Yarra Valley Water: supporting communities and sustainability

13 July 2022

Yarra Valley Water is one of Australia’s largest water utilities providing water and sanitation services to 2 million people and nearly 60,000 businesses in the northern and eastern suburbs of Melbourne.

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Welcome to another edition of Fast Five – our fortnightly series where we ask Victoria’s most influential and exceptional business leaders five questions to get a behind-the-scenes look at some of Australia’s most dynamic businesses.

In this edition we spoke to Pat McCafferty, Managing Director of Yarra Valley Water.

In a career spanning over 30 years, Mr McCafferty has been extensively involved in addressing critical challenges such as climate change and rapid population growth. He has experience advising the Australian Government as part of the National Water Initiative, is a signatory to the UN Global Compact and a passionate advocate of the Sustainable Development Goals.

#1: Melbourne has a reputation of having some of the cleanest and most drinkable water in the world. What is involved to ensure the quality of our water?

We’re blessed here in Melbourne as one of the few cities in the world that has protected water catchments. It was good planning a long time ago to set aside those catchments from human development and farming activities, meaning our water is really pure and requires very little treatment.

Melburnians are rightly proud of their drinking water – when they travel, they notice the difference. We recently did testing (with Melbourne Water) of some water up at Healesville and put that into a best tap-water competition for Victoria, which it won. It’s now going head-to-head with the other states for the national title. We’re hoping the water that the good people of Healesville are drinking is assessed as the nation’s best.

Our teams carry out hundreds of tests every week on our water quality at different taps all around our entire service area. We’re stringently regulated for water quality by the Department of Health and there are safe drinking water guidelines and regulations in place as well, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act 2003. Combine all those and that’s why we’ve got great water.

#2: Victoria isn’t immune to wild weather and changing climate conditions that pose a threat to our water supply. How is Yarra Valley Water working to protect this vital resource for the future?

Climate change is affecting the reliability of rainfall. We’ve seen a 30 per cent reduction of streamflow into our water catchments over the last 30 years. We also know that our population is set to double over the next 50 years.

We are currently working on a 50-year strategy with our other water utility colleagues in metropolitan Melbourne about projecting the future and ensuring we have water security in the long term.

One of the main ways to do this is by increasing our supply of manufactured water (such as desalinated water or recycled water). Since 2017, the Victorian desalination plant has moved from an ‘insurance policy’ and top-up of water supplies to an important part of baseload because of the changes in the climate and population.

We’re also developing a Climate Resilience Plan. We have been affected by storms, flooding and there is the threat of bushfires and extreme heat as well. We’re planning to provide different water supply solutions, particularly in growing areas where we can cool the urban environment down through tree canopy and more green space.

The Climate Resilience Plan is about embedding climate resilience into everything we do. The aim of the plan is to improve and sustain Melbourne’s liveability, and it may be a useful resource for business to think about its own impacts around climate change.

#3: How did COVID-19 impact our own water consumption habits, and how can we as individuals and businesses be more efficient with our own usage for cost and preservation purposes?

COVID-19 didn’t have a massive impact on water consumption overall, but there was a shift in water use patterns away from business to residential consumption. During the early stages of the pandemic, we also noticed a really big peak in the morning of showers and toilets being used, but that’s spread out a lot more now.

In 2020-21, Melbourne’s total water use went down by about 1 per cent, but that’s really weather related. If you have an extended dry period, especially during summer, you tend to see water use go up, particularly to sustain gardens.

Typically speaking, we’ve had a significant long-term reduction in per capita water use. Since the late 1990s, Melbourne’s water use has decreased by about 33 per cent per person, which is pretty good and has given us some sustained supplies. This suggests the system has got a bit of capacity yet.

The other thing to note is that residential water use is about 70 per cent of overall water use. A lot of people think that businesses use all the water but that’s not the case. While it can be industry specific, we know that heavy users are generally efficient because water becomes a material input cost so they’re incentivised to save water. We’ve got plenty of industry-specific fact sheets on our website, and we encourage people to have a look and consider what works for their industry.

In terms of tips for saving water at home, because a lot of people are living in smaller properties with smaller gardens, the water use has shifted more to indoor use, so the two big areas to focus on are the shower and the toilet. If you can get water-efficient shower heads and toilets, not only do you save water but also energy.

If you have a big property, it’s important to check for leaks and get a plumber in to carry out leak tests. We find that a lot of properties have hidden leaks that people might not be aware of.

#4: What is the Yarra Valley Water Community Sewerage Program and how is it making a difference to our communities?

The Community Sewerage Program helps sewer properties that are currently on septic tanks. As Melbourne grew, particularly in the outlying areas, people on larger properties tended to put septic tanks in because the metropolitan sewerage system didn’t reach that far out.

With population growth on the fringe and the metropolitan sewerage system in the centre, we’ve slowly been extending it to connect those legacy properties – such as in places like the Dandenongs where it can be tricky because of the terrain.

With large blocks, septic tanks are not too big an issue. But where properties in some townships or areas have gotten smaller, the risk is that the septic tanks aren’t maintained and can pose a risk to the environment through leaks that can leach into local waterways. There’s also a human health element to this, so the program is all about addressing the gap to convert those homes and extend the metropolitan sewerage system into those areas. A modern functioning sewerage system is important for a growing city.

#5: YVW recently partnered with the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre on the WaterCare initiative to help people with cancer. Can you explain what the program involves?

WaterCare is our financial support program for people who are experiencing vulnerability. We strongly believe that a person’s capacity to pay should not compromise their access to essential services. Water and sanitation are fundamental to human health and wellbeing, so we have robust programs to support anyone who is struggling to pay their bills.

The initiative with the ONJ Centre is about extending that visibility of the support available. We know people experiencing cancer – and their families – are focused on that, while bills can just be a complete distraction. So this makes sure they know we’re there for them and that they shouldn’t have to worry about any issues associated with water bills. It also just reminds everyone to stay hydrated. Water for your wellbeing and health is super important as well.

Ultimately, this program shines a light on two things: financial stress associated with severe illness and the benefits of water for everyday health.

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