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Reimagining recycled water use

The theme of this year’s National Water Week is ‘Reimagining our water future’, and one judge of the 2020 Australian Stockholm Junior Water Prize says now is the time to not only reimagine recycled water in Australia, but also to act on it.

AWA Water Recycling Specialist Network member and UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Stuart Khan said the participants of this year’s Australian Stockholm Junior Water Prize showcased an inspiring capacity for reimagining water solutions.

“Being one of the judges for the Australian Stockholm Junior Water Prize was an amazing experience. It's incredible to see young people having such a passionate interest in water management in Australia, identifying key issues and coming up with creative solutions,” he said.

“They haven't been taught the orthodox ways of thinking about problems. Their minds are open to finding innovative solutions. If more people applied themselves in the way these young Australians do, we could go a long way.”

Khan said this year’s National Water Week theme — "Reimagining our water future" — has a lot to do with water recycling, a topic that’s received varied uptake within Australia, but one that requires re-thinking water and how it is used.

“Water shortages aren't new in Australia. We've had water shortages since Europeans arrived in 1788. We’ve applied certain solutions over the past 250 years, which have mainly focused on building bigger dams and building longer pipelines to bring water from further and further away,” Khan said.

“That has obviously been an important strategy. We wouldn't have cities like Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne without the major dams that supply water for those cities.

“However, I think everybody is starting to realise that we're coming very close to reaching our capacity for capturing more and more fresh water for our bigger towns and cities, because we're having to take water from further and further away.”

New approaches

Khan said that while Australia’s water management strategies have served the nation up until now, it’s becoming very clear the solution is reaching an end date.

“This approach is always a zero sum game; if you take water from somewhere, then that place has less water. When we have droughts now, everywhere is running short on water. The old paradigm has served us very well, but it’s reaching its limits,” he said.

“We do have to reimagine how we will do things and we will have to look at water that has traditionally not been valued in the same way as we've valued water from dams. The wastewater that we currently discharge into the ocean is water that we need to reassess, and we need to think about opportunities for purifying and reusing that water.

“But it's not just recycled water. There are other ways to reimagine water futures as well. We need to think about stormwater, water that lands on our roads and paths and usually ends up in the ocean as well. Can we make better use of that?”

While recycled water has received mixed responses in the past, Khan said one of the most important elements of successful implementation is achieving bipartisan political support for reclaiming and reusing wastewater more broadly.

“Water recycling has been a political issue. The big success of water recycling schemes in Western Australia comes from the fact that both sides of politics agreed to work cooperatively on the issue.

There was bipartisan support to build the Groundwater Replenishment Scheme, and in fact, there was a change of government during the construction of it. One government started it and the other government finished it.

It’s an example of different politicians, different sides of politics, being prepared to work together on something they identify as being crucially important for their state.

In other states, we've seen water, and particularly proposals around water recycling, become an opportunity for political football. There have been actual, political campaigns against recycled water, or there's been a general fear of one developing, which has prevented progress.

Opportunities in NSW

Despite this, Khan said there is a real opportunity, particularly in Australia’s most populous state, to achieve overall support and dedication to introducing large-scale recycled water use.

“Now, in New South Wales, we have a great opportunity, because we have bipartisan support. It's a very different situation compared to four years ago. Normally we talk most about augmenting drinking water supplies when we're in the heat of a major drought. And that's a big mistake,” he said.

“In terms of designing and implementing recycled water schemes, you need time. You need a five to 10 year horizon in order to engage the community in a conversation about what it’s all about. The time to do this is not when you're running out of water. It needs to happen when we are not in a drought; it's when the dams are full. Now is exactly the right time.

“Reimagining our water future is one part of it, but we also need to get on with planning and building our new water future.”