Helping water utilities plan for future needs

In today’s world, water is recognised as a scarce commodity with an economic value and deciding how to use it can involve a complex process of trade-offs.

Dr Bethany Cooper’s research is giving water utilities the data they need to undertake detailed cost-benefit analysis all while making water-use projections and decisions about future water planning.

Over the past five years she has been commissioned to undertake a number of important projects designed to better understand the public’s expectations and willingness to pay for water, their attitudes around key issues such as reliability and security of supply, and or environmental concerns.

In that time, she says, water managers and policy makers have also come to understand that, like the electricity and communications industries before them, they need to engage more with their customers both to ask their opinions and to make them more aware of the trade-offs involved in water allocation.

Now a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Commerce at UniSA, Dr Cooper has investigated such issues as the public’s willingness to allocate scarce water for community or environmental purposes and whether people should be able to buy their way out of water restrictions during a drought.

Recent projects have supported the Sydney Metropolitan Water Directorate, Melbourne Water and water utilities in regional Victoria.

The work is a mixture of consumer engagement and number crunching. “One of the methods I’ve used is choice modelling – a stated preference technique that allows you to put a dollar value on things that aren’t normally bought and sold in a market,” she said. “That comprises initial interviews with experts then focus groups with customers. We then collect data and make a robust statistical analysis of people’s preferences.”

Dr Cooper and colleagues have also looked at the extent to which consumers understand their water bills and whether giving them more control over their bills by introducing a mixture of fixed and variable components would increase their satisfaction.

In earlier work for her PhD, she investigated the social welfare costs to society of urban water restrictions. These range from the loss of gardens or injuries sustained carting water to fights between neighbours.

It’s all a part of understanding what water means to people and how we can make a scarce resource sustainable.