Sue Murphy: Meet Australia’s Water Wonder Woman

May 1, 2018

Water Corporation is not only financially strong, it is creating a diversified and robust water supply to lead into the future. Approaching 10 years at the helm as CEO, Sue Murphy speaks to Tom Freyberg about gender equality, water reuse and what she means by the “one bum to kick” model.

By Tom Freyberg

Sue Murphy feels understandably strong about gender equality in the workplace. After all, as CEO of Water Corporation, managing an asset base of over AUD$15 billion, she has earned her place at the top of one of the world’s leading water utilities.

Approaching a decade at the helm, Murphy feels strongly not just about gender balance within the utility but also the cultural balance.

“I’ve put a lot of effort into inclusivity,” she says. “It’s no good getting a work crew and forcing someone to employ one woman in that crew. Because if that crew isn’t inclusive and the workplace isn’t inclusive then that person will have a horrible life and will go. It’s about working with your whole workforce to encourage inclusivity. Then it’s not about whether people are male or female, it’s whether people are included and feel welcome in the workforce.”

Employing over 2,750 people, Water Corporation is made up of a third female staff “at virtually every level”, says the CEO. Under Murphy’s leadership, the utility has also focused not just on gender equality, but diversity across its workforce, recruiting people of different ages and backgrounds.

“Most of what we do is about trying to change people’s behaviour…You can’t possibly influence your community if, as an organisation, you don’t understand them and reflect their makeup in your makeup,” she says. “So, if we’re all men, how can we influence a community because a community isn’t all men?”

Third World responsibilities

Murphy is a visible and popular figure in the global water sector – often speaking at conferences, commenting on top-level issues and she also made WWi magazine’s Top 25 Leaders annual listing. She believes that the reputation that the water sector is male dominated only applies in the developed world.

“I think it’s interesting that in the Third World, when you go to poorer countries, water is seen as exclusively women’s business: women carry water, move water, treat water and pump water,” she says. “It’s only as we get more and more engineering centric that it moves into being seen as a man’s business. I think that the role of providing an essential service for the community around you is something that is often seen as a female role. The engineering dominated water sector has historically been male dominated because it’s full of engineers who were historically male.”

One of the jewels in Murphy’s crown of projects developed under her watch is the groundwater replenishment scheme. She describes it as a “full closing of the water cycle” and the utility’s “most exciting project”. “It’s the ultimate way to make your water supply climate independent,” enthuses the CEO.

In a nutshell, the indirect potable reuse plan involves treating municipal wastewater, putting it through reverse osmosis (RO) membranes and then injecting it into deep aquifers, to be extracted as needed in the future – 10 years from now. Although not unique to the Water Corporation – take California in the US – the utility is clearly thinking ahead to meet increased needs in the future.

Located in Craigie, Stage I saw the construction of a 14 billion litre a year Advanced Water Recycling Plant, which has now commenced operations. Stage two will see another facility built of the same scale, effectively doubling capacity to 28 billion litres per year. The expansion is slated to be completed by 2019.

“The plant we’re doing the work on only has residential, municipal wastewater going through it, so the quality of the wastewater going through it is pretty good – it doesn’t have industrial heavy metals. It’s also located near an aquifer that is suitable to inject into - not all wastewater treatment plants are quite that simple.”

As with any reuse scheme, indirect and more importantly direct, community engagement is the key needed to unlock any negative perceptions surrounding the recycling of water. For Murphy, community acceptance came naturally but required a decade of hard work.

Before Water Corporation went to the government to approve the idea, it spent 10 years working on the concept: operating a pilot plant for three years, including a visitor centre for the public and school children. From this, a regulatory framework was developed for the reused water.

“By the time we made the decision and got the government sign off to build the plant, we’d been talking about it for so long that half of Perth thought they had been drinking it for decades. So we kind of bored everyone into submission by engaging and talking and communicating and we made a point of never using metaphors. We were very open about what we were doing and where the water was going.”

Summing up the project, Murphy adds: “We are putting potable water into an aquifer: in reality the water we’re putting in is cleaner than the water in the aquifer.”

One bum to kick (OBK)

With the success of the groundwater replenishment scheme behind her, it would be natural for the CEO to boast, or to point fingers at other less successful regions for not being as forward thinking as her utility. That’s not Murphy’s style. Even discussing the looming threat of ‘Day Zero’ in Cape Town – a discussion which has perplexed and even provoked heated responses from the most level-headed CEOs – Murphy answers with true diplomacy.

“I’m not critical of Cape Town,” she says. “I think the failure is not a failure of planning per se, but a complex water utility and planning arrangement that makes no one actually accountable. There’s something like 24 separate water companies in Cape Town – that makes it very difficult to plan. If you are going to plan you need to have some element of scale and the ability to actually deliver and influence the whole thing.”

