.
  4. Authority – give the stakeholders real authority to make decisions.
  5. Blank sheet – ask a question, don’t sell an answer.

The keynote presentations throughout the conference hit the important themes of ‘Transforming our World’, and Craig Reucassel, known for the War on Waste, was no exception. Reucassel presented on generating behaviour change to reduce plastic water bottle use and changing the dialogue for a serious reduction. Similar to the plastic bag ban happening now in Australia, taking away the option is sometimes all you need.

War on waste

Part of planning for resilience is setting goals, something we have all agreed to with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Though there were many talks on SDGs at Ozwater, Jeffrey Sachs gave a motivating keynote (via a hologram) promoting six initiatives to achieve the SDGs:

  1. Education
  2. Healthcare
  3. Decarbonisation
  4. Sustainable land use
  5. Sustainable cities
  6. Smart technology

Climate change adaptation

Building on resilience planning, there were many presentations on climate change adaptation. Whether that be new research into climate change impacts, examples of plans for climate change adaptation or on the ground actions for diversified, alternative water sources for regions, the uncertain future before us was a continuous, exciting and engaging discussion.

Though I did not make it to every presentation, I made it to a number that stood out to me as particularly relevant and useful. We had speakers from Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning discussing climate change adaptation planning and Danielle Verdon-Kidd from the University of Newcastle studying patterns of mega drought and using tree rings and ice cores to reconstruct climate data and more accurately predict climate changes.

Calibre presented on a carbon neutral water industry, while Melbourne Water shared its sewer systems adaptive management planning. Sydney Water too is using a scenario planning tool, with a strong focus on collaborative engagement and mapping techniques.

When thinking about climate change, an increase in extreme events and threatened water security, alternative water sources were a hot topic. Unitywater is developing the Maroochydore City Centre ‘Smart City’, creating a recycled water demonstration space to boost community awareness and acceptance.

Martin Van Buren from Synergies shared a choice modelling survey he used with the community to assess preferences and values for alternative water sources. South East Water demonstrated the innovative design of the Aquarevo residential development utilising rainwater, water recycling and smart water meters.

Water Corporation’s Nick Turner asked if direct potable reuse is a technically and socially viable safe source option for Perth. He used examples from the US, including San Diego and El Paso, which have 12 treatment steps and 60 days of storage and 7 treatment steps and 30 minutes of storage, respectively.

Using a hands up vote in the room, even practiced water professionals were not comfortable with the lower storage times and were voting for a minimum of eight-hours storage.

Adaptive thinking, planning and execution of projects requires widespread support and diverse, innovative ideas. Ozwater‘19 was overflowing with passion, excitement and great discussions between people who want to make this happen: people who want to transform our world.

Water security

Although water security can come under the categories of resilience planning or climate change adaptation, as a water practitioner I am biased enough to give this its own category. We can plan for resilience, and we can plan for or study climate change, but water security is an issue now.

For the last nine months I have been working with a community in Queensland that is running out of water. With an estimated 13 months and 6% of water storage remaining, we have developed water security strategies that discuss options for source substitution, available technological approaches to leak reduction, specific water use efficiency measures within council owned and operated properties, and community engagement and education strategies to achieve behavioural change.

But this region in Queensland is not the only one; this is happening all over Australia and sharing these learnings and lessons is imperative.

Sydney Water presented on the impacts of climate change on its water demand, while Hunter Water shared that 15% of its usage is non-revenue water leaks. Hunter Water’s team has used data loggers and sub meters to build customer relationships and increase awareness.

Back in Queensland, Euan Morton shared that Seqwater uses drought restrictions to reduce consumption and augment supply to buy time, but perhaps the indirect costs increase with each increasing level of restrictions.

For example, medium-level restrictions kick in and community members are able to make the most immediate, big changes for water savings such as stopping outdoor water usage or shortening their showers. But are the restrictions we use too prescriptive? Could we get the same return with less?

Having an analysis of return on the restrictions and suggestions for improving our water savings measures around Australia could provide invaluable information as many of our regions are struggling with water security.

Today’s greatest issues in water are not due to available science. Rather, our struggle is engaging communities, sharing knowledge and influencing change. In the face of climate change, the integration of knowledge, planning and engagement is imperative.

Ozwater‘19 provided a platform for water professionals to share their knowledge and generate passionate discussions with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences. I look forward to returning next year and seeing how these ideas and knowledge transfers have been implemented, and how we are changing our world.

Adam Wassef

Ozwater’19 was the best experience of my career so far… until Ozwater’20 in Adelaide. The conference included many inspirational keynote speakers that left you in awe and are ‘Transforming our World’. I am truly honoured and grateful to be given this exceptional opportunity, and would like to thank AWA for providing the bursary and Unitywater for their support and backing to attend the conference.

Day one was the YWP’s program, where I met many passionate individuals from the industry and some former colleagues. The day featured outstanding presentations and an engaging workshop on unconscious bias.

