This summary was prepared by the Brisbane Drought Taskforce in June 2008 at the conclusion of the South East Queensland Millennium Drought. This story has never been told (Part 1)

Until about 2001 Brisbane’s summer storms would rumble and crack low over the city’s corrugated iron rooves, breaking the heat of the sultry night. Brisbane is a sub-tropical city on the east coast of Australia, the capital city of the State of Queensland. Since then, bar a few stormy nights, the sun has shone on a rapidly expanding city of one million and risking at a rate of about 1500 new residents a week.

Except for a few days of rain over the Christmas summer holidays, and a rapid reduction in water consumption, the city would have run out of sufficient water by the second half of this year (2008), a full month before the $10 billion of new water infrastructure came on line.

It has been and continues to be the longest known drought in Australia, outstripping the “Federation Drought” at the end of the nineteenth century. It has been so long that some are refusing to call it a drought, which implies it will end; rather they are calling it climate change.

There was no set text book that Brisbane could draw upon in this crisis, and for that reason, this book is being written: to gather together the intellectual capital that lead to Brisbane becoming the most efficient water users in the developed world – on the driest continent on earth.  This in turn has created a blue print for other climate changes, from which we may draw strategies to face the now imminent challenges in a changing environment.

The city’s residents dropped their consumption by more than 50 per cent over a two year period, and the business and other non-residents sector dropped consumption by 32 per cent (and it continues to fall). Despite new infrastructure coming online before Christmas 2008, residents continue to keep consumption low – averaging 130 litres per day. If it rains for a night or two, or a holiday sees people heading for the northern and southern beaches, consumption drops further to a range of 118 – 123 litres per person per day.

Now in June 2008, Brisbane and the whole South East Queensland (SEQ) region is finally able to take a deep breath and assess what has worked and is working to ensure security of water supplies for its residents and businesses.

The drought had started to impact Brisbane Water (BW) resources in 2001, but had been largely ignored. By early 2004 the then candidate for Lord Mayor Campbell Newman gave voice to concerns that we were heading for trouble. He was ridiculed by other politicians.

But by 2005 SEQ dam levels were trending below 40 per cent at more than half of one per cent per week.  No sign of rain was on the horizon.

Any prolongation of the drought would mean the city would face water storage levels of less than 10 per cent in just over a year.  Some State politicians claimed that potable water would be available right down to one per cent storage levels, but that claim was sceptically received, with urban myths of letter boxes already sticking out of the biggest dam, a remnant of the townships that were smothered when it was built as flood protection for the city in 1974.

The region’s longest known drought continues, but the city now has at least 24 months of supply, with a 10 per cent buffer. That is before the full effects of the new SEQ water supply infrastructure, and the full effect of businesses’ Water Efficiency Management Plans (WEMPs) come on-line, as well as any further rainfall, the on-going installation of the Home WaterWise Service water efficiency equipment, and rainwater tanks in our homes.

Level Six restrictions (Extreme Levelin the new Queensland Water Commission’s parlance) are still in force. The volume of water in Brisbane dams is at about 39.5 per cent (June 2008) and residents are maintaining consumption below the 140 litres per person target, averaging about 125 litres per person per day (May-June 2008).

For those who want a quick overview, below are the 20 key strategies that changed the city from a water guzzler, with a water literate metropolis.

The strategy included: 

