Khan talks water priorities for Australian government

UNSW Professor Stuart Khan has clarified that the new Australian government needs to focus on six specific areas to fix Australia’s big water problem. Chris Edwards spoke to him to find out why.

UNSW Professor Stuart Khan has clarified that the new Australian government needs to focus on six specific areas to fix Australia’s big water problem. Chris Edwards spoke to him to find out why.

Professor Stuart Khan is from UNSW’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He has always been interested in water and its use in Australia. Following the new government’s election, it promised to future-proof Australia’s water resources. According to Khan, Water Minister Tanya Plibersek has a large task in front of her that is vital for securing Australia’s future.

Khan grew up in Coffs Harbour in New South Wales and was influenced by local events. While he was in high school, there was a proposal to build an ocean outfall sewage scheme at the Look at Me Now Headland at Emerald Beach.

The original plan was to pump secondary treated sewage from Woolgoolga into the ocean, and locals objected.

Surfer protest inspired Khan

“Surfers were the ones that particularly objected to this,” Khan said.” They were protesting against expected marine water quality impacts. After weeks and weeks of protests, the council abandoned the strategy and looked for an alternative. The discussion centred around whether you can recycle or reuse that water for something, instead of discharging it to the environment.”

Given that this was a conversation for 1988 and 1989, it led to a new approach by Coffs Harbour Council. They developed a new sewerage strategy in which sewage would be treated to its tertiary stage. Effluent would then be sent inland to farmers as fertiliser, which now supports a multi-million-dollar blueberry industry.

Khan acknowledged that he may not have known what he was talking about at the time as a teenager, but the importance of looking after water stuck with him.

“I became interested in water treatment. When I was at university, my initial focus was on chemistry. I became interested in how water treatment processes remove chemical contaminants. During the late 1990s, issues around pharmaceuticals and hormones in the environment became prominent. I drifted into that area looking at how well advanced and conventional water treatment processes effectively remove pharmaceuticals as my focus,” said Khan.

What is the state of water and wastewater treatment in Australia?

Australia has some old wastewater treatment plants, primarily in many country towns in New South Wales and Queensland. Environmental protection agencies established in the 1980s and 1990s started the focus on nitrogen discharge limits. During this time, the wastewater was used to irrigate local golf courses or reused for irrigation. However, the Millennium Drought saw a focus shift toward recycling water as an alternative supply.

“One of the most effective ways to recycle water is to produce purified recycled water for drinking. If you do that, that’s a huge step change in quality control, treatment, and all the risk management things you need to put around it. There aren’t too many places in Australia that are at that point yet. Perth has a purified recycled water scheme where they treat water from a wastewater treatment plant north of Perth. They purify that water using reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection. They put that water back into their groundwater aquifer,” said Khan

Consider climate

A challenge for the water industry is adjusting its management strategies to a constantly changing climate. Khan acknowledged that this is an enormous challenge.

“In Australia, where we’ve identified that we’re going to change the way that we manage water, we’re going to do it in a more ecologically sustainable way, work out what’s the right balance of water that goes to productive uses, as well as water that also has great value, remaining in the environment,” said Khan.

There are many gaps in how successful Australia has been in doing that. Khan raised the Murray Darling Basin Plan (MDBP) and how its underlying assumptions did not account for the changing climate. The MDBP was developed in response to the millennium drought. It was designed to secure the long-term health of the Murray-Darling Basin by setting environmentally sustainable limits on the amount of water taken out of the Basin.

The assumptions vary from state to state. They account for storage sizes, historical climate patterns, water resource plan rules, irrigator crop selection, and expected usage patterns. Those calculations need to be redone, and more rethinking must occur so all stakeholders can reassess their approach to water management.

Secure the water interests of Indigenous people

Khan has been engaging with members of the remote Indigenous community of Borroloola, a community that lies on the traditional lands of the Yanyuwa people. It sits on the McArthur River, which features a long tidal estuary to Borroloola.

Also, on the McArthur River is a lead and zinc mine. It has seen discussions around water quality and its impact on aquatic life. It has also split the community.

“Some people support the mine because it provides jobs,” said Khan. “Others oppose the mine because they want good quality water. A fishing ban is now in place because of the high levels of lead in the water. However, there are differing views about where the lead has come from, so the blame is pointed in multiple directions.”

He pointed out that the root cause of the unhappiness around water management and environmental management in Borroloola is a lack of empowerment, involvement in decision making, and clear participation opportunities. Not being able to monitor and contribute to managing water quality becomes a big issue for these communities and needs improvement.

