Water conservation key to education campaigns

Yarra Valley Water has invested a lot in its education campaigns around water conservation. Inside Water spoke to Managing Director Pat McCafferty about educating the community, marketing award nominations and working with First Nations groups.

Yarra Valley Water has invested a lot in its education campaigns around water conservation. Inside Water spoke to Managing Director Pat McCafferty about educating the community, marketing award nominations and working with First Nations groups.

Yarra Valley Water (YVW) was nominated as a finalist in the ‘Sustainable Practices’ category of the 2022 Mumbrella Awards. It was nominated for its ‘Water Watchers’ campaign. The campaign features four aliens that have relocated to Earth after their planet became uninhabitable because it ran out of water. They sit on taps and act as a visual reminder to turn taps off when they’re not in use.

The fun and educational campaign encourage primary school children and families across Yarra Valley Water’s service area to place a ‘Water Watcher’ character on their taps at home. The campaign’s goal is simple: to educate young Victorians that water is a precious resource and everyone needs to save as much as possible. Ultimately, it creates a moment in children’s homes that encourages action and water-saving behaviours.

“We had a lot of fun planning and executing the Water Watchers campaign. Mumbrella recognising it as a meaningful and important sustainability campaign was a thrilling outcome for us as an organisation,” said YVW Managing Director Pat McCafferty. “We wanted to let our customers know that water conservation can be a fun and memorable experience. I’m confident we achieved that. We received overwhelmingly positive feedback about the campaign. That is a credit to our team at Yarra Valley Water.”

While YVW did not win the award, which went to Tourism Noosa, the campaign represents the importance of increasing water literacy among its customers. McCafferty spoke about the campaign’s impact, how YVW is growing and what it means for water conservation.

Yarra Valley Water

YVW services two million people and more than 60,000 businesses across a 4,000-kilometre area, from Wallan in the north to Warburton in the east. They remove and treat sewage, most of which is transferred to Melbourne Water’s treatment plants. The rest is treated at its ten regional plants, where YVW recycles water for non-drinking purposes in homes, sports fields, and public spaces. YVW owns and maintains over 20,000 kilometres of water and sewer mains. The utility serves a culturally diverse population expected to grow by more than 500,000 in the next 20 years. Twenty-eight per cent of people in its region speak a language other than English. Greek is their customers’ most widely spoken language, followed by Italian, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Arabic.

In the eyes of McCafferty, culture is the key to the success of YVW. They have been on a journey of over 20 years to build a constructive and achievement-oriented culture. Human Synergistics, a globally recognised organisation specialising in organisational behaviour and development, recently awarded YVW a cultural excellence award, only the second time this has been awarded in 40 years.

“It’s not just about having a great place to work. It’s about leveraging that to deliver great outcomes for the community, the customer, the environment, and our shareholders, which is the government. That’s the payoff of investing in culture,” said McCafferty.

“We must consider our broader role in society, so we consider our impacts, investments and where we can provide the greatest value. We think about externalities, climate change, sustainability, and many other aspects. As a result, we lean into those things when addressing primary societal challenges to deliver an essential service that underpins health and well-being.”

Who is Pat McCafferty?

McCafferty was appointed Managing Director of Yarra Valley Water on July 1, 2014. In a career spanning more than 30 years in the water industry, McCafferty has also worked in the USA water sector and advised the Australian Federal Government as part of the National Water Initiative.

McCafferty is former Chair of the Water Services Association of Australia and current Chair of the Thriving Communities Partnership. The latter is a cross-sector collaboration to improve support for vulnerable customers of essential services. He is also on the Board of WaterAid Australia and is a member of the Committee for Melbourne’s Standing Committee for Infrastructure and Sustainability. He strongly advocates diversity in the water sector and is a Ministerially appointed Leadership Oversight Committee member for the Women in Water Leadership Program.

While he has enjoyed the challenges and opportunities presented by the water sector, McCafferty is a purpose-driven individual. In that respect, he has found himself in a purpose-driven organisation that seeks to make a difference in the community.

“The opportunity to work in an innovative space that looks after the natural environment is fantastic. It has made Yarra Valley Water and the water industry an exciting place to work. It attracts great people of unique mindsets but with a similar focus. All these many things combine to create a compelling proposition,” he said.

Water education in the Water Watchers campaign

The Water Watchers campaign was a creative one. McCafferty spoke about the desire to find new and unique ways to connect with young people.

“No one wants to talk about what happens in the sewerage system and fatbergs. However, when people are flushing wet wipes, they cause enormous infrastructure and environmental damage,” said McCafferty. “This water education campaign was inspired by a previous campaign called Don’t Feed the Fatberg. We were trying to think about how to engage differently with people on water conservation.”

