Livability: Air and water quality

2016

Although Australian cities, as they function currently, demonstrate environmental footprints that are not sustainable, they generally rank high on measures of livability. A range of elements contribute to the livability of a built environment: urban amenity; housing; transport; air and water quality; access to the natural environment; and heritage, social and aesthetic aspects.

Air quality

It is well recognised that Australia’s current air quality remains very good by world standards. Australian governments have, across several years, successfully implemented measures to reduce air pollution that have significantly improved Australia’s overall air quality, with positive environmental and health impacts (Australian Government 2015a; see Ambient air quality for details of potential health impacts of air pollution).

However, there are still some areas of concern. Peak levels of airborne pollutants such as ground-level ozone and particulate matter (PM) frequently approach or exceed national air quality standards in some Australian cities (for ozone) or nearly all regions (for PM). Furthermore, there are specific areas of concern to local communities, including emissions of sulfur dioxide and PM from a range of sources (e.g. industrial activity, heating) (Australian Government 2015a).

The Atmosphere report discusses ambient air quality and pollutants, and includes assessments of the air quality of Australia’s main metropolitan cities.

Water quality

In addition to management of the water resource itself, some aspects of the extraction and supply of water, and the disposal and/or re-use of wastewater are subject to regulation to ensure the efficient, safe, reliable, environmentally sound and equitable provision of water services.

Environmental regulation in the water sector lies principally with environmental protection authorities across different states and territories. In the water sector, one of their key roles is establishing, monitoring and enforcing discharge standards for sewage treatment plants. Environmental protection authorities can also play a role in approval processes for wastewater treatment plants, implementation of recycled water schemes and associated infrastructure, management of odours and biosolids, and development of guidelines for the environmentally sound use of recycled water.

Water quality as it relates to public health is typically the responsibility of state and territory departments of health. These agencies set, monitor and enforce compliance with drinking water standards; issue guidelines; promote public awareness of drinking water quality issues; and have defined roles in incident management and emergency response.

Between 2009–10 and 2013–14, the percentage of urban zones where microbiological compliance for drinking water standards was achieved was consistently above 90 per cent for almost all states and territories. The exception was Tasmania, which lifted its compliance from 66 per cent to 76 per cent during this period. South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory have all consistently achieved 100 per cent compliance for their urban zones (BITRE 2015a).

Similarly, high rates of compliance were achieved for chemical water quality across states and territories for urban zones (100 per cent for Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory in 2013–14; close to 100 per cent for New South Wales and Victoria). Tasmania had the lowest compliance at 85 per cent (BITRE 2015a).

Water quality in urban areas is generally good, but parts of regional Australia do not meet relevant drinking water standards (see Box BLT8). Faced with the challenge of water security in a changing climate, local water utilities are often forced to compromise with regard to the quality and reliability of services, resulting in water quality in some regional areas routinely failing to meet accepted standards. This challenge is particularly acute in smaller communities where the limited scale of operations and low population densities reduce the capacity of providers to meet minimum service standards (Infrastructure Australia 2016).

Although satisfaction with the quality of drinking (tap) water is generally high (and slightly improving) across most states, South Australia and Western Australia have lower satisfaction rates (below 70 per cent), and satisfaction continues to fall (Figure BLT36). Northern Territory satisfaction with drinking water also fell between 2010 and 2013.

Raising regional drinking water quality to at least a minimum standard should be a focus for all governments. With CSIRO predicting lower rainfall across much of Australia, and longer, more severe droughts, existing challenges for water supply and quality are expected to become more pressing (Infrastructure Australia 2015).

Coleman S (2016). Built environment: Livability: Air and water quality. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/built-environment/topic/2016/livability-air-and-water-quality, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65a5037ed8