Building Back Better for the Natural Environment

Overwhelming loss to our animals, plants and landscapes came as a result of Australia’s recent bushfires, accelerating the rate of our declining biodiversity toward what researchers are calling ‘biological annihilation1’.

We know extreme weather patterns such as years of drought and bushfires followed by heavy rainfall and flooding, will continue to rise in both frequency and severity and presents a challenge to our communities, cities and regional places. We also know the demand for water is increasing as a result of population growth and relocation, adding pressure to requirements for environmental and cultural uses.

“Catastrophic events such as these drive us to design innovative solutions which avoid residual impacts, improve biodiversity values, and mitigate impacts on connectivity to strengthen our communities’ resilience to future events, " says Graham Pointer, WSP's Future Ready Lead in Australia.

“We know Australia is a global leader in legislative responses to biodiversity loss with its priorities set on implementing biodiversity offsetting and developing biodiversity offset market economies2. We are seeing government propose high priority initiatives with strategies to address water scarcity and shortages. The question is, what more can we be doing now as our climate continues to shift and how can we apply the lessons learned to help us build back better?”

To build back better in response to the increasing biodiversity loss and need for water security, our clients’ infrastructure projects will require increased detail around planning and approvals, rigorous business case development, new or improved route selection, and thorough assessments around a project’s viability.

In this next segment of our Resilience Series, we engage our experts to share how these key trends are impacting Australia and provide practical ways we can be doing more now.

Protecting the Wild Through Integrated Design

Biodiversity underpins all life on earth which means that protecting and restoring natural environments – where human society can interact with plants and animals – is fundamental. We learned – from the initial biodiversity statements released by federal, state and local governments – about the dire impacts of the recent bushfires on  and with rainforests (35 per cent) and wet scleorphyll forests (41 per cent) suffering major impacts across New South Wales (NSW)3.

“We witnessed these fires deliver a heavy toll not only to our landscapes but also to our most vulnerable, native animals in NSW,” says Alex Cockerill, WSP’s Ecology National Team Executive. “In eastern NSW, more than 24 per cent of all koala habitat were impacted within fire-affected areas. Now, across projects where we may have been impacting endangered wildlife, clients are asking, ‘what are the implications of the bushfires?’”

While the koalas’ plight is serious, for some other species it is likely these bushfires have pushed them to the edge of extinction. For example, the endangered long-footed potoroo has lost 80 per cent of its living area in NSW and Victoria. Fire-affected landscapes also leave our native animals exposed to predation by feral cats, dogs, and foxes, and competition with other non-native animals for scarce food and resources. Typically, the focus is on initial emergency feral animal and weed controls, which are beneficial and in many ways helping farmers impacted by the fires. But is this enough?

“This leads us to consider other challenges that our clients will need to address on their projects,” says Alex. “This includes increasing scrutiny, consideration or return to review original designs, and the possible need for further avoidance, mitigation and offsets.”

How Can We Build Back Better to Protect Our Wildlife and Other Susceptible Species?

“Ensuring wildlife can safely move back into recovering landscapes and understanding changing habitats due to changing climates is essential for rebuilding healthy populations and ecosystem resilience,” says Rodney van der Ree, WSP’s Ecology National Technical Executive and Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne.

“We often think that wildlife just live in one place, but all species and individuals move across a range of distances during their lifetime and interact together in different ways,” says Rodney. “This means our scope, processes and designs need to be flexible; enabling these movements to happen and accommodating enough resilience to cope with the changes to come in the future.”

In the short term, the release of the Commonwealth Government’s provisional list of 113 priority impacted species4 flags possible changes and incorporates additions, revisions and emergency listings to the threatened species protected under legislation.

Alex says, “Interpreting these statements and guidance will be essential in understanding potential changes to statutory regulations and additional project considerations of avoidance. Extreme weather events and increased pressures resulting from climate change will also influence reviews in the legislative approach to biodiversity loss.

“We see the current ‘once in a decade opportunity’ for an independent review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 as key to creating a better balance of environmental assessment processes and external pressures, leading to improved outcomes for Australia’s environment and heritage, particularly in the context of focusing to build back better.”

Diversifying Secure Water Sources

We know our water cycle is being altered by changing climate so a focus on water security and diversifying sources will be critical for restoring and growing our natural environment. In Australia, water scarcity is accelerating which means ensuring system resilience against the impacts of water shortages is crucial, especially in times of drought and bushfires.

“The water industry has always been driven by the changes in climate, which continue to threaten our natural water cycle, impacting urban water supply, agricultural sector and natural ecosystems,” says Marina Maxwell, WSP’s Team Manager, Water Treatment. “Our challenge is that communities typically rely on a single source for their drinking water supply, either surface water or groundwater, both of which are climate dependant.

