Notes from Piers, no 169 - The Bravest Water Utility in the World

Notes from Piers, no 169 - The Bravest Water Utility in the World

Monday, 18 September 2017

Nestled in the South-West corner of the state of Victoria, at the bottom of Australia, 200miles from Melbourne, is the town of Portland. Settled in 1800 by James Grant it provided the only sheltered deep water port between Adelaide and Melbourne and therefore offered safe haven for passing ships. Today Portland is a beautiful town with 10,000 residents and a thriving fishing and tourism industry. It is, apparently, the place to go if you want to see whales and koalas (which I assume means either the local whales have learnt to climb trees or that the koalas can now swim). It is a bustling hub of Australian life.

For me however, the region is famous for just one thing. It is served by the world’s bravest water utility: Wannon Water.

Wannon Water serves 42,000 customers and they draw water from 14 different sources across their region. They are something of a regional peculiarity in that three of their raw water sources are drawn from large, deep underground reservoirs which date back millennia. Unlike many utilities and councils in Australia, Wannon Water does not suffer water shortages. Their water is wholesome and healthy and in copious supply. Unfortunately, however, the water from the groundwater sources just doesn’t taste that nice. It has a mineral-rich, salty sort of taste, no doubt reflecting its long history percolating through the ground.

Sharing this news at a state-wide event (the always brilliant annual VicWater conference) takes a significant amount of bravado and self-confidence. Ian Bail (GM for Service Delivery), and Kellie King (GM Community and Corporate Services), supported by key members of their board and executive team who were in the audience, bravely and humbly shared how they first realised the true extent of the taste issue. It was when a local hospital manager (in Port Fairy….best named place on earth) was quoted in the press stating that they were removing sugary drinks and cordials as part of a health drive, but that they would look for suitable alternatives to address the poor water taste. This was a wake-up call for Wannon.

Wannon already provided safe clean water but some of their customers simply didn’t like the taste. Rather than using the tap, customers were buying sugary soft drinks. Rates of obesity and tooth decay in the region were abnormally high. Something had to be done. Their first approach, not surprisingly, was to propose building a nice spankingly new RO facility which would remove the taste issues. Not cheap, but a practical solution. Unsurprisingly when they tested this proposal with the public they got a clear ‘no thanks’ response. People were happy with their soft drink alternatives.

Long story short, Wannon have embarked on a number of high profile ‘Great Tasting Water’ projects, working with the local hospital and even daring to extend their reach beyond the water meter to provide point of use solutions. There is much more to do of course, but the work at Wannon has highlighted the challenge the water industry has of ensuring that the water we provide is both wholesome and tasty. Wannon’s work has demonstrated that if we get this wrong all sorts of wider societal problems (such as obesity and dental decay) become rife. The challenge isn’t just about taste, it is about mobilising all the organisations in the region so that they appreciate the benefits, and perhaps even share the costs, associated with getting it right.

There are very few water companies that would be prepared to enter into such an honest and open public debate. Their stance has legitimised a community wide discussion around public health and well-being that reaches far beyond just the taste of the tap water. Wannon Water: Bravest water utility in the world.