Something in the Water: Altogether Group's Audrey Killeen
Behind every glass of water, every backyard sprinkler and every flush of the toilet is a complex water management system that ensures the highest quality water gets to every home in the most efficient way possible. Providing safe, useable water to communities requires detailed planning, and a customer-centric approach and must be underpinned by a risk management approach.
Audrey Killeen, Altogether Group Water Operations Manager, looks after water schemes servicing eight communities within NSW. From the maintenance of sewerage networks to recycled water treatment plants to drinking water networks, Killeen is across all the detail needed for an effective water quality management system.
This was something Killeen essentially fell into rather than actively pursued. She always had a love for science, studying Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the University of Florida.
Water is something Florida has in abundance.
The state of Florida in the US is peppered with freshwater lakes – nearly 8,000 lakes can be identified across the lush landscape – while wetlands, rivers and estuaries make up the rest of nearly 2.5 million acres of freshwater environments.
It’s very different from Australia’s arid environment, where water is often unseen and underground.
“I studied abroad here in my second year,” said Killeen.
“I was probably in my third year when I realised that bioengineering wasn’t particularly what I wanted to do. I was more interested in process, specifically in water and wastewater treatment.”
“I maintain that if you get an engineering degree, you get the fundamentals to transition to any sort of engineering management role. You learn how to problem solve, which is key, and you learn first principles. So, you can do anything if you get the right training,” she said.
Setting up a water management system
One of the biggest challenges in establishing a water management system is mitigating risk. When it comes to the water we drink, bathe in and cook with, you can never be too careful.
“The Australian Drinking Water Guidelines are extensive with the Framework for Management of Drinking Water Quality boasting 12 elements with 32 components and 76 actions,” said Killeen.
"It covers not just risk assessment, but everything else, from training and competency to emergency response, validation and even documentation."
Risk-based water quality management starts with understanding the water supply system - the catchment characteristics, inputs to the system, treatment processes, bypasses and network storage.
“It is about having a very clear idea of the system from catchment to tap,” she said.
If you don’t know your system, you don’t know your current or emerging risks or what you might be missing.
“Further, you may not recognise the criticality of those risks. Understanding the system allows for the development of improved actions to reduce those risks,” said Killeen.
In addition to maintaining high-quality water distribution, two things come to mind when it comes to water systems. The first is cost and the other is sustainability. The latter encompasses both longevity of the water system as well as having an environmentally-friendly mindset towards water usage. You want to have a system that is economical and works effectively for the community.
“Ideally, you want to find high-benefit, low-cost solutions. Deciding upon actions and implementation also requires consultation and engagement to make sure the plan is understood and implemented appropriately,” said Killeen.
The advantage of Altogether Group is that its systems are much newer than existing water systems. Operating across a range of developer clients, commercial users and your friendly neighbourhood homeowner, the Altogether teams operate across the full lifecycle of the infrastructure, from establishing infrastructure in greenfield sites to set up and management when the homeowner is established in their home.
“The process is not just about operators or water quality teams, it is a journey that needs to include all aspects of a water business. Other business units, like customer service, marketing, project delivery and billing also have a role to play in managing water quality,” said Killeen.
Killeen started with Altogether Group, formerly Flow Systems, in 2019. Coming from a smaller consulting firm, Killeen has enjoyed the rhythm and buzz of an organisation like Altogether.
“For me, it's enjoyable because it's fast-paced. There’s always something happening, so you’re never bored,” said Killeen.
She has just returned to work after a stint on maternity leave.
“It was really good! Altogether was really supportive and allowed me to take as much time off as I wanted. And I really enjoyed the time with my son.
“But I'm really enjoying being back at work as well,” she laughed.
Having a strong support network is critical, especially when you’re just starting out in your career, says Killeen.
“There’s a point that shows clearly in the research where students – girls especially – drop out of maths and sciences. They don’t proceed to the high-level courses even if they have a knack for it,” she said.
Killeen has been mentoring University of Sydney engineering students through the Women in Engineering mentoring program.
Killeen is now also presenting her ideas and sharing her story to high school students within one of our communities to try and nip that early drop-off in the bud. The more students who take STEM-related courses in high school, the higher the chance of progression to more complex and practical science studies.
“Those that are sort of on the fence are the ones who need guidance and practical help,” she said.
“I'm very happy with my career path so far and I think sharing anecdotal stories and showing that it is possible is such a powerful tool in the conversation with our future movers and shakers.”