Go local for future water infrastructure projects

Sometimes, when people think about Australia’s water infrastructure projects, they think about grand projects like big dams and desalination. However, in the eyes of Peter Colacino, Partner at Avista Strategy, they should be thinking locally.

Sometimes, when people think about Australia’s water infrastructure projects, they think about grand projects like big dams and desalination. However, in the eyes of Peter Colacino, Partner at Avista Strategy, they should be thinking locally.

“Fundamentally, our expectations of water infrastructure are shifting. Climate, personal preference, constraints on the market, and all these things place pressure on water. This change will require us to think differently about water services and delivering the infrastructure to support them.

“We need to shift the focus to more efficient and resilient approaches that achieve more with fewer resources, whether that labour, investment, materials, or water itself. We need to provide great resilience for our communities, but it requires different thinking about assets.”

These are the words of Peter Colacino. The former Chief of Policy and Research at Infrastructure Australia, Colacino is now a Partner at Avista Strategy, an advisory firm bringing together global leaders from across the infrastructure lifecycle with a vision to transform how infrastructure is planned and delivered. Avista Strategy was formed in recognition that there is widespread acceptance of the need for change in the industry. However, infrastructure owners and delivery agencies would benefit from an experienced partner to support their efforts to embed more collaborative and progressive delivery models into their work.

His insight into the infrastructure industry stems from his background as a geographer. He explains it as bridging the gap between understanding people and their interactions with the built and natural environment.

“For me, geography is partly about understanding how people and places receive services from infrastructure and the outcomes those services deliver. It is so much more than concrete and steel. It is also about supporting quality of life, standard of living and sustainability,” said Colacino. “Additionally, infrastructure is one of only a few that really has the potential to change people’s lives every day. For instance, when we think about water, it has had such a critical impact on Australians. We had to build a lake for our capital city so we could have a connection to water.”

Water infrastructure at a turning point in Australia

Colacino believes that Australia’s water industry and, more broadly, water infrastructure is at a critical turning point. Three specific points are all competing for attention: climate change adaptation, carbon mitigation, and the current state of water infrastructure.

“We already know that we will have to adapt to the changing patterns of rainfall, runoff, expectations of water consumption and its use. Australians will no doubt be looking at whether our infrastructure is in the right locations. We also need to look at water-sensitive urban design and how we use water in green and blue infrastructure,” said Colacino.

One area he pointed out that needed more attention in the water industry was carbon mitigation. While many water authorities focus on renewable energy use, Colacino had another concern.

“With the industry gearing up for a wave of construction, the carbon production associated with construction materials, especially cement and steel, must also be a focus,” he said.

Understanding infrastructure is critical to long term asset management

The third of the triumvirate of Australia’s water infrastructure issues is that the industry tends to be reactive to maintenance and long-term planning challenges. That comes from much of the infrastructure being buried, so problems are only identified once things go wrong. Colacino believes that the industry needs to improve its understanding of asset conditions. That will ensure established assets can continue to deliver value in our cities.

At the same time, water infrastructure has been vital in developing agriculture and other uses for productive water. Colacino pointed out that Australia has a long history of schemes in this field, such as the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme or Murray Irrigation, and has been regarded as a leader.

“More recently, it’s been Queensland and Tasmania’s irrigation schemes that have really come to the fore,” he said. “Irrigation in Tasmania has been vital in building the food brand of the Apple Isle. It supports the industry, and creating jobs in high-order agriculture.

When looking at an urban setting, Australia has become a leader in water use for cooling and urban amenity. People are also thinking more about the multiple functions of water at different grades and treating potable water with the respect it deserves.

Partnerships vital for water infrastructure in Australia

While the industry is at a turning point in terms of infrastructure assets, Colacino noted that Australia was already a leader in adopting new commercial delivery models for water infrastructure structured around long-term sustainable partnerships.

“I’m not sure that the water sector has given itself enough credit for some of the really significant step changes that the sector is driving around delivery model reform.”

He pointed to Project 13, a new delivery model for infrastructure projects. It came about from a partnership initiative between the Institution of Civil Engineers in the UK and the World Economic Forum. Owners, partners, advisers, and suppliers come together in a more integrated and collaborative set of arrangements underpinned by long-term and sustainable relationships. Every party is incentivised to deliver better outcomes under such an arrangement.

Partnering for Success (P4S) at Sydney Water is the first non-UK adopter of Project 13 and, therefore, a global leader. It has replaced its traditional transaction-based supply chain with three regional delivery consortia. Each consortium provides an integrated set of services for all water and wastewater assets in each region,” he said. “We are now seeing other water utilities taking a leaf out of Sydney Water’s book and developing their own models for transformative change.”

