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Monitoring river health in the wet-dry tropics: strategic considerations, community participation and indicators

Townsend, Simon A., Humphrey, Chris, Choy, Satish, Dobbs, Rebecca, Burford, Michele, Hunt, Richard, Jardine, Tim, Kennard, Mark, Shellberg, Jeff and Woodward, Emma L. (2012). Monitoring river health in the wet-dry tropics: strategic considerations, community participation and indicators<br />. Nathan, Qld.: Griffith University.

Document type: Research Report
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Author Townsend, Simon A.
Humphrey, Chris
Choy, Satish
Dobbs, Rebecca
Burford, Michele
Hunt, Richard
Jardine, Tim
Kennard, Mark
Shellberg, Jeff
Woodward, Emma L.
Title of Report Monitoring river health in the wet-dry tropics: strategic considerations, community participation and indicators
Publication Date 2012
ISBN 978-1-921576-67-6   (check CDU catalogue open catalogue search in new window)
Publisher Griffith University
Place of Publication Nathan, Qld.
Total Pages 38
Field of Research 300800 Environmental Sciences
Abstract Executive summary

River health is in generally good condition in the Australian wet–dry tropics compared to the more developed parts of Australia. The health of rivers is nevertheless modified by anthropogenic activities due to diffuse catchment pressures; notably grazing, feral animals and fire, and more localised pressures from mining and agriculture. Residents of the wet–dry tropics have high expectations that the rivers will remain healthy, and view any degradation, even if minor on a national scale, as being significantand the possible start of long-term degradation.

Monitoring river health in the wet–dry tropics faces significant challenges. The vast area, small population base and limited allweather road infrastructure impose resource and logistical challenges. The high seasonality of rainfall also imposes constraints on monitoring. In the wet season most rivers are inaccessible. In the dry season many rivers cease flowing while others reduce to a series of disconnected pools or waterholes. Some rivers and streams are groundwater-fed and low year-round.

River health monitoring can be considered a societal activity, founded on principles of collaboration, communication, scientific credibility, transparency, community participation, education, and—importantly—relevance to management. The Framework for
the Assessment of River and Wetland Health provides a comprehensive outline for surveillance-type river health monitoring,  the pressure–stressor–(ecological) response framework that seeks to link anthropogenic pressures to river health.

The key objective for long-term monitoring espoused in this report is the early detection of anthropogenic effects that may potentially degrade river health. This concurs with the approach of the Australian and New Zealand Environment Conservation Council and the Agriculture and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand (ANZECCARMCANZ 2000). This approach is especially significant in the wet-dry tropics to provide warning of river health degradation and thereby avoid the social and economic costs of restoration. In many parts of Australia monitoring is directed to assessing river health responses to restoration activities. Early detection however requires adequate resources, which are severely limited in the north, and a sound knowledge of the desired reference condition so that natural inter-annual variability can be distinguished from anthropogenic impacts. To address the resource constraint, a two-tiered approach to monitoring is proposed. This approach acknowledges that not everything, everywhere, can be monitored. The first tier would report on the pressures at a catchmentwide scale and make use of GIS and other spatial data, while the second tier would be undertaken at a much smaller scale, or case study level, to detect early degradation. Second-tier results could be extrapolated to the larger catchment if a relationship between pressure and river health is established.

The wet–dry season transition period is proposed as the best time to sample macroinvertebrate communities, a widely-used indicator for monitoring and assessing river health. This is the period of highest species diversity, and is also when wastewater discharges may have their highest impact. Monitoring river health using water quality, wholeof- river metabolism, phytoplankton, macroinvertebrates, ecogenomics and fish as indicators is discussed in this report, along with the use of timelapse photography to monitor animal visitation to waterholes, aquatic plant cover, and erosion.

Monitoring by community groups and landholders can contribute to and complement surveillancetype river health monitoring. It can contribute to monitoring by providing data (eg water quality), and complement surveillance monitoring by focusing effort on local management issues beyond the resources of catchment-wide surveillance monitoring. Case studies of river health monitoring by Indigenous communities highlight the advantages of crosscultural exchange of information and the importance of building on established social networks. An assessment of the capacity and willingness for community-led monitoring is important. Trials of indicators tested by community groups found photo-point monitoring to be the most successful method. While community-based monitoring is driven by the community, there is an important role for scientists in assisting groups to select appropriate indicators and methods for measuring and monitoring change.

Monitoring river health is an essential element of the adaptive management cycle, and can provide early warning of river health degradation. The logistical, resource and capacity constraints of monitoring, and the unique environment, necessitate the development of a monitoring system tailored to the wet–dry tropics.
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Created: Wed, 02 Mar 2016, 11:24:26 CST by Marion Farram