Professor Stuart White is the Director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS in Sydney. He also has a keen interest in the future of water in the Northern Rivers.
Recently, Professor White gave a presentation to Rous County councillors and staff about system-wide water efficiency as an alternative to the proposed Dunoon Dam.
Echonetdaily asked how his presentation was received by Rous.
‘Some of the councillors seemed to respond well to the arguments,’ he said. ‘They could see there was new thinking there, so that was a positive response. The questions were good, insightful for the most part.’
Professor White has a long history with water in this region. In 1997 he co-authored this 368 page study of water efficiency for Rous, when he was a Churchill Fellow and had a consultancy based in Lismore, Preferred Options Pty Ltd.
At that time, both the Chief Engineer at Rous and Lismore City Council’s Water and Sewerage Manager were in California investigating water treatment plants, and accompanied White to research water efficiency programs at utilities there.
This led him to complete similar work at places including Kalgoorlie-Boulder in WA, Lismore, Byron Shire Council and utilities across Australia since then.
Walking the talk
Professor White said that a recurrent problem is ‘traditional institutional inertia, with people not really being aware of what real water efficiency is. People go “okay sure, we’ve done that,” though in fact they haven’t.
‘Many people think of it as being brochures and rebates, you know, rather than a serious investment of multi-millions of dollars. That’s the difference,’ he said.
Fortunately there are numerous examples of system-wide water efficiency delivering spectacular water savings. This includes the addition of almost one million additional customers in Sydney. Total demand has ‘flatlined’ by auditing and stopping waste at each step on water’s journey, and doing more with less.
‘Yes, and that’s not just Sydney,’ said Professor White. ‘Los Angeles, Frankfurt, you name it. Cities around the world have had the same experience with demand per capita rising during the ’50s and ’60s, peaking in the ’80s, ’90s, and then dropping, often for different reasons, but there are some similar patterns.
‘One of them has been the improvement in the efficiency with which fixtures and appliances use water, pricing reform, urban consolidation, a whole lot of different factors,’ he said.
‘As people get wealthier, they don’t flush their toilet more often, and their toilets and washing machines tend to be more efficient as time goes by, so there’s a lot of reasons, and consciousness.
‘After the Millennium Drought, people became much more aware of their water use. The bottom dropped out of water consumption, per capita. It has crept back a little, but nowhere near to what is was before.’
In South East Queensland, Professor White worked with both councils and the state government when the drought bit hard.
‘It was like rolling out the Sydney program, but in a few months,’ he explained.
‘Because in Sydney the motivation started before the drought, it was actually an operating licence target. When Sydney Water became corporatised, part of the condition was that it reduced the demand per capita by 25–35 per cent, from 1991 figures. That was a significant shift, a stretch target.
‘So we at UTS were commissioned to put in place and design the program that resulted in that reduction. We achieved the target well and truly, overshot it. This was before the Millennium Drought (there’s been a few since), but that drought cemented the achievement. There was a more rapid rollout, a significant increase in water awareness and a significant investment, so it was achieved easily.’
What about climate change?
Professor White said, ‘We do know for sure – and this is probably true everywhere – that things will be even more uncertain. They were always uncertain, but now more so.
‘The averages are one thing, and often these impacts are quantified through averages, and that’s quite problematic, because it’s not really the averages that get you, it’s the extremes and changes, such as longer periods of drought, more extreme and more frequent.
‘And the models are not very good in some ways. It’s one thing to downscale a global climate change model to say in this region you will become on average, hotter and drier, south east Australia for example, and in this region you will become hotter and wetter, say northern Australia.
‘But it’s quite another thing to say, in these regions your extremes will change like this. That’s very difficult and the models don’t do that well at all,’ he said.
‘So in one sense, by just taking an average, which is what’s been done in the modelling, and saying we will have a one third reduction in the yield of the (current) Rocky Creek Dam, from 2020 to 2060, is pretty crude, and the consultants acknowledge that. It’s highly uncertain. But when you draw it, it looks like a fixed straight line on a graph.