P4S great for infrastructure

This model has already achieved similar success in parts of the UK in driving step changes in productivity. For instance, the @One Alliance set a commercial model which provided a return for contractors that did not guarantee a profit. Instead, it linked profit to efficiency savings under their long-term multi-billion-pound agreement, focusing on delivery efficiency,

“The contractor and the client built a sharing agreement. Whatever efficiency savings were delivered would be shared between both parties,” said Colacino. “By changing contractual incentives to support shared ownership of outcomes, de-risking innovation and sharing cost savings, big opportunities were unlocked. For instance, changing trench digging techniques through a new curved trench, with structure plastic delivered a 38 per cent cost saving, and halving of embodied carbon.”

Colacino views long-term partnerships as vital for both government and enterprise. They provide an opportunity for both sides to work together to find innovative solutions to problems. It also provides certainty around capacity and capability requirements, generating long-term relationships within the supply chain beyond a single project cycle. Those relationships support innovation, capability building, workforce training and skills development.

“It’s very difficult to develop skills that normally take four years if your project is over in two or three years. Creating a skill pool to sustain the long-term infrastructure pipeline is almost impossible. On the other hand, if you know you will be attached to a program for ten years, you can build out skills and capabilities. At the end of that contract, those people are still in Australia and have increased skill sets and capabilities. This approach to long-term relationships, skills development, and career pathways can help the water industry stand out as the place to work,” said Colacino.

What is success in water infrastructure?

One aspect of infrastructure that is not considered to the fullest is its success. When asked what a “successful” infrastructure project is, Colacino was clear that effectively defining outcomes was key to this goal.

“Outcomes are about more than just productivity. They are measured across a range of sustainability factors, including social, environmental, economic and governance issues. A full definition of what the outcome suite should look like focuses on the community’s needs,” he said.

One project that has done a reasonable job of this is the Wianamatta South Creek project. Sydney Water is working with the Department of Planning and Environment on using this creek for urban irrigation and cooling. Colacino spoke about the opportunities to deliver catalytic blue and green infrastructure throughout the catchment area.

“South Western Sydney is becoming an urban heat island. There is a lot of concrete and dark roofs. The goal is to use the renaturalisation of the Wianamatta South Creek catchment for urban greening and delivering a broader benefit for a more liveable community,” said Colacino.

Why local could be better for Australia

Colacino believes that locally distributed solutions could be the direction for future water infrastructure in Australia. He looked at the uptake of solar panels in Australian homes as an analogy to what could happen in the future.

“One of the consequences of that uptake of solar PV has been challenging discussions around electricity distribution infrastructure. It has been further complicated by electric vehicles,” he said. “We need to recognise that as we deploy grey and brown water solutions. That goes along with water tanks for home irrigation. There will be consequences for maintaining water distribution infrastructure.”

However, that provides opportunities to improve resilience within the system by making systems more local. This comes with understanding the changes in consumer expectations around infrastructure, which is becoming more personalised and more attuned to environmental concerns.

Defray costs by going local

“There is an opportunity to defray significant network costs by moving to local collection and use. We need water every day, so we cannot afford to miss a connection to it. It requires a complete rethink of the network infrastructure in terms of planning and delivery to support such a system. However, these long-term partnerships and asset management programmes are vital in that context. They allow everyone to think about how the network might evolve,” said Colacino.

Another important aspect of being local and outcome-driven is for the water sector to not only manage the delivery of potable water to residents and communities. They also need to consider the extraction of wastewater or stormwater harvesting. Colacino believes that they need to think about the alternate uses of water and their grading to support the natural environment, renaturalisation of stormwater channels, urban cooling, and other greening infrastructure.

“All these things tie into a much more complex understanding of outcomes than just focusing on getting water into a glass. If we focus on that, we are myopically driven and ignoring those extra benefits. There’s this huge area of additional value that the water sector can deliver on,” he said.

Supporting rural and regional Australia

Colacino believes that fundamental differences can be made for some of Australia’s remote communities when looking at locally distributed networks and the language of microgrids.

“The Water Services Association of Australia lean into improving water outcomes for Indigenous Australians. They’re touching on infrastructure to achieve this goal,” he said. “Our minds tend to be drawn towards big projects, but we do small projects really well in Australia. One of the real opportunities for us is to think about how water can improve health and life outcomes in rural and regional communities, particularly Indigenous communities.”

Innovations around containerised water treatment facilities and local skills development focusing on maintenance are meaningful opportunities and transformations that the water sector could be driving.

“The 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan reflected on water being used for cooling because there was an absence of air-conditioning or fans. So, there’s an interplay between infrastructure types, in that access to better electricity, or more climate-sensitive housing options, can support reduced water consumption in some communities,” said Colacino.

“There’s a really clear opportunity, in which the water sector is already leading to some extent, to work with those regional and remote communities to support living standards and to improve health outcomes.”

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