Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageALN #45, Spring/Summer 1999
Water in Cities

Australia's Urban Water Program: An integrated, nationwide initiative

by Andrew Speers

"By any measure, we have initiated an ambitious Program. Early outputs are encouraging, however, and there remains an enthusiasm amongst all involved, both within the partner organizations and externally. The Program has received significant publicity within Australia, and community and institutional interest has been enthusiastic."

In most lay discussions of Australia's environment or, specifically, its available water, the observation is bound to be offered that the country is the driest inhabited continent on Earth (only Antarctica is drier). The statement is usually used to justify recycling of water and other, frequently expensive, approaches to extending our available water supplies. This generalization, like most, disguises the truth. While it's true that the combined annual flow of all Australia's rivers is significantly less than that of North America's Mississippi River, Australia has a remarkably varied climate, and some major urban centres receive significant precipitation.

Australia's arid interior is separated from the country's East Coast by the Great Dividing Range, running mostly 100-200 kilometres inland. East of the divide, the climate is often moist. Rainfall in Sydney, for example, is approximately 1200 mm/pa, and is higher in parts of the tropical coastal fringe and the relatively undeveloped tropical north. In other parts of the country, the situation is dramatically different. The major cities of Melbourne in the south-east, Adelaide on the Great Australian Bight and Perth in the west receive annual precipitation of less than 600-800 millimeters.

Why then has Australia sought to develop a national approach to urban water supply and management? Despite the variability noted above, there are some factors common to all Australian cities in terms of water management. The first is that Australia's climate is frequently dominated not by annual variations in rainfall, but by variation over many years, apparently dominated by the El Niño effect. Thus, even those cities located in higher-rainfall regions must plan for drought. Sydney, for example, stores more water per capita than any other major urban centre worldwide, enough to see it through eight years of drought.

A second factor is community resistance to the construction of new surface storages due to their environmental impact. Resistance to the proposed Franklin River hydro-electric dam in Tasmania was a major factor in the election of a new Federal Government in 1983 and led to a Left-Green coalition forming a government in Tasmania for several years. Similar, albeit smaller, confrontations have emerged in other jurisdictions.

A third and most important factor is the drive to efficiency in water service provision and water allocation under the auspices of the Council of Australian Governments' (COAG) water reform requirements. These requirements tie certain grants to State governments to performance in improved urban (and agricultural) water management. Key aspects of these reforms require that cross-subsidies be removed (say between the commercial and residential sectors); that appropriate rates of return on investment be achieved by water companies; that user-pays pricing be introduced; that regulatory powers be separated from operational responsibilities (so that, say, a water company does not set its own prices or environmental standards); and that 'externalities' be incorporated in the price for water such that it is not under-priced and over-consumption is not encouraged. These reforms mean that the water industry is now facing direct competition for the first time and that efficiency in water service provision, even in the absence of direct competition, is paramount.

As Americans would recognize, common interest does not always produce cooperation in a federal system. Nevertheless, in this case, the need for an urban water research initiative in response to the above-mentioned drivers was clear. Three groups saw opportunities to promote cooperation: the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the premier scientific research organisation in the country with a very sound reputation amongst the Australian people; the Water Services Association of Australia, representing the 19 largest urban water suppliers in the country; and the COAG Water Reform Taskforce itself.

Out of this alignment has sprung the Urban Water Program (UWP). This initiative is to be undertaken in 2 phases. The first is a feasibility stage which commenced formally in May 1998 and which will conclude in November 1999. The second phase includes an additional 18 months to 2 years research that is yet to be defined, and which depends on the continued support of the Program's partners.

The feasibility stage is, in itself, a significant research effort. It is most easily explained by asking readers to consider the Program as four tasks (although in practice these are integrated initiatives, not separate research themes).

The first Task is an attempt to characterize existing urban water systems from the perspective of water and contaminant flows, and of costs and drivers of cost within the system. The characterization of contaminant flows involves first mapping the water balance, as water is the medium by which contaminants are transported within the water, wastewater and stormwater systems. This water balance characterization is enhanced through a study of domestic patterns of water use. In this study one sample group of 120 households has been supplied with 'smart meters' capable of recognizing the 'signatures' of water-using appliances. This provides a very detailed picture of use. A second sample group involving a further 600 households is keeping a diary record of water use. Both groups are questioned as to their attitudes to water, the level of service they expect to be provided with, their willingness to adopt water efficient practices --for example xeriscaped gardens--and other matters.

