A conversation with Sarah Watkins: managing Melbourne’s urban growth

Sarah Watkins has fond memories of growing up in Melbourne.

“When I was a kid, around eight years old, we would go down to the local creek in the Eastern suburbs, so a fairly well-established residential area, and we’d collect frogs’ eggs for school. We’d take them back to the classroom, watch the eggs hatch, look after the tadpoles and once they became frogs, we’d take them back to the creek and release them.”

But things have changed; Melbourne’s waterways have changed. “You definitely can’t do that these days,” Sarah says. “Tadpoles aren’t commonly found in our urban waterways anymore.”

Melbourne is Australia’s second largest city and has dominated Australia’s population growth for more than fifteen years, adding more than 50,000 people each year since 2003. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has projected that Melbourne could overtake Sydney – currently Australia’s largest city – in population at some point between 2030 and 2040.

Sarah says the change is clear. “We’ve experienced a lot of growth in Melbourne. There’s been a lot of change. Within the last fifteen or twenty years, I’ve seen that kids can’t go down to their local creek and find frogs during the spring. I can see the degradation and that’s just from going out and personally experiencing my local waterways and parks.”

A better way to manage water

Sarah is a Senior Planning Engineer at Melbourne Water, a Victorian government owned statutory authority that controls much of the water system in Melbourne, including the reservoirs and the sewerage and drainage system that services the city.

“I studied environmental engineering at university. I didn’t really know anything about the water industry until a couple of years into my degree. A few lecturers opened my eyes to the application of engineering into these real-world water problems and it made me think just how tangible those problems were for Melbourne – the impact of urbanisation of waterways, water supply. I liked the idea of trying to do things in a better way, of knowing there was a better to manage our water supply, to manage our population growth.”

After finishing her undergraduate degree, Sarah worked in a small stormwater consultancy, but knew she eventually wanted to work for a water authority. She says the move to Melbourne Water was inevitable.

“I think it goes back to the fact that I’ve grown up in Melbourne my whole life. It’s a great city and a beautiful place to live and I want it to be a beautiful place to live in the future. I thought Melbourne Water was the best place to get into the water industry more broadly, and it’s in a good position to drive change in the city.”

“And I actually feel like I’m working for the five million people of Melbourne. It makes it really easy to get out of bed every day. Even when it’s challenging, and when its complex and when its uncertain, it still easy to turn up because I know I’m working for the people of Melbourne, to create a better future for everyone who’s currently here and for everyone who’s going to be here over the next twenty, thirty or fifty years.”

While she started in the organisation as a stormwater specialist, she says her role has changed over time, as the organisation shifts to meet new challenges and increasingly looks for more integrated approaches to water management.

“When I started with Melbourne Water, I was working closely with local government on water sensitive urban design initiatives, both capacity building projects and on-ground measures, building rain gardens and water harvesting systems, for example. My scope and remit have expanded from there. I started working on water supply projects and sewerage projects, as well as stormwater projects.”

“Over time, we’ve started to see that there were some big opportunities in alternative water supplies. We’ve got water shortages, we’ve got all this excess stormwater and we’re really starting to merge projects to build opportunities, to really tap into that integrated systems thinking.”

Sarah gives the example of a project to develop an integrated water management plan for the suburb of Sunbury, a large, high-growth area north of Melbourne.

“On that project, I was working closely with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, with local councils and with the retail water companies. It was just a great experience, to meet people from these different organisations, to hear what their challenges were and to genuinely work together to try and solve those challenges, which were often common and interrelated.”

On the cusp of significant change

Sarah thinks the next decade will see more water-related projects being approached in an integrated way and believes the water sector is on the cusp of the next big step change. She says the water sector and the broader integrated water management field need to be ready.

“They say necessity is the mother of invention. Drought is a big precipitator of change. We have to do something and I think everyone realises that now, and there’s a general acceptance that our business as usual approach to water management probably isn’t going to serve us [into the future], probably isn’t what the community wants and probably isn’t the best way to go about it. So, we need to be able to come in with alternative solutions.”

“There’s water security issues in Melbourne. We’re seeing rapid growth, rapid change in terms of urbanising the landscape. I think with continued population growth, a changing climate and a continued strain on resources, it’s going to take us to the point where we have to make some big calls.”

She says Melbourne Water has done a lot of work over the last ten years, including retrofitting urban waterways, working to protect catchments, and conducting technical investigations around the feasibility of large-scale stormwater harvesting systems and exploring ways to maximise reuse of stormwater. “We’re getting a lot more comfortable technologically and building a sound knowledge base.”

But she says there’s more work to be done to be ready for the step change. “I think what’s key for the water sector is being able to identity opportunities and then being able to seize them. We talk about the burning platform and I think that’s something the water industry really needs to capitalise off. We hear about big changes around the country, such as water shortages, and those are a big opportunity to promote innovation, to promote change.”

“People are willing to change sometimes when they’re forced to,” she says. “But to make that change, I think we’ve got to be ready, with ideas on the table, with answers, with a plan, and be ready to execute that plan.”

Building integrated water management capacity

Sarah is a graduate of the International WaterCentre’s Master of Integrated Water Management (MIWM) program. She completed the program in 2018, studying part-time, remotely, while working full-time at Melbourne Water.

She said she was surprised to find a degree dedicated to integrated water management. “The concept of integrated water management is leading edge in many ways and there’s not a lot of people you can lean on to get that knowledge and experience, or networks you can to tap into. The fact that there was a master’s degree on the topic was great, and when I looked at the subject list, I thought wow, this is something that would really fit with my current role.”

“I could see that my job had a really good alignment with the MIWM program. It was clear to me that this was an area I was interested in and wanted to learn more about.”

She said the option of being able to work full-time and study part-time fit her career and life. “Doing the program part-time worked well. It meant I could learn a bit, then test a bit in my work. I could take it all at a slower pace and savour the learning experience.”

“For me, the applicability of the way the degree is structured and how it’s delivered is so useful. You’re genuinely learning skills and all the time thinking: I’m actually going to be doing this in my job or this could work in a project. It made it easy to keep pushing through because I could see why I was doing it.”

Sarah chose the urban water specialisation of the MIWM. “The water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) stream looked really interesting, but I chose urban water. I knew that was the field I was going to continue in and I thought investing so much time and money into doing a masters, I really wanted to align the program with my future career.”

“The majority of the world’s population live in urban centres like Melbourne. They need water, they need sanitation, they need cool places to live and refuge from the hustle and bustle of life as much as anyone else. Just because there’s existing infrastructure in urban water management doesn’t mean it’s something that doesn’t need attention, or doesn’t need creative thinking. There’s a whole host of legacy challenges that come with that.”

“Our cities are the places where so many people live and we’ve got to look after them. I think about the future and I think about how much change has happened in Melbourne and I want to influence that change, to creature a better future for the people who live here.”

Sarah is a graduate of the Master of Integrated Water Management program. To find out more about the program and the scholarships available, visit the program page