Submission: Inquiry into Environmental Infrastructure for Growing Populations

The Committee Manager
Legislative Assembly Environment and Planning Committee
Parliament House
Spring Street
EAST MELBOURNE VIC 3002 

Dear Committee Members 

Re: Inquiry into Environmental Infrastructure for Growing Populations 

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the Parliamentary Inquiry into Environmental Infrastructure for Growing Populations. VicWater is the peak body of the Victorian water industry with its membership comprising Victoria’s 19 statutory water corporations. They are responsible for the provision of urban water and sewerage services, rural water supply including irrigation and related drainage services. 

Victoria’s liveability is a core priority for the water industry. Whereas the water industry has historically supported liveability outcomes indirectly, through the provision of safe and reliable water and sewage services, in recent years the sector has taken a more active role in directly delivering environmental infrastructure under the guise of integrated water management initiatives. 

The water sector’s role in environmental infrastructure (or integrated water management) includes the following (also see the graphic below): 

  • Stormwater harvesting collaborations with local government, such as these projects in the City West Water region 
  • Supporting clean, healthy beaches and water ways by managing sewerage and trunk stormwater infrastructure 
  • Reducing heat in urban landscapes 
  • Waterway restoration, such as the Enhancing Dandenong Creek Project by Melbourne Water 
  • Provision of secure water supply, supporting open space, parks, tree canopy, such as the Greening the West initiative, supported by City West water, Melbourne Water and Western Water 
  • Recreational access opportunities at water infrastructure, such as boating, fishing, camping and picnicking in the Southern Rural Water region. 
  • Unlocking more value from existing assets through renewable energy generation, waste management and resource recovery. 

The above links represent a snapshot of many successful projects and initiatives across the entire water sector. Further details and examples can be provided. 

Livability diagram WSAA 2019

Source: Blue + Green = Liveability (WSAA 2019)

Nevertheless, water corporations face significant challenges to implement, align with land use planning, fund and maintain environmental infrastructure. The case studies sampled above reflect water corporations’ (together with government and council partners) drive, innovation and opportunism, rather than a robust or systematic framework capable of scaling-up to meet the needs of growing populations. VicWater recommends the committee focus its attention on strategies to address the following challenges:

Planning

Deeper integration of environmental infrastructure provision in land use planning frameworks offers an opportunity to expand investment and delivery in line with population growth and development. The Victorian Government’s Integrated Water Management Framework targets this outcome by promoting integrated planning of environmental infrastructure by water corporations and local government. Despite the best efforts by all parties involved, there remain significant challenges in balancing housing affordability (and low council/utility rates) with the potential to drive superior liveability outcomes with upfront investment in environmental (or transport, health and social) infrastructure during the land use planning process.

In relation to the above point, VicWater’s national counterpart, the Water Services Association of Australia, argues in the Blue + Green = Liveability report (2019) (emphasis added) that:

“Business as usual approaches to urban planning and infrastructure service delivery means communities are unable to realise the full potential of liveability outcomes. Currently there are significant impediments to realising the liveability benefits of urban water investments. The current way of doing things can restrict the amount and quality of land available for recreation and physical activity, decrease affordability, expose communities to extreme heat and climatic shifts and reduce community connectedness, which in turn exacerbates poor outcomes for the community and the environment, particularly in lower socioeconomic regions where it is needed the most. While planning for green and blue infrastructure can start to unlock improved liveability outcomes, there are currently no clear pathways to deliver and fund these initiatives. There are opportunistic case studies that can show the way, however there are no systemic pathways from a policy or regulatory point of view that enable this approach consistently.”

Funding multiple-benefit projects

Environmental infrastructure can often combine multiple benefits, including recreation opportunities, urban cooling, improved water security, green space, healthy ecosystems and reduced flooding. Such an extensive list of benefits can give the impression that projects should easily justify funding and implementation based on a comprehensive business case.

Nevertheless, the aforementioned multiple benefits require ‘additional’ investment to be realised, relative to the base-case alternative. For example, urban cooling can be achieved by ‘additional’ revegetation, or recreation opportunities achieved by the provision of ‘additional’ public access facilities. Although these may be provided efficiently by well-planned environmental infrastructure, in a resource constrained environment, the ability to leverage multiple benefits does not necessarily make project funding easier.

Inequitable distribution of existing environmental infrastructure

Victoria and Melbourne are rightly renowned for their liveability, a result of natural attributes together with prescient historical planning decisions. Nevertheless, the Committee should recognise the geographic inequality of access to existing environmental infrastructure assets. The recent COVID 19 pandemic Stage 4 restrictions, which limited non-essential movement to a 5km radius of one’s home, highlighted this inequity of access, with research suggesting that 340,000 Melbournians have little or no parkland within 5km of their home (source: ABC news).

Recreational access at water storages

VicWater is currently supporting government’s implementation of plans to increase recreational access opportunities at water storages. Allowing public access at hitherto closed potable water storages represents an opportunity to leverage additional value from existing environmental infrastructure, but it should not occur at a risk to public drinking water supplies. The process to unlock this additional value must include additional investment in water treatment (if necessitated by on-water activities), access infrastructure (such as roads, carparks and public facilities), safety (such as staffing and protection around spillways), and public liability considerations among other things.

The need for additional investment raises questions relevant to funding other forms of environmental infrastructure, including regarding the funding split between user charges, rate payers, levies, and consolidated revenue.

Rural water corporations’ provision of environmental infrastructure

Public access is provided at a wide range of rural water storages with abundant information available for recreation users and operation decisions (such as drawdowns and maintenance works) scheduled to minimise impacts on recreational use, thus maximising multiple benefits from this environmental infrastructure.

Despite their popularity, rural water businesses have limited scope to invest in maintaining or improving the quality of facilities at these sites. Furthermore, as popularity has increased, the burden of managing public safety risks has grown.

Reflecting customer values

VicWater recently completed a submission to the Australian Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into National Water Reform. The VicWater submission proposed a ‘community values’ narrative for tackling water management challenges, the principles of which apply equally to environmental infrastructure. The thrust of the ‘community-values’ narrative is that communities must be more deeply involved in setting the overall direction for natural resource management, which subsequently influences the choice and adoption of policy settings.

This submission includes numerous case studies of the water industry’s successful delivery of environmental infrastructure, yet there are concerns regarding the ability to scale-up investment to meet the needs of growing populations. The locus of the ‘community-values’ narrative is the characterisation of environmental infrastructure opportunities as the manifestations of community values, trade-offs and an open discussion about the outcomes communities need and desire. It is proposed that a greater emphasis on reflecting community values may provide a path for managing the trade-offs inherent in environmental infrastructure investment.

VicWater welcomes its opportunity to respond to this inquiry on behalf of member water corporations. Please contact James Cleaver (James.Cleaver@vicwater.org.au) should you have any questions, or if you would like to discuss any of the issues we have raised in greater detail.

Yours sincerely

Peter Morison
Chief Executive Officer

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