Water Journal : Water Journal December 2012
conference reviews 58 DECEMBER 2012 water Small Water and Wastewater Systems Workshop 2012 Rachel Watson, Institute of Sustainable Futures Distributed (i.e. small scale) recycled water systems have plenty of potential, but there are currently significant limitations to investing in such systems. Which limitations matter most, and to whom, was the subject of a highly interactive workshop at the Small Water and Wastewater Systems Conference in Newcastle from 26–28 November 2012. Some innovative elements in the workshop design ensured strong participation and valuable outcomes. The workshop was hosted by Professor Cynthia Mitchell and PhD candidate Rachel Watson from the Institute of Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. Cynthia began by reflecting on the fantastic range of presentations throughout the previous two days, which focused on the successes of small solutions, their benefits, and their economic, environmental and societal value. She also noted that different examples discussed at the conference encompassed diverse exposure pathways and enormously diverse levels of risk acceptance. However, even though there is a range of good examples of small recycled water systems there is still a range of cost, risk and institutional barriers that make it difficult for small recycled water systems to compete against other traditional water services. It is only by understanding what these limits are, who they affect and how they limit effective investment that we can begin to take action that will allow small-scale systems to reach their full potential as a valuable part of urban integrated water management. Rachel then used Sydney as an example to discuss some of the more challenging barriers to an efficient and competitive local recycled water market that exist in the short to medium term. These included limited commercial opportunities for recycled water to be price competitive due to centralised water supply being secured through large-scale supply options (such as desalination), large wastewater networks having existing capacity and centralised ocean discharge of primary treated wastewater with limited environmental impacts. However, she also identified that these barriers can be seen as creating a perfect environment to test, monitor and develop the capacity of both the systems and the private sector operators, without placing unacceptable impacts on the existing system, the environment or the community. This introduction provided the background for an interactive debate on the topic: ‘We don’t invest in small systems because they are too risky’. The purpose of the debate was to encourage participation, stimulate structured conversations, and acknowledge the wide range of different perspectives that co-exist). The debate was structured to allow time after each speaker for people from the floor to interject and provide their perspective on what had just been said. This format successfully encouraged participation from most of the workshop participants. It also provided participants with time to reflect on alternative perspectives and provide back-up or counter arguments. The debate also highlighted the value in getting groups from very different perspectives to come together in a neutral and supportive space – one where there was definitely space for a diversity of viewpoints. The group agreed that more opportunities for this type of debate to occur would be a positive initiative. The final half of the workshop focussed on articulating key limiting factors (both those identified through the debate and others) and ranking their importance from different perspectives. The first step was for participants to identify all the key limitations from their perspective. Each limitation was then categorised as either limits relating to relative cost and centralised pricing; limits relating to risk and uncertainty; or limits regarding institutional and regulatory frameworks. The limitations were then put up on boards and participants were given 10 votes each to use in whatever combination they chose, to vote for what was most and least important from their perspective (see Figure 1). Voting dots were colour-coded so that different perspectives could be tracked in the voting process. Using a voting process that included both the positive and negative position and reflected the different perspectives within the group provided some interesting and useful distinctions. Key Outcomes The following key observations can be made from the debate and voting processes: Overall: • The economics of small systems is a function of the institutional arrangements and the rules that are associated with them. • As with any emerging industry the uncertainty that exists within so many areas (particularly cost, benefits, public health risks, ongoing performance management, benefits and costs to existing centralised system infrastructure and customers and long-term markets for recycled water) can create barriers and increase risk perceptions. Planning and Regulation: • The lack of a coordinated process for identifying opportunities for small systems in advance of centralised investment was seen as very important by regulators and private investors in particular, but it scored votes from all groups. • Private investors also thought the efficiency of small system investment could be improved by a better process for identifying what scale of system was appropriate in what circumstances. This would support the most efficient mix of small and large systems within an urban area. • Regulators, utilities and private investors suggested small recycled water investment would benefit from a consistent approach to regulation. Figure 1. Examples of the voting sheets, colour-coded as follows: Blue: regulators/planners; Yellow: private service providers; Red: Public service providers; Green: advocates/researchers.
Water Journal February 2013
Water Journal November 2012-1