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Water for Life: Melbourne's Water Strategy for the next 50 Years

Yarra Valley Water's MD Pat McCafferty joined The Centre for Optimism and VicWater to discuss Water for Life: Melbourne's Water Strategy for the next 50 Years.

On the panel? Robert Masters, Chair of The Centre for Optimism; Victor Perton COO of The Centre for Optimism and a Board Member of VicWater; and, Madeleine Greenlee, Project Director of Water for Life.


Victor Perton: "Pat, you couldn't get away with a visit to the Centre for Optimism without being asked, what makes you optimistic? So, may I ask you what makes you optimistic personally? And what makes you optimistic that you can resolve our water supply issues for the next 50 years?"

Pat McCafferty: "Thanks, Victor. I'll start with the latter question first. 

"What makes me optimistic about the next 50 years is the work that's being done by a lot of really good people, dedicated people from across the metropolitan water sector to plan for an uncertain future, the way they've come together, the expertise that they've brought to the table and the thinking that we've got. And it's all backed up by a very robust planning framework that we have here in Victoria for our water supply planning. So that absolutely makes me optimistic. 

"In terms of a personal approach to optimism, I've always been a glass-half-full person. They say optimists live longer, and I always think humans ultimately find a way. And I am greatly inspired by the people that I work with."

Madeleine GreenLee:   Victor, I think for the theme of optimism, what makes me optimistic is strategies like this and being able to be involved in these types of discussions. It's exciting stuff. 

Collaboration and Engagement

Robert Masters: "Pat, I found it fascinating how you got the water authorities together - it was was a major task, no doubt, in the first place. 

"So how did you go about collaboration and then the overview as far as the long term? As Victor said, many people have trouble planning tomorrow, let alone creating a strategy and planning for 50 years ahead in an uncertain future?

Pat McCafferty:   "Rob, well, the first thing is that each of the individual water utilities, as per the planning framework, is required to do an urban water strategy. The previous iterations were done individually, but I think it's fair to say that there's a collective mindset that the challenges we face require a different approach. And when we were coming up to this five-year planning horizon: we have to do these urban water strategies every five years. So it was absolutely a no-brainer for us to come together.

"There's been a shift, I guess, in the commitment to collaboration as well. And just last week, we had a joint workshop between Melbourne Water, South East Water, Greater Western Water, Barwon Water, and Yarra Valley Water, talking about the need for us to be powerful together and how we come together on these things.

"So rather than doing these things individually, it just made a lot of sense with the same impacts, the same challenges, and broadly the same customer set. So we went about it by creating an independent project team that reports to the strategy general managers from across the businesses and then to the managing directors. And we've been catching up every month on the project.

"So we put a project director in, and Madeleine Greenlee is joining us today. People were seconded in from the different water businesses to form this joint team. I'd hope the team would say that they've been given sufficient resources, enough clarity and guidance from the leadership across the water sector to do their task. I think the draft document is testament to that.

"So that's how we went about it. And, of course, then, the team has a mixture of different expertise. Clearly, we need people who are great at communication, people who are great at planning the technical aspects, demand management, forecasting, all of those sorts of things. So it's all come together really well."

Robert Masters: I noticed you've virtually used an IAP2 model on collaboration and engagement. How did you get the voice of the people and, in particular, traditional owners into that strategy because you reference them in several areas?

Pat McCafferty: That's true, Rob. And, like Victor in the opening, I acknowledge that I'm standing on Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung land and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.  

"For the first time, this urban water strategy really had the ambition to have traditional owner voices front and centre and be in partnership with traditional owners on the whole water plan. And I think the team has done an excellent job of engaging. So we have different traditional owner groups that are affected by this plan - engaging all of those groups respectfully, listening powerfully to their concerns and aspirations as well, and putting that front and centre of the strategy.

"So that's been really important, compelling. And combining that with a deliberative approach, obviously, we've had to do a lot of this online due to the pandemic. And still, it also enabled us to hear from voices that we might not always hear from because of the flexibility online delivers. So deliberative approaches as well with various community members, as well as expert panels as well. So it's been a real combination of consultation from different voices and probably taking it to a whole better level this time."

An Uncertain Future

Robert Masters: Pat, you talked earlier about an uncertain future. We know climate change is producing an uncertain future. For example, in Northern Australia, the rainfall over the last 20 years is above the long-term average, but in Southeast Australia, it's below the average. So that's one factor, but also the use of water, I assume, was a significant factor in what you're doing and this draft strategy. Would you elaborate on these two areas, climate change and the changing use of water?

Pat McCafferty: Yes, Rob. Climate change is a significant impact on the water sector and communities. If we look at the metropolitan story here in Melbourne, we've had a 30% reduction in stream flow in our catchments over the last 30 years. If you combine that with the fact that 2 million more people live in Melbourne now, and we're projecting to double through to 2070, which is the time horizon for this strategy, that significantly impacts where we get our water from. The other thing that we really need to note is that cities are getting hotter as well, hotter and dryer, and the livability and the well-being of human beings are severely compromised by extreme heat. So that's another consideration that we need to think about as well.

