Mitigating the impacts of third-party installations on reservoir towers

By intouch * posted 09-08-2017 14:12


Thanks to gravity, reservoir towers have traditionally been placed at high points in many council areas. But over the years, other technologies have arrived that also benefit from their infrastructure being located at altitude – mobile phone communications, radio broadcast and emergency services, for example.

Piggybacking on the existing water infrastructure is typically more cost-effective for the telecommunication companies (telcos), and avoids the negative community perceptions and concerns around visual amenity that can accompany the construction of new towers.

Screen_Shot_2017-08-09_at_2_01_12_PM.pngThe rapid growth of mobile communications has left many water utilities reeling. ‘Hosting’ can provide commercial benefits but poor installation and maintenance increases the risk to water customers, water utilities and telco staff.

“I became aware of such problems three or four years ago,” says Gary Mitchell, Executive Officer of the NSW Water Directorate. “But I imagine they have been emerging for some time, with the prevalence of telecommunication installations. This is mainly a technology-related issue, so it’s a growing problem.”

Mitchell and his colleagues, along with members of the Queensland Water Directorate, are currently working on soon-to-be-released guidelines that will help local councils and other water utilities better manage this infrastructure generally. The guidelines will also create a platform for building better future operating arrangements with telcos.

“Other third parties that impact on water utilities would be government agencies such as police, ambulance, fire brigade etc as well as other utility services and radio broadcasters. They’re all part of the issue and obviously they’re significant and essential services. They all need a place,” Mitchell said.

So great has the concern been over various risks that the NSW Water Directorate was asked by water managers to facilitate formal sessions on the topic in 2015 and 2016. Initial concerns were around on-site safety, but the bigger picture that emerged pointed to concern over the fact that public health was at risk.

“NSW state government departments are aware of the issues and request site inspections, however barriers are unintentionally created which block access for maintenance and also block access for inspections,” Mitchell says.

“There are currently 89 NSW council water utilities after recent mergers and there were 123 NSW council water utilities about 20 years ago. There are several water reservoir towers per NSW council water utility, therefore there are several hundred locations where these challenges can occur.”

The risks posed by poor installation fit into two broad categories:

Maintaining water quality 

Open manholes and holes for bolts that have been drilled but not filled all make it possible for pollutants to enter the water in the reservoir during rainfall events, and for animals to crawl or fly in, and sometimes to die inside.

Waterborne pathogens from bird faeces and dead animals have contributed to major international public health incidents, including instances of illness and death, says Dave Cameron, CEO of the Queensland Water Directorate. While the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines mean that water utilities monitor for these contaminants and employ response plans, any reactive approach risks failure and there is no better control than avoiding the contamination in the first instance, he says.

Managing safety 

Communications dishes and aerials on and around the water towers create potential radiation dangers for water utility workers as well as telco workers, all of whom are required to attend these sites to maintain equipment. In addition, the proliferation of this equipment can make it difficult for workers to safely access certain areas to maintain the original infrastructure.

According to Cameron, the Telecommunications Act 1997 aims to provide a balance between the needs of telcos to install mobile phone infrastructure and the rights of landowners. But in practice it is very difficult for a water utility to deny access in the interests of water quality or safety.

“The Act is very powerful and there have been various legal challenges which invariably work in favour of the telcos’ rights to access,” Cameron says. “The aim now is to focus on coming up with a way of improving internal processes for water utilities as well as communicating more effectively with telcos around what best practice looks like. It’s about trying to negotiate a gradual positive shift that begins to address some of the risks from the utility perspective.”

What, then, are Cameron and Mitchell and their teams doing about the problem? “We’ve enlisted the expertise of Murray Thomson Water Services and Aqualift, along with both NSW and Queensland utilities, to develop a series of practical examples that show how it can be done better,” Cameron says.

The Directorates’ joint 3rd Party Infrastructure on Water Supply Reservoirs Guidelines is a practical document that is rich in photography and valuable case studies and which provides a framework to water utilities for planning, ongoing management and decommissioning of redundant infrastructure.

“We’re hoping that armed with this, the utilities can look at the way the leases and operational procedures are structured,” Cameron says. “They can utilise it to come up with win-win solutions they’re able to negotiate with the telcos to make sure these critical risks are addressed.”

This story was originally published in the July/August edition of IPWEA's inspire magazine as 'The downside of gravity'. View the magazine here. 

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