“But what happens when the rainfall isn’t there and the quality of source water deteriorates? How do we cope with more frequent bushfires which leave our catchments and water bodies contaminated? Unfortunately, water utilities do not always have sufficient facilities, people or processes to effectively respond, handle or manage these extreme circumstances. However, there are ways to prepare and build back better through diversification of water supply sources to provide more resilient water supply systems for when extreme events do happen.”

We know the pattern of years of drought followed by heavy rainfall and flooding in Australia will present a constant challenge to our communities. Towns like Stanthorpe which recently made news for having run out of water, are not isolated examples, with the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia and the Hunter region in NSW including many remote areas and Indigenous communities, all facing severe challenges when it comes to their water supplies.

“Helping our clients build a diverse portfolio of water sources which are sustainable and cost-effective for the community and environment, supported by forward-thinking water management and sustainable investment policies, is crucial for building resilience” says Grant Gabriel, WSP’s Associate Water Supply Engineer.

“We are working closely with our clients across Australia to investigate and diversify their water source assets with climate independent water sources, such as seawater desalination and recycled water.”

Communities across Australia turned to desalination as one strategy to meet the impacts of the Millennium drought. Ten years on, Australia is in the grip of another significant drought, with the next round of desalination plants being planned and implemented as an insurance policy for our water security.

“I believe that the planning of the next wave of plants must adopt a framework which focuses on transparent, cost-effective and robust project development and considers the key barriers experienced and lessons learnt from previous desalination plant projects.

“Ultimately, desalination is just one solution our clients can include in their water mix which might include restrictions, recycled water systems, indirect potable re-use, and aquifer recharge.”

Helping Communities Understand the Water Cycle

“Times of drought force us to look at other water sources but oftentimes it’s too late, too reactive,” adds Marina. “When there isn’t an immediate push and driver toward resilient water solutions, there is a tendency to relax and stop progress. But climate change isn’t stopping, so why do we stop?

“How can we build back better as an industry? We can start by improving the ways at which we’re looking at water, diversifying our water sources and exploring other water source options including increased focus on climate independent options such as recycled water systems, indirect potable re-use, desalination and aquifer recharge. We also need to look beyond the immediate capital costs and identify broader benefits such as environmental, social and climatic ones to support more holistic solutions to be implemented.

“Implementing water restrictions can only last so long. Communities can benefit from a consistent investigation and exploration of new ways to preserve water, but to effectively embed these solutions requires public engagement and education about the water cycle, the safety of recycled water and getting over the ‘ick’ factor for potable recycled water use.

“Engaging with communities on these solutions will enable us to have better strategies in place to make sure that water is secure, safe, and accessible even in the tough times. Many of our clients are now looking at water scarcity challenges more broadly. A collaborative project with one of the major water utilities in South East Queensland involves looking at a facility which serves two purposes: firstly, taking wastewater out of sewers and producing water that is high enough quality to use for irrigation of playing fields and green walls, and secondly as an education centre to inform the public on how water is treated to produce a clear and drinkable resource.

“It’s about educating the community in what happens from beginning to end and inviting them in to be part of the narrative as contributors and by communicating these messages, bridging the information gap for locals to better understand where water comes from.”

Moving the Demand to Recycled Water

Other strategies that are being implemented include recognising the value of sewerage as a resource and increasing use of recycled water. As part of our work with one of Australia’s largest local government authorities, we are looking at treating water from one of the Sewage Treatment Plants and providing a distribution system of pipes and pumps to make this recycled water available to consumers in the local area for irrigation of playing fields, golf courses, school ovals, commercial and industrial uses.

“Moving the water demand from potable to a recycled system for these customers reduces potable water demand and the need to put customers on water restrictions,” adds Marina. “Recycled water is treated to an appropriate level as per Department of Health guidelines, and is a safe and more affordable water product for those customers and its use benefits the whole community.”

Doing More Now

By understanding the trends through our Future Ready innovation platform and engaging with our people and clients, we continue to provide guidance for organisations and governments helping communities recover, ensuring the decision-making process for rebuilding leads to resilient outcomes.

Immediate and practical ways to build resilience include:

  • Incorporate wildlife connectivity into design, particularly in areas of post-recovery road building
  • Focus on creating a better balance of environmental assessment processes and external pressures, leading to improved outcomes for environment and heritage
  • Identify strategic biodiversity offsets early in project life cycle
  • Provide education for communities to better understand where water is sourced from the moment they turn on the tap
  • Establish indirect potable recycled water schemes to get over the ‘ick’ factor and improve water system resilience by providing sources that are endangered by climate change
  • Design broader connectivity between our cities and provide catchment-wide solutions such as transferring water from large supply areas to regions that do not have enough

Can We Build Back Better?

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