Over the last two decades water legislation in Australia has been through major reform. Following the introduction of the Basin Plan, ca. 2750 gigalitres of ‘environmental flows’ will be delivered each year to meet environmental objectives throughout the Murray-Darling Basin. The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder’s Long-Term Intervention Monitoring (LTIM) program is the federal government’s primary investment in the adaptive management of those environmental flows.
Two key challenges the LTIM program is tackling are; (1) reducing uncertainty around the response of ecological objectives to environmental flows at multiple scales of space and time; and (2) scientifically-defensible evidence that the flow decisions made are having desirable ecological outcomes. Reducing uncertainty is an imperative because (a) we cannot manage a resource if we have a poor understanding of how that resource responds to our management interventions and (b) our understanding of the (potentially complex) ways ecological processes respond to flows isn’t perfect, and is in development. Scientifically-defensible inferences are required as freshwater is a hotly contested resource within the Murray-Darling Basin, so there is great pressure on water managers and scientists to demonstrate that environmental water is being used effectively and efficiently.
CSIRO scientists are leading a team of collaborators across multiple research institutions to resolve these two core challenges of flows adaptive management. To date, resolution of the challenge has involved two key activities, led by CSIRO:
Both of these activities have required innovative approaches. First, the monitoring methods put in place by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office are radically changed from previous monitoring programs, and have been designed with the precise estimation of specific model parameters in mind, towards reducing specific forms of uncertainty. In doing so, the LTIM program has been explicitly designed to support active, quantitative adaptive management at multiple scales. This is a major achievement rarely achieved by monitoring programs globally (Lindenmayer and Likens, 2010). Second, thanks to the strong data now generated by LTIM, CSIRO staff have been able to develop innovative models that isolate the contribution of environmental flows to ecological processes against a background of noise. These models will be the foundation of scientifically-defensible reporting of flow outcomes.
Successful development of the LTIM monitoring approach required a unique blend of skills that CSIRO delivers well: (a) a strong understanding of data science and modelling, as well as how such disciplines dovetail with empirical approaches; (b) strong leadership of multiple stakeholder groups, and the facilitation of collaborative solutions to complex challenges.
LTIM is only in its third year of reporting, but CSIRO’s leadership of the monitoring methods has resulted in strong cultural change in freshwater monitoring—a widespread appreciation of the importance of quality data and methods tailored for parameter estimation. Models developed by CSIRO staff are already yielding scientifically-defensible inferences concerning positive outcomes from certain environmental flow decisions, while at the same time identifying key uncertainties that are now being fed back into active adaptive management at the basin-scale.
Lindenmayer DB, Likens GE. 2010. The science and application of ecological monitoring. Biological Conservation, 143: 1317-1328.