For Water Corporation, covering the whole state of Western Australia, Murphy describes it as the “one bum to kick model”, known as OBK. “As we’re one water utility, comprising water and wastewater, we have an integration for the water cycle in our remit across the state, so it’s our job to plan and to make sure plans are in place.”

Combining water and wastewater responsibilities under one roof are key, she says.

“I think often the failure is not a failure of planning but a failure of government structures,” she adds.

Desalination is critical

Australia’s desalination story has been widely talked about. The country faced its worst drought between 1997 and 2000, which came to be known as the Millennium Drought. With six major seawater desalination plants pushed through and built in a record eight years, the rains then fell, rendering some of the plants obsolete.

Despite local media reports focusing on the idle plants running the background, at a cost to the taxpayer, in the West of the country Water Corporation’s desalination facilities have been running since day one.

“Our story is the opposite of everywhere else in Australia,” says Murphy. “Everyone always used to joke that the best way to make it rain was to build a desalination plant! We built two very large desalination plants and it still hasn’t rained. For us, our plants are absolutely critical.”

Water Corporation operates two desalination plants: one in Kwinana and the second in Binningup. Both have been operating over 100 percent capacity.

The Perth seawater desalination plant produces 45 billion litres a year of drinking water. The company’s second desalination plant, called the Southern Seawater Desalination Plant, started production in 2013 and produces 100 billion litres of drinking water a year. A long term purchase agreement was also signed, with energy provided by a wind and solar farm near Geraldton.

“For us, desalination is baseload,” says Murphy. “It’s insurance. If you insure your car and you don’t crash it, you don’t ring up your insurance company and abuse them. To secure your water supply and you don’t need to use that insurance seems slightly premature to phone them [water utilities] up and abuse them.”

She adds: “The trouble with all those things is politics. If one side of politics builds the plant and it’s not used, then the other side criticises it. One of the risks in any political situation is that people take sides and options come off the table…What we need to do is to keep all options on the table to be explored and resist allowing water to be used as a political football.”

Being data smart

With all the discussion about smart water, big data and the internet of things, one industry concern is that there are currently new tools being offered to utilities to produce more data when they need to sort out existing information they already have. Murphy believes that as sensors get cheaper, they can be deployed in a “more efficient way”.

“A lot of the issues we have are about our own internal siloing and how we divvy us tasks and share the data,” she says. “What Big Data might do is to help us to integrate our own organisation better and remove those silos, which can only be a good thing.”

The CEO adds: “Couldn’t we all better use the data we have, yes? Do we need more data and in a more integrated way of using it? Yes. Is putting more sensors on and getting more data going to solve more problems? No. I think a lot of the issues we see, and Cape Town is one of them, is how we’ve structured ourselves causes us often as many problems as the problem.”

Paws for thought: Murphy with Kep the dog, named after the Aboriginal word for ‘water’ in the language of the Noongar people

The next decade

As methods of communication evolve, utilities have to keep up to provide information to their customers in multiple channels. Water Corporation reports that customer service through Facebook and Twitter grew in 2017, with other 4,400 social customer interactions. Despite the rapid evolution of technology, Murphy believes utilities should not forget their main purpose.

“As we get more technical, people feel like they are in control,” she says. “They want us to be technical, to be modern and know what we’re doing and find those leaks and do all those things. But the sense of community feels like it’s being lost. I think what we have to do is both: we have to deliver water as efficiently and slickly as possible.”

She adds: “We have to recognise that water is very primal – if the power is turned off to your house, you may be a bit cold or dark. But if the water is turn off to your house you’ll die. It’s part of our bodies. Our customers, whether they trust us or not in what they say, they take our product straight from the tap and drink it. How much more trust can you have than to ingest something?”

In October, Murphy would have been in the role of CEO for 10 years. Still going strong with a decade behind her, what does she have planned next?

“Everyone has a use-by date,” jokes Murphy. “I’ve been in the role for 10 years so maybe I’m due to do something else – I don’t have a plan. I’m appointed by my board so I guess it’s my board’s call, not mine. It’s all good fun at the Water Corporation – it’s a great industry to be part of it. We’re very privileged to be part of how we shape how our community operates at a fundamental level.”

Water Corporation has earned its place among the top, progressive utilities globally, including PUB in Singapore, Phnom Penh in Cambodia, DC Water in the US and many others. Much of this has to be credited to Murphy, instilling a healthy culture which has filtered down not only to her employees but also her community to accept change.

Murphy is a great advocate not only for Australia but the global water industry, proving that in male-dominated engineering sectors, a female CEO can lead the way. Even if she moves on later this year after achieving the decade milestone, her legacy in Western Australia will continue to be remembered long after she has moved on.

Tom Freyberg is chief editor of WWI magazine.