SA Water - Leak Notification

I seek leave to make a brief explanation before directing a question to the Minister for Water and the River Murray on the subject of SA Water.

Leave granted.

Members interjecting:

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: Mr President.

The PRESIDENT: Yes, I have already said once, and this is the second time, allow the Hon. Ms Lensink to ask her question without interruption. The Hon. Ms Lensink.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: Thank you, Mr President, again. My question is to the Minister for Water and the River Murray on the subject of SA Water. He would be well familiar with this case of Corinne and Patrick Mutz, who have had a very extensive water leak bill on their property in Upper Sturt which was outlined in The Sunday Mail a couple of weeks' ago and has also been the subject of talkback radio. I will refer to a response the minister provided to Mr and Mrs Mutz in July:

I understand on 30 December 2015, a notice of high water use was sent to your mailing address at the time. The notice suggested to check the meter read and the property for any leaks, and to repair any leaks as soon as possible. A copy of the notice is enclosed with this letter.

I am advised that a leak was first reported to SA Water on 6 January 2016, on a footpath at—

I will leave that address blank—

SA Water attended within 90 minutes and noted a service leak crew was required. A neighbour who had reported the leak showed the attendant where the leak was on the private pipework.

Several questions arise from this matter. Mr and Mrs Mutz say that they did not receive that notice of high water usage which has contributed to a very excessive high water bill from the leak and that they have only just been sent that notice fairly recently. My questions, firstly, are:

1.Can the minister outline what exactly the SA Water process is and whether at any point SA Water is required to send notification by registered mail or attend the property in person to ensure that property owners are aware of leaks?

2.Having attended the property on 6 January 2016, why did SA Water officers not attend the property to discuss the matter with the residents?

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, Minister for Water and the River Murray, Minister for Climate Change) ( 14:22 ): I thank the honourable member for her most important questions on the subject of leaks, a highly sensitive subject for the Liberal Party at the moment, I understand. It is incredibly unusual for the Leader of the Opposition to give up his right to ask the first question in question time of the government.

Members interjecting:

The PRESIDENT: Order! The minister has the floor and the minister will answer the question without interruption.

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER: Of course, I was never going to say anything about the Leader of the Opposition being absent from the chamber. That is unparliamentary, and I would not do that, but after his appalling performance in this place yesterday, when he demanded that the minister rule in or out something and then when it was put to him that, in fact, he has been out there actively undermining the leader of the Liberal Party in the other place, he would not rule that in or out. He sat down on his hands; no comment. When it was put to him that he has actually been out—

The Hon. J.S.L. Dawkins: What's that got to do with the question?

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER: I will come to the leaks in a minute, the Hon. Mr Dawkins—I will come to the leaks in a minute. When it was put to the Leader of the Opposition that, in fact, he has been out shopping around to find replacements for sitting Liberal MPs and offering them the front bench position of some existing shadow ministers on the Liberal side, he refused to answer. He refused to rule that in or rule that out. One can only surmise that, in fact, he has now been benched for that behaviour and given his right of first question over to the Hon. Michelle Lensink, who is a far superior performer in this place, I might add, and of course she asked a very important question, unlike the Hon. Mr Ridgway.

The Hon. D.W. Ridgway interjecting:

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER: I wouldn't talk about that either, the Hon. Mr Ridgway. That's a point of contention as well. We have had six weeks off, six weeks for the Liberals to go out and do some real hard research with some searching questions for the government. What was their first question on Tuesday? The Hon. Mr Ridgway got up and told me that government expenditure on flood watch in Bordertown was a waste of money—that was it. That was his first question after a six‑week break. Where did he get that from? From a press release I put out a week earlier. That is the level of research that goes on in the Liberal Party opposition; they are absolute losers. No wonder they have not be able to win an election in this state for a number years.

The Hon. D.W. Ridgway: Get on with the answer.

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER: I will, because the Hon. Michelle Lensink, as always, has demonstrated a degree of professionalism in this place and her questions are always to the point, unlike what we have seen from the Liberal Leader of the Opposition. Now, SA Water does receive—

The Hon. S.G. Wade: Oh, he mentioned the topic.

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER: Well, I can go on at length on other issues if people want me to, but I think it is appropriate that I give the honourable member a very studied and detailed answer to her question.

SA Water receives a large number of inquiries from customers about their water bills, as you would expect. Where a scheduled meter reading indicates an abnormal change in the level of water use at a property, SA Water issues a notice of high water use to alert the property owner of the high usage.

Provided that certain conditions are met, SA Water provides customers experiencing high water use with assistance for a leakage allowance or an unexplained high water use allowance. I am advised there is absolutely no legislative requirement for SA Water to do that, but they think it is good corporate practice to do so, to provide those allowances to customers due to leakage and inexplicable water use.

However, SA Water understands the financial implications that an unexpected high bill can cause and has created these allowances to help customers in these situations. A policy supporting high water use allowances has been in place since 1969. The policy provides eligible customers with an allowance of up to 50 per cent of deemed water wastage.

