Elliot Hannan leads SMEC’s Dams and Hydropower business in Australia and is currently the Project Director for the SMEC Planning and Development Services team working with WaterNSW to deliver the Dungowan Dam and Mole River Dam projects in Northern New South Wales (NSW). Dungowan Dam includes the replacement of a dam constructed in the 1970’s with a larger dam and Mole River Dam is a green-field dam project. These projects, which are jointly funded by the Commonwealth and State Government, are being been fast-tracked and will contribute to Australia’s long-term water security in the face of increasing drought frequency to help deliver secure water supply for agriculture and population growth. In his role as the SMEC Planning and Development Project Director, Elliot has been successfully navigating the delivery of these geographically remote projects amid COVID-19. 

As Project Director on two of the largest bulk water infrastructure projects underway in Australia, what is the significance of these projects? 

Most projects in the dam industry are based on upgrades and maintenance of existing dams. For these two projects, we are in a rare position of working with WaterNSW in designing new dams and being able to enhance the livelihoods of the communities we are serving.  By providing long-term water supply security, these projects enable the regions to sustain future population growth, and support irrigation and agricultural activity.

With construction of the Dungowan Pipeline imminent and the Dungowan dam proposed in 2021, they will be significant projects contributing to the COVID-19 economic recovery, particularly for rural communities in NSW.

Both dams are located in what would be considered ‘remote’ locations in comparison to most other bulk water infrastructure projects, which are closer to major cities. What does this mean for project delivery and how have your teams managed this? 

The remote location does provide challenges, but the local regions have been fantastic in their support of the projects. Where possible, we have looked to actively engage with local suppliers for services such as geotechnical investigations, survey, accommodation and service locating amongst others. 

To date, the majority of work has been office or home based for our employees, so the issues of remote locations haven’t been prevalent. However now that we are moving into the construction phase of the Dungowan pipeline, we will need people on the ground.

As the sites are in beautiful parts of the country and coming into spring, there is no shortage of volunteers wanting to spend time at the site to undertake the numerous activities, particularly the biodiversity studies supporting the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

What skills do you look for when putting together a team for projects like this? 

The Planning and Development team needed to deliver these projects requires a combination of general dam engineers, who have a holistic view of the scheme, and specialist support services providing the detail. At SMEC we are fortunate to have some very experienced Dam Engineers such Peter Darling, Jonathon Reid and Francisco Lopez who are leaders in their field and bring global experience to regional NSW. 

Supporting the leaders in our business we have Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) modellers, structural analysts, engineering geologists and mechanical engineers.  Also, as part of the project development, significant geotechnical investigations were undertaken. Having a geotechnical team exceeding 150 people allowed us to prioritise these projects and complete the programme on time.

Although these projects are in Australia’s local context, does global experience play a part? 

All our technical leads on these projects have global experience across New Zealand, Africa, Asia and USA. Over the past 10 years there have not been many new dam projects across Australia. However, during this time, many of our technical specialists in Australia have consulted on overseas dam projects, such as the Thwake Multi-purpose dam in Kenya and Susu Dam in Malaysia. This has given our team the unique opportunity to work on major international dam projects and gain experience particularly relevant to support the delivery of these projects in NSW. 

In addition to the normal challenges of delivering projects of this scale, these projects started amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. How have you navigated project delivery during Covid-19 and what learnings have you discovered? 

These projects commenced in mid-March 2020, and the inception meeting with WaterNSW was quickly followed by state lockdowns. This meant no face to face meetings with not only our client but also our project team. Most of our management and technical team is based in Melbourne, so we’ve faced the additional challenge of the ‘second wave’ lockdowns in Victoria. Interestingly, these projects have provided our staff with a constant through the pandemic and something to focus on. 

I feel one of the most important things we’ve done, and continue to do, is actively reach out to team members. Its much harder to judge how people are dealing with the different challenges via video conferencing, particularly in large groups. Proactively reaching out for one-on-one conversations has allowed me to appreciate the different issues they are dealing with depending on their individual circumstances. 

One of the learnings that I will take out of the pandemic is the relationships you can develop with your clients through collaborative and transparent behaviours. Throughout the pandemic we’ve all had to be more open with our mental health, and having these discussions with colleagues and clients, highlights the challenges that we all face and brings people closer together. I don’t think I’ve been part of project where the lines between client and consultant have been so blurred, which has been so refreshing. Ironically, it has taken us all to be stuck in our homes to be able to be closer together.

When you look to the future of the water industry, what do you think is the greatest challenge? 

One of the greatest challenges facing the water industry, and particularly dams and hydropower projects, is the balance between new infrastructure, water security, regional growth in agriculture and the impacts on the environment. 

Managing this balance requires significant consultation, collaboration and research to develop projects which meet our community and economic need for secure water supply, and also the needs of the environment. By bringing together engineering, environment and community expertise, we can capitalise on opportunities for innovation, critical thinking and technical improvements to address some of these challenges.