Fifty years ago, the New South Wales State Government invited the University of New South Wales (UNSW) to establish a Water Research Laboratory (WRL) at Manly Vale, to foster direct collaboration between government and water research investigators. Since that time, WRL has continued to make a significant contribution to Australian water industry and the national and international profile of UNSW and its School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. WRL provides expert water engineering advice, undertakes fundamental water research, conducts undergraduate and postgraduate courses and offers community training for industry and government.
WRL has helped develop and contributes to the ongoing cost of base level academic, technical and administrative support provided by the School. It also contributes to the cost of property maintenance provided by UNSW. Contributions are provided from overheads included in fees charged for executing research commissions from industry and government. This is a funding model that is unusual anywhere in the world for an engineering research organisation of WRL’s age and scope.
The six key elements to this long term success of WRL continue to be:
- A critical mass of UNSW academic staff and research associates committed not only to finding solutions to the contemporary problems of the Australian water engineering industry, but also to advancing fundamental water research;
- A strong team of highly-trained professional engineers undertaking contract applied research on a project basis for industry and government;
- Strong interaction between theoretical and practical problem solving: fundamental understanding yielding new practical solutions coupled with present problems spawning new research and engineering training;
- The unique suite of sophisticated and large-scale water research facilities developed by the staff with the financial support of industry partners;
- A global perspective on water engineering built on international collaborative relationships and the unique Water Reference Library collection; and,
- Strong cooperative relationships between all staff and students, nurtured at all levels of the organisation.
WRL maintains an international reputation in the specific disciplines of:
1. Civil and Environmental Engineering Hydraulics
Understanding the flow of water, air and sediment through pipes, turbomachines, open channels and across the landscape is one of the most challenging of technical disciplines. Engineering design must recognise the inherent uncertainties of measurement and modelling methods when providing practical solutions to industry’s needs.
2. Coastal Engineering
Approximately 86% of Australians live in the coastal fringe with consequent major development of urban areas, industry and supporting infrastructure. Many of the processes of wave formation and impact as well as shoreline and structural response remain poorly understood. Robust coastal engineering design techniques are essential for sustainable coastal development. Present concerns regarding greenhouse gas emissions are prompting a fresh look at the potential to harness energy in the coastal zone as well as re-consideration of planning and design criteria for coastal developments.
In a country dominated by long droughts interspersed with floods, groundwater is a key water reserve: protected from evaporative loss but subject to contamination and potential overexploitation. Capturing key field information is critical to an adequate understanding of groundwater movement and its coupling to surface waters. The development of large-scale geophysical techniques to “see” beneath the ground surface is a key aspect of groundwater assessment.
4. Estuarine Engineering
Estuaries are highly productive and complex ecosystems due to the high levels of nutrients available from catchment runoff and their large and diverse habitats. As coastal development occurs, engineering design is required to: mitigate adverse environmental effects and minimize impacts; find appropriate means of discharging treated wastewater; and, develop strategies for determining appropriate estuary fresh water flows to minimize impacts on ecosystems and threatened species.
The UNSW Civil Engineering degree course began in 1948 with its content generally in line with those of the older universities - basic sciences, materials, structural analysis and design, surveying, hydraulics and a range of engineering practice subjects. Its distinguishing features were a humanities component and a particular emphasis on water engineering (hydraulics, hydrology, water supply and waste-water disposal).
School laboratory space was insufficient to cater for the scope of water engineering studies at UNSW so, early in 1954, the University Council approved the establishment of WRL at Manly Vale. This location provided opportunity for direct collaboration between UNSW water research and the New South Wales government water engineering laboratories of the Metropolitan Water Sewerage and Drainage Board, the Department of Public Works and the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission. All these government laboratories are now incorporated within Manly Hydraulics Laboratory operated by the Department of Commerce.
Initial construction was undertaken by the Department of Public Works for the University and consisted of an office with a class-room block, a laboratory building and a workshop. Site infrastructure work included an access road and a water supply line from the Manly Dam. WRL was in full operation by the end of 1958 and officially opened by the State Governor, Sir Eric Woodward, in July 1959. The total cost was approximately ₤125,000. (Approximately equivalent to $3,000,000 in 2008).
Expert Water Engineering Advice
Project investigations for government and industry commenced at WRL in 1957 with a flood model study commissioned by the Launceston Flood Protection Authority to support the investigations of the then Head of School, Professor Crawford Munro who had been engaged as a hydrological advisor. School staff had been previously engaged in physical model and analytical studies for the Electricity Commission of New South Wales. WRL completed 15 project investigations for the Commission and a similar number of projects for other government organisations and industry within its first four years of existence.
