Climate change predictions for our region point to hotter and drier weather patterns and when it rains it is going to be more extreme, big dump kind of events. So water is on a lot of people’s minds when they think about how we might be able to keep living here through climate change.
We discuss how water works in our region, in the past, in the present and into the future.
The sound of a toilet flushing, then hand washing under running water.
Allie Hanly: Oh hi, welcome to Saltgrass, a show about how local communities can engage with the climate crisis at a grassroots level. My name is Allie Hanly, and you probably shouldn’t go in there for a little while. Just sayin’. In this episode, we’re talking about water. Steve Healy is my guest, and he is Executive General Manager of Climate and Population Adaptation at Coliban Water, which is a hefty title.
He met me in one of my favourite places. I walk my dog down by Campbells Creek all the time, and we took a seat right near the creek. And that creek is one of my favourite places because no matter what time of year it is, it always is full of water. And that is because it is just downstream from the water reclamation plant, or, sewerage plant, as we used to say. Much of the treated water is released into the stream, and thanks to that, and the work of the Campbells Creek Landcare group, there is a beautiful stretch of land along Campbells Creek, with a lovely walking path and a lot of restored native vegetation. And because of that restored native vegetation and that flow of water, the native animals have moved back in, and people have even sighted the shy and elusive platypus in this part of the creek.
Castlemaine is considered semi-arid, and I’ve always noticed that this landscape really knows how to be dry. Every summer I’m amazed at how quickly we go from green grass to cracked, barren earth. As many of you know, we live on ‘upside down country’; I’ve talked about this before on the podcast. So, what had been deep fertile topsoil from countless generations of Aboriginal stewardship was all dug up and dug over and washed away in the gold rushes of the 1800s. Within just a few decades, the place was decimated. All the trees were cut down, and the water sources were diverted, and microclimates that would have kept our landscape more hydrated were destroyed.
So that’s the background of our place, and why a rehabilitation project like along Campbells Creek by the local Landcare group is a small win, but a significant win. Climate change predictions for our region point to hotter and drier weather, but when it rains it’s going to be more extreme, so big dumps and big storms. So, water is on a lot of people’s minds, when they think about how we might be able to keep living here through a climate-affected future. I asked Steve to have a chat, so that we could talk about how water and wastewater is managed now, and also what the government and organisations like Coliban Water are doing to ensure that we have enough water as we move into a climate-uncertain future.
As ever, before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge that Saltgrass is produced on Jaara Country. Jaara Country is the traditional home of the Dja Dja Wurrung people, who have been the custodians and caretakers of this land for tens of thousands of years. We thank them for the care they have taken, and continue to take, of Country. Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.
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Allie: So what does Coliban Water do and who are you employed by? What’s your brief?
Steve Healy: Yeah, so Coliban Water are a water corporation in Victoria. We are wholly owned by the state government, but we are sort of separate to state government. We have our own board. So we report into, effectively the water minister through to the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. So in Victoria, we are state-owned, so we don’t report to federal government. And we operate services primarily of water and wastewater services, so urban services, but we also work in a rural space as well, which is a bit unusual in Victoria. So we’re a regional water corporation in the Murray-Darling Basin. So it’s quite a complex arrangement that we have with both state, federal and governments and various other bodies.
So, we supply urban water services to 49 towns in regional Victoria, all the way from Trentham in the south to Echuca in the north, out to the west, Wedderburn and to the east, Heathcote. And includes the major centre of Bendigo and a whole lot of other towns in between. So we’ve got about 77,000 urban customers and about 1100 rural customers. And those rural customers receive water primarily out of channels, sometimes pipelines. Some of them are irrigators of apple orchards like in Harcourt, but a lot are stock and domestic customers in and around Bendigo primarily, but also around some of the fruit growing areas around Bendigo and all the way up to Raywood. So that’s a fairly extensive network of rural channels, about 450 kilometres. But urban services is primarily what we do.
Allie: So you must just be one of several water boards across the state. How many are there that the state government employs?
Steve: Oh, I think there’s about 18 or 19. There’s a few in Melbourne. So, three retail water companies and one bulk water company effectively. But most of them are regional urban companies and there’s also some just primarily rural like Goulburn-Murray Water. We are a customer of Goulburn-Murray Water, like other sort of customers. We receive bulk water from them, like irrigators do and so forth. So yeah, we’re one of many. Our head office is based in Bendigo, but we’ve got employees and little offices all over the place.
