As the driest inhabited continent, Australia has pioneered the best practices when it comes to management of water.
“We lead the world in [water resource management] except having stormwater properly incorporated into the urban water cycle,” noted Adam Lovell, executive director of Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA).
Local councils can play a major role in better integrating stormwater into the urban water cycle.
An important approach for councils is the concept of water sensitive urban design (WSUD), which considers how to plan and design urban environments that are sensitive to protecting, sustaining and enhancing water resources.
WSUD focuses on stormwater management, its role within the urban water cycle and its potential to deliver many benefits to communities and ecosystems.
Despite some councils experimenting with best practice stormwater management, many councils continue to face a number of technical, institutional, financial and social barriers.
Some of these barriers include a lack of water practitioner skills in WSUD, societal resistance to move away from a centralised water system, the complexity of decision-making in water management, attitudes towards recycled water and a lack of regulatory incentives.
The City of Melbourne has been a pioneer in stormwater management, recently installing a two million litre tank in a city park to protect Flinders Street from flooding. While this installation shows foresight, many councils have limited funding options to afford these kinds of investments.
In fact, Local Government NSW indicated that its councils had an estimated stormwater infrastructure renewal backlog of $633 million in 2012.
With increasing population pressures on our scarce water resources, investments in best practice stormwater management are critical to the long-term health of our communities.
Another challenge is that councils are often required to own and maintain stormwater infrastructure but cannot own the water resources. Rain that falls on the roof of a building becomes the property of an owner, and once on the ground, it is perceived to become the state government’s property.
Andrew Allan of Stormwater Australia said stormwater infrastructure is “probably a public good type investment” because it is not clear who owns the stormwater resource and who benefits from it.
Despite some state government opposition, there is a great case for making stormwater resources that hit the ground on the property of local councils. This could incentivise councils to treat, harvest and sell water resources to industries or direct to citizens for non-potable uses.
The CRC for Water Sensitive Cities has stated that “there are very few incentives for water authorities/utilities to co-develop water resource management strategies with local government.”
As a result, water authorities and councils have viewed stormwater as something to be discharged of quickly through large drains to waterways avoiding all opportunities to achieve WSUD.
If water authorities were required to engage councils, as the owners of stormwater resources, there would likely become far more incentive to co-develop WSUD principles.
Given Australia’s position as a global leader in water management, now is the right time to think about conquering this last frontier.