Given how busy people are, Water Watchers and timers seemed to be an effective way of connecting with people. There was a twofold approach to implementing this strategy. First, there has been a shift in water use from outdoors to indoors, driven partly by education around the Millennium drought and partly by apartment living, smaller blocks, and fewer garden spaces. Second, the highest water use in homes now is in the shower.

Impact of the water conservation program

“The idea was to create these characters that would be a permanent fixture in the house. They would tell a story to kids about the personas of these characters that have come from a planet that hasn’t got any water. They are looking for water, but they are highly conscious of how precious water is. Each character provided a different lens in the home, whether brushing their teeth, turning off taps, or whatever the case was. It was targeted at kids and was highly effective,” said McCafferty.

The Water Watchers campaign was also a finalist in the Banksia National Sustainability Awards in 2021. The campaign entered 45 schools in YVW’s service area, with 3300 students participating in their outreach program. The response to the campaign was positive. A survey in October 2021 revealed that 92 per cent of customers had placed Water Watchers on their taps, 86 per cent said the devices had reminded them to take shorter showers, and 75 per cent had reduced their time using sink taps.

“All the teachers we talked to said they would recommend the program to their colleagues and other schools. They found it useful and engaging and suitable for the curriculum,” said McCafferty.

He acknowledged that the big challenge is connecting with teenagers and 18-to-25-year-olds. They are a different marketing challenge for corporations and will need something clever to engage them.

Exciting new projects in water conservation

YVW has been successfully operating Australia’s largest food waste-to-energy facility in Wollert since May 2017. It sits next to its Aurora sewerage treatment plant, and the electricity generated powers the facility and the sewerage treatment plant. The remaining 70 per cent of generated energy is exported to the electricity grid as renewable energy.

YVW is working on a more extensive waste-to-energy facility at Lilydale to accept waste in 2024. Between the two facilities, they divert over 80,000 tonnes of food waste yearly. It helps keep them on the pathway to net zero carbon in 2025.

“We are already 60 per cent of the way there. This work is part of a massive suite of things we are doing to get all our energy needs from renewables. We are participating in the Zero Emissions Water project with our water utility colleagues, part of the Kiamal Solar Farm in northwest Victoria,” said McCafferty.

The waste-to-energy facility in Wollert is also operating a hydrogen pilot scheme to produce green hydrogen. The ultimate goal is to reuse the oxygen from hydrogen production to make the sewerage treatment process more efficient.

McCafferty also spoke about developing a community farm at its Wollert site with Melbourne Polytechnic and Whittlesea Community Connections. It has formed part of a broader peri-urban food production goal. “The aim is to create a farming enterprise and community food hub that showcases best practices of sustainable agriculture (using our recycled water and renewable energy) and land management. It will provide pathways to employment, and provide food for vulnerable members of the local community. This will truly demonstrate the circular economy in action,” said McCafferty.

Importance of community in water conservation

McCafferty is also a director of WaterAid Australia. He said his predecessor at YVW had brought the WaterAid concept to Australia and that it became a national entity quickly.

“Everyone in the industry saw the unique connection in what we do for communities we serve, along with the gaps in water and sanitation around the world,” said McCafferty.

In his eyes, WaterAid reinforces the importance of the industry’s work for its communities. Australian tap water is largely taken for granted compared to other countries worldwide.

“That does not happen everywhere else in the world. For me, it amplifies and reconnects us to our core purpose. We should do so if we can help others outside our region. We know that clean water and sanitation is probably the most significant thing that would make a fundamental difference in people’s lives. For us, it’s a massive connection to the work we do,” said McCafferty.

Indigenous voices in water conservation

He highlighted the importance of incorporating Indigenous voices and knowledge into water planning and structures for YVW. Having finished its second Citizen’s Jury for their Pricing Submission, YVW is also implementing its second Reconciliation Action Plan.

“We’re fortunate because we had the privilege of having First Nations elders come in. They spoke to the jury about their philosophies about care for Country and care for the environment. It had a profound impact on the jury. Their first recommendation for our long-term planning was to embed care for Country principles into our thinking. The foundation of our second Citizen’s Jury was around First Nation’s voices, so it was just great to have that as a primary consideration,” said McCafferty.

He pointed out that First Nations people looked after their Country and community exceptionally well. There are opportunities to learn from their philosophies to improve the outcomes we deliver, including looking after the natural environment.

“Embedding water rights for traditional owners and supporting the truth-telling process is very important. While there is more to be done, I’m proud of how fast the water sector has embraced reconciliation and is showing leadership in this field,” said McCafferty.

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