Allie: So I’ve done some episodes up in Mildura, so my listeners hopefully will be aware of the Murray River and what an amazing water source the Murray-Darling Basin is that you just referred to. Where else does the water that you use come from? That can’t be all of it. Because I know we’ve got the Loddon River as a major river in our region. How does that fit into the picture of where the water comes from?
Steve: Yeah, we’ve got multiple sources of water. So traditionally, Coliban Water for its main supplies have been coming out of the Coliban River. So we’ve got three main storages located near Kyneton: the Upper Coliban, Lauriston and Malmsbury reservoirs, and they have supplied Bendigo, Kyneton, Castlemaine since probably about 1890. So a fairly old set of infrastructure and that’s through a whole lot of channels and so forth. Also, we have a connection to the Campaspe River, for Bendigo at Lake Eppalock.
There’s a whole lot of other supplies. Yeah, the Loddon. We also get supplies from Grampians Wimmera Mallee Water. So, from the Grampians effectively. We also have a connection to the Goulburn system, so the whole network of channels essentially supplied out of the Goulburn River and that supplies towns like Boort, Lockington, Rochester and so forth. But also, there’s the pipeline connection to Bendigo from that as well. And yes, you mentioned the Murray River. So yeah, Echuca and some of our towns in the north like Cohuna, Gunbower, and so forth. So yeah, that’s quite a number of water sources. If you think about it, it stretches from the Grampians in the west all the way to Lake Eildon in the east, and south all the way from Upper Coliban Reservoir, and the Murray as well. So yeah, quite a number of different water sources for our customers.
Allie: It’s interesting because we live in Central Victoria, and around Castlemaine especially is semi-arid I believe it’s described as. And, historically, we’ve had a lot of gold mining, which diverted and changed the watercourses of our region quite significantly and reshaped the landscape a lot. And we also have these remnant water devices called water races. When I walk my dog, I often walk the water races and there’s paths that are relatively flat because the water race is designed to feed water from a great distance away at a very, very, very gradual incline down to somewhere else, far away. And so there’s a walking path right beside them. What was the history of them? And do you know if any of them are still used?
Steve: Yeah, lots of them are still used. And that’s yeah, 450 kilometres of channels, pretty much. And most are sort of Bendigo-based, but there’s the Coliban Main Channel, which goes from Malmsbury all the way to Bendigo that’s about 70 kilometres long. And the Leanganook Track runs along that channel, which is pretty amazing to walk and ride along that. But there, yeah, there’s extensive channels around. So around Castlemaine, there’s the Poverty Gully Channel, which is no longer used, but the track is beside that. And there’s an offshoot of that down towards Campbells Creek, and the Gaol Hill Channel around Castlemaine as well.
There’s quite a few. A lot of them are no longer in use. It would have been a lot more kilometres of channel back in the day, whenever the day was. There was a lot in the gold rush, but also, there were also a lot of channels built for farming and for water. So the Coliban Main Channel was built out of actually a whole lot of health issues that were coming up in Bendigo. So, Bendigo and to a certain extent Castlemaine as well during the gold rush, there was just a real lack of water and that’s why the gold rush in Castlemaine and Bendigo, and Bendigo in particular was the ‘winter diggings’. Because that was the only time you could work in the fields because it was too hot and dry, so they needed water.
So that’s one of the reasons why those channels were put in, but a lot of it was for agriculture as well. So the peak time when they were in use was probably the 1930s. Obviously the gold rush was over, but there was a whole lot of agricultural work that was going on. And a lot of it’s still there. And a lot of it’s used. There’s a lot of our customers who have a pretty substantial agricultural businesses built around that supply. And Bendigo as well was solely supplied this year, because it’s reasonably wet, from the channel. It’s amazing that it’s still in use, from around 1890.
Allie: Do you know how they’re constructed?
