Utilities fighting water quality in drought-affected areas  

Article | Nov 21, 2018
Queensland and New South Wales are in the middle of a severe drought. In addition to agricultural and economic impacts, drought can significantly affect water quality. Utilities need to know the quality of the water that is going into their treatment plants as low-quality water can often mean increased operating costs.
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As of October 2018, 58.1 per cent of Queensland is declared in drought, while in NSW, 49.5 per cent is in drought, 30.5 per cent is drought-affected, and 18.7 per cent is in intense drought. According to the Climate Council, time spent in drought is projected to increase across southern Australia in the future. While the Federal Government is tackling the issue through funding, such as the establishment of a $5 billion future fund for drought resilience, it’s up to utilities to ensure the lack of water doesn’t impact the quality and safety of the drinking water that is delivered to residents.


The NSW Government’s health website says it’s important that “advances in public health, made possible through provision of safe drinking water, are not lost in times of drought.”


Water Quality Australia’s 2013 Report, Characterising the relationship between water quality and water quantity, expands on the importance of water management during extreme weather events such as drought as it can adversely affect water quality.


The report states, “Water quality generally declines during drought conditions, where prolonged low flow levels or cease-to-flow events provide favourable conditions for algal blooms, increased water temperatures, evapo-concentration of toxins and low dissolved oxygen levels.


“During droughts, contaminants from point sources, such as sewage treatment plants, industrial releases, irrigation returns and dairy effluent, can increase in proportion to the river flow and degrade water quality.”


The direct effects of this were outlined in a recent study by the Australian National University that found a significant link between drought and reported cases of gastro. During the Millennium Drought people diagnosed with gastro rose in Queensland and the ACT, and then when the drought ended, cases of gastro dropped by approximately 57 per cent in Queensland and 84 per cent in the ACT.


What should utilities be doing to reduce risk?


Prolonged periods of low or no rainfall creates stress on urban water supply systems. US-based Water Research Foundation’s report Water Quality Impacts Of Extreme Weather-Related Events, stressed that Australian utilities need to be doing what they can to adapt to extreme weather events like drought in order to protect drinking water supply, as the consequences can be significant.


So the question becomes, what should water utilities within these drought-stricken regions be doing to not only ensure water quality doesn't diminish, but to also protect their operations?


One possible solution lies in the industry embracing new innovations, and this mindset is one being encouraged by industry bodies like the Australian Water Association. Some of the biggest innovations and technologies currently in the sector revolve around network visibility, because if a water utility has real-time monitoring in place at every stage of its process, it becomes safer and easier to fix any problems that arise.


Len McKelvey, Managing Director of TracWater, an Australian company that works with utilities and offers battery-powered cloud-based water quality monitoring products, said that in times of drought, real-time monitoring is more important than ever.


“There are lots of costs associated with diminished water quality as it increases the load on water treatment plants due to higher levels of pollutants. In times of extreme weather, there is also added public and government pressure on utilities to continue to deliver a safe water supply.


“Monitoring is the best form of risk management as utilities can get a full picture view of all points in their network and know the quality of the water going into their treatment plants, and can make informed decisions based on this information.”


TracWater’s cloud-based water quality sensors collect and analyse data along a water distribution network and use in-built algorithms to validate the quality of the water in real-time, sending that information back to a centralised location.


As the sensors use the cloud, artificial intelligence, machine learning and IoT technology, they can be installed in remote locations and send continuous chemical and physical water quality measurements.


Mr McKelvey said it’s vital in any drought management plan to have water quality information available at all times so problems can be detected early. The other advantage of cloud-based monitoring is that there is no requirement for costly and sometimes risky onsite visits to collect monitoring data.


“Also, sometimes problems only arise post-drought once water levels rise again and pick up contaminants so water quality visibility is key at all stages in a drought management plan.


“TracWater also offers groundwater sensors to measure for water level, conductivity, pH, dissolved oxygen, turbidity and temperature which send through this information instantly on visual displays. Groundwater is a keystone indicator of ecosystem health so it’s important to identify any quality discrepancies quickly.”


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