Map it out for biodiversity

Biodiversity and software do not seem like obvious bedfellows. At South East Water, creating the Environmental Sensitivity Map provides the water authority with high-level information for risk management and incident response.

Biodiversity and software do not seem like obvious bedfellows. At South East Water, creating the Environmental Sensitivity Map provides the water authority with high-level information for risk management and incident response.

Katrina Hall is the Environment Manager at South East Water. She was involved in developing a tool to identify environmental sensitivities to proactively protect our environment.

“The Environmental Sensitivity Map project arose from the need to have easily accessible information about environmental receptors across our service area,” she said. “When I arrived at South East Water, the project was already underway, but the team hadn’t worked out how to make the data easy to interpret. My main contribution was to guide how we compared the different environmental features and assigned sensitivity rankings.”

The map offers insights into 26 sensitivity categories across local waterways, land and marine environments. Typing an address into the map reveals information about sensitivities in the surrounding environment, with colouring to indicate a 1-5-point sensitivity rating.

Ensuring the correct ranking focuses on two different aspects — irreplaceability and vulnerability. Determining these two separate factors when it comes to endangered species and critical vegetation was challenging.

“Irreplaceability looks at the abundance of the species or vegetation,” Hall said. “It essentially looks at how common it is. The rarer the species, the greater its irreplaceability score. Vulnerability looks at what impacts different species and vegetation. We generally look at how resilient the species or environment is to stressors.”

Dwarf galaxias inspires project

The dwarf galaxias is a very small, scaleless, and elongated native freshwater fish and one of four members of the genus Galaxiella in Australia. These days, it is mainly found in the Mitchell River Basin near Bairnsdale, west of Dandenong Creek near Melbourne in Victoria. It is also found on Flinders Island in Bass Strait and in north-eastern and north-western Tasmania.

The small fish inspired the creation of the map following an operational response to a spill from South East Water’s sewer network into a creek in the utility’s network, discovered to be a breeding location for the species. Upon identifying the creek’s environmental significance, South East Water tailored its response to ensure the habitat was restored as quickly as possible.

This incident highlighted the importance of quickly and easily identifying any environmental factors to ensure the best environmental outcome. The resulting database of information has been a game-changer for South East Water, providing a single source of verified information about the environment the utility operates in.

“Now that we have this data, we need to look at how things impact individual species,” said Hall. “When we look at the dwarf galaxias, for example, we know they are sensitive to chlorine. It changes how we treat spills in areas that this endangered species is known to live in.”

While initially created as an incident response tool, it’s grown to assist with strategic environmental planning, assessments and regulatory requirements. The map provides an essential baseline of understanding for areas of ecological significance within its service area.

Charlie Littlefair, South East Water’s General Manager of Liveable Water Solutions, agreed that the map has enabled the utility to further deliver on its commitment to protecting the environment and has long-reaching benefits.

“We have a duty of care to be proactive stewards of the natural environment in which we operate to minimise the risk of harm, pollution or degradation. The Environmental Sensitivity Map allows us to quickly see what’s on our doorstep and what kind of risk management is required to protect our environment and support the community in which we’re operating.

“We’re also empowered with the insights to strategically map environmental sensitivities that guide the design of our assets and make biodiversity improvements in future capital projects,” Mr Littlefair said.

Creating an accurate and reliable database

One thing not often considered in such projects is where to find accurate, up-to-date data. In the case of South East Water, it is accessing a range of publicly available datasets and bringing them together in one place. These datasets were obtained through Melbourne Water’s Healthy Waterways Strategy 2018-28, stream habitat indices, and the Victorian Biodiversity Atlas to determine locations for endangered species as well as various other datasets.

“We also have information about where all the community facilities are in our service area,” Hall said. “That includes things like surf life savings clubs, sporting ovals, yacht clubs, and agriculture and aquaculture centres. We even look at where public health and aged care facilities are. That’s because they are all impacted by spills and other such situations.”

South East Water partnered with Alluvium Consulting Australia and DiscoverEI to develop the map and dashboard.

Impact of the map

Hall believes that the Environmental Sensitivities Map is now the go-to destination in the event of any spill.

“We have had fantastic uptake from our operations people in this regard,” she said.

“The big advantage is that they look at the map and instantly have access to location-specific environmental data. They only need to reach out to environmental specialists if they need more help. It’s been very empowering because, after hours, those team members don’t necessarily need to call on specialists. They have a lot of information and can make better decisions for spill responses.”

The next stage of the map is to add some additional datasets that focus on the environmental condition of estuaries using the recently developed Victorian Index of Estuary Condition (IEC). This would further support South East Water’s project areas.

The project team uses the information in their initial environmental activity description. It allows our teams to properly assess the impact of their activities and what they can do to minimise the impact on any species in the area.

A significant benefit to the project team is that all the data is in one space. Hall believes this is an improvement over the option to look at multiple data sets and potentially make errors.

What is the future of the project?

The Environmental Sensitivity Map provides numerous opportunities to expand its scope. Hall believes there are plenty of opportunities to use the map for biodiversity enhancement – ideally beyond South East Water’s service area.

“As we build that biodiversity enhancement framework, we may find that we need to modify the Environmental Sensitivity Map over time,” said Hall. “At the same time, I’d love to expand its usage to other water authorities in Victoria. If we were working with other water authorities and organisations, everyone would have access to the same data and work off the same datasets.”

The economies of scale generated from working together would improve opportunities across Melbourne and Victoria, according to Hall. She looks at the Oil Spill Response Atlas (OSRA) as inspiration for what can be done.

“There is enormous potential in what we could achieve together. Even though the water industry is generally very low-impact, things still go wrong. We are working to satisfy our customers, who have told us they value their waterways and green spaces. The Environmental Sensitivity Map will help maintain those areas.”

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