  1. Alerting residents to the potential dire crisis the region faced. This was difficult in a politically sensitive environment. Media releases on the dam levels and the reporting of those on Government web sites kept the public informed. Communication strategies were also used. But it was pictures of the dams drying up that many suggest had the biggest impact. These pictures fed a strange sense of excitement: most people hate change but love a crisis that led to big drops in consumption and a sense of civic pride that the city could work together so well.
  2. Approaching drought conditions with both demand and supply strategies. These included both outdoor and indoor restrictions for both residents and businesses.  Price was not used to restrict water use.
  3. Introduction of restrictions, particularly curtailing garden watering. Restriction were introduced just in time,  and then fast tracked through the restriction levels from Level 1 in April 2005 to Level 6 in November 2007, thereby indicating the seriousness of the situation. All outdoor watering was forbidden – except for occasional bucketing.
  4. Establishing and publicising Target 140 litres of water per person per day. This reinforced the sense of urgency and provided everyone with a goal – which was surpassed by as much as 24 litres per person per day as the dam levels dropped.
  5. Graphically representing water consumption on the billing accounts. BW included each house’s water consumption and provided a comparison both with the local neighbourhood and city-wide, thereby creating drivers to maintain the water saving impetus. It became a conversation around the office photocopier.
  6. Providing every household a free four-minute shower timer (in the shape of an egg timer). The publicity around the timers included a concurrent communication message to limit showers to four minutes. These too entered the community’s conversation.
  7. Breaking through the media ennui on the drought. Media jumped on the positive success story of the region becoming national and then world leaders in water saving, but was not interested in business water saving success stories. This positive message appealed to and motivated high achievers, who were also high water consumers, to cut consumption further.
  8. Informing high water users (over 1500 litres per household per day) that they were excessive users. Surveys indicated that many high water users thought they were using average amounts of water. The compulsory completion of a survey of high water users, to identify where their excessive use was occurring, and then providing them with a customised plan to implement water saving behaviour and install water saving fixtures, was an effective educational tool. However, the intrusive nature of many of the questions caused “outrage” and resulted in angry calls to government call centres.
  9. Personalised visits from Council officers for the extreme users. These visits frequently resulted in the identification of previously undetected leaks (70% of the extreme users had leaks).
  10. Many council vehicles were labelled as a “Drought Patrol Vehicle”. This included the dog patrol vans, which raised the presence of Council across the city. All Council officers were tasked with checking for water misuse.
  11. Subsidising the installation of water efficient taps and showers. This included the cost of a plumber to fit them. The cost to residents was $20 and more than 50 thousand homes were fitted in Brisbane and 200 thousand across SEQ. This service was called the Home WaterWise Service.
  12. Subsidizing rainwater tanks, eventually providing subsidies only to those who plumbed the tank into laundries and/or toilets. The number of rainwater tanks being installed when they were required to be plumbed into the house fell, but the culture of rainwater tank installation has taken hold, and all new homes are fitting them.
  13. Limiting swimming pool filling and requirement of pool covers, and/or three water efficient systems. There was only a 15-20% infiltration of pool covers, despite the subsidies, but the controversy around them raised the awareness that pools could not be filled with town water without permission.
  14. Regulating businesses to reduce water consumption by 25 per cent or business best practice. Many dropped consumption by more than 50 per cent – to their own surprise. Big savings were made in air-conditioning towers.
  15. Providing subsidies to assist in improving water efficiencies in business. This strategy led to audits and education about potential water savings, important when the low cost of water was not a significant factor in business budgets.
  16. On-going monitoring of residents’ and businesses’ water consumption to check for anomalies. BW picked up many leaks by monitoring spikes in water use when water metres were read.
  17. Development of alternative water supply infrastructure.  This included recycled water filling stations for non-potable situations (road construction and dust suppression) and the development of recycled water supply pipes from sewage treatment plants, groundwater/aquifers to supplement existing water supplies, pipelines connecting dams to the north and the south of the city. The dams were nearer the coast and were fill to overflowing at times. The bill for the new infrastructure was about $10 billion.
  18. The on-going education/communication strategy. This included communication of the potential alternative water sources, including grey water from baths, showers, kitchens and washing machines.
  19. Gaining agreement amongst all the Councils in the region to ensure a consistency of message. Despite theirvarying water reserves, it was crucial that Councils were on the same page to increase the awareness of the severity of the drought.
  20. Thanking the people of Brisbane for their water saving efforts. The world-class water savings were acknowledged, resulting in a more positive relationship between customers and Councils, and substantial media coverage.

State Government rolled out $10 billion of regional infrastructure aimed at securing the region against the ongoing drought under challenging deadlines.

To put Queensland in perspective, it is more than seven times the size of the United Kingdom, and more than five times the size of Texas. Yet Queensland is relatively uncrowded, with just over four million people and growing fast.  Back in the time of the first census in 1911 the state’s population was only 600,000 living on a land mass of more than a quarter of Australia’s total area. Because of the massive size of the state, decentralisation was inevitable and essential.

In the 1920s, Brisbane City Council was created with its own Act. The city has maintained this role, aided by uniquely, independently-elected and strong lord mayors, with a traditionally close relationship between the bureaucrats and the politicians.  This differs from the State bureaucracy which tends to be distanced from strategic policy development, instead policy-driven by the elected politicians.