‘That’s quite problematic, because you then spend $150 or $200 million addressing that fixed line on the graph.’
How to deal with uncertainty?
Professor White suggests, ‘The best way is to have a series of contingency plans, based on risk and probability, like insurance policies. What the dam represents is an insurance policy with an extremely high premium, but what you want is something with a much lower premium and a really high excess!
‘You want options you could roll out very quickly, even if they cost quite a lot, if things got so bad. The one thing a dam doesn’t do – because it’s rainfall dependent – is get you through a more severe drought than the one you’ve planned for. Even if it’s the worst one on record. Our record in Australia is relatively short, it’s only 150-200 years, and that’s where the paleo-climate data comes in.
‘That data purports to show what’s happened over thousands of years, and that data gets really scary, because you’re talking about droughts of decades, not two years. A dam that stores five years is not going to cut it. There’s no dam you could build that would be big enough.’
Echonetdaily asked Professor White to comment on what role water restrictions play in helping people value water properly.
‘We did a major study for the National Water Commission after the Millennium Drought in 2009, which was a review of the effectiveness of water restrictions, across Australia. The variation of the effectiveness of restrictions was quite large, depending on how they were implemented and what the rules were, and what accompanied them, what associated activities and so on.
‘Restrictions have been around since the year dot, and they’re very tried and true – the way they’re operated as a matter of course in regional Australia is uniquely Australian. You don’t find it in other countries in that way.
‘As a result, it’s not like they’ve kept up with best practice either. There are opportunities to make them much more effective, much less painful – to the extent that they’re painful at all. Indeed, they’ve got very strong public support, if you do surveys. But you can increase their effectiveness significantly by combining them with a range of other measures.’
Critics of the Rous Future Water Project 2060 have pointed out that the consultants who prepared the reports for Rous County Council have made some mathematical mistakes, which have skewed the calculations. These include errors relating to ‘marginal cost’. Echonetdaily asked Professor White to elaborate.
‘Unfortunately this mistake is common in some areas,’ he said. ‘When you do a marginal cost calculation, broadly speaking you’ve got a numerator and a denominator, so the top of the ratio is a cost, and typically that’s the present value cost, so the capital plus the operating cost over a certain period of time at a certain discount rate.
‘You divide that by a volume, a volume of water, so you get a dollars per megalitre figure.
‘The controversial question is what that denominator is. Many places just use the total volume that can be supplied by the source, if it’s a source of water, but that’s meaningless, because if you only use a fraction of water from that source, you should be dividing by the amount of water that you actually use.
‘In my presentation to the Council I used this analogy: if you were building a factory to manufacture mobile phone handsets, let’s say Blackberries, then let’s say, the factory will cost $500 million, and it could produce a million handsets a year.
‘Now let’s say you have intelligence that the quantity of Blackberries you can sell would actually be only 100,000 per year, so what is the cost of each Blackberry in case one or case two?
‘In case one, if you can sell all million, then the cost of each handset is roughly fifty dollars. If you can only sell 100,000 Blackberries from that factory, then the cost of each handset is $500. That’s the difference.
‘And Rous have already said they can only sell (or use, productively) a small fraction of the water produced by that dam.
‘If it’s built in 2029, sure it can provide say, 12,000 megalitres per year, but they’re only using 1,000 at the beginning, and perhaps 2,000 at the end. So that’s a perfect analogy with the Blackberry factory.
‘There’s another analogy as well, which is the reason why Blackberry failed. They failed to recognise that people don’t want handsets, people want the services that handsets provide, which are the apps, and the convenience and efficiency they bring in going about their daily lives,’ said Professor White.
‘That’s exactly what’s happening in the water (or for that matter the electricity) sector; people don’t need electricity or water, they need the services that those things provide.’
What about growth?
‘If you look at it, there are 50,000 connections in the region,’ said Professor White, ‘and according to the estimates – big caveat – there’s 900 new connections each year, dropping to 400 new connections each year by 2060, so let’s say 500 connections each year.
