Rosalie Auricht, General manager at Renmark Irrigation Trust in South Australia, speaks to us about how her work is helping to improve the health of riverine ecosystems.
How would you describe your role to someone who may be unfamiliar with your area of work?
The Renmark Irrigation Trust, based in the Riverland region of South Australia, was established in 1893 and delivers water for our horticulture-based community, and other users, as well as managing salinity drainage. The Trust has stewardship over important natural assets of the riverine ecosystem in the Renmark irrigation area and is undertaking restoration of degraded floodplain environments.
Reporting to a Board that is elected from within the membership of the local irrigation community, my job is to manage the many complexities of water supply, delivery and infrastructure for which the organization has responsibility, to anticipate and plan for the challenges facing our Riverland growers, and ensure the Trust continues to underpin the economic, social and environmental sustainability of the Renmark community. The Riverland is one of Australia’s most productive agricultural food bowls, with an abundance of grain, fruit, grapes and nuts grown year-round, which is vital to the local and national economy and the security of our food supply.
What drew you to working in water in particular?
Australia experienced a very severe drought in the first decade of the 21st century, known as the Millennium Drought. The whole of the Murray-Darling Basin and river flows were severely impacted, and horticulturalists were forced to survive with extremely reduced water supply for their crops. It was crippling for the river communities, agriculture, industry, and the environment.
The distressing plight of the Murray River ecosystem made media headlines throughout Australia. Like many people, I was saddened to see this crisis unfold and thought about what the future might hold in an era of increasing climate change and diminishing water resources. Having worked in conservation previously, I was acutely aware of how much we, as humans, have lost through our disregard for the environment. My partner often reminds me that back then I said “Maybe we should do something to help the River” when discussing what to do in the retirement phase of our lives.
At the time, we talked about how the River is the lifeblood of South Australia, one of Australia’s greatest natural assets, and must be managed better. In 2015, coincidentally, the Renmark Irrigation Trust advertised an executive position vacancy, and I was lucky enough to be selected from the applicants for what I can only describe as a dream job in a wonderful organization where I am able to play a role in helping to improve the sustainability of the Murray River.
What does a day in your job look like?
Following the Millennium Drought, a period of major water management reforms commenced in the Murray-Darling Basin with a legislated plan for improvements through to 2024.
Some days I am sitting with other key stakeholders in the Murray River, discussing plans and contributing to the detail of that water management reform. Others are spent working on the program to restore the health of the riverine ecosystem around the Renmark area, while others are devoted to looking ahead and predicting the organisational needs of the future, as well as those of today, as our water management role becomes ever more important. Then, there are days spent working together with the great team of people at the Trust who, above all, will do whatever is needed to ensure the water allocated under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is carefully managed and continues to be delivered to our community when they need it.
What does Water Stewardship mean to you?
Water stewardship is about the critical responsibility and aims we share with many others in natural resource management, government, agriculture, industry, the private sector, and community groups to collaborate in achieving innovative, successful, and sustainable outcomes that truly balance the social, environmental, cultural, and economic benefits from water.
To me, water stewardship means doing our very best in the governance of our finite water resources and making sure there will be a healthy river ecosystem and water for today and tomorrow.
What stage would you say you are at in your Water Stewardship journey?
The Trust has progressively developed good water stewardship practices over its many decades of operation, as one of the leaders in sound water management and irrigation since early settlement of the Renmark region. For example, open water delivery channels used by the Trust were fully converted to pipelines by the mid-1970s, significantly reducing water delivery losses, whereas in many other parts of Australia, open channels are still used.
Many other innovative water conservation and efficiency measures have become common practice at the Trust. Thus, our water stewardship journey began long ago, but I feel we cannot slow in our efforts to do more, since the challenges are increasing each day. In particular, we want to play a role in encouraging others to take action and to show strong leadership. Therefore, the Trust is looking beyond its own region to the whole of the Murray-Darling Basin and is working to build relationships with stakeholders across the catchment. Increased understanding and acceptance of the principles of good water stewardship, as provided for in the Murray-Darling Plan, will help to “smooth the waters” between the catchment communities when inevitable drought returns and water in the Basin becomes scarce again. Australia is a land of floods and droughts!
How have you found working with The Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS)/ AWS Standard?
Applying the AWS Standard to the Trust has helped the organization think about the components of good water stewardship and provides a formal framework for continuous improvement.
What achievement are you most proud of when it comes to water?
When I arrived at the Trust, the Board and the local government, Renmark Paringa Council, had a vision of restoring the degraded floodplain areas near the river to a healthy environment and habitat for wildlife and for enjoyment of the community using the Trust’s infrastructure to deliver Australian Commonwealth water for the environment.
I was able to use my professional skills and experience to bring this vision to fruition. In 2016, the Trust signed a partnership agreement with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, the first irrigation entity to do so in Australia. There are now nine active watering sites and by 2023 there will be sixteen, covering around 136ha of wetlands.
Three years ago, a pair of young black swans began to build a nest at one of the watering sites. Last year they produced six healthy cygnets; the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and the Trust were very proud parents!
What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
When I commenced work in my profession as a Certified Practicing Accountant and financial manager, there were few women in the field, and it was not easy for women to rise to executive positions. It had only been a few years earlier that women were able to continue working in the state government’s public service after they were married.
My experience is that organizations perform better when they have diversity on their Boards and among their employees. I believe women also intuitively understand what is important for the well-being of their community, including the importance of maintaining the health of our riverine ecosystems. Women can lead their communities to achieve the best outcomes for people and for the environment; their perspectives are very broad and holistic.
IWD 2021 asks: “How will you help forge a gender equal world?” In the context of your work on water stewardship, are there any other female leaders in this space who you think others should know about?
I welcome women speaking out now and being heard in many contexts, and I support the principle of equal representation and consideration of women in all walks of life, especially in natural resource management and in protecting our environment.
Michelle Campbell is the Local Engagement Officer in the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office within the Australian Government. Michelle’s enthusiasm for community partnerships was instrumental in developing the Trust’s restoration of the floodplain program. She has been a key supporter and motivator for many advances in water stewardship in our region.