Most people would be willing to pay more for water recycling and conservation projects, a survey 700 residential Hunter Water customers has found.
Hunter Water's increased recycled water output of 6.5 gigalitres in 2018 compared to the 5.4 gigalitres it produced in 2017 and 2016.
The result, which exceeded the organisation's target for recycled water production, was largely driven by demand by commercial water users.
Respondents to the water utility's Your Voice survey conducted in mid-2018 said they were keen for it to invest in discretionary services such as landscaping around drains, carbon reduction, stormwater harvesting, wastewater recycling for irrigation of public parks and targeted water conservation programs.
About three quarters of those surveyed said they would be willing to pay between $1 and $2.50 more per year to increase the amount of wastewater turned into recycled water for irrigation of parks and sporting grounds.
Eighty per cent said they were willing to pay $2 or more towards increasing stormwater harvesting.
However, customers had mixed views about Hunter Water investing in increasing wastewater recycling to businesses and industry in 2020-2025 if it cost more than providing them with drinking water or if it was not the best way to meet environmental standards.
Professor of Sustainability at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Cynthia Mitchell said an increasing body of research showed the majority of the community were supportive of water recycling for non-drinking purposes.
"Recycling for drinking tends to polarise more but community attitudes towards [recycling for all other purposes] have been pretty positive for a long time," she said.
"That started down at the Mawson Lakes in South Australia and it was clearly the case in Sydney in the last drought. There were various studies done and what those studies showed was that people were happy to pay for others to have access to recycled water.
"The most recent work that Hunter Water has done demonstrates that the community says we think recycling is a really good idea and should be part of the portfolio of options going forward."Cynthia Mitchell, Professor of Sustainability, Institute for Sustainable Futures
"The most recent work that Hunter Water has done demonstrates again that the community says we think recycling is a really good idea and should be part of the portfolio of options going forward."
Dr Steven Lucas from the University of Newcastle's school of environmental sciences agreed there had been a shift in attitudes to recycled water.
"I know people who hook up their laundry water and diffuse it out onto the backyard or veggie patch." he said.
"But those same people probably wouldn't drink recycled water if you told them they had to. But as long as they have the choice and responsibilities I'm sure they would be happy to do it."
- The endless drought is has brought Murrurundi's residents to the brink physically and mentall
- Water policy makers scramble to ensure the Hunter has a reliable and sustainable water supply
- Record amounts of Lower Hunter wastewater is being recycled
- Push to make Newcastle Racecourse a recycled water hub for the city
Professor Mitchell said she suspected more people would embrace water recycling as the impact of climate change began to impact on peoples' daily lives.
"The thing about water services is that we see water and we experience water so we really know what it means to have water and also not to have water so I think when people see high rainfall and see water flowing away they think 'why don't we store that'," she said.
"So I think there is a sense in the community that using water wisely is a reasonable thing to do. For most people, there is always a group of people who would like to use as much of any resource as the choose to and that's ok but it has a bunch of implications."
A Hunter Water spokeswoman said the Your Voice survey results been fed into Hunter Water's 2020-2025 price submission to the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART).
"This community survey helps us to better understand our customers' needs and incorporate these into our planning. It shows there is a community appetite for us to deliver projects that go beyond water and wastewater infrastructure,"
"Our challenge is to balance the competing demands of providing a higher level of service, particularly in relation to environmental and livability projects, while keeping water bills low."
Hunter Water plans to invest more than $871 million in infrastructure, technology and services over the next five years.
If approved by IPART, the average household water bill would increase by about $60 per year or $1.15 a week.
While the average household water bill in the Hunter has risen by about 20 per cent in the past four years, the price of water in the region remains comparatively cheap - a Hunter Water customer who used an average of 200 kilolitres of water in 2018 paid $511. That compares to a Sydney Water customer who paid $500 and a Yarra Water customer in Victoria who paid $624.
"We believe we have the balance right in terms of investing more in our infrastructure and services to maintain efficient and high quality services for our customers while keeping costs down,Hunter Water chief investment officer Darren Cleary said.
More than $424 million, about half of the total investment, would be spent on improving and upgrading the wastewater system to service growth in the region and minimise the impact of the wastewater system on the environment.
About $260 million would be spent on upgrading the water supply system to service growth, reduce leakage and ensure the continued delivery of high quality drinking water.
"In addition, we will continue to focus on driving down water consumption through our Love Water campaign and invest in recycled water and energy efficiency projects, Mr Cleary said.
Former Hunter Water managing director Jim Bentley, who recently became the state's top water officer, said drought and climate change would place upward pressure on water bills over the next decade.
"I think just about everyone who works at Hunter Water would share this view, climate change is going to give rise to us needing to invest more and therefore you know that debt needs to be repaid and so prices will rise," he said.
"So I think there is upward pressure on prices we're doing everything we can to make sure that those prices are as close to inflation as they can be and I would expect over the next five to 10 years you'll see small real term increases in prices but not massive increases in prices."
In addition to juggling long-term investment, was the challenge to invest in short-term projects to keep water prices as low as possible.
"I think what we have to do is invest more in leakage leakage reduction and technology to manage our systems more efficiently. But again there's swings and roundabouts there because in the short-term you're investing more so that you invest less in the long term. So again, that might lead to short-term upward pressures to give you a long-term downward pressure. So it's quite a conflict complex thing," he said.
Mr Bentley said the option of increasing the price of water to drive down demand was not an option.
"I think first of all we need to recognise that the regulatory environment we work within determines that prices should be kept as low as they can be to deliver the services that the community requires or that the environment requires," he said.
" I think it's [the regulatory system] is there for good reason - to make sure that monopoly providers like Hunter Water are not gold plating things and running up debt and charging customers much more than they need to."
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