Sydney city recycled water network to employ ASR

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the City of Sydney plans to utilise an aquifer to the south of the city for storage in the operation of a city-wide non-potable water network. The network will be integrated with a  decentralised trigeneration  network.

The most interesting thing about this is that the corporatised water utility Sydney Water provides water and wastewater services to Sydney City, and the City of Sydney local government entity has no experience with operating water and wastewater systems. In fact the terms of the original design tender specified that the system should be able to constructed under a PPP arrangement, where presumably a private entity will operate the system.

This will be complicated from a governance perspective, let alone an engineering one, and I will be watching progress with interest. The introduction of the aquifer storage solution introduces a lot of additional complexity from an environmental perspective. 

Certainly if it gets off the ground, this will be a project of sufficient size to be well and truly on the global water radar, and the global water majors will be interested. I wonder who will have the capability and the appetite to take on the risk profile of a large unconventional system like this one?

Decentralised solutions gaining momentum

In a small suburban development on the far western outskirts of Sydney’s urban sprawl, the city’s first suburb-wide, privately owned decentralised wastewater reuse scheme is about to start construction. The development is Vermont, in Pitt Town.

The privately-run scheme will collect sewerage from 900 houses and deliver third-pipe recycled water back to the same homes for a slightly lower price than the state-owned utility currently provides drinking water. The scheme will operate under a new regulatory frame-work specifically designed to encourage new market entrants, and I would imagine that it could be highly profitable, given that they will be collecting sewerage rates on top of the price of the recycled water but only have to run one plant. I suspect that the cost of constructing and maintaining a third-pipe is not dramatically higher than maintaining two.

No doubt the recycled water will be plumbed directly into the toilets and gardens of the homes before purchase, so they have a captive market.

Small scale reuse schemes seem likely eat away at the market of major utilities by providing decentralised solutions to outlying suburbs and small communities. The major utilities are vulnerable in the locations where pumping distance and geography erode the efficiencies of large centralised plants.

 If the population ever accepts recycled sewerage as potable water then the decentralised business model becomes dramatically more compelling. If you can bundle in stormwater harvesting then you are really talking.

It seems to me that if the major utility business are able to create divisions that specialise in operating and maintaining decentralised schemes, then there is no need for them to lose that market share to smaller players. For better or worse I think that they are unlikely to do this. Large utilities tend to be big, lumbering, heavily unionised beasts that are impossible to steer and which crush innovation.

A smart utility executive interested in entering a more lightly regulated market might see an opportunity to create a 100% owned subsidiary with a separate management structure to target these potentially highly profitable opportunities. It would require a far less hierarchical management approach and very lean and very smart operations. They will need to select executives and management who know water and sewer well, but who also have an entreprenurial mind-set and the ability to rapidly innovate.

If they don’t, then they can kiss that market share goodbye.

The Next Big Thing

I am confident now that the Next Big Thing in water in Australia will be urban stormwater harvesting for potable water supply.

 Why do I think this?

We recently heard here that our population is forecast to almost double in the next 40 years. Australia’s most densely populated south east corner has already experienced dramatic falls in average rainfall, and this is expected to worsen with climate change. Perth has already experienced this .

Meeting the water demands of population growth with declining rainfall will require every water supply and demand management option available.

Desalination will of course remain a growth area in spite of its challenges, but the big desal boom is already well underway and the market is already highly competitive. Potable  Reuse faces such high levels of societal pushback that it is politically very tricky.

As we have seen in Perth, conventional catchments experience dramatic falls in yield under climate-change conditions. Because of increased evapotranspiration and drying soils, the reduction in run-off far exceeds the fall in rainfall. Much less water gets to dams. Also our dams tend to be 100kms or so inland, and those catchments are very vulnerable to geographical shifts in rainfall patterns.

Our major cities however are all immediately next to the ocean, and get reliable rainfall. Urban impermeable surfaces are not effected by the evapotranspiration and dry soils effects, so urban water harvesting is a climate-change resilient option for water supply.

For the past 10 years or so, capacity to deliver stormwater harvesting solutions has been increasing, and Australia’s first potable stormwater harvesting scheme was commissioned last year in Orange, NSW, last year.

Delivering urban stormwater harvesting solutions requires water providers to go far outside their traditional scope. The only way to make it cheap and effective is to build your urban area around water sensitive urban design principles. This means that everyone has to get involved, from the urban planning phase onward.

If you are going to be involved in the Next Big Thing, how will you respond to the challenge of stormwater harvesting and WSUD?

Leadership in uncertain times

The water sector is in transition. For almost 100 years urban water managers were concerned almost purely with three major issues.

1. Delivering a reliable and clean potable water supply at minimum cost

2. Moving wastewater away from population centres

3. Moving floodwater away from population centres

Risk was the enemy and a static highly centralised, controlling management approach was employed.

Now much of the world is facing water supply pressure, and climatic variability is increasing, making for planning uncertainty. Technology is changing rapidly. The population is much better informed so everyone is a stakeholder, and  we cannot afford the ecological consequences of a pipe-bound, one-way water “cycle”.

Centralised, highly-controlling management cannot deal with rapid change and the new complexities of water management.

I read an interesting paper over the weekend on 10 qualities required of a modern leader, working in a changing and complex environment. This list comes from Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an uncertain world by Bob Johansen, and I think it is highly relevent to the water sector.

  1. Building skills: Can you build and grow things while connecting with others?
  2. Clarity: Do you see through contradictions to a clear vision?
  3. Dilemma flipping: Are you able to turn dilemmas into opportunities?
  4. Immersive learning: Can you immerse yourself in unfamiliar environments and learn from them?
  5. Quiet transparency: Are you open and authentic without advertising yourself?
  6. Bio-empathy: Do you see things from nature’s point of view, learning from natural patterns?
  7. Constructive depolarizing: Can you calm tense situations and bring together people from divergent cultures?
  8. Rapid prototyping: Do you learn from early setbacks and fail in interesting ways?
  9. Smart mob organizing: Can you create social change networks through electronic media?
  10. Commons creating: Are you a collaborator, nurturing shared assets that benefit other parties?

The wicked problem of creating water sustainable cities

I am blogging from the Sydney Water Sensitive Cities Workshop. The conference has been a mix of presentations by leaders in the area, and workshops by attendees and has been  co-hosted by the International Water Centre, the National Urban Water Governance Program and Monash University.

The attendees come from all sorts of organisations, but because local government in Australia has responsibility for managing urban planning and stormwater, there are a lot of local government people here. Professions represented are engineers, landscape architects and scientists.

It has been made clear that we are very much at the beginning of the journey towards water sustainable cities.

Listening to the views of the urban planners and architects, it was an interesting insight to hear that water sustainability can be a driver for creating more livable, greener cities that are just more pleasant places to be. Yet again Singapore has emerged as a leader in WSUD, with Tony Wong from EDAW presenting the work they have done to increase the utility provided by Singapore’s waterways, converting concrete channels into water parks with integrated stormwater management and treatment.

The unfortunate reality is that our cities here in Australia are still very poor at managing water, and there is so much to be done in terms of regulation and governance to create water sensitive cities. One striking feature and focus of this conference has been wicked problems and the challenge of  driving change in a complex sociopolitical environment.