Sydney Water's Environmental Regulatory Manager Iain Fairbairn on two decades in the water industry
In the first in a series of interviews, the Australian Water Association’s Operations Specialist Network speaks to Sydney Water Environmental Regulatory Manager Iain Fairbairn about what gets him out of bed in the morning, the biggest challenges facing his area of the industry and what he does to relax.
What was your first job?
Delivering newspapers on my bike when I was in high school. It was a good job to give me a few dollars and get some exercise; just needed to be careful of magpies and dogs. During university, I progressed to delivering pizzas.
How did you get into operations and/or the water industry?
I studied chemical engineering at Sydney Uni, and during my last year I applied for jobs in all sorts of industries. After narrowly missing out on a few jobs with Caltex in Brisbane, Australian Pulp and Paper in Hobart and Incitec Chemicals in Newcastle, I was accepted into the graduate program with Sydney Water. My first 12 years were spent in water and wastewater operations.
How would you describe your job in a few words?
Ensuring that environmental regulation supports our business strategy and the delivery of services that our customers value.
Water and wastewater are silent services – most customers don’t think about them unless something goes wrong.
What keeps you excited about what you do?
I currently work as the Environmental Regulatory Manager for Sydney Water. It is very rewarding working with a very talented group of specialists in policy, economics, regulation, communications, planning, science and waterway modelling. I keep in touch with my operational colleagues and try to make their life easier through policy and regulatory settings that support the operational parts of the business.
Water and wastewater services are such an important contribution to the health and liveability of a city. They are silent services – most customers don’t think about them unless something goes wrong. Sydney Water delivers water, wastewater and some stormwater services to more than 5 million people. The focus of water utilities has traditionally been on protecting public health and most of those challenges are now very well managed. The current challenge is to reduce our impact on the environment, particularly from our wastewater systems.
What is the biggest challenge facing water operations in your area?
Urban development and population growth in the greater Sydney area has been providing great challenges and opportunities for the organisation. This growth is occurring at a time when traditional servicing solutions are being questioned, community and regulatory expectations have increased, our asset base is ageing and there is a strong desire to keep water bills as low as possible for our customers. Trying to strike a sensible and sustainable balance between these drivers is the biggest challenge in my area of work.
During my time in operations, I found myself in lots of strange situations. Most involved wild animals that lurked around our treatment plants.
What is the strangest thing you encounter in your day-to-day job?
I currently work in an office environment and don’t encounter too many strange things at work. During my time in operations, I found myself in lots of strange situations. Most involved wild animals that lurked around our treatment plants. Besides my colleagues in the operation and maintenance teams, we also had plenty of snakes, goannas and angry wasps at our wastewater treatment plants.
I remember having red-bellied black snakes scaring graduate engineers, pythons emerging from inlet screens, brown snakes striking at swooping cockatoos and goannas climbing up the side of our office. This always kept work interesting.
If you could change one thing about your job what would it be?
I’d like to work outside in the field more. I find myself in a constant cycle of meetings, which can be draining. The ability to get outside and walk around a treatment plant was a wonderful break. I also miss the benefits of ‘hose therapy’. It’s amazing how satisfied you can feel while hosing up a pile of biosolids or cleaning out a filter cell. It seems a bit strange, but maybe that’s just me.
If money was no object, what would you buy to make your job easier?
I think I would invest in some more people to help my team get through all the work we need to do. I’d also have to get a proper coffee machine for the office and lifetime supply of snacks to keep us going.
Outside of work what do you enjoy doing?
I enjoy playing golf, but have far less time to get many games in during the year. I have three daughters and their weekend activities keep me very busy. Cycling and running keep me fit. I enjoy getting out on my boat and fishing with my girls. It is great seeing the look on their faces when they catch a fish. I just need to work on their ability to put on their own bait and keep their lines untangled.
Working with regulators can be a tough business, but it is a great opportunity to improve regulatory conditions that can get in the way of delivering great products and services.
Would you recommend your work life to others?
I have worked for almost 22 years in the water industry. The first half of that time was spent ‘learning the ropes’ in operational roles. I would recommend that other people considering a career in the water industry spend a reasonable amount of time working in operational roles. It provides a fantastic foundation upon which to build a career and gives you a good understanding of how the ‘real world’ works.
It’s really important to know your business when you’re developing strategies and plans for wastewater treatment plants – for me I think the practical experience of working on a plant really helps with this. Working with regulators can be a tough and tiring business, but it is a great opportunity to improve regulatory conditions that can get in the way of delivering great products and services.
For more information on the Australian Water Association’s Operations Specialist Network, click here.