Optimising Water Quality and Impact Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Programs (MTSRF Synthesis Report)


As part of its commitment under Theme 5 of the MTSRF, the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre publishes, or makes available, outputs (e.g. final technical or scientific reports, synthesis reports) from MTSRF-funded research projects nested within Research Themes 1-4.

The following summary is an extract from:

Waterhouse, J. (Compiler) (2010) Optimising Water Quality and Impact Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Programs. Synthesis Report prepared for the Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility (MTSRF) with contributions from K. Fabricius, R. Pearson, A. Arthington, J. Wallace, M. Sheaves, M. Waycott, L. McKenzie, P. Kuhnert, J. Brodie, S. Lewis, Z. Bainbridge, M. van Grieken, C. Robinson, T. Lynam and their research teams. Published by the Reef & Rainforest Research Centre Ltd, Cairns (151pp.).

Executive Summary:

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is a diverse ecosystem, which is bounded on its western side by a large number of large and small catchments. Protecting GBR ecosystems and the quality of the water they rely upon has become a major priority for resource managers and the community as a whole. Water quality and ecosystem health monitoring is needed to assess current status, identify existing and emerging problems, evaluate the consequences of various anthropogenic land and water use practices, devise improved practices and assess the effectiveness of management measures.

The Australian Government’s MTSRF has generated significant outcomes for informing the design and implementation of GBR water quality monitoring, evaluation and reporting programs. In particular, a monitoring and evaluation framework that incorporates biophysical, social and economic aspects of the system at multiple scales has been developed. This framework includes a range of monitoring and modelling activities to combine system attributes at several scales from plot/paddock, to sub catchment, catchment and regional scales and, ultimately, across the entire GBR. Suitable indicators for measuring ecosystem status and response have been developed and tested for the GBR and the associated catchments. The indicators incorporate all aspects of the system that managers need to understand to assess the performance of actions in the catchment and the response in the GBR, including measures of management practice status and change, catchment health, catchment loads, estuarine health, marine water quality and marine ecosystem health. This suite of indicators is summarised in Figure i. In some cases, thresholds for these indicators are established, which form the basis for the definition of guidelines to trigger a management response. The best ways to report indicators have also been considered.

Importantly, some of the constraints that previously hampered GBR water quality monitoring and evaluation programs have now been overcome, thanks to MTSRF-funded research. Specifically, best estimates of current contaminant loads to the GBR have been generated (Kroon et al., 2010; Brodie et al., 2009a), techniques for improved estimation of loads have been developed (e.g. Wallace et al., 2009a, 2010b; Kuhnert et al., 2009, 2008; Kuhnert and Henderson, 2010; Wang et al., 2009; Lewis et al., 2009a, 2007a), more efficient and robust indicators have been developed and tested for freshwater (Pearson et al., 2010a), estuarine (Sheaves et al., 2010) and marine ecosystems (Cooper et al., 2009; Fabricius et al., 2010a, 2010b), indicators of social and economic status and governance arrangements are being developed (van Grieken et al., 2010a; Lynam et al., 2010a; Taylor and Robinson, 2010) and receiving water models are being established (Brinkman et al., 2010; Maughan and Brodie, 2009). In addition, thresholds of concern for priority pollutants have been established for marine ecosystems (GBRMPA, 2009; De’ath and Fabricius, 2010) and used as the basis for the Great Barrier Reef Water Quality Guidelines (GBRMPA, 2009). Pollutant thresholds for freshwater and wetland ecosystems have also been investigated (Pearson et al., 2010a; Wallace et al., 2010a). This report provides an overview of these outcomes, with particular emphasis on aspects that have and can be applied in GBR monitoring programs, as well as other circumstances in national and international situations.

Outcomes of this research are already being taken up and used by managers to improve the effectiveness of water quality monitoring programs for the GBR. For example, the multi-scale, multi-disciplinary 'Paddock to Reef' monitoring and modelling framework has been used to inform the development of the Integrated Monitoring, Modelling and Reporting Program to support the evaluation of the Reef Plan and Reef Rescue initiatives, and researchers continue to develop improved monitoring and evaluation techniques and indicators for continued refinement of program design. Many of the coral and seagrass indicators developed and tested through the MTSRF are already operational as part of the Reef Plan / Reef Rescue Marine Monitoring Program.

The whole-of-system monitoring approach was also used in the development of regional water quality plans, including the WQIPs for the Tully, Barron, Townsville-Thuringowa (Black Ross), Mackay-Whitsunday and Burnett Mary regions. These programs assisted in the identification of priority contaminants and priority areas for each region. In conjunction with revised and improved pollutant load estimations, the findings have informed the prioritisation of Reef Rescue expenditure in these regions. The findings of the catchment and instream health research can be used to assess the condition of Wet Tropics streams and wetlands, which is of interest to the Queensland Government and regional natural resource management groups.

Finally, many of the most significant influences of the research on management decisions have been through the participation of MTSRF researchers in steering committees and technical groups coordinated by management agencies. MTSRF researchers are able to contribute their knowledge and synthesis of the research findings directly into the management processes; in many cases their contribution to discussion instigates interest which is subsequently supported through the provision of written evidence. Examples of these activities include the range of technical groups and forums coordinated for the regional WQIPs and revision of the Reef Plan (DPC, 2009), design workshops for the Paddock to Reef Program and ongoing participation in the associated Technical Advisory Group, the expert workshops convened for the multi-criteria analysis for prioritising Reef Rescue investment, participation in various committees for the Queensland Wetland Program, and involvement in several research prioritisation workshops which have informed the Reef Plan and Reef Rescue Research and Development Strategies. Knowledge gained through the MTSRF and other research also contributed to the 2008 Scientific Consensus Statement for Water Quality in the Great Barrier Reef (Brodie et al., 2008a).

MTSRF-funded research has also revealed knowledge gaps and new areas of research that should be progressed to inform continuous improvement of monitoring and evaluation programs, both in the GBR and elsewhere. Future research directions are summarised for each system component that has been studied through the MTSRF. Progression of the future research directions highlighted in this report will assist managers of GBR water quality to further improve the design of monitoring and evaluation programs within an adaptive framework. Continued alignment of monitoring programs with research programs, as has been the case for the Reef Plan / Reef Rescue Marine Monitoring Program for several years, will assist in this process.

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