Steve: Back in the day, it would have been just earthen constructed, a lot of horses and all that would have been used. We’ve lined the Coliban Main Channel, mostly, with concrete lining. And there’s been a lot of piping of channels. So the whole Harcourt system’s been piped now; that was done in about 2016. But yeah, primarily it’s earthen, which works pretty well. I mean, there’s a fair few leaks from that, but that’s where the system has come from. So originally earthen, but yeah a lot of concrete lining.
Allie: It’s really amazing, isn’t it? Because it’s all this open air, just water flowing and following gravity. It’s such a simple idea, but it would have taken such a lot of construction to build such lengths of it. Anyway, I’m going off topic.
You supply water to households and townships and urban areas and some agricultural areas. What else do you do? Because I know you take care of what comes out of houses as well.
Steve: Yeah. That’s not often thought about. People flush the toilet and forget about it, which is fine: that’s the service we provide. But it’s actually the biggest part of our business, in so many ways from cost point of view and also energy use, as a huge amount of energy goes into sewage treatment. So it’s very much a big part of our business, and the part of the business that’s forgotten about, but that’s okay. That’s what we’re there for.
Allie: It’s called a water reclamation plant. Is that right?
Steve: Yeah, that’s right. So that comes from the term about reclaiming the water, so recycling the water. So, we have some recycled water customers: the golf course receives a lot of recycled water, but also Campbells Creek. So, there’s a substantial amount of recycled water or treated sewage that goes into Campbells Creek, and it forms a habitat for platypus and so forth. So actually a lot of people wouldn’t class that as recycled water, but there is a benefit there.
Allie: It’s interesting because a lot of the creeks in Australia, and especially around here, they’re designed by nature to dry up for certain parts of the year. They’re not supposed to run all year, but it’s really nice to have a creek that runs all year in the height of an Australian summer. It’s such a restful place to come and walk where there’s still green and there’s a lot of bird life and animal life on the creek. So, we’re actually sitting just on Campbells Creek right now. And yeah, it’s really nice to have a spot so close to home that’s got permanent flow.
Steve: Yeah, that’s right. There’s something very soothing about having that flow. But yeah, you’re right. It would normally dry out for periods of time in summer, but you’ve also got to remember that in the catchment of Campbells Creek, there is a lot of agriculture and farm dams. And, there’s a lot of built up environment that has completely changed that flow regime. So, for how long it would have dried out over summer, I don’t know. But I know there are some historical photos showing fern trees in the Creek. I think towards, yeah, maybe not the Campbells Creek part of it, but the actual Barkers Creek part of it. So that’s completely different to what you see now. So how that was sustained and whether or not there was permanent flow, I don’t really know the answer to that.
Allie: Yeah, absolutely. The entire landscape and ecosystems have been changed since colonisation. I know that the Landcare group is doing a lot of really good work to rehabilitate some of the original species in this area.
Steve: Yeah, they absolutely are. Friends of Campbells Creek have done an amazing job. So, whilst I might say the treated wastewater stream is providing a habitat for platypus, it’s probably in conjunction with the work that Friends of Campbells Creek have done in providing that habitat, because that’s where they are. They’re in that part of the creek, which they’ve rehabilitated. So yeah, it’s quite a good partnership, I think. It’s really changed the landscape here.
Allie: Water obviously is a major concern in Australia. We’re a very, very dry continent, even on this eastern side of the nation where we’re relatively green compared to the desert centre. And it’s a conversation that’s been happening for a long time, is water management. But with climate change, we’re going to see potentially, some quite different weather patterns. How seriously does Coliban Water take climate change? Are you future planning around climate change?
Steve: Yeah, we are taking it very seriously. So climate change has impacted Central Victoria for quite some time. So it’s not a future thing. It’s a past, current, and future thing.
So, we’ve got really good data on stream flows that have traditionally supplied Central Victoria; so Bendigo, Kyneton, Castlemaine as I said before. So that dates all the way back to early 1890s, and there’s been a substantial change in stream flow. So, there’s about a reduction of 23% in stream flow from about 1974 onwards. And about a 53% reduction in stream flow from about 1997 onwards, compared to that long-term historical average. And that’s huge, a very significant reduction. So that’s climate change. It’s also landscape change as well. But yeah, the future is quite challenging when it comes to that.
