Catchment man moves on

By Geoff Adams

Each morning on his way to work, Chris Norman has an up-close reminder of his work in the river catchments.

He parks his car some distance from the office and walks along the Goulburn River banks, breathing in the air from the strip of forest and witnessing how people interact in the early morning.

In a clear view from his desk, the 55-year-old sees two sides of the catchment — a huge concrete litter trap, which is needed to intercept stormwater rubbish from the Goulburn River, and two nesting eastern rosellas, taking advantage of a hollow in a gum tree.

Mr Norman leaves Shepparton next month to take up a job in Queensland, after 10 years as chief executive officer of the Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority — a job he inherited from the pioneering Bill O'Kane.

Starting out as an agricultural scientist, he was a regional manager with the Department of Primary Industries before joining Goulburn Broken CMA in the top job. But he has an even longer history with the CMA, as he had sat on the board representing the department.

For most of his career he was linked to the catchment and was closely involved with the salinity program when it was leading the fight against salt incursion in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

The groundwork laid in those days in laser grading, whole farm plans and better drainage contributed to the region's push for irrigation efficiency in later years.

“The whole concept in the last 10 years is about resilience and that has brought an international recognition,” Mr Norman said.

“We can't stop the environment being hit by a range of shocks, so the question is: how do we build up our resistance to those shocks and how do we bounce forward, not bounce back, but how do you move forward from that?

“I was in Canberra yesterday (on Monday last week) with Minister Ley in a roundtable on bushfire environment and all she talked about was building environment for the future, because the world is different.

“That's the journey we have been on for a long time.

“That's a massive achievement that is hard to see.

“On the ground when I started here we were delivering 3500 Ml of environmental water — we are now delivering between 600 and 800 000 Ml of environmental water. The world has completely changed.

“We have had an amazing impact from that, we have learnt an enormous amount from that,” he said.

“I am first to say we have made mistakes along the way.

“Farmers have been irrigating for 100 years, we have been irrigating for 10. They have made a heap of mistakes and so have we. They have learnt from those mistakes and so have we.

“This river was in a very ordinary state after the 2010-11 drought.

“After eight years of environmental water, I guarantee, if you talk to a fisher — I used to catch 10 carp to one native. And now it's the reverse.

“So we have done a big job and we have more work ahead of us.

“They are in a heaps better condition than if we hadn't put these measures in place.”

Mr Norman also counts the on-farm efficiency projects as a plus for the region, delivering $175 million in investments to farm businesses and 620 out of a possible 622 projects.

He said the improving relationship with indigenous people, including the Yorta Yorta and Taungurung people, was another Goulburn Broken CMA achievement.

“Somewhere along the way we have to decide if we want to sacrifice a river system which will be hard to repair.”

He describes the waterway as a working river.

“We will never get it back to pristine. This river is flowing higher over summer than it ever has.

“We are not about stopping sustainable farming,” he said.

“We have tried to get a more balanced picture between environment and agricultural production.”

Mr Norman praised his staff whom, he said, had been "sensational" and enabled the authority to engage with different voices.

Many are involved in community organisations, which he has encouraged.

“Personally my learnings (in the last 10 years) have been how committed they are, how passionate they are, and how they make me look good.

“Their passion for what they are on about here, talking to the community, the extraordinary linkages with the community are enormous.”

Mr Norman mentions a few names of critics of the CMA and says that, although they may not always agree with him, he has tried to maintain open dialogue.

He has endeavoured to develop and maintain relationships with leading CEOs in the region.

“You have to be able to build trust so you can have the hard conversations when they come along.”

He talks with pride about one organisation which he sees is undervalued and probably under-resourced — Landcare.

“We get about $3 million in labour every year from Landcare. No charge!

“We have the best set of Landcare facilitators here. Many are ex-department people who are well qualified.

“I can't believe the government doesn't see them as the best thing since sliced bread.”

He says Landcare is well connected and efficient in delivering outcomes.

A curious view, which some might see as contradictory, is Mr Norman's desire to get wild horses out of the Barmah Forest.

He loves thoroughbreds and is involved in horse racing syndicates.

“I love horses, but they don't belong in a national park. I would have liked to see them out by now.”

His successor will also have to continue to advance the arguments for environmental flows in the rivers.

“We need to sell the message. Perhaps up to 80 per cent of the people don't understand getting environmental outcomes out of the flows.”

Mr Norman leaves with one broader issue which has not been resolved, and that is funding for the organisation.

Most of its money is awarded on a project basis, which means that there are no guarantees of stability in the long term.

“I reckon if you gave CMAs $5 million as a base, then you knew you had the stability and assurance of a future, and be a lot more efficient.

“I think the model is flawed.”