In recent years, this was capped at 300 kilolitres, and as of 1 July 2016 all allowances are subject to a maximum payment of equivalent to 600 kilolitres, which is approximately $2,000, based on 2016-17 water use prices. Under the water retail code for major retailers, SA Water has an obligation to inform a customer of an abnormal change in the level of consumption at their property.

SA Water provides property owners with a notice of high water use via Australia Post, I am advised, informing of higher than normal usage, and encourages owners to check for leaks. SA Water can only become aware of the higher usage at the time of the meter reading. Meter reading results are generally uploaded to SA Water's billing system nightly. At this time, the billing system (CSIS) compares water use for the current period with prior water use, and a notice of high water use is automatically triggered where consumption for the period is:

(a)higher than 200 kilolitres;

(b)at least 70 per cent higher than the average water use for the similar periods of the previous years; and

(c)at least 50 kilolitres greater than the highest water use recorded for similar periods of the previous three years.

Notices issued are flagged against the property account in the CSIS, and a weekly file is sent to SA Water's account printing contractor, Fuji Xerox, which prints and lodges the notices with Australia Post as priority mail, I am advised. I am also advised that Fuji Xerox has strict controls to ensure that all notices printed are lodged for posting.

Approximately 500 notices of high water use are sent out each week, and to improve customer service SA Water is exploring opportunities to issue notices on a daily basis and using SMS technology to provide phone alerts for customers. SA Water has been capturing customer phone numbers in preparation of the implementation of the online customer portal in the first half of 2017, and SA Water's approach to informing customers of high water usage is in line with best practice in the country. I understand, for example, that in the Eastern States practices can vary, and customers may be informed either prior to or at the time of the issuing of bills.

Other things that honourable members may care to be aware of are: only one unexplained high water use allowance can be applied during a customer's ownership of the property. The allowance may be applied where water usage at a property is greater than 150 kilolitres—I have gone through this earlier, and will not repeat it. This policy of SA Water has been in place for some time.

The Hon. S.G. Wade interjecting:

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER: Well done, the Hon. Mr Wade—the Hon. Mr Wade listens. The applicant must provide evidence in the form of a plumber's invoice or written confirmation of materials used to repair the leak in order to confirm that the leak has been repaired, and the policy is reviewed regularly to consider customer feedback in alignment with water industry practices.

I am advised that a review of the policy was undertaken in January 2016, with a revised policy implemented on 1 July 2016. Changes from that 1 July 2016 period include: allowing one claim every five years (previously it was every 10 years), including leaks in irrigation systems and evaporative air conditioning systems as part of the eligibility criteria where it was not previously; and increasing the maximum payment from 300 kilolitres to 600 kilolitres, which is approximately $2,000 at 2016-17 prices, as I alluded to earlier.

The leakage allowance, importantly, is not intended to provide full compensation for the water deemed to be wasted. Once an application is approved, the allowance is either applied towards the current bill or to charges which are yet to be billed in the form of a credit towards the account. Quite often the applicant, I am advised, is first alerted to the leak by notice of high water use; or where the increased water use has not reached the trigger point for a notice to be issued, the first alert may be the bill.

By the time repairs to the leak occurred, the next reading period may also be affected by the high water use due to a leak. The allowance, therefore, can be applied across multiple periods and may impact water usage which has yet to be billed due to a leak occurring on the next reading period. Restricting the leakage allowance to one every five-year period encourages customers to maintain their private pipework, which is their responsibility, in good condition and prevent unnecessary wastage of water.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK ( 14:30 ): A supplementary question: will the government consider amending the policy so that the notice must be sent by registered mail?

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, Minister for Water and the River Murray, Minister for Climate Change) ( 14:30 ): As I said, the agency (SA Water) is exploring opportunities to better deal with customers to issue notices on a daily basis. They are actually exploring using SMS technology to provide phone alerts; that may in fact be more efficient than utilising registered post but there will be instances, I am sure, where people do not have or do not give us their mobile phone contact, in which case it may be appropriate for registered mail to be utilised. That is a matter for SA Water to explore as they consider all those options and report back to me.

In reply to the Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK (29 September 2016).

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, Minister for Water and the River Murray, Minister for Climate Change): The Minister for Water and the River Murray has received the following advice:

Adelaide Metropolitan Area
Reliance Road, Hallett Cove

Grey Street, Hallett Cove
Crossing Road, Aberfoyle Park
Glendale Avenue, Flagstaff Hill
Ridgeway Drive, Flagstaff Hill
Adelaide Hills
Ambleside Road, Hahndorf
Strathalbyn Road, Aldgate
Gould Lane, Stirling
Milan Terrace, Aldgate

Mt Barker Road, Bridgewater
Albert Street, Gumeracha
Wewak Road, Woodside
Orvieto Street, Bridgewater
Snows Road, Stirling