Group shot ozwater 19

My personal highlight of the day was the Aboriginal Yarra River walk: ‘Walkin Country, Walkin Birrabung’. Even as a Queenslander who hadn’t acclimatised to Melbourne’s cold weather (and being among a number of other Queenslanders who didn’t bring a jacket for the cold day), it was highly informative and enjoyable.

The tour highlighted reconciliation in Australia, indigenous history, the historical significance of the Yarra Yarra River and how, comedically, the river was named from a miscommunication. I strongly recommend this two-hour tour to anyone.

With the first day’s program wrapped, it was time to attend the first of many networking opportunities, which was the Ozwater’19 welcome network evening at the Crown Aviary.

Day two was filled with more highlights. This included an uplifting opening performance and amazing keynote speakers: Jeffrey Sachs, who appeared as a hologram, and Mina Guli, who attempted the incredible feat of running 100 marathons in 100 days to raise awareness about and fighting to avert the world water crisis. She was someone that many in the room felt connected to through her passion for water.

Following the opening ceremony I attended many presentations, scurrying from one room to another. After a full day of networking and learning, a few of my colleagues and I had an active night of ‘networking hopping’. This is like bar hopping but instead we went from one networking event to another.

The third day was just as enjoyable and educational as the second, with great keynote speakers such as comedian Craig Reucassel and 18-year-old Macinley Butson, who is at the forefront of transforming our world.

After another day of dashing between presentations, finding out about the latest technologies and accepting many LinkedIn requests, it was time for the gala dinner. This was the social highlight of the conference, but above all it recognised the fantastic work that is being done in the water industry and has inspired many of us to do more, be more and achieve more.

Day four was time for the conference to come to an end, but before it did I was able to attend an engaging workshop on safety and how it can be done differently. I’m now back in Unitywater’s office ready to accept the call to action of transforming our world by applying all that I have learnt through the work I do in the industry.

I also encourage anyone involved in AWA to accept this call as we build a sustainable world together. Every bit of research we do can assist in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. I certainly know that I will be submitting technical papers to Ozwater’20 next year.

Nathan Litzow

Attending Ozwater’19 was a great opportunity to continue to shape my perspective of the water industry across the country and think about both how the industry is transforming our world and how I am transforming the world around me. This built on my attendance and learnings from the conference last year.

Other forums have offered local, regional and state-based insights into our shared challenges, common regulatory environment and the diversity of customer settings and requirements. However, Ozwater allows you to view the water industry as a whole within Australia and with international input; it is a great learning and networking experience.

Ozwater 19

Some hot topics in Australia at the moment are emerging contaminants and the challenges they bring to the water industry, as well as the fear they can cause in the general community, and Health Based Targets (HBTs), which have been drafted into the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.

A panel session with presentations related to PFAS provided insight into the industry’s growing understanding of this particular contaminant and described in case studies the effect it can have on water utilities, their staff and the communities they service.

However, the highlight was hearing about the promising work done in PFAS destruction through electrochemical oxidation, which is the type of work that could transform our world.

Utilities from Queensland and other states have started preparing for the changes to include HBTs in the Guidelines. TasWater employees, including the 2019 Young Water Professional of the Year Matt Robertson, presented a continuation of last year’s water quality assessment work in a paper titled, ‘Treatment process health check for conventional WTP’.

In their presentation, they shared a state-wide effort to get out and perform a back to basics health check. Seemingly rarely performed physical checks helped them assess plant performance, make improvements and take their operators on the journey with them.

The conscious choice to undertake this large amount work internally, and collect the learnings and experience along the way, added to the skill sets of their employees.

I was made to stop and think hard about the subtle difference in thinking ‘catchment to tap’ or ‘source to service’ after two presentations about lead levels in water after the meter.  It alerted me to the fittings used by water customers, the rating system that we have for potable water, how easily sub-standard fittings can be purchased by consumers, and that it could adversely affect our customers’ drinking water quality.

Victorian Health and Human Services shared about the issue that was raised by sampling public water bubblers and Western Australia’s Water Corporation shared insight into the issues surrounding the Perth Children’s Hospital.

Both highlighted the value of sample data, stakeholder engagement and the fine line water utilities are required to walk, particularly when public opinion is being formed, to prove the quality of the water they deliver, maintain their reputation, and assist vulnerable customers.

It is a relief knowing that I have access to the presentations and notes from each speaker, as they will be a helpful resource to continue learning beyond the conference and help with challenges my team faces back at my desk.

The access will also give me an opportunity to view content I missed because I couldn’t be in two, three or even four places at once to see presentations that were of interest but on at the same time.

Finally, I’m happy to say there are a number of new contacts I have made across Australia and within AWA that I will aim to maintain. I also had the opportunity to catch up with many Queensland water industry colleagues, from Gladstone to the Gold Coast to those at the Queensland Water Directorate.