But, there’s a number of things that Coliban Water have done in the past, and mainly our customers have done. So, a reduction in household use. So, there was a substantial change in household use during the Millennium Drought. So if you remember, people were going out and getting dual flush toilets, they were getting shower heads that reduce flow, they were using their grey water and all of that. And that’s still there, all that change. Obviously, rainwater tanks are used now and all that. And even before that, the 82-83 drought, that changed people’s attitudes as well. So, people are no longer washing down their driveways with hoses and all that sort of stuff. So, it’s complete behaviour change that has really helped our communities as well and will help forever into the future.
As far as activities that Coliban Water are doing, there’s been a number of projects over the years. So, the original source of water was from the Coliban River, and then from the 1890s onwards. And then for Bendigo, and it does help Castlemaine as well, there’s Lake Eppalock pump station which was built in the 1960s. But then also the connection to the Goulburn system, which was built during the Millennium Drought. Now that helps Castlemaine as well, in that it takes the Bendigo supply from the same supply that’s supplying Castlemaine. So it frees up more water for Kyneton and Castlemaine. So it all sort of helps. So Bendigo being the major city has now got these other two supply sources, which means that Castlemaine’s supply is secure.
Into the future, there’s a number of things we can do. Re-using treated sewage is a great one. So, recycled water. So Bendigo’s got a pretty substantial recycled water scheme. A golf course in Castlemaine, and I think there’s some more we can do partnering with Mount Alexander Shire for recycled water.
Allie: For watering parks and gardens and things like that?
Steve: Yeah, absolutely. It’d be great to see some recycled water projects get up in the Castlemaine area, so Camp Reserve, Botanical Gardens, and so forth. They’re a long way from the plant unfortunately, but it is possible. I mean, it’s been done in Bendigo and in Kyneton. And we’ve got a whole lot of other schemes as well. But yeah, Kyneton and Bendigo have probably got the major recycled water schemes in our region, for parks and gardens and so forth, and racecourses and all that.
The other thing into the future is probably still better use and conservation of drinking water, I think. Householders can do more use of rainwater, and more use of stormwater on that. Probably on that municipal scale, so that whole town scale, you know. For new subdivisions and so forth, there’s probably, there’s a bit more work to do there. And also I think groundwater is probably the next place where we can explore. We’re looking at a project at the moment to utilise Managed Aquifer Recharge, which is a technical term for basically taking surface water when it’s plentiful, and actually putting it under the ground for when there’s dry times. So, still operating within the entitlement framework of Victoria for taking water out of the environment. But, for when there are times when there’s a lot of it, actually putting it under in the aquifer and storing it where it doesn’t evaporate for use later on. So, a lot of work to do to make that happen, but that’s just an idea.
Allie: That’s a really interesting idea because there’s a lot of concern about how much we’re taking from underground aquifers that have taken millennia to fill up and be what they are. And humans are happily pumping out of them all over the place, without really understanding what the long-term implications of that might be.
Steve: They’re quite heavily managed though. So there’s a lot of monitoring bores around the state and people monitor levels, and restrictions go on for groundwater use and so forth. So, look I don’t know if it’s perfect, but it’s heavily regulated and monitored. So obviously any work that we wanted to do can’t go on without regulatory approval. So, we are a groundwater user for towns like Trentham, but we don’t get any special favours from the regulator, we’re just like anyone else. And so it’s all heavily managed. So, I think probably, there’s still, I think, some work to go in understanding it all, I’d agree with that. But, there’s a lot of information these days about levels and aquifer use and all of that.
Allie: But, strategically, refilling it sounds very wise.
Steve: Yeah. Yeah particularly, I mean, one of the biggest impacts of climate change in Central Victoria, is the variation between boom and bust years, those massive drought years and the flood years, and that’s getting stronger and stronger. So in the last 20 years, we’ve had the driest year on record, and we’ve also had one of the wettest years on record. And that seems to be increasing. And it’s also in the science as well, that one of the biggest impacts of climate change is that boom and bust. So during boom years…
Allie: Extreme, extreme weather.
Steve: …Extreme weather events. Yeah, that’s right. So, maybe the best way of taking the opportunity from that, is to use the water from those flood years and put it underground for those drought years.