The extent of this project activity was not foreseen in the initial planning of WRL but reflected the growing need of government and industry for strategic and detailed expert water engineering advice. Consequently, the WRL facilities rapidly developed during the period 1960 to 1972 including:
- An extension to the main building supported by a Unisearch grant;
- A sprinkler irrigation laboratory, funded by the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission;
- A second laboratory/office/lecture facility supported by a Universities Commission grant; and,
- A third laboratory, funded by Unisearch, the industrial consulting arm of UNSW.
The establishment of Unisearch Limited and WRL by UNSW in the same year, 1959, led to ongoing vigorous interaction with Australian industry and a mutually-beneficial relationship that continued until 2000 when the School assumed responsibility for direction of all activities at WRL.
Since inception, WRL projects has undertaken in the vicinity of a total of 2000 industrial projects with a commercial value of over $2M per annum. Approximately 40 technical reports are issued by WRL staff per year.
Project advice provided by WRL was awarded quality certified status in 1994 and in 2007 this was upgraded to a quality management system.
Today, WRL Projects continues to maintain its reputation for authoritative and timely assessment of difficult water engineering issues. This advice is primarily associated with major infrastructure development around Australia including port facilities, shore protection, large-scale water supply and wastewater management. Greater School interest in the entire operation has motivated greater focus on the reporting of study findings as scholarly publications. All senior projects staff are specialist industry leaders, developing focussed industrial research programmes within their discipline. Academic staff continue their own strong collaborative relationships with industry and play an active role advising and reviewing project execution.
Fundamental Water Engineering Research
From 1958 to 2008, the population of Australia has approximately doubled from 10 million to just over 20 million - still the lowest mean population density of any habitable continent: a big country with the lowest rainfall density, a big coast, big water management challenges and relatively few people.
The national context and the changing nature of industry’s needs have required academic staff to maintain a diverse range of research priorities and programmes. Particularly in the early years at WRL, no prior research had been undertaken in the Australian context and academic staff were required to reassess international approaches and carve out new methods suitable for the unique character of the Australian continent. Many developed into international research leaders.
It is impossible to capture adequately the diverse range of fundamental research completed at WRL (many remain extensively cited to this day) but here we focus on possibly two of the most significant long-term programmes:
1. Coastal engineering in a changing climate
- WRL project and academic staff are presently preparing national pilot assessment of sea level and coastal impacts arising from climate change. This follows a 20 year track record of successful research and development of engineering guidelines
- Development of novel shore protection structures and associated design methods (e.g. the Seabee scour protection unit, floating breakwaters, submerged breakwaters, geotextiles)
- WRL provided lead authorship of the national strategy for determination of environmental water needs within coastal catchments. This strategy is presently being implemented at state government level with consequent emergent research issues
- Development and international collaboration for sophisticated beach monitoring technologies and prediction of beach response to long and short-term forcing
- Major investigative programme to determine engineering methods of protecting and enhancing endangered coastal wetland habitats
- Changes in beach shape in the critical swash zone
- Storm wave generation, dynamics and air-sea interaction
2. Scour protection
- Protection from erosion is the biggest cost item in engineering construction for floods and coastal storm damage mitigation. Investigation of scour issues at WRL has fallen into the decades as follows:
- The potential for grass as scour protection (1960s)
- Vehicle vulnerability on flooded causeways (1960s)
- Vulnerability of people to flood flows on causeways (1970s)
- Pattern-placed units for coastal scour protection (1970s)
- The design of gabion flood structures (1980s)
- The use of seagrasses and aquatic macrophytes for scour protection (1990s)
- Cost-optimal rock placement on steep slopes (2000s)
- Management of vessel-induced scour (1970s-2000s)
- Sand-filled geocontainers for coastal scour protection (2000s)
At the time of writing (early 2009), two new major research programmes are just commencing at WRL: a quantitative understanding of the coupling of ground and surface waters to enable sustainable management of major irrigation areas; and, optimum adaptation methods for coastal settlements and infrastructure in response to climate change. Major innovative, significant and exciting research programmes are set to continue at WRL.
Water Engineering Education
The School of Civil and Environmental Engineering has been providing specialist masters and doctoral training since its inception. Water engineering postgraduate teaching and supervision by both the WRL academic and project staff has continued to remain a significant component of the training provided by the School. Practical water engineering experience and examples from the industry advice provided by WRL have significantly contributed to the teaching programmes of the academic and project staff.
WRL academic staff played a major role in the establishment of the first environmental engineering degree in Australia in the early 1990s.
Specialist training courses continue to be held by WRL staff. Recent examples of these include seminars at the Australasian Coasts and Ports conference; groundwater training for farmers; and, numerical modelling of coastal contaminant dispersion in south-east Asia with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.
Over the course of 50 years, WRL has continued to respond with fresh insights into the contemporary challenging problems facing the Australian water industry. Recent UNSW and School initiatives to establish a Water Research Centre and a Connected Waters Centre (investigating ground and surface water connections), will see WRL play a major role in both of these initiatives.