Julie McLellan

Chief Executive Officer Healthy Land and Water

Our stories share our own journeys about what we love, what has made us successful, and why we follow our passion.If one young person is inspired to follow their dream and get into science because they want to make a difference and can see that this is achievable, we have succeeded.

Q. Why did you choose this career – what interests, hobbies or experiences influenced your decision? (Marni, Atherton SHS).

A. I am a natural leader and I have always had a passion for the outdoors and natural environment, but I didn’t specifically set out to lead a natural environment company. That came about after many years of working through different career paths (up and down the ladders) while I gained experience.

While I started in the field of science – mining, metallurgy, agronomy and then water, I naturally gravitated to senior roles, predominantly in water and sewage treatment and managing waste.

As I started to understand how decisions were made, and that you need to be in a position of leadership to influence decisions, I started to learn and take on jobs that stretched my capability. These included financial management, managing complex operations and projects, people management and, importantly, understanding my own leadership style and how to gain (and invest in) political capital. 

This journey meant I stepped back in my career to gain a broader understanding about people and process, rather than just ‘the science’. I found I was good at putting the bigger picture ‘jigsaw’ together and being able to synthesise a lot of information relating to complex problems down into bite-size chunks people could understand and get behind.

Q. Does your work include a lot of digital modelling to predict future outcomes via programming and computer-based technology? (Emma, Babinda State School).

A.My job does not specifically involve me undertaking modelling anymore. I now have teams of people who do a huge amount of modelling to understand the threats faced by our community (economic, social and environmental) and importantly, determining how best to manage/mitigate those threats based on scientific evidence. My role now is to convince those in authority to make the right decisions to enhance and protect our natural capital.

Q. What environment policies and sustainable planning strategies do you use in your work? (Emma, Babinda State School).

A. My work is all about influencing environmental policies and sustainable planning strategies!

I am accountable for the delivery of the Natural Asset Management plan and framework for South East Queensland but our scope goes beyond SEQ to State, National and even International agendas as part of a network of leaders in this space.

The specific areas I influence are urban water management, river-basin management through partnerships, environmental health monitoring and reporting, and ensuring the decisions made are based on scientific evidence.

Q. Do you have any ideas of how we can stop leaching pollutants from rubbish sites and other locations into water sources? (Emma, Babinda State School).

Well now, this comes to the ‘waste hierarchy’ which you are no doubt learning about – prevent, reduce, recycle, recover, dispose. Typically, these days we should be aiming to prevent any disposal of rubbish or waste into our waterways but we know this is not always feasible – take treated sewerage for example.

Driven by regulation, the requirement is to reduce the pollutant component as much as viable (cost vs gain) – if you do not do this then a huge fine is imposed – that is the stick.

However, there is much to be gained by recycling the water or recovering the nutrients or energy from this waste stream. It’s not always cost effective, but as these resources become more mainstream and supported or incentivised it will become a valuable resource – that’s the carrot approach.

Leachate is managed in different ways in many municipal waste management plants – so they are being called resource recovery centres.

Legacy issues from past practices however are more difficult to deal with. Where the leachate has to be treated and the solid waste (biogas generated) captured for energy. So, the simple answer is: wherever possible prevent the use, reduce the use and recycle or recover.

Q. How well are councils doing at protecting our waterways? What can we all do to keep our waterways healthy? (Emma, Babinda State School).

This is a complex issue as waterways are affected by so many activities, development, farming, supporting population growth etc.

The main impact on waterways is the mass clearing of land for agriculture or people – while this continues a lot of the damage was already done many years ago. The best way waterways can be protected is to ensure the riparian corridor remains intact with native species and hillslope and gully erosion is mitigated.

This is easier said than done as much of our waterways (in developed areas) are not in council or state-owned land, so we must rely on the landowner to protect these areas. This comes down to incentives, training and demonstrating best practice, cost effective measures so landowners can see the benefits of a well-cared for waterway.

Q. You work with a lot of community groups on grass root activities. What have you found are the best ways of engaging the public into participating in environmental activities?

The best way of engaging the community is letting them have their say in what works and what doesn’t, and them being part of the design of the solution. This practice is called co-design and has worked on many projects and initiatives (beyond just environment).

