GWMWater gearing up for emergency management excellence

Preparing for an emergency can be worrying for any critical infrastructure. However, it is par for the course in regional Australia, so water utilities like GWMWater must be on the front foot.

Preparing for an emergency can be worrying for any critical infrastructure. However, it is par for the course in regional Australia, so water utilities like GWMWater must be on the front foot.

When we think about the water industry, we often think about the water coming from the taps. In the case of an emergency, water is the last thought… until it becomes the first thought. That usually happens when water is no longer available.

Such a situation is not uncommon in regional Australia, where power outages and bushfires can impact the operation of water and wastewater facilities. Grampians Wimmera Mallee Water (GWMWater) faces these issues often, especially during summer. Nick Mumford, Executive Manager of Service Delivery, is responsible for managing it.

Mumford grew up in Karoonda, a rural part of South Australia. After completing his Engineering degree at the University of Adelaide, he spent many years working in Adelaide. However, Mumford always felt the pull of living and working in a regional area. An opportunity arose at GWMWater, which saw him move to Horsham.

“Growing up in a rural area, I grew up with water being an essential service. It is critical to people’s daily lives,” he said. “We learned that water was scarce, particularly when living off bore water and rainwater tanks. For us, water management has always been a critical issue.”

Challenges of emergency management

In Mumford’s eyes, the emergency management processes of an urban and regional water utility are essentially the same.

“Having said that, urban water utilities tend to have larger and more consolidated infrastructure than a regional water utility,” he said. “This allows them to build in an extra layer of redundancy to their assets that we may not be able to achieve across our entire footprint. When there is an outage due to an emergency incident, there can be a few more challenges for us to deal with compared to an urban utility.”

One of those challenges is the distributed population and more dispersed power facilities. A regional water utility may not have fixed generators at every site to keep facilities running. It’s more likely that they will have a fleet of mobile generators that can reach specific locations. That can be tough for an organisation like GWMWater, which has a service area of about 25 per cent of the state of Victoria.

“Given we have to get emergency equipment on site, accounting for travel creates an additional challenge,” Mumford said. “Having eyes on an emergency is essential, but that is difficult with such a large geographic area. We might know what is happening and can develop a plan based on that information. However, we need to build flexibility into the plan to account for changes in the situation.”

What emergency situations?

One of the most consistent issues facing GWMWater is blue-green algae. The utility regularly experiences the impact of blue-green algae, particularly where water supply is sourced from the Murray River which is susceptible to algal outbreaks.

“Another issue that we tend to deal with is impacts from storm damage which can lead to power outages,” Mumford said. “In February, we had four water treatment plants without power, 19 water pump stations, and 17 rural water pump stations without power at the same time. We were also managing bushfires, too.”

One such occurrence was the Bellfield, Pomonal, Dadswells Bridge, and Mount Stapylton bushfires that started on February 13. Storms also knocked out power to tens of thousands of people across the region.

“It was one event leading into another in the Grampians,” he said. “We were moving from a short-term event to a longer-term one. The management of these issues then rolled into the Mount Cole bushfire the following week.”

There is also the issue of floods throughout the region. Although the floods in 2022 were not as impactful on the GWMWater service area compared with other years, they are an issue that needs to be considered as part of any emergency management plan.

Preparing, dealing, and recovering

Mumford also pointed out that no two incidents or major events are the same. That makes preparation more challenging. The importance of conducting lessons-learned workshops off the back of each incident helps GWMWater develop for the future, gaining insights on how assets operate through the incidents.

“One of the challenges we have as a regional water corporation is resources,” said Mumford. “It’s also worth noting that the recovery phase can be much longer than people may expect. It takes a long time to deal with recovery whilst also managing business as usual (BAU) activity at the same time. It can weigh people down over time, and once it is out of the media cycle, people forget that this is something that is still taking place.”

GWMWater is assessing the impacts of the latest bushfires in the region. Due to the risk of fire debris, collaboration with the local catchment management authorities is required.

“The first significant rainfall event will require very tight management,” Mumford said. “Ideally, we will have silt barriers and other infrastructure in place to minimise the volume of debris washed into our storages. Dealing with all of that could take six months or more, so it’s a longer-term challenge for water corporations to consider.”

Goals for the future of emergency management

Ideally, Mumford would prefer to have no more emergencies to manage. However, he knows of the realities of life and hopes for improved infrastructure for regional water utilities.

“[We] are challenged far more by the dispersed power network, and it tends to be a bit more vulnerable on the edges,” he said. “There are discussions around creating microgrid solutions to increase resilience.”

Mumford was strident in his view that increasing resilience across infrastructure in the region is important. This area is improving across Victoria, with recent government funding designed to repair what has been damaged and increase resilience in those areas.

“Climate change trends are likely to create more problems for the region. We are going to experience more drought, storm, and flood events. These all lead to an increase in emergency incidents that the organisation will need to have plans in place to manage and ensure our people are trained to respond to.”

For more information, visit https://www.gwmwater.org.au/

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