Urban Water Recycling: National Water Commission position

Posted 29 November 2010

The National Water Commission considers that water recycling - including for drinking purposes - can provide a significantly greater proportion of Australia's future urban water supplies. Greater recycling offers the prospect of more secure, less climate-vulnerable water supplies. There is unrealised potential also for environmental and urban amenity benefits.

The Commission therefore argues that arbitrary policy bans on recycled water should be removed so that recycling options can be considered alongside alternatives on their relative merits.

The Commission recognises there are intrinsic risks associated with recycled water. However, in our judgement, advances in science and improved regulatory arrangements mean that such risks can now be managed to levels of safety that are equivalent with other supply sources.

To capture the full potential of recycled water, leadership is required by governments and water sector decision makers. For its part the National Water Commission is an unambiguous supporter of expanded use of recycled water throughout Australia, subject to four conditions:

  1. Prior cost/benefit and risk analyses are conducted which take full account of social and environmental externalities and avoided costs.
  2. The best available science is utilised.
  3. The project is subject to best practice regulatory arrangements (based on the Australian Guidelines for Water Recycling).
  4. The community participates in decisions to introduce recycling and that subsequent management arrangements are transparent and accountable.

Background

Since 2004 there has been a significant increase in the use of recycled water by Australia's towns and cities as a response to the protracted pressures on water supplies driven by drought, climate change and population growth.

Large volumes of recycled water are now being used for non-drinking consumption. Recycling is thus helping to improve the resilience of our urban water supply systems. Despite this progress, the Commission considers there is considerable further scope for recycling water in Australia - including potentially for drinking consumption. The Commission advocates evenhanded assessment of recycling - including for drinking purposes - as one of a range of water supply options to support secure, safe and sustainable urban water systems.

Facilitating recycling through reform

Recycling for non-drinking consumption has been widely accepted across Australia and some jurisdictions have even set recycling targets. The risks with these schemes have been proven manageable, and governments and communities have been increasingly using recycling to secure their water supplies and deliver broader environmental and urban amenity benefits.

However, recycling for drinking continues to be contentious - policy bans remain in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. While South East Queensland has infrastructure in place it will only recycle water for drinking purposes if dam levels fall to 40 per cent. Western Australia has initiated a groundwater injection scheme that will, if successful, lead to highly treated recycled water entering the drinking water supply some years in the future.

The Commission acknowledges there are risks with all forms of water recycling. However, the Commission considers that the means and processes are now available to manage such risks to levels of safety comparable with existing supply sources.

The Commission argues that decisions on whether to use recycling for drinking purposes should objectively consider the risks, the costs and the benefits through a transparent and participatory process.

Each recycling scheme, as with other supply options, will present unique opportunities and risks that need to be systematically identified and managed. In the Commission's view, the Australian Guidelines for Water Recycling (2006 and 2009), developed cooperatively by all jurisdictions (NWI Clause 92ii), provide an excellent framework for managing safety and guiding responsible decisions.

The weight of scientific evidence emerging since publication of the Guidelines reinforces the Commission's view that the risks of using recycled water, including for drinking purposes can be satisfactorily managed.

Maintaining the impetus for recycling

Australian communities have every right to know the costs, benefits and risks involved in all water supply options. Current governance arrangements and decision-making processes for recycling projects are impeding this.

The Commission suggests the following reforms need to be tackled by governments, the water sector and the community.

1. Governance reforms

  • National political leadership is needed. Rejection of recycling in one jurisdiction makes acceptance in others more difficult. Conversely, acceptance in any jurisdiction assists consideration in others. Collaborative approaches by governments, such as the approach to drafting the national recycling guidelines, will assist all.
  • Water supply planning processes should routinely require that all supply and demand options be on the table and their costs, risks and benefits should be made transparent.
  • Clear, efficient, effective and stable approval processes for recycling schemes are needed to improve public confidence and investor certainty, and reduce regulatory burdens.
  • Clear regulatory and legal liability arrangements are required. The assignment of responsibilities between agencies needs to be clear, transparent and coordinated across health and environmental regulation, water supply planning, land-use planning, and policy.
  • There is now much to be learnt from successful and unsuccessful community involvement processes both in Australia and overseas. Community consultation mechanisms need not be designed from scratch on each occasion.

2. Reforms to costing processes

  • Supply options need to be costed based on 'whole of water cycle management' principles, so that the costs of social and environmental externalities are also taken into account; this will ensure better comparison of recycling versus other sources of water supply.
  • Avoided costs can be significant and may disadvantage an otherwise viable proposal if not taken into account.

3. Science and technology reforms

  • Greater uptake of recycling will require a continued strategic and targeted recycling research, development and extension effort.
  • Sharing best practice regulation approaches and developing mutual recognition frameworks for the validation of recycling schemes and accreditation of operators and certifiers will help smaller projects, for which the cost burden of replicated applications for approval can be very significant.
  • Rigorous, transparent and science-based risk management arrangements are imperative to ensure that the community can have the same confidence in the quality of recycled water produced by new technologies as it currently has in conventional sources.
  • Freely available, credible performance data relating to the removal of pathogens and chemicals of concern will be vital to improving assessments of alternative supply options and public confidence in the technologies.

Source: NWC web site

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