Vale Richard Norris

Monday 26 September 2011

When Richard ‘Chuck’ Norris took on freshwater ecology, the scientific community gained a plenty. As a research scientist, consultant, lecturer, supervisor, as education leader for eWater CRC and head of the Institute of Applied Ecology, Richard’s track record included more than 30 years of research and consulting experience.

Working in the biological assessment of rivers, including metal and coal mine effluents, heated water, agricultural effects, sewage effluents, siltation, environmental flows and predictive modelling, he had 70 international and 140 national conference presentations, two books, 95 internationally refereed publications and 260 technical reports to his name.

Richard officially retired as Professor of Freshwater Ecology (UC) on May 1 2011, after earlier stepping down as the Director of the Institute for Applied Ecology (UC) and Postgraduate Education Leader of eWater CRC.

His retirement event was attended by more than 70 guests from across Australia; travelling from Griffith University, University of Queensland, Monash University, and Tasmania to acknowledge Richard and his substantial research contributions. International guests were also in attendance.

Former research collaborators Bob Bailey of the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and Trefor Reynoldson of the Acadia Center for Estuarine Research, Arcadia University, Canada, both spoke at the farewell. Sue Jackson presented a plaque on behalf of the US Environment Protection Agency, acknowledging Richard’s work with them on developing methods for making ecological assessments of their rivers.

Much of their work is aimed at underpinning decisions on river management and is closely tied to the work of leading researchers across many Australian institutions including: ANU, Adelaide University, University of Queensland, Griffith University, Charles Darwin University, ACT Department of Territory and Municipal Services and the NSW Department of Primary Industry.  International links to researchers in Europe, the Pacific and the Americas; particularly the University of British Columbia, Harvard University, University of California, the US EPA, and Landcare Research NZ, ensure their work has far-reaching impacts. The work sits at the heart of environmental research in Australia.

In 2010, the “crew” was awarded the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Engagement Excellence. This acknowledged work around developing methods of predicting aquatic biota at particular sites, and supporting macro-invertebrate assessment methods and models. The research informed AUSRIVAS (Australian River Assessment System) and was central in the development of Australia’ National River Health Program, and in the First National Assessment of River Health.

These methods have been tested in Indonesia and New Zealand and are now being adopted in the United States and Canada.

The work of ‘The Norris crew’ ties in closely with eWater, for whom Richard was a central figure. The IAE group have racked up more than a decade of research on Canberra’s water supply rivers, the management of environmental flows, and the effects of drought and fire.

Richard’s endeavours, either directly or indirectly, contributed to major Australian water initiatives, including the first National Land and Water Resources Audit (2000) and the snapshot of the Murray-Darling Basin river condition. More recently he had input into the development of a framework for the Assessment of River and Wetland Health for nationally comparable reporting for the National Water Commission.

Managing the eWater education and training program, he developed training material for water industry professionals as well as students – employing online and blended teaching methods. The AUSRIVAS accreditation course, eWater and the University of Canberra all benefited from his innovative training approaches.

All in all, Richard made a remarkable contribution to the scientific community, on both a professional and personal level. His achievements were indisputably impressive and. His work influenced hundreds of people on a direct professional level, and contributed to knowledge and management nationally. He leaves an impressive legacy professionally, as well as an interesting and memorable personal legacy.

“Some say I deserved an award for working with Richard so long,” says eWater ACT Focus Catchments Coordinator Sue Nichols. “In fact, I was been rewarded in many ways. Under Richard’s mentorship and training my knowledge of freshwater ecology grew and I was rewarded with opportunities to work on a great variety of projects over the years, including the Australian River Assessment System (AUSRIVAS), assessing the effects of ski resorts in Kosciusko National Park, environmental flows for the Cotter River, teaching and training, and many more. I am grateful to Richard for opening up a world of opportunities.”

Richard passed away peacefully at home surrounded by his family on 19th September 2011. Richard will be sadly missed by his friends and colleagues in Australia and around the world.

It didn’t end there. Gary Jones, CEO of eWater, presented a commemorative plaque in recognition of Richard’s years of contribution as a central figure in eWater CRC, and Darren Ryder, the current president of the Australian Limnology Society, presented Richard with the ASL medal for 2010.

Professor Stephen Parker, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra, reflected on the value of Richard’s contribution when he announced his appointment as Emeritus Professor:

“As a senior researcher, Richard has played a leadership role in developing the University’s research profile and in developing and supporting the University’s research training program. His impressive track record includes nearly $15 million dollars in research income and over 270 publications.”

Humble Beginnings

It all started with an appointment by the late Professor Peter Cullen in 1980, following completion of a PhD on ‘The Ecological Effects of Mine Effluents on the South Esk River (North East Tasmania)’ at the University of Tasmania. His contributions to freshwater ecology and river management from that point on were both measurable and immeasurable. The ripple effect of his work in contributing to our knowledge base and informing better management, education and training of the next-generation of scientists will continue to add value for many years to come. 

Richard’s merits were widely recognised. In 2010, he received the Australian Society for Limnology medal, arguably the nation’s most prestigious prize in Limnology, awarded for overall scientific excellence and outstanding achievement. 

Prior to this, he and his US-based team were awarded the 2009 Scientific and Technological Achievement Award from the US Environmental Protection Agency. The award recognised their “Outstanding Contributions to the Field of Ecological Assessment through Refining the Concept of Reference Condition.” In this work, he and his colleagues from the EPA, Utah State University and the North American Benthological Society developed scientific designs and approaches to assess the ecological condition of rivers.

These Level III awards, according to the EPA, are reserved for those who have accomplished an unusually notable research or technological effort.

The US-based work built on the so-called “Norris crew’s” award-winning research with the Institute of Applied Ecology (IAE). The ‘Norris crew’ is a group within the IAE, working closely with eWater CRC and the Australasian Invasive Animals CRC, and focused on assessing the ecological condition of rivers.