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The politics of water projects

Adeline Teoh
August 9, 2011

Uhrig believes the companies “with the technology” should be given more weight in discussions, and the public more education. “Find any myth and we can counterbalance it with fact. The water coming out of our small domestic systems is better than potable water. That’s where it’s ridiculous. It’s the yuk factor, the mentality.”

The failed referendum at Toowoomba means that current regulations and legislation still prevents companies like EcoNova from supplying potable water, even though tests show that it meets Class A+ standards. But non-potable water use covers a significant portion of the market, and Uhrig can’t understand the fuss about using recycled water for industry.

“We propose to produce safe, reused water that will cover up to 70 percent of the market. If we do this, then we don’t need to use potable water where we can use recycled water,” he reasons. “We’re not saying we should drink recycled water just yet—we’re still about five years from people completely accepting that [waste] water can be treated safely and can be used as potable water as well.”

Since the Toowoomba vote, water recycling has fortunately found favour in Queensland with the Western Corridor Recycled Water Project. Adjustments to legislation and other guidelines have given context to water recycling for health and environmental regulations, allowing new water technology a better chance to operate now and in the future. For those project managers involved in implementing or reacting to government policy, it has been an interesting time.

Pass the salt

For other cities, desalination has become the popular alternative to water recycling. The Perth Seawater Desalination Plant was the first desalination plant to be installed in a capital city. Other major cities, such as Melbourne and the Gold Coast, are to follow suit.

Even so, Kim Falster, national operations manager at desalination company OsmoFlo, says that desalination has its myths to shake off too. “The one that people come out with is that it’s extremely energy intensive, but what you need to do is look at the alternatives. To use desalinated water, the cost [per household] isn’t much more than running a domestic fridge, so it’s a matter of putting it into perspective.”

He also notes that people think of desalination as a coastal solution, even though most of OsmoFlo’s plants have been inland, using bores, dams and rivers. There’s even a myth in seawater desalination. “People think you’re going to poison the sea. The brine is slightly more concentrated seawater however, with a properly designed outfall, the brine disperses quickly and has no effect on the environment. It is virtually undetectable within 50 metres of the discharge point,” he says. “A country like Spain has around 700 desalination plants and there’s no evidence of environmental damage from that.”

There are plenty of facets for project managers to consider in desalination. The technology involves the process of removing salts via reverse osmosis as well as pre-treatments and post-treatments, including micro-filtration, ultra-filtration, UV disinfection, EDI (electro-deionisation), and some chemical treatment. As the site, especially regarding its capacity to safely expel brine, is often the most important part in the process prior to the actual construction, project managers of desalination plants are required from the beginning of the process.

Falster says in most cases, the challenge is mainly logistical, moving resources to remote locations, setting up site offices in regional areas to service the project, and finding accommodation to house workers.  “It is important we co-ordinate the resources on site. Most sites require civil works, mechanical and electrical trades, along with transport and shipment logistics of the project. Good project management is paramount.”

More often than not, management of a water project rolls over into an operational program. For desalination, this involves installing an IT system for faults and maintenance. OsmoFlo, for example, design their plants so they can be remotely operated. “We set up a preventative maintenance program with the client so they’re highly automated,” Falster explains. “In the event of a fault or alarm it dials our 24-hour monitoring service. Our service engineers can then dial into that plant and control it. Ninety-five percent of faults can be rectified right there and then, the others will require on site maintenance.”

With so many water projects in action, the ultimate challenge for the industry is attracting and retaining skilled project managers. Both Falster and Uhrig echo this sentiment, encouraging talent to remain in the industry as it evolves. “Stay in the industry, it’s a growing industry,” urges Falster. “At OsmoFlo we recognise the need for good project managers in our business and an increase in staff means that people with good project management skills, particularly in the water industry are a valuable resource.”

“Water recycling is still a young industry,” adds Uhrig. “It’s moving quite fast. You need to stay in touch with regulations, legislation and keep educating yourself to look at new components, new pumps, pipes and control equipment. Every plant is a new version of a product.”

His advice to project managers in the water industry is to adopt an attitude of lifelong learning. “Assume that you need to spend 25 to 30 percent of your time keeping up with the fast-changing environment. Lifelong learning is something you need to want to do; it’s not just a job. Water is exciting.”

Has recent flooding in Australia changed the outlook for water projects? Comments welcome below.

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Adeline Teoh
Adeline Teoh is the editor and publisher of ProjectManager.com.au. She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
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