Allie: Great. So we’ve seen recently, especially after all the lockdowns have eased from Melbourne – which has been the most locked down city in the world from COVID – we’ve seen a lot of people moving out of the city, because I think they’ve realised that being in a city is not very conducive to living through any kind of large scale emergency, which is what COVID has been. And I think people are starting to go “oh, maybe this is not where we want to be”. For future events, whether they’re thinking of climate change or not, if we see population growth out here continually what does Coliban Water have to think about?
Steve: There’s a number of things. So certainly, there’s been a lot of interest in people moving to regional Victoria. And as residents of regional Victoria, we can understand why. It hasn’t really happened to the degree that you read in the media. Not yet. I suspect it will at some point, but it takes a long time for all of those houses and subdivisions, all that sort of stuff to happen. But it is happening; there’s a lot of interest.
Allie: Well, you can’t buy a house anymore. Like, they get snapped up and the prices have gone up several hundred thousand dollars in the last couple of years.
Steve: Yeah. I think existing houses yeah, that’s right. But I think the existing housing stock, as real estate agents would say, is probably limiting the amount of people who can move here because of the price. Yeah. So, there’s a number of things we’re doing. We are certainly working with local governments, in what’s called the Calder corridor growth. So that includes Mount Alexander Shire, Macedon Ranges and City of Greater Bendigo, because that’s where a lot of people are moving, to that sort of growth area. And also, the Shire of Campaspe up in Echuca. And we are particularly looking at what infrastructure is required to meet the needs of that growth.
But as far as climate change goes, it’s an interesting thing that there’s a real opportunity for recycled water. So, people talk about Bendigo doubling in population; so it might be 100,000 now or thereabouts and going to 200,000 by say 2050 or 2055. So therefore, being sort of the size of current Geelong, but the opportunity from that is recycled water. We know more about the uses of recycled water now, than when say Bendigo went through its growth period. I think there’s a real opportunity for new subdivisions and the way that we can use recycled water and produce recycled water with technology.
Allie: So when you talk about recycled water, are you talking about… I know there’ve been trials in places like Toowoomba in Queensland where recycled wastewater has been brought back into the system as drinking water. Is that the sort of level of recycling you’re talking about?
Steve: No, not necessarily. No, it’s more recycled water for green environments, so parklands and so forth. It might get to that stage at some point. I don’t think in Toowoomba they ever actually went down that path. But recycled water for drinking water is used in Perth, through Managed Aquifer Recharge actually. It’s been used in I think it’s Namibia since about the 1960s. It’s heavily used in California, Texas, and a whole lot of places around the world. Even Antarctica: they’ve got a remote recycled water treatment plant, which can be operated from the Australian mainland for the Australia base.
So the technology is all there. I get that for some people a yuck factor might be there. However, there’s been numerous studies that show something around 60 or 70 per cent of the community are quite happy with that and see it as something necessary that’s going to happen in the future. So, we’re not necessarily planning for it now, it’s more around parks and gardens and so forth, so that we can substitute recycled water instead of it being, you know, drinking water.
Allie: Well, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because I mean our whole planet is infinitely recycling water all the time, really.
Steve: In a natural kind of way, yeah that’s right.
Allie: So, in terms of perhaps a growing population and a drying and more extreme-weather climate, how does Coliban see social justice or social equity? How important is that in terms of your future planning to make sure water is available to everyone?
Steve: Yeah, it’s very important. So, we are going through a preparation of our pricing submission at the moment. So, we are on a five-year cycle for pricing submission. So, every five years we submit to an independent regulator, the Essential Services Commission, a body of evidence that will determine what prices we can apply to customers. So, that body of evidence includes a whole lot of feedback from customers on what services they want, and what prices they’re willing to pay for those services. And then the Essential Services Commission makes a recommendation, or actually makes a determination, on what that price is, what that price should be. And that is about having a, what they call a ‘deep dive’, into issues that are related to Coliban Water services, and climate change and population growth and all that sort of stuff. So, that will form that body of evidence, and what people say in that community panel, and also what the community say in general, will feed into that pricing submission.
So what the Essential Services Commission are looking for, is really detailed evidence on what people… what services they want, but by also what they’re willing to pay for that. And one of the key questions is customers experiencing vulnerability, which has been a hot topic, I think, in all circles over the last 18 months. So yeah, it’s very important about how we manage that. So, one of the questions is: what should the general population pay for services? And then, should people experiencing vulnerability pay a lot less, or how much less, or what’s equitable for people there?
