Restorative Engineering and the new eco engineer
Civil engineering has traditionally been about the built environment, the human made infrastructure –roads, buildings, bridges, cities, water & waste systems – all the skills, knowledge and materials that have enabled the growth of our contemporary civilisation. The ‘unbuilt’ environment – Nature – has been seen for long decades as either bountiful resource or unwilling victim to the march of the hard hatted army.
But perhaps true innovation is to be found in the reconciliation of these traditional antagonists. There is a new generation of engineers, ones who have grown up in a culture of heightened environmental awareness, who are beginning a new great work - of restoration. Instead of always ‘moving forward’, they ask, can we enact a kind of return, a return to the genius of natural systems, to heal our ailing planet?
Associate Professor William Glamore of the UNSW Water Research Laboratory is one of these new engineers. “What if, “he asks, “engineers sought linkages with ecologists to recreate nature? What if we sought to rebuild the environment?”
At its core, this is still engineering, even though it is about going back to what went before it: natural systems. It is a movement away from what humankind wants to what our whole world needs. This new eco-engineering is still focused on problem solving and project building. The innovation lies in understanding natural systems so intrinsically that we can reconstruct them biomimetically. We learn from nature instead of building atop it. We recognise and reconstruct the organising forces, understanding the layers of interrelationship between structural, behavioural and functional elements.
Professor Glamore hopes we could, in this way, avoid catastrophe. Too often today, catastrophe happens and we try to play catch up or patch up. This is especially true of localised, repetitive environmental disasters that often go unnoticed. Across Australia, all around the world, every single hour of every single day, these small catastrophes happen. They are often less-than-sexy and do not provide click-worthy media content. Fish kills are such events. They are ubiquitous, avoidable and indicators of a much greater environmental imbalance.
Our landscape can be restored and large-scale restoration is the best solution.
According to the NSW Department of Primary Industries ‘fish kills’ are “any sudden and unexpected mass mortality of wild or cultured fish". Professor Glamore recently wrote that “fish kills are currently being reported in our estuaries across NSW. Following the recent rains, acidic runoff is discharging into our coastal rivers and wetlands. This insidious problem is killing fish, polluting waterways and acidifying our estuaries. While we know it happens every day, the magnitude of the event is always worse following big rainfall.”[i]
Fish kills reveal an imbalance. Estuaries are important; they function as the kidneys of a river and are indicators of the health of entire catchments. Estuaries in NSW are sick and the fish kills indicate this in a particularly visible and overt way. And we know why this is happening: the acidification of estuaries because of poor land use planning.
As he points out: “As with many wicked problems, no single group is responsible for creating these environmental problems and, hence, no single group is responsible for fixing them. Indeed, all levels of government were involved in creating the acid problem, but existing programs lack a prioritised or coordinated approach that can match the magnitude of the problem.”
It is in precisely these kinds of contexts that a return to nature is required. But nature is astoundingly complex and endangered ecological communities require peculiarly complex solutions. They need to exist in a fine balance, influenced by numerous factors including topography, geology and hydrology. Restoring this balance, to foster the genesis of an endangered ecological community, is a multi-disciplinary challenge, but one that has been successfully accomplished in projects led by Glamore such as the WRL sponsored Tomago Wetland Restoration Project.
This project employed the very latest engineering methods and technology, including automated gates that respond to water pressure and adaptive management processes that can alter a project according to the information provided by cutting edge data collection. These approaches avoid the expensive and, at times, ineffective hit and miss methods of the past. The project won awards and recognition for the engineering team including the 2013 National Trust of Australia’s Award for Conservation, a 2014 Engineers Australia Excellence Award, and the 20015 NSW Green Globe Award.
This grand environmental mission of restorative engineering requires respectful collaboration between academics, industry, landholders and governments to foster a holistic multi-disciplinary approach. Environmental engineers need to exercise not just their drive but their success, their power and their capital to communicate the desperate environmental need that supersedes the profit motive, not just to colleagues and sympathisers within their field but to other stakeholders and to a wider community.
No longer can Australians be complacent about our surfeit of natural beauty. Over the past 200 years we have transformed our rivers, floodplains and wetlands using the ungentle methods of draglines, dozers and dynamite. We have decreased fish and bird habitats, endangered ecosystems and severely impacted natural water quality processes. Environmental awareness has grown since the mid twentieth century, but we need more awareness and discussion about restorative engineering.
Glamore points to some signs of hope. Three pieces of new legislation in NSW are converging to promote a restoration industry: the Marine Estate Management Act (2014) and Regulation (2017); the Coastal Management Act (2016) and the Biodiversity Conservation Act (2016). A commercial restoration industry is developing – supported by evidence-based policies, planning efficiencies (DAs), triple bottom line accounting - driven in part by the need for sustainable fisheries production, and further supported by shifting community paradigms.
“Wetlands provide an important service to humans in reducing flood impacts, cushioning the influence of coastal tsunamis, filtering pollutants and helping communities during severe droughts, “ says Glamore. “Recent research suggests that wetlands will be even more important in reducing disaster risks under increased sea levels and storms due to climate change. For our endangered and polluted estuaries and wetlands we have shown, through research and successful projects, that our landscape can be restored and that large-scale restoration is the best solution.”