Innovation for a sunburnt country

As innovation is brought to the fore in National Water Week, Kirsty Johns reflects on the innovations she’s seen since moving to Australia.

I came to Australia from the UK in 2006. Back there, the worst droughts we had caused a "hosepipe ban" (garden hose ban), and having too much water often caused more problems than having not enough. Arriving in Melbourne at the peak of the drought was a revelation. I had a pretty quick learning curve on what mattered in Victoria, and the innovative solutions that were being applied to mitigate and solve the impacts of drought. This year’s Australian National Water Week (18-24 October) has a theme of innovation, which has prompted me to look back at what I’ve learned in my time in a sunburnt country.

The first real exposure I had to the drought was the reality of life in Melbourne – water restrictions, bushfire haze, and the constant re-application of sunscreen. I thought I understood the hardships, had seen drought affected vegetation, and was living through it; I turned out to be very wrong.

When Beca was awarded the design of the Epsom Spring Gully Recycled Water Plant for Coliban Water, I took on the role of Assistant Project Manager. On my first trip over the dividing range to Bendigo, I saw the true effects of the drought on Victoria. Grass so brown it crunched, not a speck of green anywhere, and even the gum trees looked a bit tired.

Bendigo had 10% water levels in its reservoirs, so to increase water security, a recycled water plant was to be built. One of the most innovative things about this plant was the use of Reverse Osmosis (RO) to remove salinity from the wastewater (present because of the high salinity in the groundwater, still an issue today as this media release confirms). The RO plant was also proven to provide removals that allowed it to be accredited as part of a Class A treatment train, which had not previously been done in Victoria. Once the salt was removed from the wastewater, the waste train (brine) had to be disposed of. In seawater desalination plants, this is done by taking the brine back out to sea, but this is not an option in land-locked Bendigo. After looking into various options, it was decided that the most effective option was to use an enhanced recovery technology (electro dialysis reversal (EDR) was selected) to reduce the brine flow and then evaporate the remaining waste in large evaporation lagoons. A lot of effort went in to considering alternative ways to manage the brine and make the project viable, which again led to an unusual solution.

After working on other recycled water plants, I became involved with the Victorian Desalination Plant - which at the time was seen as a critical solution to reduce the dependency of Melbourne on rainfall, and ensure its water security for years to come.

As the drought has receded, we are left with a desal plant in a maintenance only mode and cries of blame for wasted money. Melbourne is not alone– the Sydney Desalination Plant is in ’care and maintenance’ mode and the Adelaide Desalination Plant is running at minimum capacity, prompting criticism of the costs of running it when not needed. However, as David Papps said previously, with a strong el NiƱo event here, and more to come with climate change in the future, we will likely be grateful for these plants in the longer term, and be looking for more – more desalination, and more innovative solutions.

So where do we look for those innovations? We can look large scale, and work on improving our current technologies - reducing the power input to desal plants, reducing our water wastage in industry, increasing re-use and groundwater replenishment, or even using indirect potable reuse. Or we can look small scale and take heed of the work done with developing countries and help individuals change their water use and re-use philosophies. We can look to culture change and increasing the appreciation of the world around us. Or maybe we can look closer at the way the water in Australia was managed by the Indigenous Australians, before their world changed forever, and understand the groundwater system and how to use it sustainably.

Join the conversation – what do you think are the next innovations to come in the Australian water sphere, and further afield? Is it large or small scale engineering that is needed? How do we create culture change? Can we innovate and change enough to leave the world a better place for future generations?

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