Highlights from an interview with Ross Hughes, Chief Financial Officer, Water Corporation, Perth, Western Australia

Q: The Water Corporation’s motto is “Fresh Water Thinking” which encompasses three goals: diversifying water sources, increasing water recycling and reducing water use. Would you describe some of the ways Water Corporation is helping customers think differently about water in order to decrease use?

A: We experienced a significant reduction in runoff into our surface water dams in the early 2000s. We did a lot of advertising to educate people on how to conserve water. That created a groundswell of community support for Western Australia’s government to put restrictions on outdoor water use. For example, outside sprinkler use was only allowed two days per week and by 2007 this had become a permanent measure that still remains in place today. The communities often act as an enforcer for the sprinkler rules and let us know if they see people breaching them.

In addition, legislation was passed so that all new homes were required to have dual flush toilets. Now 80% of homes have them. Our work with washing machine manufacturers was also successful, resulting in the creation of more water efficient machines. And business customers did a great job reducing water use. Businesses were required to develop water efficiency management plans and we rewarded top performers through Waterwise awards. Each of these efforts might seem small, but they have combined to have a big effect.

Q: Western Australia is one of the fastest drying climates in the world. You have been able to shift your original water sourcing from 90% surface water and 10% groundwater to today 50% desalination, 30% groundwater, 10% groundwater recharge and 10% surface water. Would you describe some of the keys to your success in making that shift?

A: It’s a combination of public acceptance, leadership and funding. Moving to seawater desalination was a leadership challenge, not just for utilities, but for others as well. During the early 2000s, the then Premier (our head of state) really picked up the ball. While many said “don’t invest in desal”, as leaders, we had to ask ourselves, “Are we prepared to take the pain if we are wrong?”. Whatever technology is chosen will always have pros and cons and criticisms. At that time, with desalination, one of the criticisms was the associated high-energy use. We overcame these criticisms by ensuring desal energy use in Western Australia had to be offset by renewable energy which has become popular nationally. In the south west corner of Western Australia where our plants are located, desal is very well accepted because this area remains severely impacted by climate change. But over in the East in Sydney and Melbourne for example, it hasn’t been because even though their dams have been down 75-80% at times, they keep getting recharged just in time, so the desal plants haven’t been used as frequently. If you look at desal as an insurance policy though it becomes a worthwhile investment, and when combined with greater water efficiency efforts by the community, could ensure a city doesn’t run out of water.

Q: Water reuse can be controversial for some people. How have you been able to gain public acceptance?

A: It’s important to be clear with the public and to be patient. It’s understandable that there would be a defense mechanism against water reuse. We provided a lot of education as part of a large-scale public awareness campaign. We opened a trial plant where water was recycled and then recharged into an aquifer and called this new water source ‘Groundwater Replenishment’. The community was invited to the trial plant so they could see it for themselves and get comfortable with it. We are now doubling the capacity of our Advanced Water Recycling Plant to be able to recharge up to 28 billion litres each year. Now we are getting encouragement through our latest customer research about direct potable reuse.

Q: Water Corporation faces some significant challenges due to climate change. How do you keep your teams motivated and moving forward to address these challenges?

A: The people involved in solving water problems love it. They are really motivated to help the community. Water supply planning is never static – it is about responding and adapting to changing circumstances, including climate change and our engineers are motivated to find solutions. Their lights get turned on when they see what other innovative utilities like Los Angeles and Washington, DC are doing.

Q: At the 2018 Global Water Summit, was there a specific technology, trend or innovation that you were particularly excited about?

A: Our technology debt is considerable. We need to move forward in data analytics, meter reading and high tech plants. We need to work together as utilities so we don’t have to keep re-inventing the wheel. That’s what we are starting to do through Leading Utilities of the World. And companies like Suez are addressing issues like stormwater through their innovation centers in Bordeaux. There is a huge opportunity for Government utilities and private companies like Suez to learn and work together, and we welcome that.