Australia began 2020 in the grip of a brutal drought and fighting unprecedented bushfires. As communities looked to desalination as the answer for water supply problems, it began to rain and then the pandemic hit.
In this article, Grant Gabriel, an Associate Water Supply Engineer with WSP, discusses the imperative for making water security a major priority and developing a mix of solutions for capturing, managing and distributing water.
This year can largely be described as a disastrous period of record heat, drought, and bushfires for our nation, not to mention the pandemic. While the wetter weather of late has eased drought conditions in many areas, it persists for inland Australia.
Even though many of us are feeling challenged by COVID-19 restrictions, remote working and economic uncertainty, it’s not all bad news. As the Australian National University’s Albert Van Dijk wrote recently, our natural environment is recovering from both the drought and bushfires.
As the country now ushers in La Nina climate patterns, the question is how do we prepare for the next climate extreme, including drought?
“In the short-term, it’s about focusing on good planning and strategic thinking,” says Grant. “In the medium-term, it’s about getting ready for the next climate extreme. In the long-term, it’s about being prepared for what the future will throw at us 20-50 years down the track.
“There is no doubt that our world is changing. From bushfires to floods in NSW and heatwaves to snow in Tasmania earlier this year, Australia’s climactic extremes are the new normal.
“Forward thinking and planning are crucial. We need to be prepared for the next drought, or indeed flood, and have an informed, data driven and community centric plan for managing our water security.
“More importantly, it means our cities and towns can make upfront decisions about managing their current and future water supply sources. To be in a better position down the track, work needs to begin on the associated strategic decisions and master plans before the water source is needed. This must also be supported by community engagement, infrastructure investigations and environmental impact statements and assessments.
“We know that the cost of augmenting water supply systems at the last minute is extremely high. However, if a location has been earmarked, the environmental impacts assessed and required marine works identified, the cost is more manageable, and changes are possible down the track.
“For example, last year the drought impacting Australia meant that desalination was back on the agenda in Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia. Then it rained and the pressure for some cities and towns was off! But we all know that drought conditions will be back, so planning and conversations with the community needs to be ongoing.”
MATURE WATER SECURITY PLANNING IS ALL ABOUT BALANCE
Just as our sustainable energy future will include a variable mix of coal, wind, solar, gas, hydro and other solutions – so too must our water supply systems. Grant points to a balanced approach as the key to mature water security planning.
“In the long term, climate change remains the greatest risk to our water security,” says Grant. “The way forward is to balance climate dependent and climate resilient water sources, particularly in a country like Australia.
“That way, based on the climate conditions we’re experiencing, we can pull the right levers, or activate the appropriate mix of solutions if you like, to respond. And, that may very well mean supplementing surface water and groundwater supplies with desalinated and/or recycled water.
“Of course, the affordability of water plays an important part in all this especially with desalination. As does the community’s attitudes towards recycled water use, and behavioural measures such as water restrictions and conservation.
“The point is, we want to be able to make a choice about having a portfolio of water solutions at our disposal, without being under pressure. We have already seen examples of when capital cities and regional towns come within weeks or months of running out of drinking water. The costs of building a pipeline or trucking water in, let alone having to construct a desalination plant in a hurry, are prohibitive.
“As we look to the future, we must do so with resilience in mind, ensuring that economic models and business practices take into account the needs of our communities and our natural systems.”
IT’S TIME TO MAKE WATER SECURITY A PRIORITY
As the unreliability in rainfall and uncertainty in climate change increases, the difficulties of water supply for our cities and isolated rural communities is posing problems we can no longer ignore.
“To ensure our water security in the long-term, we need to rethink our approach,” adds Grant. “The pressure on our water systems is high and regional towns are particularly vulnerable as they often rely on a single supply source.
“If recent events have shown us anything, it’s that we need to be prepared for the worse. Quite simply, the situation in Australia demands a mix of solutions. This includes recycling and desalination together with a national water strategy that’s aligned with state and regional plans so that we can efficiently and sustainably capture, manage and distribute water.
“Every location is going to need its own solutions and there is no limit to what we can do. But we need integrated planning to succeed. For example, by co-locating a new seawater desalination facility plant next to an existing wastewater treatment, we can maximise efficiencies and drive down costs. This can be achieved by utilising the spare capacity of the existing ocean outfall whilst taking advantage of advances in weather forecasting and sewer network control to manage the performance of both assets during rain events.
“What’s more, the cost of water is also changing. The price of desalinated water is falling, and power consumption is steadily decreasing as technology advances.
“While surface water from dams is generally the cheapest source of bulk water, their construction can have significant upfront and environmental costs.
“The relative cost differences between dams and other sources of water supply such as desalination are magnified because most of our large dams were built and paid for generations ago. But as we start to renew and manage these dams through their asset lifecycle, there will be an equalisation of costs resulting in desalination presenting as a cost competitive and sustainable option when combined with renewable energy.”
LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS FOR THE NEW NORM
We know our future world will in many ways, be very different from today. One thing is for certain, Australia will be in drought again – most likely before 2030.
“The nation is being impacted by patterns of rainfall deficits, water storage level drops and decreases in soil moisture as daytime temperatures trend upwards,” concludes Grant.
“Drought in Australia is the new norm. Now is the time for us to build the business case for a diverse portfolio of solutions to be considered for capturing, manufacturing, managing and distributing water, alongside improvements in planning, strategy and data management at the national, state and regional levels.
“Similar to the old adage that urges you not to put all your eggs in one basket, investment in diversified solutions will be key to Australia’s water future.”
This article is written by Grant Gabriel, Associate Water Supply Engineer, WSP