The Murray-Darling Basin Plan sets targets for measuring progress towards environmental objectives for water-dependent ecosystems, and these are supported by more specific operational strategies for delivering environmental water. The challenge is in understanding, evaluating and communicating the ways in which people benefit from these ecological objectives being met. This is important because there has been substantial public investment in water reform over many years, there are strong and contested values at play, people depend on a ‘healthy working basin’ and there is a needed for trusted, evidence-based ways to assess and report on the impacts on people.
Various benefits of environmental flows to communities and the environment. PHOTO: Tanya Doody
People perceive benefits when outcomes align with their own values, and so the evidence needed goes beyond biophysical characterisations of hydrology and ecological response to connect to people’s experience and values. For this reason, the research team includes both hydro-ecological and social science expertise, as well as experience in bridging the biophysical and social sciences. We chose an approach that readily represents multiple beneficiaries who may have different values and are affected in different ways, and can also capture both beneficial and detrimental outcomes for people.
Our response has been firstly to recognise a familiar ecosystem services ‘cascade’ that links environmental processes and functions to ecosystem services, benefits and beneficiaries. Doing so provides a clear framework for articulating assumptions and associated causal logic, so providing guidance on what data and evidence to seek in order to characterise complex relationships between water management and impacts experienced by people.
The ecosystem services framework alone is not sufficient for effectively communicating rich relationships between water and people, and so we used the framework to acquire the data and evidence needed to create a narrative relating water management to social outcomes for one test case. The narrative describes the relationship between the condition of River Red Gum forests and the contribution they make to rural amenity and, in turn, the liveability of rural towns along the River Murray.
The work is preliminary and exploratory in nature. In working with the MDBA on this test case, together we have learned more about the challenges in acquiring the data needed to relate changes in flow to changes in benefits experienced by people. For example, in relating biophysical flow attributes to vegetation condition, then relating condition to ecosystem services that contribute to amenity benefit experienced by people, we are spanning many fields and it is difficult to characterise the links in ways that allow us to attribute changes in flow to changes in benefits. We are in the process of evaluating lessons learned in order to design next steps for the work to proceed.
Future pathways to impact include: