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New report shows SA Water underperforms - but not on burst water mains

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The latest national report on water utilities shows that SA Water continues to outperform many of its interstate counterparts on the key measure of water main bursts and breaks, but underperforms in relation to sewer leaks and time taken to fix problems.

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Despite an intense media campaign over the past year, the report shows South Australia’s water system does not appear to have a significant problem with the rate of burst water mains compared to other jurisdictions.

In fact, the latest national performance report for water utilities, released by the Bureau of Meteorology this month, shows that SA Water continues to be an above-average performer on this measure, despite an increase in water main breaks in 2015/16.

The report, which covers that financial year, shows SA Water was in the middle of the pack for water main breaks and leaks – the seventh lowest rate out of the 15 largest utilities in Australia.

South Australia’s rate per 100km of water mains was 14.9 – well below the national average of 22 and far better than the likes of Sydney Water (26) and the nation’s worst big utility, Yarra Valley Water (48.5).

SA Water’s breakage rate increased by 7 per cent compared to the previous year.

Also casting doubt on some local media perceptions, the report shows SA Water’s investment in capital works was one of the largest in the country (ranked third and up by 49 per cent in 2015/16), while its cost to consumers was fifth among the biggest of the utilities (a typical SA bill was $1341 compared to a national average of $1210).

However, SA Water continued to record poor performance on several key measures, including time taken to restore interrupted water supply (second worst in the country among the biggest utilities) property sewerage pipe breaks and chokes (worst performance among the top bracket of utilities) and sewerage mains breaks and chokes (third worst).

The average time for an unplanned water supply interruption was just under 186 minutes, compared to a national average of nearly 133 minutes. The report puts this down to a high number of cast iron pipes in South Australia which, while no longer laid here, are likely to cause problems on this performance measure into the future.

“This result can be explained by new safety measures introduced in August 2015 to mitigate identified safety hazards in the repair of cast iron mains,” the report said. “Cast iron pipes are used extensively in South Australia and are more likely to fail from pressure issues. Previously, these pipes were repaired under pressure; however, new work, health, and safety (WHS) measures require the water supply to be shut down and the area excavated before the pipe can be repaired.”

The high rate of sewerage pipe breaks was put down to invasive tree roots and clay pipes, mostly in the Adelaide Hills.

Greenhouse gas emissions were the second worst in the country.

Revenue from community service obligations was, by far, the highest in the country, while combined operating cost was in the middle of the pack.

SA Water said the report showed there was “room to improve”.

“We are performing favourably amongst our peers in areas such as customer service, pricing, and interruptions from water main bursts and leaks,” a spokesperson said.

“Our customers received the second largest price reduction on water and sewerage bills (down 3%, driven by the removal of the River Murray Levy) in 2015-16, and the typical residential bill was below the median for all 86 water utilities analysed in the report. We’ve been working hard to reduce water and sewerage charges, and in 2016-17, the average metropolitan residential customer will see a further bill saving of around $87.”

The utility said it recognised it “could do more” to reduce sewer main faults.

“We are looking to better use information gathered from our regular inspection of sewer mains that have experienced multiple failures, as a basis for increased expenditure into replacing these pipes,” the spokesperson said.

“We also have a comprehensive annual sewer main renewal schedule. This work includes manhole upgrades, high pressure cleaning and relining of sewer mains. This can be more cost-effective than replacing the pipes, while still reducing the likelihood of faults. We plan to replace or reline in excess of 40 kilometres of sewer main over the next four years.”

It said more than half of sewer pipe blockages were related to the intrusion of tree roots.

“To limit these blockages, we’re working more collaboratively with councils on tree selection and placement to reduce pipe impact.

“We’re also investigating the use of alternative sewer main construction materials which are less prone to tree root damage.”

The Advertiser recently declared victory in its campaign to have Water Minister Ian Hunter personally attend the scene of burst water mains in South Australia.

While he didn’t agree to that particular request, he did announce that SA Water would be hiring an additional 28 staff and putting on an afternoon shift to work on replacing water mains and fixing bursts when they occur. This came after SA Water announced new funding of $55 million to replace water mains in Adelaide.

However, InDaily can reveal that the new staff don’t represent an additional spend by SA Water.

In fact, SA Water says the new staff will be paid for by a cut in the use of external contractors.

The rate of water main bursts has been fairly stable for a decade, with spikes occurring during years in which there is a fluctuating weather pattern.

According to SA Water, in January and February this year there were 464 bursts and leaks across the state – a 30 per cent decrease compared to the same time last year.

In metropolitan Adelaide, the number of bursts and leaks for this period almost halved between 2016 and 2017.

“Less change in soil moisture content, and therefore ground movement, over the past few months, due to prolonged wet weather is one of the main factors in this reduced rate of bursts and leaks,” SA Water says.

InDaily asked Hunter whether the media campaign about the rate of burst water mains had diverted investment away from more pressing issues with the system.

“As highlighted in last week’s Bureau of Meteorology, National Performance Report, SA Water’s water main breaks are well below the median average for water utilities of its kind,” he said in a statement.

“However, the State Government’s increased investment in water main infrastructure recognises that water main incidents are an inconvenience to customers and commuters and have a real impact on our community.”

He added that SA Water would address the rate of sewer breaks and chokes by replacing clay pipes with polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

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