Allie: Yeah, that’s really important.
And I guess, if you are seeking for householders to consume less water from the main – I talk a lot about electricity, so I wanted to say from the grid! – but, most people get their water at the household level, from their taps and from your big bulk sort of storage. But actually, you would want to encourage households to start collecting and reusing water. So, what can households do, and how can households future-proof to be more secure with water with climate change coming? And assist themselves, but also the community in being more water secure?
Steve: Yeah, I think what people can really do, and I think what you’re alluding to is rainwater tanks. And that’s great for the community. It’s not just for individuals, but the benefits there are for individuals, particularly when we go into drought conditions and say, there might be water restrictions applied. But even before that point, when there is enough water and we don’t need to implement water restrictions, it’s really good for the whole community. So what one person saves, means that water is saved in the whole pool for everyone else. So if someone can afford a water tank, and does have the room for a water tank, it’s kind of like almost a community asset, that’s what they’re putting in. So, yeah, I would encourage people to do that if they feel they want to, if they feel they can. And, I would also just generally encourage smart water use, which people have been doing for quite a long time now: it’s been really good.
Allie: You spoke about the Millennium Drought and other times when the community’s taken significant steps towards water reduction in their consumption. At those times there were also often incentives, or subsidies. So, you could get a free low-water showerhead, or taps or something at certain points, if you jumped on the deals. Do you think there will ever be offers around water tanks, or things like that in the future, to encourage people to install water collection on their property?
Steve: Yeah, there might be incentives for water tanks. Part of the problem is making sure that they’re actually used. So it’s one thing to collect water, but are people actually going to use it? So that’s a difficult one, whereas with shower heads, if it’s installed, then it’s always going to provide a benefit.
Allie: Sure. What about grey water, and other reusing water onsite? Is that encouraged?
Steve: That’s a good question that I’m not sure the answer to. I have a feeling that could be a plumbing… like there could be some plumbing rules around that. I know everyone did it, but I don’t know what the rules are around that.
Allie: Because I know you need a certain amount of flow through the sewerage system to keep everything running. And if everyone stopped using… letting water go through, you would have problems with the system.
Steve: During the Millennium Drought, there was a lot of grey water systems installed, which did, it did change the concentration of sewage slightly, but not a lot. Because a lot of the major flows in systems is washing machines and kitchen sinks, and toilets as well, and commercial users of water. So, it’s not a big difference, it’s slightly, but not a lot.
Allie: So, if you are independent, but effectively created by the state government, is it political? Like how much does whichever government is in power impact what’s happening with our water supply?
Steve: Yeah, we are answerable to government departments. So, it’s really… the politics of the day might influence government departments, reporting to them. So it, it does perhaps to a certain extent. But, I think the way to think about what we do is the services of providing water and sewerage services have been around for a long time, and that’s fundamentally what we do. It can change a little bit, but not a great deal.
Allie: And I don’t think any government wants to deal with, you know, a massive health crisis due to unhygienic treatment.
Steve: No, that’s not going to change. Yeah. There can be some slight things around the edges, but that’s about all.
Allie: Yeah. And so there’s a lot of talk in sustainability circles about circular economies, and I know that already with your water reclamation plant and everything, it’s effectively a circular economy, but do you see yourselves participating in a circular economy of a kind?
Steve: Yeah, we do, probably a good example of that is biosolids reuse. So, it’s the sludge, the treated sludge that comes out of the sewerage treatment plant. And that is treated to a point where it can be applied to help productivity on farms. So we do a lot of that. I mean, we don’t do the farming ourselves, but we provide the product and that’s where that whole circular economy can come in as well. So it’s not just water, but it’s also the solids part.
There are a lot of projects going on in the Victorian water corporation sector looking at recycling, construction materials and all sorts of things and looking to reduce waste, like any business does. Yeah, there’s a lot of projects in that space as well.
Allie: That’s intriguing. Are there any examples you want to give with that?