That role has been supported and strengthened by the close relationship Brisbane City Council has encouraged with other Councils in the region.  This strong regional voice made it even more difficult for the State Government to impact on regional discussions to any great degree. It in part explains why the State Government did not have any regional plan for South East Queensland until four years ago.

One resulting driver for the subsequent SEQ Regional Plan was the concern about water planning. In the previous four years the city’s water quality in Moreton Bay and the water catchment areas were in decline, particularly as result of pollution from the waste treatment plants and the massive population growth. This led to the establishment of the SEQ Healthy Waterways Partnership between Councils and the State Government, with emphasis on trusted science, education, monitoring and protection of waterways and catchment areas. That monitoring of the creeks, rivers and the Bay has indicated a slow but continual improvement in water quality.

This format laid the conceptual ground work for what happened next.

Gestation of the Queensland Water Commission

The Lord Mayor at the time, Jim Soorley (1991-2003), was very passionate about water quality,  He accepted that the Healthy Waterways Partnership was only dealing with half of the problem – water quality.

Supply, which was the responsibility of the State Government, was the other, and a regional strategy was needed. SEQWater, a joint State Government and local government organisation owned the three key dams: Wivenhoe, Samford, and North Pine. Their water reserves were dropping. Brisbane City Council owned North Pine Dam, the Mt Crosby Weir, Lank Manchester, the aquifers, and Enoggera and Gold Creek Dams.

A committee was formed, which included Local Council and State Government bodies, to develop appropriate contingency plans to manage the drought, with SEQWater being the coordinator.  This co-operative body developed the water restrictions required should the drought continue. Work also began on water supply strategies.

The mayors were concerned the State was going to do yet another study. The mayors wanted action in two stages only. In stage one, they wanted to identify core targets, plans for infrastructure, and the identification of information gaps. In stage two the mayors wanted all Councils and most of the State Government Departments (to ensure buy-in) to approve findings and strategies identified in stage one.

The blame game was on

By this stage, the State Government was deferring decision on infrastructure and still hoping for rain in the summer of 2004-2005.  The rain did not come. The State blamed Councils. Councils pushed back, claiming the State Government was responsible for regional water supply, while Councils were only responsible for distribution.  Furthermore, it was the State Government which cancelled the building of the proposed Wolfdene Dam, which would have provided substantial regional water security. But it proposed no alternative water collection and storage strategy.

QWC is born

As the State Government was threatening to take water assets away from Councils, the Councils concluded they needed a new water planning authority. This was proposed via the Brisbane City Council’s Establishment & Coordination Committee (the political management committee of Council) and was agreed to by the Lord Mayor Campbell Newman (2004 – current). He took the issue to the SEQ Council of Mayors – an independent political advocacy organisation.

The other mayors agreed to the formation of the Queensland Water Commission to ensure State planning for water.  The State agreed to the arm’s length organisation – the sceptics might suggest that this allowed the State to pass the buck: an opportunity to blame the QWC for the State’s water failures as the drought worsened. The agreement was that this would be an independent organisation – independent of both the State and the Councils, but the Councils expected to have, but did not get  a say in the appointment of one of the three QWC commissioners.

The QWC appears to see itself as a “State” department reporting to the State Government.

Supply Strategy

The QWC was given accountability for the finalisation of the regional water.  The six sub-committees developing the strategy were groups, chaired by representatives of both State and Local Governments, and a representative of farmer groups, were robust and co-operative, but the QWC took over, ending that partnership approach. This lack of partnership has resulted in numerous conflicts.

At the time of writing the relationship continues to be acrimonious most of the time. As a result the QWC which has been populated by few people with any water experience, and is therefore working with limited intellectual capital, making poor decisions, and lacked understanding of the consequence of those decisions because a failure of the decision-making processes.

The State Government asked the Commission to develop a new structure for water supply, presuming that those Councils would have input to a new water model. The first cut focussed on the regional needs. Councils disagreed with the model, provided feed back, but except for some minor tweaking, the QWC refused to move. At the time, the out-going State Premier Peter Beattie did not agree with the Councils’ suggestions either; a review found (incorrectly according to Councils) that Councils were not successfully managing water.

