Submission: Draft Guidance on Drinking Water Advisories and Protocols

Water Unit
Health Protection Branch
Department of Health
Level 14, 50 Lonsdale St
Melbourne VIC 3000 

via email: water@dhhs.vic.gov.au 

Re: Draft guidance on drinking water advisories and protocols 

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the draft guidance on drinking water advisories and protocols. As the peak body of the Victorian water industry, VicWater has been asked by its members, Victoria’s statutory water corporations, to respond to the draft guidance. Some individual corporations are also providing feedback to the Department. 

VicWater supports embarking on a process to clarify approaches and seek a level of state-wide consistency with respect to issuing and rescinding drinking water advisories. Nevertheless, there are significant concerns with both the content of this draft Department of Health (DH) guidance and the approach taken by DH in its preparation. 

VicWater members were surprised by the arrival of the draft on 29 December 2020, not having received an update following a request on 1 July 2020 that water corporations provide relevant internal protocols by 10 July 2020. It was explained at that time that the quick response window was required in order for consultation to occur during August. DH’s lack on consultation since July represents a missed opportunity for experts across the sector, who led the response to recent incidents such as the 2020 bushfires, to contribute to the development of the draft guidance. 

Had the water industry been granted greater involvement in the development of the guidance, the industry would have encouraged an emphasis on outcomes and fundamental policy settings, such as determining the allocation of the control agency role in various incident scenarios. Instead, the draft guidance devotes significant attention to new compliance and reporting standards for drinking water advisories, including for testing, reporting and operations. 

If implemented, VicWater anticipates inefficiency, disproportionate customer bill impacts and an increased frequency of false positive drinking water advisories under the proposed guidance. Furthermore, water corporations have identified numerous technical matters requiring rectification or clarification, more than can be easily addressed in this written submission during the available time. 

For these reasons, VicWater recommends the current draft be set aside pending a more conventional policy process. A technical working group can be formed of water corporation and DHS representatives to discuss and collaboratively resolve fundamental matters starting with: 

  • Problem statement 
  • Objectives and principles the additional guidance 
  • Options 
  • Roles and responsibilities (particularly for the control/lead agency) 
  • High level policy settings 
  • Obligations under the Safe Drinking Water Act 2003 
  • Application or adoption of relevant national and international standards 

VicWater would gladly assist coordinating such a working group. After this process has been completed, an assessment could be made of which parts of the existing draft guidance can be retained and where re-drafting is necessary. 

Hereafter this submission includes a selection of examples to illustrate areas of concern with the draft guidance, propose opportunities to improve the overall approach to drinking water advisories and protocols, and the avoidance of unintended consequences. These examples, which should not be considered an exhaustive list, fall under the categories of prudent decision making, roles and responsibilities, additional obligations and processes, and regulatory impacts. 

Prudent decision making 

The draft guidance places a strong emphasis on preventing delays to issuing any drinking water advisory. In doing so, it perpetrates a change in policy settings that is likely to significantly increase the frequency of advisories in the future, even though, in many cases, underlying risk is unchanged. This significant policy change should not be undertaken lightly, especially with minimal consultation and then enacted through the proposed guidance note. A policy change that is likely to have the effect of increasing the frequency of advisories needs to be balanced against several factors, such as: 

  • Unnecessarily frequent advisories risk eroding public confidence in Victoria’s drinking water supplies. 
  • The very high historical frequency of false positive results, for example approximately 88% of E. coli detections in 2018-19 were determined to be false positives according to the DHHS Annual Report. 
  • Where incidents relate to temporary loss of treatment (or visibility of treatment), there is little evidence of any deterioration in the quality of drinking water supplied to customers. 
  • The sole reliance on the presence of absence (or plate counts) of E. coli in drinking water is an anachronistic approach to managing drinking water safety. Contemporary HACCP-based approaches focus on the integrity of treatment barriers.
  • The availability of other risk mitigation controls such as the reestablishment of appropriate disinfection levels, which can often be achieved promptly and effectively before an advisory is necessary. 

VicWater suggests maintaining Victoria’s current policy settings in the use of drinking water advisories, wherein they are used prudently, but not flippantly, to protect public health, and only if other interventions are unable to adequately control the assessed risk. 

Roles and responsibilities 

Arguably the most important function of the proposed guidance is to clarify the control agency role in various incident scenarios. The draft guidance appoints DH as the control agency for all drinking water quality incidents, without addressing the critical questions associated with what it means to be the control agency. 