Typically, people understand their environment and what will or won’t work.

What we do is provide the science and facts and facilitate discussion within the local community to work up a solution that most (not necessary all) are happy with.

We have found this technique offers greater buy-in and care for the environment when we are long gone.

Q. Healthy Land and Water has helped set up environmentally friendly moorings at the Gold Coast. What other projects do you do that make real differences to the environment?

A. Wow – that is a huge question: we build engineered log jams and cross-stream pile fields in creeks to slow down the flow of water which in turn protects the waterway banks from collapsing and eroding, we plant out gullies and install leaky weirs, we manage pests and weeds through bio-control and weed removal (this means huge trees that are not native trees), we monitor and report on activities which impact our waterways to inform where the threats and pressure stem from and identity and scope actions to mitigate or minimise the impact.

We build fish ladders and fish passages and habitats to support fish in our waterways, like artificial reefs.

We have a clean-up boat which works the waterways of SEQ everyday collecting litter before it enters Moreton Bay. 

We work with Traditional Owners using indigenous science and fire management practices to reduce the threat of fire on the landscape.

We are busy building new habitat and roosting nests for migratory shorebirds as their habitat is having to make way for Port expansions.

We are rolling out a massive project to rehabilitate koala habitat (and koalas) destroyed by the fires last year.

We identify and protect many native flora, native macadamia trees and the Ormeau bottle bush to name a couple.

We protect and restore habitat for numerous threatened species including the eastern bristlebird, red-crested black cockatoo, eastern curlew, koalas and frogs.

We work with community and Landcare groups, and we have developed frameworks and guidelines to support developers to manage stormwater and erosion.

We manage huge projects in waterways to stabilise and rehabilitate banks that have been destroyed by flooding. There are so many more projects we get involved in and deliver – this is just a snapshot!

Q. How do you work with those like farmers who need to use the land but have to limit their impacts, so we have healthy drinking water?

The use of land for farming and for clean water supply and better environmental management is not mutually exclusive. We run many programs with landowners supporting them to get the most out of their land, while reducing their environmental impact.

We run training programs, best management practice workshops, and provide them with the necessary tools and skills to gradually make a change.

In some instances we are able to support them through grants to install fencing, change fertiliser practices and even do rehabilitation works on their land for them. This has multiple benefits as it slows down flood waters, so while it might cross the farmland, which is great to recharge aquifers, it doesn’t destroy the creek bank, break fences or take good cropping land off to somewhere else.

Q. How has being a female helped you work as a CEO?

A. I am not sure it has helped me. If anything, being female held me back in my early career – having to work twice as hard, paid half as much, having to put the job before my family life, and often being cut out of key decision making forums – though that may well have been the field I was in.

What has helped me has been having some great mentors to keep me on track (both male and female).

What helps me work well as a CEO is building a great team around me, understanding what my strengths and weaknesses are and looking to complement these with others who can fill the gaps. This relies on me knowing what I can and can’t do well and trusting the team around me. Honesty is one of my core values, as is natural justice, trust, and humour.

A key strength I know I have is being able to make a decision and owning it – often when others can’t. I have also always followed my passion, when I have given all I have to give – I will move on. I think this is what works for me as a CEO.

Q. You and other female scientists in your workplace posted videos about your own careers for this year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Why?

A. Because it is important young people have role models.

Our stories share our own journeys about what we love, what has made us successful, and why we follow our passion.

If one young person is inspired to follow their dream and get into science because they want to make a difference and can see that this is achievable, we have succeeded.

Julie McLellan has been the Chief Executive Officer of Healthy Land and Water since its inception in 2013. Julie has over 25 years’ experience leading high-performance organisations and is an expert in natural asset management, governance, strategy, risk and company finance.

Prior to her role at Healthy Land and Water, Julie held senior positions at Queensland Urban Utilities and Brisbane City Council and was responsible for portfolios including research and businesses development, innovation, service delivery and design.

Julie is passionate about improving the quality of landscapes and waterways in South East Queensland through strategic initiatives and productive partnerships. She understands the importance of collaboration and enjoys working closely with all levels of government, industry groups and community members on initiatives that ensure South East Queensland is protected for future generations.