What and why are you monitoring?

There are at least six components of the National Water Quality Management Strategy (NWQMS) framework that may require monitoring to be undertaken. There are slightly different objectives for each and these differences would need to be reflected in the program designs. The five main types of monitoring are described below:

Monitoring progress towards objectives

This is a major component of the NWQMS. We need to monitor or audit our progress towards achievement of our stated objectives . The results of this auditing activity provides feedback to review the management strategy. Where actions have achieved required progress towards objectives, these can be reported as finalised. Where actions have little or no observable effect in achieving objectives, this would indicate that the system understanding should be re-evaluated and alternative actions planned.

Monitoring programs of this nature clearly need to target the same indicators that are used to formulate objectives. They also need to clearly state what level of change they are capable of detecting. This then needs to be matched with the expected changes that will occur as a result of the management actions. A good example of this issue arises with load monitoring programs. Given the variability of Australian systems, it seems probable that programs tracking changes in loads will be unable to detect small or even moderate changes. Even if significant management actions are put in place, we may not be able to detect changes for several decades. If this is the case, then it needs to be stated up front so that no one has false expectations. In this situation it might be decided to track changes based on model outputs rather than trying to measure actual changes in the environment.

Programs for monitoring change can vary significantly in their scope and outcomes. Broad-scale programs such as those planned through the Sustainable Rivers Audit provide catchment scale assessments of trends in condition. They do not focus on specific waters and they are not designed to determine what may be causing changes in condition, simply to tell managers that this is occurring. It is then up to managers to use additional monitoring programs or other means to determine what might be causing change. In contrast, auditing the outcomes of localised management actions requires much more locally focussed monitoring programs using indicators that relate to the particular management action in question. As described in the monitoring design process, the aims of these different types of programs need to be identified up front so that stakeholders have clear expectations of what each program will provide.

Annual South East Queensland EHMP Technical Reports provide an example of regular monitoring of progress towards objectives (Healthy Waterways).
An example of system understanding using a conceptual diagram to illustrate pressures and impacts in waterways.

Assessing current condition

Knowledge of the current condition of a system is a basic prerequisite to development of effective management strategies. For some systems there may be good existing information while for others it may be necessary to undertake various monitoring programs in order to adequately establish current condition. The general objective of such a program would therefore be to establish current values of the key indicators relevant to each Environmental value (EV). This would lead to a prioritisation of the risks to each EV. See ANZECC 2000 Monitoring and Reporting Guidelines Section 3.2.1 for further detail.

The Remote Sensing Toolkit can provide information for assessing current condition of the coastal environment (Coastal CRC).

Establishing reference condition

Guidelines for many indicators are based on the referential approach i.e. some small acceptable change from reference (relatively undisturbed) condition. Implicit in this is the need to establish what reference condition actually is for these indicators in local systems. Therefore, the objective of some monitoring programs may be to establish conditions at selected reference sites.

Measuring effectiveness of management practices

Water quality management strategies contain a combination of best management practices for point and diffuse sources of pollution. To be able to assess the best combination of practices, the effectiveness of individual practices in reducing pollutant loads needs to be known. Hence, monitoring programs are designed to measure this e.g. effectiveness of artificial wetlands in reducing urban stormwater loads or effectiveness of reduced fertiliser inputs to cropping in reducing nutrient loads.

Measuring processes for model calibration

Water quality models are comprised of mathematical representations of catchment and waterway processes that assist with system understanding and allow prediction of outcomes from management strategies. It is crucial to the validity of the outcome that the processes and process rates within the model are reasonably close to the reality. Some processes and their rates are well established. However, it is often necessary to calibrate and validate the model (e.g. specific process rates) when establishing models for a new location (this would require some form of monitoring program). A few examples of the processes that might require monitoring would include soil erosion rates, primary production rates and denitrification rates.

Monitoring the achievement of management actions

Management strategies put in place a series of on-ground actions. These often need to be carried out by a range of different agencies, organisations and sometimes individuals. To keep track of these activities, it is useful to set up a simple system of monitoring both progress toward and completion of these actions. This helps managers to keep things moving and at the same time makes those responsible for actions more accountable. It also assists with quantification of actions (e.g. amount of N removed from point sources) which can then be compared with changes in system condition.

The Management Action Tracking Database is a useful online tool for monitoring the achievement of your management actions (Healthy Waterways).