This scientist wants you to sunbathe in a storm water channel

This story will change how you feel about drains.
By Tabitha Carvan July 6, 2020 Reading Time: 4 Minutes

Kate Harriden wants you to sunbathe in a storm water channel.

“I can see you seem a bit confused by the idea,” she says.

Kate, a PhD student at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at ANU, is talking about the huge, concrete storm water channels you find around Canberra. She’s talking about sunbathing in these great, big valleys of hulking, grey infrastructure.

It’s an easy idea to reject, but if you think about it for a moment, it is true that we Canberrans do find ourselves strangely drawn to these channels. We ride our bikes along them, walk the dog, or leap over their trickling, brown water.

“People love them because of the water,” Kate says. “Even though people instinctively get that it’s not a healthy water environment; it’s a crappy piece of concrete and people still give a shit about it.”

“People just love waterways, and they want amenity from waterways,” she continues. “They want to be able to sit. They want to be able to hear a bird sing. They want to hear a frog croak. They want the dog to be able to go for a swim.”

“Imagine how different it could be?” she asks. “Even if you didn’t get rid of the concrete, if you could just get the channel looking attractive!”

This vision is at the heart of Kate’s research: how to improve storm water quality and additionally, how to make storm water channels more appealing to the community, using methods from Indigenous science.

To test out her ideas, Kate has been working in a number of sites in the south of Canberra, installing small, nature-based infrastructure—like leaky weirs and channel bank storage—and measuring their impact on water quality and the surrounds.

“We can’t keep having stormwater channels function the way they do,” she says. “They just flush dirty water out to some other place. It’s all wasted water and you can’t recycle the nutrients; you’re just moving a pollutant from one area and over-polluting another.”

“But because there is this deep, institutional reluctance to remove storm water channels, you still have to try, I believe, to find some way to modify or ameliorate those worst aspects of storm water channels.”

To do this, Kate, a Wiradjuri woman, is applying Indigenous science, not only in terms of water management tools and techniques, but also through Indigenous knowledge-gathering processes.

Related: Fighting for Australia’s water: Bradley Moggridge

“Indigenous people will spend more time at a site, looking at how the site functions,” she explains. “We’re not looking at just, how does this work for me? It’s like, how does this work for the animals and the plants? And what does the water want to do? How does the sun affect that? How are all of these things influenced by the water and how do they influence the water?”

By contrast, Kate says, “if you do this kind of work in the typical, modern way, you don’t go to the field”:

“You sit on your computer and you pull out your Google Earth map and you think you know something. You don’t know that there’s a local mob of water dragons, about 30 individuals large and that people love it. You don’t know that ducks go here, and the seagulls go down there. But that’s actually meaningful.

“That’s actually really important in terms of managing your environment. If you want to maintain both environmental and social resilience, you actually need those spaces where kids can go and scare the poor, old water dragons. They need that kind of engagement. It’s better for those kids to be running amok in that creek with those 30 lizards than it is for them to be sitting at home, doing SimCity.

“But it’s the SimCity version of research that modern researchers tend to do.”

It was at one of her field sites during summer, when Kate started to imagine the sunbathing.

“It was a hot day, I had my sleeves pulled up, and I looked over at my channel bank storage, and I saw that when the site is a bit more established, it would be the perfect spot for it.”

It’s actually not that difficult to picture it, as Kate describes how her research might transform these channels.

“Now, you’re looking at storm water channels and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of concrete’. My small infrastructure would soften that look.

“If you’ve got infrastructure across the middle of that main flow—like a plank of wood—then you can see, even from a distance, that the water flow has actually widened. So people are already attracted to it and wondering, ‘Oh, what’s happening there?’ And then there’s sediment building up behind it, that actually changes the flow and people notice stuff like that.

One of the wooden structures Kate installed. (Image credit: ANU)

“I’m also trying to create artificial bank storage and what you could do with that—which would just freak out institutional water managers no end—is actually seed it and put in sedges and low plants. So, on that slopey bit of the channel, you’d have greenery, and when the big whoosh of water comes over, the plants can start purifying it.

“People already feel pretty connected to the waterways because of the wetlands. And I’m always fascinated by how people are still quite protective of the concrete channel. But if it was actually a natural waterway, people will be way more engaged in it. People would be using them. There would be parts with little ponds deep enough that you could fish in. You wouldn’t get anything great, but for some people, sitting with a line in a pond is actually just the greatest day of all.”

And once you can picture it, the idea becomes impossible to shake. The storm water channels stop looking ugly and start looking like potential, like somewhere you could spend the afternoon.

Kate shrugs in agreement, unsurprised. She knows all this already, can see it perfectly.

“Yep,” she says. “We can’t help ourselves. People just like watching water.”

Kate is looking for community members to help collect data for her research. If you would like to be involved, you can contact her on k.harriden@anu.edu.au

This article was originally published on the Science at ANU website here.