NSW audit office highlights major concerns with Greater Sydney water conservation efforts

By Shannon Jenkins

June 23, 2020

Sydney thunder storm. Adobe

The New South Wales government’s current approach to water conservation could make Sydney’s water supply more vulnerable to population growth and climate change, according to the state audit office.

In an audit report released on Tuesday, auditor-general Margaret Crawford assessed whether the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment and the Sydney Water Corporation have effectively progressed water conservation initiatives in Greater Sydney.

The entities have not effectively investigated, implemented and supported water conservation initiatives, the audit found.

“There has been little policy or regulatory reform, little focus on identifying new options and investments, and limited planning and implementation of water conservation initiatives,” the report said.

“As a result, Greater Sydney’s water supply may be less resilient to population growth and climate variability, including drought.”

The department also failed to fulfil a range of requirements under the Metropolitan Water Plan.

“It did not complete identified research and planning activities to support the plan … It also did not finalise a monitoring, evaluation, reporting and improvement strategy to support the plan,” the report stated.

Meanwhile, Sydney Water has been “ineffective” in driving water conservation initiatives, and delivering planning and resourcing for ongoing initiatives. The agency also “lacked transparency” in some areas, and was “slow to respond to drought”.

Both entities failed to implement sufficient governance arrangements, including clarifying and agreeing responsibilities for key water conservation planning, delivery and reporting activities, the report concluded.

“There has also been limited collaboration, capacity building and community engagement to support water conservation, particularly outside times of drought,” it said.

Crawford highlighted a number of key findings, including that “governance around water conservation is weak”. The report argued that frequent structural changes and staff turnover in the department hindered its ability to support water conservation and lead policy and regulatory reform.

It noted that between August 2005 and July 2019, the function changed departments six times and was split on two occasions into separate offices before being re-merged.

READ MORE: NSW environment boss sacked

Other key findings pointed to a lack of recent, detailed analyses of water conservation options; limited action to remove barriers to water recycling and stormwater harvesting; and a lack of support and coordination for water conservation.

The only positive key finding was that “measures to encourage efficient urban water use are in place”, referring to the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS), and the Building Sustainability Index (BASIX).

“NABERS can be used to measure and compare a building’s water consumption, as well as energy efficiency, carbon emissions and waste. Participants are encouraged to reduce energy and water consumption and so improve their building’s NABERS rating over time,” the report said.

“There may be potential for BASIX to be enhanced, especially in relation to water use targets and the use of recycling and rainwater tanks.”

Crawford made six recommendations to the agencies, with a deadline of July 2021. Recommendations aimed at the department related to developing clearer policies, regulatory positions, and mechanisms, as well as assessing the viability of current and future water conservation initiatives.

Suggestions made to Sydney Water focused on implementing a detailed five-year plan for water conservation, and improving its annual reporting on water conservation.

Both entities agreed, with department secretary Jim Betts agreed, stating that the report highlighted the “complexity of institutional arrangements in the water sector”.

“Since the formation of the department and the recruitment of a Chief Executive Officer for the NSW Water Sector, the department has made considerable progress towards lifting water sector performance by having a single unifying role responsible for the strategic direction of the sector,” he wrote.

He highlighted a range of actions recently taken by the department, including beginning work on a state water strategy to “outline the government’s long-term vision and performance expectations for the sector”; establishing a group of CEOs and senior executives to agree on responsibilities and implement the vision for the water sector; and reviewing barriers to good performance in the sector, including regulatory and institutional arrangements.

The development of a Greater Sydney Water Strategy is also underway.

Meanwhile, Sydney Water managing director Roch Cheroux listed a range of recent achievements made by the agency, including the completion of more than 16,500km of active leak detection this financial year, using dogs to detect hidden leaks in wastewater networks, and implementing successful conservation awareness and education campaigns.

READ MORE: NSW government using dogs to find leaks in water network

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