Environmental Consultant — John Leonard

Back to Careers in Geography

I grew up on a farm and learnt about improvising and problem solving from my father, uncles and neighbours. Making things work seemed to come naturally to them; it was the pioneer tradition in action.

My secondary schooling started like that too. I spent my early years in a technical school, working with metals and other materials. Later, I wanted to complete Year 12, and I moved to an academic secondary college; but those 'fix it' principles were deeply embedded by then.

After school, I did a three-year Diploma course at the Ballarat School of Mines (now part of the University of Ballarat). I had completed a report on underground water usage during my diploma, and my interest in that led me to do a post-graduate course on hydrogeology (study of underground water flow) in Adelaide.

My thesis there was on 'Agricultural Water-Use and Hydrogeology'. I developed a real interest in underground water flows about then. At the time, there wasn't any real public consciousness of hydrology except perhaps for the Great Artesian Basin. The next twenty years were to see major breakthroughs in public discussion and policy making in this area, and it has been absorbing to be a part of that process.

After a lazy year, filled with casual jobs and plenty of football, I went to Sydney to complete a Masters in Applied Science (Hydrology) at the University of New South Wales.

My Masters thesis topic was one of the first of its kind in Australia. I investigated the leachate (polluted leakage) from the Lucas Heights Municipal Landfill (also known as the dump!). Prior to the 1980s, landfill had been largely an engineering issue. We discovered that pollutants were running into the Georges River via spring systems. As a result of the findings we uncovered in my thesis, grants were made to foster further investigation. This led to five to ten more postgraduate studies into various aspects of the Lucas Heights landfill and the problem of leachate impact on the environment.

I was offered several Ph.D opportunities from various universities at this time, and I did enroll. But the lure of the mighty dollar was too great, and I took a job in the Groundwater Branch of the Geological Survey of Victoria. My temporary jobs there evolved into a permanent position, and over a decade, I worked on matters such as: groundwater resources in the Port Phillip Bay catchment; reviews of Melbourne landfill sites; and studies commissioned by the Environmental Pollution Authority.

The Groundwater Branch was very active in mapping (under) groundwater with a view to creating greater efficiencies in the storage and use of our water resources. We were particularly interested to identify areas where groundwater surface water (dams, irrigation, rainfall and run-off) could be used more effectively.

There is a greater understanding now of the tenuous balance in ecosystems—minimum required stream flows, and the finite development potential of our water systems. The Snowy River and Murray River are obvious case studies.

I use huge amounts of computer generated statistical data, backed up by surface and subterranean mapping, to dispel the 'out of sight out of mind' mentality so common in the 1980s. I became part of a worldwide group of colleagues keen to communicate with others who understood and explored these issues. The tide of environmental disasters, especially in the USA, was aiding our arguments too.

As consciousness rose, the question of 'who pays?' became a bigger and bigger issue. In one of my later governmental roles, as Branch Manager, Groundwater Policy and Planning Division, we explored the delicate political tasks of determining how ecosystems would be treated, and who would repair the damage done to them.

Over five years into the early 1990s, I began to understand the bigger picture—the business and political manoeuvring that accompanies major policy decision making.

And then it was time for a break! I accepted an offer of a consultancy to a post in Oman in the Middle East. Perhaps I should have travelled overseas sooner, because the combination of technical, professional and cultural learning was amazing to me. Even reflecting now, I can see ways in which it helped my awareness of work and life.

After nearly three years, I returned to my old workplace, and though I stayed happily for more than a year, I needed to move on. I left, and helped set up the Melbourne branch of a large American engineering and environmental consulting firm.

Three years ago, I began my own business, John Leonard Consulting Services. It's been a challenge starting out on my own, but I do enjoy the independence and flexibility, and the work is always interesting.