Steve: I can’t remember the projects that we’re involved in, but a lot of projects in the Victoria water sector, sort of, we pool the resources and funding and everyone will make a small contribution to a project and it ends up being a substantial project where they look into these things, prove a concept, and then people roll them out. Yeah, it’s a really good way. We all work together because we’re not in competition with each other. We’re just in different areas.
Allie: So that’s really interesting. So you’re actually helping develop new technologies collectively with other water management corporations?
Steve: Yeah and partnering with industry as well. So, it might be that private industry will bring a great idea to a water corporation. It gets shared as an idea and might require some funding to prove the concept. And then everyone benefits from that. So, all water corporations in Victoria who were interested in it can become involved and reap the benefits.
Allie: Cool. And I guess that leads me on to one of my last questions is… do you see anything exciting or a bit revolutionary happening elsewhere in the world about water and how it couldn’t be used? I mean, I’ve seen pictures of very elegant spiral things that are capturing water from the air and things like that. Is there, is there anything that’s caught your imagination about what the future of water could be?
Steve: Oh, that’s a good one. I don’t know about capturing water from the air. In Central Victoria, the air is pretty dry. But, I think, I think probably treatment and particularly recycled water treatment is probably where technology has advanced, probably over the last 20 years. And also, our understanding of what that means, how the water recycled water can be used and so forth. I think, storm water harvesting is probably a big, big area for advancement as well. So there are a few things that are happening.
Allie: Yeah, it’s interesting to me. I guess I’m just, this is sort of not in my list of questions, but I feel like water is a topic that a lot of people worry about and really feel like we’re going to run out of sometime. And there’s a lot of talk of ‘can we reclaim salty water?’ But I mean, the earth is covered in water, surely we’ll figure it out.
Steve: Yeah. Yeah, there’s lots of desalination plants and so forth. Where we are, we’re a long way from the sea, so that’s difficult. However, I think the opportunities to use water wisely, like what we’ve done, what the communities have done over the last 20 years has been substantial and that’s been forced because of the Millennium Drought. But I think it’s not an insolvable problem. Not at all. I think it just takes a combination of will from government, will from corporations and the community, and technology all combined together with private partnerships. And yeah, I think, I think we can achieve it.
Allie: I guess any talk of privatising water rings alarm bells in terms of accessibility and fair access to water. And I know, up in Mildura and along the whole Murray-Darling there’s long and very heated arguments about how water is used. And, you know, the fish kill in the Murray-Darling in 2019 was a significant event, which just brought home how carefully water has to be managed across the continent.
Do you think that the state governments play nicely with each other? Like you say, within Victoria there’s a lot of cooperation. But do you think across the border and between governments, which some might be Labor and some might be Liberal, you know, is there cooperation?
Steve: There’s a whole lot of frameworks to drive cooperation, whether or not there actually is or not, I don’t know. I’m not close enough to that. Like I read things in the media, like anyone else, but whether or not that’s just the media, I don’t know.
Allie: So, what else is Coliban Water thinking about in terms of climate change, adaptation, mitigation, all of those sort of things. What role can you play?
Steve: Yeah, a pretty substantial role. So, we unfortunately contribute about 30,000 tonnes of carbon emissions, or carbon equivalent emissions, roughly, a little bit less at the moment. But that’s pretty much where we sit, which is a fairly high number. But that is mainly from energy and wastewater treatment. So it’s split into the various scopes: 1, 2 and 3, generally for carbon emissions. So Scope 2 is energy and that’s about 90% of our carbon emissions comes from energy use, and about 10% from the emissions from wastewater treatment, so that methane and nitrous oxide and so forth. So, we are committed to using 100% renewable energy by 2025. And that commitment has come from state government.
So, this is one of those elements where state government does direct water corporations. So, earlier in 2021 state government made that commitment and said the whole of government business, whole of state government Victorian business will use 100% renewable energy by 2025, and we’re part of that whole of government business. So we’re committed to that.
We have another commitment where we will be zero carbon by 2030. So then we need to get that last 10% from our wastewater treatment or those emissions. So that’s a challenge, because it can’t necessarily be done at the plant. It might be carbon offset planting or something like that. We’ve got a bit of work to do to figure that out, but then so does everyone. So it’s another one of those technologies that we’ll come across. It might be a technology of planting trees, but that’s just something that we’ve got to do. So yeah, we’re pretty proud of that commitment. It’s quite good.
