Asset managers – vital for Aus water infrastructure

Australia needs secure storage and resilient delivery systems to manage its water needs, but it also requires skilled professionals to manage its water infrastructure. David Jenkins, CEO of IPWEA Australasia, discusses water security, resilience and infrastructure.

Australia needs secure storage and resilient delivery systems to manage its water needs. It also requires skilled professionals to manage its water infrastructure. David Jenkins, CEO of IPWEA Australasia, discusses water security, resilience and infrastructure.

In any trade-off decisions between new and existing infrastructure, asset managers are central to how these assets perform and the return on investment they deliver. Asset management in the water industry is a challenging field that continues to face a range of issues that develop over time.

One of the most significant water infrastructure projects ever proposed in Australia was the Bradfield Scheme. It was a 1938 proposal by civil engineer Dr John Bradfield. He planned to build a network of dams, pipes, and tunnels in outback Queensland. The intention was to divert water into much of the western Queensland interior and large areas of South Australia for agricultural use.

The proposal by the man best known for designing the Sydney Harbour Bridge still has its advocates today. This is despite several studies showing that his estimates of water volumes were highly variable. Other studies have indicated that the considerable capital investment required to complete the scheme and the ongoing operating costs would likely fail to deliver the hoped-for outcomes.

The point to make about the Bradfield Scheme from a 2022 perspective is that the solution to Australia’s water sustainability and security does not always necessarily lie in significant (and costly) infrastructure projects of the nation-building kind. Instead, the solution can be found in better maintenance and management of existing water infrastructure assets.

What are the biggest issues for infrastructure planners?

Water will always be a scarce commodity for infrastructure planners in Australia. Records show that more than 80 per cent of Australia has an annual rainfall of less than 600 mm.

We know the water flows in the Murray-Darling Basin are much more variable than rivers like the Yangtze or Amazon.

The recent floods have inundated much of regional Australia. Bulk water suppliers delivered 120 per cent more water to irrigators than in 2019-20. Australia has historically experienced low annual average rainfall amounts compared to other continents.

There is almost a ‘boom or bust’ pattern in Australian river flows. It presents unique challenges for our asset managers, who must plan for drought and flood scenarios.

The iconic example is Lake Eyre, known officially as Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre. It is an endorheic lake north of Adelaide, meaning it is a dry, saline lake. Lake Eyre rarely fills, but when it does fill up, it is usually as salty as seawater. It has historically filled up on average twice a century. The city of Perth has built two desalination plants to ensure the security of its water supply. It has recently contracted to build a third desalination plant in its northern suburbs.

The impact of climate change

The impact of climate change is likely to exacerbate these extremes. The good news is that we have already invested in more than 30 cubic kilometres of storage capacity in the Murray-Darling Basin, equivalent to about one and a half years of river flows.

With this infrastructure already in place, much of the success of Australia’s water management is dependent on the effective management of the existing assets we have built up and improved over the past century or more.

In IPWEA’s view, an emphasis on prudent management and maintenance of existing water infrastructure is as essential to Australia’s water security and resilience as any new infrastructure we might build in the future. It is vital to continue enhancing our community’s quality of life through improved public works and services.

Water is a precious resource, and there is competition for limited investment dollars for the lifecycle costs of managing infrastructure. It is critical, but it competes with many other priorities, such as roadworks, ports, and bridges, which are vital for a thriving economy.

Water must be allocated fairly across sectors such as agriculture, energy, industry, and consumers in our towns and cities. To do that effectively requires high-level asset management skills.

There are often many factors to consider. In one current example, the Toowoomba and Southern Downs Regional Councils in Queensland are grappling with whether to proceed with a $300 million water pipeline between Toowoomba and Warwick.

Asset managers were called upon for a strategic report and recommended in favour of the project but factored in ten areas of concern. They include upgrades to pumping stations and transparent agreements on funding, capital cost recovery, access charges and contracts between the two councils and state government organisations.

In this equation, experienced people are another critical resource in providing water security and resilience.

The example shows how skilled asset managers with appropriate and reliable management plans for infrastructure assets are needed. They are vital to ensure optimum performance from assets and to plan for their repair and maintenance. In this way, asset managers can deliver the best return on investment over the longer term.

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