Rebecca Nelson (DipML(German) 2002/ BE 2005/ LLB(Hons) 2005)

9 April 2014

Rebecca Nelson (DipML(German) 2002, BE(EnvEng) 2005, LLB(Hons) 2005) was the recipient of the 2013/2014 Mahla Pearlman Award for the Australian Young Environmental Lawyer of the Year.

"It's an enormous honour, particularly given Mahla Pearlman's awe-inspiring reputation as a lawyer and contributor to the community," Ms Nelson says on being recognised for her research and work in groundwater law.

What attracted you to environmental law and in particular working with water legislation?

I always knew that I wanted to work in an environmental field. I chose to study a combined Environmental Engineering and Law degree at the University of Melbourne because I thought both disciplines bestowed enormous powers to deal with environmental problems. I found through summer clerkships in the environmental law sections of various law firms that I thoroughly enjoyed the legal approach. Water is a natural focus for me, given the water focus of environmental engineering at Melbourne, and the mentorship of Sandy Clark (now Emeritus Professor at MLS).

How did your project evolve from an honours thesis to the work that has granted this recognition?

My honours thesis focused on law and policy for integrated catchment management, which promotes the integrated treatment of watershed-level problems. One of those problems, which I outlined in my thesis, is the treatment of groundwater and surface water together. That ongoing challenge then became the focus of the Comparative Groundwater Law and Policy Program, which I lead as a joint initiative between the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and two Stanford University research institutes.

You studied groundwater law at Stanford University after a couple of years working at Blake Dawson (Ashurst) and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. What made you decide to go to America and how did it help you bring what you learnt to an Australian perspective?

I found working as a practising lawyer immensely rewarding. But it also made me aware of larger law and policy problems, into which practising lawyers rarely have time to delve. These problems really need a concerted research effort. Given the similarities in water challenges experienced by Australia and the western US, Stanford was a natural choice. My academic (Masters and doctoral) work there, as well as my work leading the Comparative Groundwater Law and Policy Program, has always explicitly sought to share useful law and policy lessons between the western US and Australia.

What do you find exciting or interesting about working in this field of law?

Water law deals with challenges that are widespread throughout many parts of the world where water resources are under pressure, so it provides great scope for dealing with issues that are important at a global scale. Water issues also bring to bear what are, to my mind, the key tensions and challenges that we have to deal with in the environmental sphere: to what extent should we provide for ecological uses versus human consumptive uses of resources, and to what extent can we do both at the same time? Having an engineering background, the interdisciplinary aspects of water resources problems are also particularly fascinating to me.

You've done some volunteer work with indigenous communities and their entitlements to water. How has this experience impacted your work?

As a young lawyer I travelled to Arabunna country in northern South Australia, at the invitation of a local indigenous leader, who wanted lawyers to understand the Arabunna perspective on local resources issues. It was a wonderful initiative, and one that first demonstrated to me, in a visceral way, how ecologically and culturally significant groundwater-dependent ecosystems could be. I later volunteered in work to seek heritage status for important assets on Arabunna country. Overall, the experience reinforced the importance of effective law and policy frameworks for regulating groundwater, in particular, which has been my focus for the last five years.

Water law is an area of growing importance as we move into the 21st century. What issues are you most passionate about or would like to make a difference to in the next few years?

To some, water law might seem like a narrow topic, but there is an incredible range of crucial water law and regulatory issues that will need addressing over the next few years. To name just a few – providing sufficient water for environmental purposes, particularly where that means affecting existing management practices or entitlements; better catering for indigenous values in water systems; ensuring that water laws can adapt to a changed climate; I'd like to make a difference in each of these interlinked issues … through empirical research and advice that focuses on implementation challenges on the ground, as they are experienced by water agencies and their stakeholders.