Gippsland Water – resilience and ready for anything

Moondarra Reservoir falls within the Gippsland Water catchment area, and is key to their resilience focus

Gippsland Water represents an area of over 5,000 square kilometres. It is unique in that at least 20 per cent of its revenue comes from major industrial customers, such as power stations. Its major population centres include Traralgon, Warragul, Drouin, Moe, Sale, and Morwell. They have had to focus on resilience for many decades.

The utility also provides clean drinking water to over 70,000 households and businesses throughout the region. Gippsland Water Managing Director Sarah Cumming sat on a panel at the VicWater 2022 Annual Conference that discussed Are We Ready? Preparation, Recovery & Changing Communities. The session examined the resilience and readiness of people, organisations, communities, and water corporations in an ever-changing situation regarding Australia’s water supply.

Many parts of Australia have recently suffered “unprecedented” disasters. Cumming said, “the challenge becomes your ability to withstand not just an event, but a series of events. There might be multiple back-to-back events of the same type. However, they might be quite different”.

The frequency of these events suggests that they are no longer unprecedented. They are things that require planning, preparation and considerable thought. Cumming pointed out that what works in one community or region may not work in another.

“It’s less of a regional issue and more of a state-wide one. The nature, extent and unpredictable nature of weather events mean that things can happen anytime. Our region has suffered through many bushfire-related events. Recently it endured multiple flooding events, each short in duration. Each was equivalent to a one-in-100-year event. It places enormous strain on our capacity to treat and deliver safe water,” she said.

Resilience and 72-hour survival

One thing she found intriguing from the panel was the suggestion from a fellow panellist that people should be able to look after themselves for 72 hours in the event of an emergency. This recommendation came from the New Zealand National Emergency Management Agency. All the panellists felt this personal responsibility had some merit.

Cumming found a specific area within the 72-hour concept that could have a massive positive impact. This is particularly when it comes to maintaining water infrastructure, improving community resilience and how water is used.

“I know in my region if every house had a tank, the Moondarra Reservoir may last up to an extra month in an extreme drought,” she said. “That’s a big deal in that the impact of having a single tank at every house is far greater than I’d ever thought it would be.” 

When overlaid with the beneficial impact of tanks in reducing localised stormwater flooding and household firefighting benefits, household tanks could contribute significantly to both household and community-level resilience. One issue regarding water and being ready is collaborating with local stakeholders. Of particular importance is ensuring that the Country Fire Authority (CFA) districts know where they can draw water from. Cumming spoke about talking to the West and South Gippsland Fire District and reiterated that the reticulated water supply system is not designed to guarantee firefighting needs. 

“Drawing from certain water sources during an urban or bush fire event can put the system under a lot of strain. It could lead to no water being supplied to affected areas,” she said.

There can be different issues at play in the event of a bushfire. However, communication is critical in the eyes of Cumming. She believes in practising how to handle disasters, resilience, and readiness, specifically multi-day exercises that leave participants exhausted.

“Practice activities can sometimes feel like you’re responding to another incident. We’d just been through a series of extreme events last year before taking part in a government-led cyber event simulation exercise. It felt so real,” she said.

Resilience and multiple-day exercises

These exercises are designed to leave organisations reassessing all their contingency plans and asking, “are we ready?”. Cumming emphasised one idea she raised in the panel discussion was having draft communications templates ready. She pointed out that fixing the problem and making it safe is one thing. Keeping customers informed is another critical thing.

Reiterating the importance of communication to residential and business consumers, Cumming believes that peoples’ perception of how water is managed has led to trust issues during disasters. That is particularly when other utilities have not yet resumed their operations. This is a challenge of managing an essential service that historically has focused on not being seen by customers and maintains very high service standards.

“Communities need to understand that challenges are coming up more frequently,” she said. “We must have greater literacy in the community about what impacts the services we provide have while maintaining their trust. An example is when we say ‘this service is under great strain or has been off but is now back on and safe to drink’. There have been situations where after extreme floods, communities were sceptical that the water was safe to drink because everything else was still out of action. We want to be open and transparent about the challenges we face. We need to create and have that trust and connection with the services we provide.”

As part of that transparency, an important issue for water corporations will be staff and workforce management. With more disasters happening back-to-back, it becomes more important to look at how to manage the team that is out there dealing with these issues. Cumming pointed out that if specialist crews are out there for extended periods, they may become fatigued and suffer from stress. This sort of resilience in workforce management is key for water corporations.

Resilience and transparency

On top of that, water corporations and other utilities are now looking at how to keep their assets safe. Cumming gave the example of one utility in New South Wales that sought to place its pumps a couple of meters in the air. However, they ran their models of future climate change. They opted to put their pumps that little bit higher due to the conclusions shown in the modelling. For example, if a flood event occurred, the pumps might be submerged, whereas now they would still be serviceable,

“It’s about having that mindset of constantly questioning whether you’re ready,” she said. “We’re looking at that overall impact and how we react going forward with that mindset around future events, unknown events, and more designated resources to manage our staff safely through events.”

Cumming has seen some unique events in the past few years in her role. She sees enormous potential in a whole-of-community approach to resilience and readiness. Working with local industry, government, organisations and communities, there are many opportunities for the tens of thousands of customers throughout the region to be ready for whatever happens.

“There’s a sense within our community that more needs to be done. These days, it is an option to have solar hot water or a water tank. We need to be building suitable houses for decades to come that will be ready for these events,” she said.

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