As a consequence a new model of Water Management was developed, virtually in a vacuum, which has resulted in the most diverse water business structure in the country. It included:

  1.  One Bulk Water Company – dams, aquifers and recycled water;·
  2.  A Grid Manager – which decides which Council gets what water and when;·
  3.  Retailer Managers – between 3 and 10 – billing, marketing and meter reading; AND·
  4.  Distribution – pipes, wastewater, sewerage, leakage, network planning

However, the QWC considered that it was streamlining the water assets reducing the 23 bulk water supply and treatment entities, and 17 retail bodies owned by 25 separate entities in the state.

The Retail Managers and the Distribution will answer to the expanded Council of Mayors.

These decisions were made after months of meetings. Advice from all quarters, except from QWC and the State Government, advised against the new and more costly structure.  The proposed and now official model with a myriad of layers is internationally unique.

Back at the coal face

About three years ago (13 May 2005) Brisbane City Council established a focused Drought Task Force, appointing two Brisbane City Council senior water staff (Paul Belz and David Roberts) to focus on water supply and demand projects, particularly using communication and political strategies, feeding into the processes which Council could influence to enhance water supply.

The team worked primarily, but not exclusively with contract staff, several of which were embedded as Drought team members in other Council functions, including compliance, media, BW, the call centre, and active playing surfaces.

This was crucial as Brisbane City Council saw that the State Government was failing to take leadership over the drought, while Brisbane City Council at all levels was committed to tackle drought management. Brisbane City Council was also able to draw upon the experience of its near neighbour, the Gold Coast Council which faced a two-year drought from 2002-2004.

Brisbane City Council had earlier worked with that Council on a southern regional pipeline, which linked the Gold Coast to Brisbane’s main water resource, the Wivenhoe Dam. At the time Brisbane City Council started on construction, the aim was to help the Gold Coast, but by 2005, their drought was lessening, and we needed to turn the pipe into a dual flow system to carry desalinated water back to us. That initial ‘altruistic measure by Brisbane City Council, was somewhat forgotten by some Gold Coast residents, as the Brisbane drought worsened.

Meanwhile, the new Lord Mayor Campbell Newman, a qualified engineer, had tagged a warning about a potentially protracted drought, for which he was criticised by the State Government still hanging out for rain in the 2004-2005 summer. His attitude was that he didn’t care if he was calling ‘wolf’.

Brisbane City Council had to plan, even if the rain did come – it would be too late to wait until the end of the next potential rainy season to begin. This did not sit comfortably with the State Government and that was expressed strongly in the media.

Campbell Newman won the Lord Mayoral election in 2008 in a landslide, and also won control of the Brisbane City Council, putting an end to the conflicts what had arisen out of a Labor Party-controlled E&C and a Liberal Lord Mayoralty.

The Drought Task Force was able to work in an environment where it could access good information, with the Lord Mayor and CEO on board providing full support. It could rapidly and clearly research, and articulate often complex issues, uniting many parts of Brisbane City Council, while meeting tight timelines, both internally and externally.  It was important that the internal and external contributors to the team took ownership, were fully engaged and had a passion for what they were achieving. It was a recipe that worked.

Now, the next stage is for the Water Resources Branch (WR) in Brisbane City Council to work with business and research organisations and other bodies, with the strong intellectual capital than Brisbane has developed, both before and during the drought, which helped the city become a world-class water saver.

The old ways of providing water are unlikely to be the ways of the future – particularly in countries like India and China, and even in Australia – the driest continent on earth – should the current drought and any subsequent droughts continue to be so extensive. This is driving the Water Resources Branch to research new water supply technologies beyond the provision of network pipes. This could include widespread disconnection from the pipe network, as rainwater tanks, stormwater and grey water harvesting and other technologies are developed and utilised.

Such development will also challenge the water services associations in Australia and across the globe to shift from a position of feeling threatened, to a position of innovation and service to the public, expanding from emphasis simply on supply and treatment. In drought conditions new ways of thinking are required beyond the blunt instruments of restrictions, and targeting of high water users. The emphasis must be on fairness.

Other issues that also were not considered were in regard to the legal issues surrounding compliance issues. In many instances it was expected that the Courts would have dismissed many cases as being “trivial” and a waste of the Court’s time.

This summary was prepared by the Brisbane Drought Taskforce in June 2008 at the conclusion of the South East Queensland Millennium Drought. This story was not told at the stage due to political concerns of the actions taken. David Nixon was the Manager of the Brisbane Drought Taskforce at the end of the drought period.