Shifts happen: making better water recycled water investment decisions
Australia has seen significant developments in water recycling over the past decade. These have been largely driven by factors like drought, community support, subsidies, sustainability interests, and other policy incentives.
However, the real costs, benefits and risks of recycled water schemes are generally poorly understood. Institute researchers have recently completed a two-year national research project that helps to fill this knowledge gap.
Every recycling scheme is special. Its particular context in terms of scale, driver, source, demand, institutional and governance arrangements, etc. matters in terms of weighing up the value of the investment. For this reason, what planners need to know is what questions to ask - our research sought to meet this need, rather than to provide generic answers that don’t fit specific situations.
There is a complex web of interactions between stakeholders and how they benefit or bear the costs of recycled water projects.. So the project used a highly collaborative, participatory process which worked at the intersection of these competing interests and priorities, spanning representatives of all the key stakeholder groups. Eleven industry partners comprising the full range of perspectives in recycling – utilities, developers, local authorities, technology providers and regulators – co-funded the project, and a further 21 organisations participated in the case studies.
Funded primarily by the Australian Water Recycling Centre of Excellence, the project used a case study approach to investigate the stories behind what kinds of costs, benefits and risks actually eventuate post implementation, how they are distributed, how significantly they are viewed by different stakeholders, and what lessons we can learn to help make more informed decisions.
What this project revealed is that the treatment of risk in recycling needs to expand dramatically - to incorporate a broad swathe of business risks associated with the decision to invest in recycling. Historically, the focus for risk in recycling has been on technical issues only - ensuring the product meets the health standards. The project identified six domains where significant shifts can and do happen in practice. Each of these domains requires attention from the earliest stages of a proposed scheme, so that the risks can either be managed out or planned for. Guidance on how to do this is consolidated in the synthesis document for the project: ‘Making better recycled water investment decisions: Shifts Happen’.
The project outcomes set new standards in practical, accessible resources. Instead of a single large report, there are 16 concise, engaging, and interwoven deliverables, telling stories and giving guidance. Project Director, Prof. Cynthia Mitchell explains: “Right from the start in our proposal, we said we would not do a report, but instead, we’d do short, pithy, punchy, highly visual, highly engaging case studies and theme papers. To meet that goal, we had to come up with new ways of thinking and writing about our research. We set ourselves a double challenge – we wanted our case studies, and our writing about them, to rise above being merely descriptive, and to instead be illustrative of a significant, shared issue. At the same time, we had to achieve brevity in our expression, whilst drawing on many interviews and documents from diverse perspectives for each situation.”
This bold approach has been well received with enthusiastic feedback from industry leaders such as Dave Gough, the Chair of WateReuse Australia, who said ‘I am really excited about the potential of this tool to help policy makers, practitioners and service providers better understand what makes a good recycled water project, and how to overcome barriers to their implementation.’
The future value to the sector of this research project lies in improving the investment landscape for recycling by help to reveal the risks that matter and how to identify them, enabling the development of cost-sharing arrangements and influencing policy design and institutional settings.
The project resources: an investment guide, a policy paper; eight case studies, and six cross-cutting themes are available at: http://waterrecyclinginvestment.com/resources-and-outputs/