Reform urban water management

Khan highlighted the importance of the National Water Initiative. It required the agreement of the Commonwealth Government and all the states and territories because of the Constitution.

Section 100 of the Australian Constitution states: The Commonwealth shall not, by any law or regulation of trade or commerce, abridge the right of a State or of the residents therein to the reasonable use of the water or rivers for conservation or irrigation.

Through the National Water Initiative, all the governmental stakeholders came together. They agreed on what they wanted to achieve to improve the productive and sustainable use of Australia’s limited water resources. He says significant progress has been made in many areas highlighted by the National Water Initiative, but one area that had been largely overlooked has been urban water management.

Climate resilience needs work

“There are many things that towns and cities could be doing better, one of which is climate resilience,” he said. “We know we are experiencing more frequent and intense extreme weather events. Climate scientists have been predicting that we will have more extreme weather events like droughts, floods, bushfires, and cyclones for decades. Therefore, we must ensure that our water supply systems can continue delivering safe drinking water throughout those events.”

He highlighted the need for towns and communities to prepare for these eventualities. In the past few years, power outages have seen wastewater treatment plants discharge raw sewage back into the environment. At the same time, water treatment plants couldn’t chlorinate because they lost power.

“Similarly, during bushfires, towns would bypass the water treatment plant to supply drinking water straight from local rivers. They would have to call boil water alerts since the untreated water can’t be guaranteed to be safe to drink. The recommendation is to start accepting that we will deal with more extreme weather events. We need to ensure that our drinking water supply and wastewater management systems are up to that challenge,” said Khan.

Complete water resource plans

One of the big challenges facing the Murray Darling Basin is having all the water resource plans completed and accredited. New South Wales was late with almost all of its plans, which means the Commonwealth Government may be obliged to step in and buy back water to make the legislated savings.

“We must have all those water resource plans finalised in New South Wales,” said Khan. “It is a slow process, which involves preparing drafts of water resource plans, sending them off to the Basin Authority, having them reviewed, and then sending them back. It does take time, but ultimately, NSW is behind schedule.”

Prepare for two big reviews

With the Murray Darling Basin Plan requiring all the legislated water to be recovered by June 2024, there is a need for a secondary review in 2025. Khan noted that this review should be done to ask questions about whether enough has been done, what more can be achieved, and what should be done differently.

“While I would not pre-empt the answers from the review in 2025, I think that new insights, understandings, and appreciations for climate change need to be key parts of that discussion. It will be a moving target, and everybody will be nervous about the outcome. There will be less water available and more recovery. That will be a horrible insight to have to come to terms with. We will need to think about how we’re going to respond to this sustainably,” said Khan

Khan pointed out that Australia needs to look at every opportunity around where water might come from. While the amount of water produced from wastewater treatment plants will not replicate the amount used in large-scale irrigation, the population needs to understand that there is not much extra water sitting around.

Overhaul water markets

Khan is not convinced that the existence of water markets is fundamentally a cause of many of the problems people are facing in the Murray Darling Basin, including the major drought and the fish kills the area went through in 2019. When the ACCC investigated, its conclusion was not so much that there are fundamental problems with water markets but rather that there are issues with some aspects, such as transparency.

“I think that need for reform is probably a little less intense than what many people think should happen. It’s about improving and managing the market, rather than outright abolishing it,” said Khan.

He also pointed out that there are discussions around a new market regulator. The ACCC recommended that an independent agency should be established to oversee the water market. The new government could be looking to re-establish the National Water Commission, originally established under the Howard Government to oversee national water reform.

Positive future for the water industry and environment

In the eyes of Khan, a significant change recently is growing community acceptance of water recycling. The conscious decision to reduce water removed from the environment reflects an opportunity to make better use of the water resources the country has available to it.

“One thing I have noticed is the observable social change towards wanting to protect water quality in rivers, even rivers that we’ve grown up thinking of permanently polluted like the Cooks and Parramatta Rivers in Sydney. There are active campaigns and state government initiatives to improve water quality in the Parramatta and Cooks Rivers. The goal is to make both rivers swimmable for the first time in decades, and the Parramatta River could have many safely swimmable locations by 2025,” said Khan.

This collaboration between government, communities, and water corporations is one example of a positive future for water in Australia. Khan believes that there are enormous opportunities for the Australian government to focus their water priorities on benefiting the water industry and associated stakeholders.

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