"And then I guess the third element around water use; it's really pleasing that since the Millennium Drought, we've had a significant reduction in water use per capita, here in Melbourne, 33% lower than the late 1990s, which is substantial. As you might recall, during the drought, we had a target of 155, and we still have that target. And we've come down from something like 247 litres per person per day to currently at about 163. So we're not far off that 155 target. And when that 155 target was set, it was actually set commensurate with what we thought water use or water savings would be under stage four, which is the most extreme water restrictions.

"So we managed to take a lot of ground, and that's through obviously appliance efficiency, behavior change. And also we are seeing the stock of houses shift as well, smaller properties, less gardens and so forth. So it's a whole combination. This plan is targeting continued water efficiency. I will say though that I think it can't be the only answer when you think about the future that we are facing. We've taken a lot of the juice out of what's available but we'll keep going with water efficiency because it's still probably the most cost effective environmentally friendly strategy you can have because it also saves energy and it's very much embedded now in community's mindset. Every time we do community engagement, it's the very first thing people go to."

Who uses the Water?

Robert Masters: "You said water use in households is dropping. From that point of view, who are the most significant users of Melbourne's Water?"

Pat McCafferty: "Yes, it's shifted a fair bit, Rob. Even if I just think of Yarra Valley Water, some of our significant customers initially when I came here were places like Ford and Holeproof, and of course, we've seen some of that manufacturing decline. However, we still have significant manufacturers in our patch.

"The other thing that most people don't realize is 70% of the water use in Melbourne is residential. So by far, residential outstrips different water use. 

"The more significant water users now are organisations like universities and councils, people who have a lot of open space. There are still large water users here in Melbourne, and we've got a couple of big corporations in our patch, Visy and CSL, but it's not as much as it used to be."

Manufactured Water

Robert Masters: "In the draft strategy, you've used the term "manufactured water". I cast my mind back to several years when I worked on the desalination plant being constructed at Wonthaggi and the controversy that created at the time and the arguments about "do we need it or not?" from that perspective. In your strategy, you're talking about manufactured water. So can you just elaborate a little bit on how you see manufactured water? What makes it up, and what percentages of supply are the components in the strategy?"

Pat McCafferty: Sure thing, Rob. Well, "manufactured water" is code for desalinated water, more recycled water use and stormwater reuse as well. 

"It's fair to say that when the desalination plant was envisaged and first commissioned, I guess it was probably thought more of an insurance policy and a top-up approach for our water storages.  

"It's also now fair to say that because of the impacts of population growth and climate change, it's fast transitioning into part of the base load of our supply and being considered that way. So if you think about our current storages of around 85%, over 20% of that is actually from desal water. So contrary to popular belief, we have been using the desal plan every year for the last five or six years with some significant water orders.

"This year's order is very modest because we've had a couple of really good years in terms of stream flow. But we would now be around the low 60s% without that desal top-up. And we know that in extreme conditions and certainly in 2008 when we had that total collapse of our inflows into our catchments, you can go down by 20% in one year. So if you go down from 60 to 40 really quickly, and then you get another back-to-back event, you are really scrambling. So that's why keeping the storages topped up is important.  

"So we will get heavy rainfall in the future as well. But we don't know when and we don't know how much. Still, it's also reasonably certain that we will also get more droughts and more extreme droughts, and that's happening all around the world and certainly will happen again in Australia and the Southeast for sure.  

"In California, recently, they've announced water restrictions for over 6 million Californians and Southern California, whereby I think they're only allowed to water once a week. Now, that's pretty extreme. The last 20 years have been the two driest decades on record, and they're really scrambling.

"So we don't want to be in that position. One of the great things about this framework and this strategy, Rob, is that we're planning 50 years ahead, and I think the community can take a lot of confidence from that. And suppose you compare what we are doing with what's been happening with energy supply and the uncertainty around being able to supply reliable energy in the midst of winter. In that case, I think we can take a lot of confidence that we have these frameworks, and we are planning to look out 50 years.

"So getting back to the manufactured water; obviously desal is part of our future because it's climate independent and so is recycled water. And so recycled water is a significant part of our strategy as well. All of Melbourne's water utilities are implementing recycled water projects in their areas. Recently South East Water announced a major recycled water initiative delivering water from the Eastern treatment plant for 6 businesses in that area in conjunction with the local councils with some government funding helping out with that.  That's going to supply market gardens, nurseries, golf courses, and so forth.

"For Yarra Valley Water, we've mandated recycled water for 100,000 homes in the growth corridor.  In the north of Melbourne we've already got about 37,000 homes being supplied with recycled water there, we're working on a project to supply 6,000 properties at Doncaster Hill, which is an infill redevelopment with recycled water. And of course there's a lot of work being done on storm water reuse as well right across Melbourne. We've had these integrated water management forums which have been facilitated by the government. And they're looking for all of the opportunities for how we can reuse water that is already there in the environment. And we know for instance, Rob, if you develop a greenfield land development, you can get up to a five times increase in the volume of water that's produced because of hard surfaces. And the fact that human beings are generating sewage and so forth. So yeah, it's all part of the mix."

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