New generation of water professionals benefit from Master of Catchment Science program

When the Greek philosopher Heraclitus made the famous statement that change is the only constant in life, he had no idea just how drastically humans would alter the water cycle and catchments we rely on for survival. Now, a catchment science dedicated postgraduate degree aims to develop a new generation of water professionals to help diagnose and solve the human impact on our catchments.

Hosted by the International WaterCentre and developed and delivered through collaboration with staff drawn from the Australian Rivers Institute, the School of Environment and Science, and the School of Engineering and Built Environment, the Master of Catchment Science (MCS) is the only catchment science dedicated postgraduate degree in the world.

Course Convenor, Associate Professor Andrew Brooks, says land clearing, vegetation change, urbanisation and extreme weather events from a changing climate, have exposed the fact that our catchments have lost or are losing significant components of their resilience.

Nowhere is this better reflected than in the management pressures now confronting one of the seven wonders of the natural world – the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) World Heritage Area.

“Students completing the MCS learn about the pressures confronting natural assets like the GBR from catchment degradation. Based on the first-hand experience from the teaching staff, they also learn about what can be done to reverse these pressures”, said A/Prof Brooks.

“The MCS is designed to meet the emerging needs of the global water and catchment management sector by using a full range of bio-physical and economic process knowledge and skills to design effective protection and restoration projects and programs.”

One such example is Andrew Hawes who enrolled in the MSC after completing a Bachelors Degree in Ecology at Monash Uni in Melbourne.

Measuring the effects of bushfires within wallum wetland catchments

“The IWC’s courses were recommended to me by a friend, and I ended up deciding that the MCS course was a better fit for me as an ecology graduate,” Andrew explains.

“At the time, I was looking to find a pathway into freshwater ecology within the water industry, and to broaden my skillset, mainly in the hydrologic space.”

“For my final project, I compared multiple ways of remotely measuring the effects of bushfires within wallum wetland catchments. This involved comparing burn severity, which is a measure of the colour change in vegetation before and after a fire event, and fire intensity, which is a satellite measurement of the temperature of an active fire.”

Andrew was able to compare the two methods by generating maps of both burn severity and fire intensity across the eastern Australian coastline during the 2019-2020 bushfire season. The results showed a high degree of similarity between the two mapping methods, but with severity mapping providing more detail than intensity mapping, especially around catchment features and areas with lots of vegetation.

“This suggests that burn severity mapping is the more reliable technique of the two, but there is still plenty of value in using intensity maps, given that the two mapping techniques produce very similar results. Intensity maps are easier to generate than severity maps, so these could still be used as a more rapid method of estimating fire effects. Also, since intensity mapping is a non-visual way to measure fire, it can be used to support burn severity mapping in situations where fire scarring is difficult to see, like when there’s cloud cover.”

Image caption: Maps of Fraser Island highlight the spatial differences between severity (left) and intensity (right). The severity map provides a finer amount detail than the intensity map. Spearman’s rank correlations between the two map datasets were very strong when comparing regions surrounding our wetland study sites. The spearman’s value was approximately 0.96, in all instances where the two maps were compared within equally sized surrounding sub catchments (for this we looked as small as 200m diameter buffers surrounding sites, and as large as all of the upstream catchment area, which we estimated using the Australian Hydrological Geospatial Fabric (AHGF) dataset).

Graduating the next generation of water professionals

“We are very excited to see our first cohort of full time students graduating this December. Students who started in 2020, the year of the pandemic and whom we have supported all the way through to their final capstone applied research projects,” says Associate Professor Brian McIntosh, Program Director of the Master of Catchment Science.

“There is a growing recognition that effective catchment restoration and protection measures require assessment, design and implementation expertise that integrates a range of catchment processes from hydrology through to geomorphology, water quality and ecology. We developed the Master of Catchment Science to respond to this need, as a way of creating professionals literate in catchment monitoring and measurement, in the use of remote sensing and spatial data, in hydrologic and hydraulic modelling and in data and computing skills as well as in the catchment process sciences themselves. There are no other postgraduate degrees that offer a way for those interested or involved in catchment management to pursue a rigorous scientific education to underpin and inform their practice and career development.”

The Master of Catchment Science will be graduating its first cohort of four full time students in December 2021 with further cohorts of full time and part time students still studying. The Program is available as a full time two year or part time four year Masters program delivered online with intensive field based learning opportunities spread throughout. The program is suitable for working professionals as well as full time students.

In addition to the full Masters, the program is available as a one year full time, two year part time Graduate Diploma in Catchment Science, and as two Graduate Certificates – one in Catchment Hydrology, and one in Catchment Processes.