Allie: Yeah, that’s really great. And I think that’s the level of like, if our federal government would just come on board, that’s how quickly things could change across all of Australia. Even seeing the local councils across Australia, one by one commit to declaring a climate emergency, and then that leads them to making an action plan about climate change. And that leads to, you know, committing to renewables at a council level, which leads to initiatives to help the community reach it. They all just roll in, but that government leadership is so important.
Steve: Yeah, it is. Yeah, I think it’s a pretty substantial commitment by the state government. I think it will drive a whole lot of investment in Victoria around, it could be solar, wind or some sort of renewable projects that. Yeah, it’s going to substantially change what we do.
Allie: Great. And it sounds like it will force the infrastructure change that’s needed to allow for renewables to be an effective energy source across the state.
Steve: Yeah, that’s right. It’s not all about solar panels somewhere. You’ve got to get the energy from those panels into people’s houses and our business as well.
Allie: Great. Do you know what sort of method might get employed to do the carbon offsetting, or who would organise that?
Steve: Yeah. It’s another one of those projects. It’s the whole of the water sector in Victoria who’s looking at this because everyone’s got that challenge. And we’re also working with catchment management authorities, particularly North Central Catchment Management Authority. And I think there’s an opportunity there to work with Dja Dja Wurrung as well, and their understanding of country, and achieving a whole lot of benefits, jobs, economic activity for Dja Dja Wurrung.
Also, I think there’s an opportunity in knowledge gaining, biodiversity implications, like there’s a whole lot of things, just erosion control. When you think about offsetting through plantations, I’m not talking about blue gum forest, we’re talking about, you know, natural trees that should be in this environment. So it’s a challenge, but I think it’s a great opportunity for other organisations that we can work with.
Allie: Yeah, that’s great. Those sorts of partnerships can be so important on so many different levels.
Steve: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, and I think it’s certainly needed, that kind of investment in Victoria. We do a fair bit of work with Dja Dja Wurrung, and their commercial Djandak, in everything from… we’ve got a barbecue shelter and a whole lot of landscaping that was done at Upper Coliban Reservoir, earlier in 2021 that was done, which was fantastic. It looks really good.
Allie: So you commissioned those guys to do that work?
Steve: Yeah, that’s right. Designed and built by Dja Dja Wurrung. There’s been a whole lot of other work where Dja Dja Wurrung people have done a lot of work on our rural channel network. Cleaning channels, repairing channels, and those sorts of things, which gets a whole lot of people out on country and exploring parts of Victoria that they may not know about. Because not many people do go exploring in the bush and find these sorts of remote channels.
And there’s a whole lot of other work as well that we work with Dja Dja Wurrung in our region as well. And we also have done a little bit of work, or we’re trying to do some more work, with other Traditional Owner groups in our region like Taungurung, and Yorta Yorta and Barapa Barapa. But certainly Dja Dja Wurrung is probably the most prominent one in our region, because their area, or their country, covers a substantial part of our region.
Allie: Absolutely. And is there much consulting you need to do with them in terms of land use or water catchment?
Steve: Yeah, there is. Yeah, in many ways actually. So, whenever we’re doing a project we consult with Dja Dja Wurrung, on sort of different levels. So we’re developing an urban water strategy, which we have to submit to government in March 2022, and that is a 50-year outlook on water and wastewater services, water security, and so forth. And yeah, we’ve been engaging with Dja Dja Wurrung on that for quite some time. And we engaged with them on the previous version five years ago as well, trying to work out what are the cultural and economic needs of water for Dja Dja Wurrung, and looking at how their knowledge can be incorporated in what we need to do and so forth. So, yeah, there’s a lot of engagement there.
Ambient music and bird calls.
Allie: That’s it, that was Steve Healy from Coliban Water. He’s the Executive General Manager of Climate and Popultion Adaptation. And you can see links to Coliban Water and the State Government’s position on water management in the show notes.
You can follow us on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube and please subscribe to our e-mail list to get reminders and updates about the show. Again, you can do that by going to saltgrasspodcast.com
My name is Alison Hanly. Thanks for listening.
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Transcript by Allie Hughes.