‘So, 50,000 connections now, 500 new ones each year, where’s the issue here? The issue isn’t the growth, the issue is the existing customers.
‘You could say clearly growth’s the issue because that’s adding to demand, well, not necessarily, because each new house that’s added is more efficient than the old houses, because of BASIX [Building Sustainability Index] and because of changes in technology.
‘And that’s even before you try to do something innovative, which you could. You could make them net neutral. Net zero addition to demand, that’s what they’ve done in parts of California. So the growth issue is a distraction,’ he said.
‘There may be other reasons like biodiversity or land use or whatever reasons you might want to suggest to mitigate growth, that’s a completely separate argument. It’s got nothing to do with water.’
Based on his experience in other jurisdictions, Professor White suggests local employment is a big winner if system wide water efficiency is chosen, compared to building dams, with many tradies involved in testing and repairing leaks, and switching to more water efficient appliances in industrial and domestic situations.
He draws the analogy with the energy sector, with the ’employment benefits of customer-side demand management as distinct from major supply-side. The thing is that construction of a dam might give you a work force of contractors for a brief period – it’s like a sugar hit – but too little, too late, and temporary, whereas this would be ongoing, and would up-skill the region.’
Unlike a dam, White argues water efficiency ‘would help the locals more than civil engineering contractors from outside the region.’
While some might suggest that it’s unrealistic for four local councils and Rous County Council to coordinate and agree to a major system-wide efficiency program, Professor White said, ‘The irony is that if you built a dam you would have to spend the money from all of those five councils, in a pool, to do a major complex civil engineering program. And no one says that’s impossible, how would you possibly get the coordination to do that?
‘And yet when it comes to something like water efficiency or smart meters, or leakage detection programs, or even broadscale re-use programs, then they say oh no, the coordination of the problem is a barrier.
‘The other thing is the state government will subsidise the dam, but at the moment it’s not policy for them to invest in water efficiency,’ he said.
‘That’s completely wrong. The state government should treat them equally.’
How long would it take to know if you were right, if Rous did everything you’re suggesting?
‘A year,’ said Professor White.
‘It’s a bit like a clinical trial. Let’s say you want to get 40,000 of the 50,000 customers over four years, you don’t need to do them all at once, but you do 10,000, you measure them after a year and say how did we go?
‘You might say with this one, the savings weren’t quite as expected because of X, Y or Z. With this one the savings were much greater.
‘Okay, we’ll tweak the program for the second year and then we roll it out. But you will see the reduction, because you can measure it.
‘We’ve done statistical measurements of half a million households in Sydney that have implemented water efficiency programs, and we measured it to within a decimal place, what the savings are,’ he said.
‘I should stress that what you’ve seen so far, in terms of modelling an indicative program, was done in a day, my analysis of the situation, but it’s based on what we’ve done in dozens of other places around the world – if you did that you would start to see the effect after less than twelve months.’
No regrets with extra efficiency
Professor White said, ‘The efficiency options that I’m talking about are no regrets options. They should be done anyway, in the sense that they’re probably cost effective relative to the cost of producing water, and they’ll probably be needed anyway.
‘Even if you pressed go on the construction of a dam after starting in December with a decision, you’ve got EISs, you’ve got planning approvals, design, construction – so the idea that they can do that and get it operational by the time that was published in the consultants report, which was 2029 (by which time according to the data presented they would already be at supply-demand deficit) – is probably unrealistic.
‘In other words, the dam can’t be produced in time, according to their own consultants’ projections. In which case the water efficiency options that I’ve put forward, and which continue on from 1997, should be done anyway. They will probably be needed anyway, and would definitely be a risk mitigation option.
‘It’s quite possible that if that was done, then you would find they would have such an impact that they would keep the demand below the secure yield, even as the secure yield drops, because of the assumptions regarding climate change.
‘I’m absolutely confident that’s possible,’ said Professor White.
Rous County Council Chair Keith Williams told Echonetdaily there has been ‘just short of 750’ public submissions so far in response to the Rous Future Water Project 2060, with more still coming in.
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