The draft guidance does not clearly state DH’s intent to direct the operational response of a water corporation or alpine resort for the duration of an event. Thus, DH would be designated as the control agency for the response but would not be running the operational aspects. The weaknesses of this approach are discussed at length in chapter 8 of the final report on the COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry. 

Most disruptions to water services are localised and brief. In these cases, the relevant water corporation should be delegated as the control agency for the event as is required under the risk management framework established by the Safe Drinking Water Act 2003 and associated regulation. DELWP has addressed this situation in the Water and Wastewater Service Disruption Response Plan. The Plan provides a robust model for such scenarios whereby the relevant water corporation is delegated control agency powers for localised events. However, DELWP is nominated the control agency for larger or more complex incidents (the threshold for which is covered in detail). 

The draft guidance includes a decision-making principle of ‘consistency’. Whilst it is good to maintain consistency with respect to decision making, this must be balanced with flexibility acknowledging circumstances and causes that lead to water quality events can vary significantly, and any decisions that are made should reflect such. Clarity of control agency powers for localised events is critical for promoting a flexible, efficient, targeted response to an incident. 

Additional obligations/processes 

Rapid Risk Assessments (RRA) 

The RRA is a significant feature of the draft guidance. The status of the RRA obligation under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and Regulations, and its relationship to the existing Guidance – Drinking Water Quality Standard and Appendix 1: Guidelines for the investigation and reporting of E. coli detections requires immediate clarification. Should the RRA obligation continue in some form, the following matters (among others) must be addressed: 

  • The timeframe for submitting a RRA. A 1-hour deadline is commonly applied and is unreasonably short, particularly in regional areas, where the site of the issue may be well over an hour away from an office location. In these cases, it is impossible to inspect a site, let alone compile the requested information, within one hour. Imposing such a short deadline risks the safety of operational staff leading the response. 
  • In most cases, E. coli detections within the distribution systems are related to a potential issue within the distribution system itself (e.g., ingress of contamination), and are not related to primary treatment failure. Therefore, the requirement in Table 1.1 to undertake detailed assessments of raw water quality for all E. coli detections is unnecessary. 

Rescinding an advisory 

The draft proposal to rescind a drinking water advisory is unnecessarily detailed and procedural, dictating several mandatory steps which may, depending on the circumstances, be unnecessary. 

The outcome statement “Lifting an advisory requires evidence that the identified cause that led to the contamination… has been resolved, the contaminated water has been cleared from the system and operations are back to normal” followed by an example list of controls that “may” be required is all that is necessary. 

Free chlorine residual 

In the event of an E. coli detection (approximately 90% of which, in 2018-19, were determined to be false positives), the draft guidance appears to create an operational requirement of a minimum free chlorine residual for distribution systems of 0.2 mg/L to avoid an advisory. This free chlorine residual is not mandated in Victorian regulation, or in the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (ADWG) and its scientific basis is 

disputed by water industry experts. The proposed inclusion of the minimum free chlorine residual mandate amounts to a significant additional regulatory obligation that should be subject to due process, particularly in the context of such a high E. coli false positive rate. 

Mains breakage 

The draft proposal to respond to a loss of pressure outage is not commensurate with underlying risks and could unnecessarily extend outage times. As above, an outcome statement, followed by an example list of controls that “may” be required is all that is necessary. The proposed slug chlorination requirement amounts to a significant additional regulatory obligation that should be subject to due process. 

Policy impact assessment

Whereas guidance is traditionally issued to assist compliance with obligations specified in Regulations or Acts, this draft guidance appears to extend numerous obligations beyond existing statutory powers. The draft also regularly mixes obligations with commentary on suggested good practice. For example, the Figure 1.1 appears to mandate the minimum free chlorine residual for distribution systems of 0.2 mg/L to avoid an advisory, yet section 1.6 merely requires “a reliably detectable disinfectant residual at all locations throughout the distribution system… as far as reasonably practicable”. 

DHS’ intent in relation to the new or extended obligations must be clarified. If rigid enforcement of the guidance is intended, as per the examples detailed herein, a thorough impact assessment should be undertaken to ensure the correct policy settings are selected. 

An alternative, collaborative approach, as proposed by the water industry could establish a practicable implementation standard for advisories and protocols, as well as address some outstanding policy matters such as determining the appropriate control agency for incidents of various scale. 

During the preparation of this submission, VicWater has received a significant volume of feedback on the draft guidance from water industry experts. Being technical and detailed in nature, it was not possible to include it all in this submission. However, we would welcome an opportunity to collaborate on the next iteration of this guidance, so that this feedback and suggestions can be duly considered. 

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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