Julia Maurus interviews Dr Cara Beal, a Research Fellow at Griffith University’s Smart Water Research Centre (a state-of-the-art research facility founded in 2009).
As a research scientist, Dr Cara Beal has been on an academic journey up the digestive chain.
‘First I did a “PooHD” in soil science and wastewater filtration,’ she quips. ‘I looked at how effective soil absorption systems can be in converting dirty water into reusable water. I researched sand filters, wetlands and soil filters as all of these play an important role in cleaning our water naturally for potential reuse. It’s all integrated.’
She then moved up the digestive chain from poo to urine. Our urine contains significant levels of nitrogen (N), as well as phosphorous (P) and potassium (K). ‘NPK’, she explains, is really important for fertilisers and it is in the urine we flush down the toilet. She conducted a urine separation research project at a Currumbin ecovillage on the Gold Coast, to explore whether acceptable and effective urine separation systems can be potential sources of fertiliser.
‘Results showed that while urine separating toilets can be a very good alternative source of fertiliser, there are still quite a few teething issues to be addressed before we see them in our bathrooms, such as odour, public acceptance and convincing the regulatory authorities that it is a good idea!’
After this, Dr Beal took the final step up to fresh water. With funding to research water use in south-east Queensland (an area that has recently come through a severe drought), she studied every facet of residential water consumption in order to discover the factors that affect the level of any given household’s use and what causes residential water use to change over time. She found that water use inside the home does not vary dramatically.
‘We like to clean ourselves and our clothes the most, with up to 60% of indoor water used in the bathroom and laundry,’ she explains. ‘However, when it comes to using water outside, there was lots of variety in how much, where and why water is used.’
Dr Beal is currently researching smart metering and residential end-uses, and how we can use water and water-related energy to look at sustainable planning and water efficiency, particularly in remote communities. She is also a member of the Water Expert Panel for Queensland’s 30-year WaterQ Plan.
‘In terms of energy, people pay exactly the same per kilowatt per hour in Queensland whether you live in the urban south-east, far north or on a remote island in Torres Strait, yet it’s much, much cheaper to supply energy to cities. The State Government has the community service obligation to subsidise the cost of energy to meet the shortfall— and in remote and regional areas, water supplies are often very energy-intensive, such as desalination plants that take seawater and convert it into drinking water.
‘Getting water to some of these remote communities is a major headache, not just end supply but the energy required to pump it around and keep it usable. In these regions in Australia, “business as usual” is not going to work forever. So it is important to explore smart metering technology, culturally appropriate behavioural changes and alternatives to water supply sources such as desalination plants that can just chew up energy.’
For the water industry, smart metering marks a paradigm shift towards intelligent water networks.
‘A lot of water utilities are realising that if they monitor our water use more then they can engage much better with their customers. Interactive water apps, for example, will allow consumers to be more informed, providing a practical interface between how we use and pay for water and who delivers it to us.’
Dr Beal considers thoughtless, unchecked development and political complacency to be the biggest threats to water conservation in Australia.
‘Unfettered progress and unwise development are a significant problem,’ she cautions. ‘We are seeing this constant need to expand without thinking holistically about how it’s impacting on natural resources. There is also the lack of caring by decision-makers and consumers of water, where perhaps people think, “It’s OK, we have the technology, surely we’re managing it the best way we could,” but often that’s not the case.
‘I think at one point Australia was leading the world in water demand management strategies in drought-affected times. We were known throughout the world for successfully addressing the question, “How does a capital city deal with limited water supply?” It’s a hot topic in times of drought but once the rains start coming in the complacency can start to creep in as well, especially in the political arena.’
It frustrates her that many of her fellow south-east Queenslanders complain about the cost of water. ‘Some people still have the attitude that, “It comes from the clouds. It should be free.” A lot of people don’t appreciate the cost to get it from the sky to someone’s house, and then to treat the wastewater and how that relates to energy demand also. The general population needs to be more aware of how we live in an integrated system and everything we do has an impact somewhere down the line.’
In her opinion, we should have permanent water conservation measures as a default demand management strategy. ‘Water restrictions are a last-minute option and politically not always particularly palatable. Ideally, there are alternatives to water restrictions: such as changing people’s behaviours other than through mandatory restrictions. Through engagement, we can seek community buy-in to the philosophy that “this is your water, this is your resource”. The point is: we all use water but we might need some reminders, especially during non-drought times, that this is still an incredibly precious resource.’
She has noticed behavioural change in south-east Queensland and puts this down to the recent Queensland Government campaigns to reduce water consumption, and the imposition of severe restrictions where necessary during the millennium drought. She points to research that shows that some members of the community are happy to pay more for water when water is less abundant and they want to keep their yards green, while others say they would rather have a brown garden and not use or pay for water.
Many are wondering how far we have left to go to achieve sustainable water use. Dr Beal offers reassurance that, in technological terms, this aim is within reach.
‘We have the technology sorted to make our water use sustainable. But in terms of our attitudes there is still a long way to go. Water is largely undervalued, under-priced and overused.’
So, does she see a bright or bleak future for fresh water in Australia and around the world?
‘Societies are created around a source of water (rivers; ground water; a well). As soon as that source is threatened, the society is threatened. The fact is that we will be in trouble if we continue on the way we’re going in terms of increasing population, expansion of development and diminishing natural water catchments and hydrological areas that filter water, store water and allow water to be reused. Of course water is finite. There’s only a certain amount on the Earth; we just keep reusing it. In some countries people are already fighting over water.
‘In Australia we are still a lucky country: we’re becoming smarter and more efficient with water use planning. We’re linking that to water-related energy use and seeing it more as a whole system. I think the future should and could be positive but it will depend on ongoing awareness, lack of complacency and genuine desire by developers and pollies to go towards sustainable water and energy systems.’
The original version of this article was published as ‘Australian Advances in Water Efficiency’ in The Australian Writer issue 387 (March–May 2015). Photo: supplied.