Improve the liveability and resilience of our cities
NSW metropolitan areas require adequate water supplies that are resilient to drought, provide long-term security to serve growing populations and meet changing business and industry needs.
The management of wastewater from households and businesses to protect public health and waterways is a less visible, but fundamental, part of urban water management. More recently, water has been recognised as essential to maintain the liveability and amenity of our towns, cities, suburbs and neighbourhoods.
Climate change means that NSW will confront more frequent and more severe droughts, temperature and storm events. Over the next two decades, towns and cities should aim to transition to more secure water storage options, diversify water sources and increase the proportion of non-rainfall dependent sources. At the same time, we should invest in more efficient and valued uses of water by households and industry. We will also need to better integrate the way that we capture, provide and manage urban water through land use planning and urban design.
Resilient cities will require communities to be served by multiple water sources that are fit for their intended uses. Treatment at multiple points and multiple points of redundancy in the water supply, distribution and treatment systems will ensure that customers continue to receive water in the event of asset failure, environmental threats or water quality incidents.
A range of water sources will need to be drawn upon to service regional centres and urban communities, including surface water, groundwater, recycled and manufactured water (desalination and purified recycled water), as well as ongoing demand management and water conservation practices. Retaining water in the urban landscape - including through stormwater management, recycling and integrating water bodies into urban design - will enable our cities and towns to maintain the amenity of green spaces and tree canopy during drought conditions, sustain recreational areas and contribute to urban cooling. We will also need to address the implications of more severe rainfall and storm events for urban flooding, as well as for the reliability and recovery of water and wastewater systems in the face of such extreme events.
Greater Sydney and the Lower Hunter
Sydney has just recovered from one of the most intense droughts on record, with storages declining by over 50% in just over two years (Figure 24). This emphasised the need for ongoing investment in water efficiency between droughts to maintain water savings, and to ensure we are planning for drought while dams are full, so we are better able to respond in the next drought.
The drought was also accompanied by bushfires that ravaged some Sydney’s major water supply catchment areas, posing an additional potential threat to the capacity of the city’s water treatment plants and the quality of drinking water.
This recent experience has highlighted the gap between supply and demand, and the vulnerability of Sydney’s water supply system to severe drought conditions. Compared to other Australian cities, Sydney has a low level of rainfall-independent water supply, as shown in Table 1.
Only the Sydney Desalination Plant (which provides around 15% of daily demand when operating at full capacity) and water recycling plants (providing up to only 8% of daily demand in Sydney and 9.6% of daily demand in the Hunter) are climate independent.
Source: WaterNSW, May 2020
Regulating local water utilities in NSW
The vast majority (89) of NSW’s local water and utilities (LWUs) are either general purpose councils, which operate as financially separate to general local council operations, or special purpose county councils. Councils exercising water supply and /or sewerage functions do so under the Local Government Act 1993. Three LWUs - Cobar Water Board, Essential Energy and WaterNSW for the Fish River Water Supply - operate as water supply authorities under the Water Management Act 2000. Central Coast Council exercises its functions under both the Local Government Act 1993 and as a water supply authority under the Water Management Act 2000.
The Department of Planning, Industry Environment is the primary regulator of all regional LWUs under the Local Government Act 1993 and the NSW Government’s comprehensive Best-Practice Management of Water Supply and Sewerage Framework, which is the key policy and regulatory framework for strategic service planning, management, pricing, performance reporting and continuing performance improvement of the LWUs. A number of other agencies, including NSW Health, the NSW Environment Protection Authority, the Office of Local Government (as general council regulator) and Dam Safety NSW, are each responsible for aspects of the regulation of LWUs.
Use diverse water sources for greater water security
Many regional towns are dependent on a single source of water for town water supply. This makes them particularly vulnerable to drought, as well as other incidents that could compromise the availability or safety of water supplies.
Diversification of water sources—which may be across surface water and groundwater, recycling and desalination—and the use of other standards of water for non-drinking water purposes can significantly improve water security.
Stormwater and recycled water remain largely underused water sources with significant potential to improve water security for towns and communities. Options may include purified recycled water for drinking. Recycled water also provides options for supplying fit-for-purpose water for industry and agriculture, and for maintaining ‘green’ spaces—reducing reliance on drinking water supplies and relieving the pressures on the wastewater system.
A number of issues need to be examined and resolved regarding the regulation and governance of stormwater harvesting including the relationship with water sharing plans.
This is particularly important in areas that are transitioning from rural to urban landscapes. The Government will work to clarify regulatory arrangements and develop guidelines to make these types of options easier to progress, where they are appropriate.
Stormwater harvesting: a successful venture for Orange
By August 2008, Orange was in the midst of a critical water shortage as a result of the Millennium Drought. Water storages had dropped below 26.7% (Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities 2018, Case Study: Orange Stormwater to Potable: Building urban water supply diversity, p.11). At the time, inflows to storages on the outskirts of town were not enough to meet demand and few alternative supplies were available. Urban stormwater harvesting was identified as one solution to meet this shortfall.
Blackmans Swamp Creek and Ploughmans Creek stormwater harvesting schemes now operate in urban creek catchments. The schemes capture a portion of the high creek flows during storm events and transfer these into the nearby Suma Park Dam, where the water is then treated according to the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.
Treated stormwater has the potential to supply over 25% of Orange’s water demand and this alternative water supply has improved the city’s resilience to drought.
Action 6.11 Foster the circular economy in our cities and towns
The Government will partner with councils, water utilities, research organisations, the private sector and communities to pilot innovative urban water management that improves resource efficiency and recovery, and contributes to working towards a net zero emissions future.