Water sample

A perspective on the National Water Quality Management Strategy
B Bycroft
Publication Date (Web): 18 August 2017
DOI: https://doi.org/10.21139/wej.2017.027

Despite the importance and prevalence of catchment-based water quality planning in Australia, many applications lack a consistently logical and systematic approach and are likely doomed to failure.

Based on formal and informal observations over many years’ involvement in the field, major flaws in current practices and proposed better practice are identified. In the main, these better practices are not novel, but are unfortunately rare. Although the discussion is based around water quality, many of the principles are also applicable to related planning endeavours.

The approach is based around the ‘water quality management framework’ described in the National Water Quality Management Strategy (NWQMS). 

Figure 1
Figure 1: Simplified NWQMS Water Quality Management Framework

The three most common failures of current practices are:

  • There is a lack of explicit management goals or outcomes described. Too often, there is reliance on vague and unquantifiable outcomes with use of terms such as ‘minimise…’; ‘provide a balance...’. The result of the use of these terms means that, fundamentally, ‘success’ can never be verified. It is unfortunate that sometimes, in my experience, this has been done deliberately to avoid any possible accusations of failure. 
  • There is a failure to develop a comprehensive suite of management strategies that is effective and efficient in meeting scientifically derived water quality targets. Commonly, there is a grab-bag collection of strategies that are clearly unable to meet the water quality targets. Although ‘program logic’ is often lauded, all too often it is absent; that is, even IF the management strategies are implemented THEN the water quality target may not be achieved. This is compounded by lack of a robust and transparent trade-off process where costs and benefits of achieving proposed management goals should be clearly identified, and the decision for a particular course of action is justified (although there may be dispute).
  • Improper consideration given to uncertainty and how to incorporate into the decision-making process. In this instance, in particular, both scientific and policy considerations are important. For example, the ‘simple’ question of does a water quality value meet a target needs not only application of the best the scientific information, but also a policy decision, viz., ‘how certain do I want to be’?

The matters in this paper are not to be seen as the last word, but are put forward to encourage debate with the view to improve current water quality planning practices in Australia. Ideally this could lead to the development of nationally applicable guidelines for water quality planning which could be valuable for all jurisdictions.  


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