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LGNSW Water Management Conference: councils learning together

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

LGNSW - Local Water Policy Advisory Group 

Maranoa Regional Council -  Councillor David Schefe - recently attended the LGNSW Local Water Policy Advisory Group meeting in his role as Chair of the LGAQ Water and Sewerage Advisory Group. Cr Schefe has been a key advocate for highlighting and addressing the water and sewerage infrastructure challenges currently facing Queensland communities and councils. 

The advisory group meeting was held on Monday prior to the conference. My invitation to attend as the chair of the Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) Water and Sewerage Advisory Group was in response to our Queensland Advisory Group hosting their chair, Cr Rod Kendall and secretary Mark Hely, at our last meeting in February this year. 

By attending each other’s meetings and sharing experiences it is hoped to learn from each other and work together on solving common issues. 

One issue discussed at the meeting was the looming 'infrastructure cliff' of council owned and managed community water and sewerage assets. Many of these assets were installed after World War 2 and will end their useful life at about the same time. The infrastructure cliff is beginning now, and is expected to peak in approximately 2040. Local government, in particular small and medium size councils, are going to struggle to deal with this approaching crisis due to low population density (rate base) and the effects of other natural disasters such as the current, prolonged drought and other natural disasters.

This issue is common to Queensland and New South Wales as in both States these assets are still owned and managed by local government, whereas in other states they have been taken over by the State and/or merged into big corporations similar to the electricity supply many years ago. Due to the geography, population spread and diversity of both our states, it is recognised that these assets are best managed by local government that can respond to local needs and issues in a much more cost effective and personal manner. The main issue facing local government is funding assistance from other levels of government to address this issue.  

There is consensus that both States’ local government peak bodies, the LGAQ and LGNSW need to work together to ensure the best ideas and strategies are put forward at a State level for funding support and to raise awareness at a Federal level of the need for additional funding support from that level of government as well.  

Other issues discussed included: 

  • Regulatory and compliance burdens on local government by state government.
  • Water sharing plans between various councils.
  • Developer service charges needing to be more flexible.
  • Indexation of development contributions. Moving away from the Sydney CPI to alternative indices.
  • Representation on county councils and Joint Organisations of Councils (JOCs), which sound similar to Queensland’s Regional Organisations of Councils (ROCs) and Queensland Water Regional Alliances Program (QWRAP) groups.
  • Return flows. Wastewater treated to the required level and returned to the river system. Currently councils are not paid for return flows however that water, once returned, can be sold to industry further downstream. It was proposed that councils with return flows get paid or receive credits to encourage them to return more water to the system.
  • LGNSW/Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) Water Liaison Committee Report
    • Safe & Secure Water Program – move to a publicly available risk based prioritisation framework 
    • Drought Tracker – monitoring of water supplies shows that there are 21 NSW councils in the high to very high risk category.
  • Water Directorate Report
    • Drought Discussions with Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) – water conservation programs and increasing attention to leakage management.Strategic plan for water directorate.
    • Have had discussions with Qldwater Directorate, Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) and Australian Water Association (AWA).
    • Discussions on recycled water for drinking.
    • Productivity Commission’s report on National Water Reform.
    • Water Directorate forum was held today.
  • General
    • NSW Drought Summit to be held on 2 October 2019 - to produce NSW position paper on drought.
    • Water Licence approval process too slow – instances of up to 3 years for bore approval.
    • Water Directorate to produce document to explain water and legislation especially for new councillors. 

LGNSW Water Management Conference  

Weather Outlook 

Report from the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) says the outlook isn’t good with a dry spring forecast, same as last year and a hot, dry summer expected.  

Water Infrastructure 

The Hume Dam is at 43% capacity which is its lowest level since the millennium drought however is still releasing water for irrigation and environmental flows.

Critically, the upstream drought reserve in the Dartmouth Dam remains almost 80 per cent full and gives communities and irrigators confidence in the season ahead.

