Winston Churchill Trust Story: Ben Dyer, managing river systems across jurisdictions

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In 1999, I headed off on my Churchill Fellowship to the United States, Canada and South Africa to learn about how large river systems are managed and operated across multiple jurisdictions.  I was awarded an Australian Capital Territory Churchill Fellowship, and as an engineer with the Murray Darling Basin Commission (now the Murray Darling Basin Authority), I was interested in all facets of river operation and management.

Winston Churchill Trust logo

I work in many different areas, from managing major dams, providing environmental flows, and monitoring water quality.  I have a particular focus on how this is all simulated in models (so we can test and optimise new operating rules before applying them for real).  I had an awesome trip and saw so much – the greatest value from my Churchill Fellowship was not:

  •  the inspection through the very heart of Hoover dam (USA) or Katse Dam (Lesotho – South Africa) – though both were great experiences
  •  talking to some incredible scientists at US Bureau of Reclamation about their new GIS based hydrological modelling – absolute state of the art work
  •  a great report or model that I could bring home and apply directly.

The greatest value I received from my Churchill fellowship came from the many discussions I had with people who shared their ideas and principles for managing rivers.  I also saw a large variety of landscapes, visited the rivers that run through them, and talked to people about how they manage their waterways and deal with the inevitable opportunities and challenges that characterise river management.

I have brought these broader perspectives back to Australia and applied them directly in my work, as well as sharing what I learnt with colleagues who are working in the broader river management space.  I learnt from:

  • the environmental regulators in Canada about the need for a technical base upon which to have difficult water allocation discussions (pretty much the case for all water based discussions);
  • the Asset engineers in Utah about a well thought through, very different, approach to managing operational risk at dams;
  • the University of Colorado modelling team about how to integrate their approaches into Australian river modelling;
  • the manager in South Africa who, in his region had already delivered basic water supply to over half a million people, but had another one million people to reach who did not have basic water supply, this really put our Australian situation into context; and
  • the Canadian experience of managing floodplains, flood insurance and levees.

The conversations I had with these people, in their countries and alongside their rivers, enriched my understanding of river management far more than reading a book on the subject could ever do.

Walking along the riverbank to check on some ‘oldtimers’ – these trees are very old and vital parts of our river systems.

Since returning I have worked in wide variety of roles, many of which I could not have predicted when I headed off on my trip fifteen years ago.  The highlights for my work career since the Churchill include:

  • river modelling and starting the 15 year process to change the way we model our rivers;
  • implementing a water sharing agreement for the Wimmera Mallee system;
  • managing the sea to Hume fishway program that opened 2200 km up for native fish; and
  • managing the Environmental Works and Measures Program that has built works to provide efficient environmental watering of 35 000 Ha of floodplain.
Ben Dyer, construction at Hattah Lakes

Ben Dyer, during the construction phase of river works at Hattah Lakes

These are some of the many diverse roles I have the opportunity to undertake across the field of water resource management.  I strongly encourage anyone interested in learning from overseas to apply for a Winston Churchill Fellowship, it really is a trip of a lifetime and something that has shaped my career.

Cantala regulator at the wonderful Hattah Lakes.

Cantala regulator at the wonderful Hattah Lakes.

To find out more about the Winston Churchill Trust, visit their website.


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hattah/kulkyne national park
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