The contaminant flow mapping segment of Task 1 records entry and exit points for contaminants and factors affecting contaminant flows through the system, for example the degradation of contaminants in-pipe. Contaminant pathways are mapped as are the flux of contaminants within the pipelines and channels and combined with water flow data to produce a schedule of mass loadings. This data will be incorporated within a model, tentatively given the name UVQ (Urban Volume and Quality) which can be utilised in later 'Tasks' to determine the relative impacts on contaminant flows of alternative approaches to urban water service provision.

Costs factors are also considered under Task 1 through calculation not only of the traditional operating and maintenance cost for service provision, but also of lifecycle costs and externalities (both positive and negative) to produce a total picture of the cost of operating the existing services. This produces insight into both costs currently internalized and costs currently unaccounted for and is a baseline for comparison with alternatives. A particular feature of this work is a review of transport costs (pipeline network). It is generally assumed in urban systems that there are economies of scale to be obtained in centralized systems. If, however, this is not the case, decentralized systems (for either treatment or sourcing) might prove to be more efficient and may also reduce environmental impacts. 'Cost drivers' refers to those factors affecting both the design and the cost of urban systems. An obvious example is the provision made for peak diurnal flows. This provision represents a significant cost within systems. If peaks could be mitigated the cost of the transport network could fall, and there might be concomitant demand reduction effects.

Task 2 of the UWP is a review of available alternatives--both technological and managerial/administrative--that may lead to improvements. The Task also involves identification of those factors that may pose a risk to urban water systems in the future, including changing social, economic and climatic conditions. The needs to be met through service provision and potential barriers to change (e.g. community resistance to direct potable reuse of effluent) will also be identified. Consideration of these factors provides a 'social context' in which to consider alternatives to existing systems and highlights 'boundary conditions' for consideration of these alternatives. In particular, climate change modeling will be applied in a unique manner here as our work will represent one of the first attempts to downscale generalized climate models and to draw inferences concerning urban water systems operation in the future.

Task 3 involves the development of alternative 'scenarios' for future service provision. Assisting CSIRO in this effort is an Industry Reference Group drawn from water companies, academia, water appliance manufacturers and regulators. This group has been established to help ensure that the scenarios that emerge are realistic and capable of implementation. To add further realism to the Program, a test case site for conceptual modeling of alternative scenarios has been selected to the north-east of Perth. It is not the intention of this national program to focus on one unique site. Rather, the use of a test case allows us to add 'meat' to our assumptions and concepts, thereby demonstrating the worth of the Program to the rest of the country.

Finally, Task 4 involves the development of computer-based decision support systems to compare the relative worth of alternative scenarios. In addition to the UVQ model mentioned above, a model to compare the relative efficiency of systems (TAWS - Tool for Assessing Water Systems) will be created. The front end of these systems will be a 'Scenario Manager' allowing the scenarios to be described to the systems and readily interpreted results to be produced.

By any measure, we have initiated an ambitious Program. Early outputs are encouraging, however, and there remains an enthusiasm amongst all involved, both within the partner organizations and externally. The Program has received significant publicity within Australia, and community and institutional interest has been enthusiastic.

The scope of this article does not allow discussion of the emerging scenarios or detailed Program progress. For those who would like to remain in touch with the Program, however, a website is available at An electronic newsletter is also produced monthly and is available to all by sending an e-mail expressing interest to or by fax to +61 (2) 9490 5777.

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Author information

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Dr. Andrew Speers is Director of the Urban Water Program. He can be reached for comment at the email address or fax number given above.

Additional web resources:

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Small map of Australia
This 45K map of Australia, from the electronic map collection of the Perry Castañeda Library of the University of Texas at Austin, shows the locations of the major Australian cities mentioned in this article.

Water Services Association of Australia
WSAA was incorporated on 31 January 1995. Its vision is to make strategic contributions on national issues for the provision of water services, focusing on Customer Service, Public Health, Environmental Management, and Business Performance.

Australian Water and Wastewater Association
AWWA is a federation of eight Branches, one each in the states and main territories of Australia. Currently, the AWWA has over 4,000 members throughout Australia.

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