Without this critical infrastructure, in the current drought conditions, the Murray River would be bone dry and a disaster for communities, agriculture and the environment.

The mood at the conference was for more, and quicker, action from both State and Federal Governments. The NSW Government has made moves to tap into federal funding to increase dam capacity and possibly build new dams. Also, there are pipelines under construction to communities on the verge of running out of water and water bores being drilled where suitable ground water is located. However, concerns were raised by some communities about being asked to help fund pipelines they can’t afford and, who would be responsible for the future maintenance and depreciation costs associated with these assets.

Generally local government wanted to have more input into solving the issues for their communities. There was a lack of meaningful consultation with local government and a top down, as opposed to a bottom up, approach to solving critical infrastructure needs of diverse communities.

There is certainly a ground swell of support for more and bigger dams, among other measures such as water saving measures for communities and agriculture, to reduce future impacts of drought.

Wonga Wetlands

Wonga Wetlands is a series of wetland ponds that use treated sewage water to create an environment for native animals such as frogs and birds to thrive. This was done because the wetlands no longer flood since the dam was built and native animals need this type of environment to breed.

The wetlands are filled with water during winter and allowed to dry out over summer to reflect the natural seasonal conditions prior to the dam being built. It has been highly successful helping to preserve native species that are important to the local eco system.

It has also become a major tourist attraction in the region particularly with bird watchers.

Underground Water Storage

This is something that is being looked at by the NSW State Government to improve water storage for future water security. Obviously, the water being stored underground is not as susceptible to evaporation loss.

Panel Discussion

The coming infrastructure cliff was discussed and how local government in Queensland and New South Wales need to work together to come up with a strategy to take to our respective state governments and the Federal Government, to leverage the necessary funding to deal with this looming issue.

Local government needs to take the lead on this issue to ensure the best possible outcomes for our communities. The bottom up approach will deliver a more cost effective result with better outcomes for our communities, opposed to the top down approach of leaving it to the state and/or Federal Governments.

A 'blue print' needs to be developed that clearly details how this needs to be delivered, funding required and other benefits that it will deliver to the community and all levels of government, such as:

  • Job creation 
  • Supporting local business water conservation by preventing water loss through ageing infrastructure 
  • Improved asset management value for money solutions making the dollars go further 
  • Improving access to technical expertise 
  • Easing price increases for customers 
  • Stimulating the economy from the grass roots up.

The bulk of the panel discussion was about the drought and water security. It was recognised that here too, there is an opportunity for the LGAQ and LGNSW to work together to develop a strategic plan from a local government perspective; to not only deal with this drought but make our states more drought tolerant and sustainable moving forward. This joint approach from local government dealing with a drought that both states are suffering will assist in ensuring funding is spent on long term solutions and in a more efficient manner. It would also deliver other outcomes if delivered on a local level as I have listed in the above dot points. It was acknowledged that drought doesn’t recognise the lines on a page that represents state boundaries, and it makes sense to work together on this.

The lack of engagement with local government seemed to be an issue that could be addressed by local government working together to deliver a strategic plan with better outcomes for our nation, respective states and council regions. Again, the bottom up approach opposed to the top down approach with a drought strategy was suggested as most likely to produce the best outcomes.

Summary

The key issues are summarised as:

  • Looming infrastructure cliff starting now and peaking in 2040
  • Under investment into infrastructure by state government/s
  • Pulling back on funding essential infrastructure in local government by both the Qld State and Federal Government.

This has left local government, whilst trying to deal with one of the worst droughts on record, in a very vulnerable position.

Population growth from high migration rates to Australia encouraged by the Federal Government to grow our economy and high interstate migration into Queensland which also grows our Queensland economy needs to be matched with high expenditure on infrastructure - in particular infrastructure for water - the most valuable resource in Australia.

I am positive we will see more collaboration between Queensland and New South Wales local governments moving forward, considering our shared issues and the will to change the way things are done. 

Local Government Association of Queensland
LG House, 25 Evelyn Street, Newstead Qld 4006


 

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