Refining water quality objectives and monitoring in the Wet Tropics using a community based approach

Tsatsaros, Julie Helen (2013) Refining water quality objectives and monitoring in the Wet Tropics using a community based approach. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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Abstract

The Wet Tropics region of north Queensland contains the highest biological diversity in Australia, has outstanding environmental values, is economically important, and is located close to the Great Barrier Reef. A water quality improvement plan was recently developed for the Tully Basin in north Queensland. This plan mainly had a downstream focus aimed at reducing sediment, nutrient and pesticide loads in waters entering the Great Barrier Reef, and developing water quality objectives to protect the Reef. No water quality objectives for freshwaters (except pesticides) were developed. Freshwater quality objectives need to be developed to conserve, protect and improve water quality conditions. This is a critical component of this research as it has not been fully developed in the Wet Tropics.

The integration of social and biophysical knowledge has been identified as one of the key issues and research priorities for successful water quality improvement outcomes. The integration of this knowledge has gained widespread recognition in water quality planning and management for its potential to inform management plans and gain community support for these actions. However, research into the tools and processes that support this knowledge integration is primarily lacking. To fill this gap, key research objectives for this thesis were developed and include: 1) designing a conceptual framework that outlines the steps needed to integrate multiple values to refine freshwater quality objectives for a Wet Tropics basin; 2) identifying potential factors that support or inhibit the refinement of these objectives; 3) applying a novel transdisciplinary approach that contributes to and enhances the integration of social and biophysical knowledge for water quality improvement; and 4) providing a case study that could be used a template for other Wet Tropics basins or to other tropical basins where the development of local water quality objectives is needed.

A selection of tools from both biophysical and social sciences was used. The transdisciplinary approach included using results of personal interviews, community workshops and biophysical knowledge, to provide the basis for developing a successful long-term community driven water quality monitoring program to assist in refining water quality objectives. This is a novel approach as there are few research examples outlining the steps needed to translate social and biophysical and knowledge into the development of water quality objectives.

Social science tools consisted of participatory research methods including personal interviews and community workshops. Five community workshops were held, and 124 personal interviews were conducted with main stakeholder groups in the Tully Basin. Stakeholder groups included Traditional Owners (n=32), local residents (n=31), farmers (n=31) and general community members (n=30). These main stakeholder groups were interviewed as they have the greatest potential to influence water quality changes in the basin. Biophysical tools included a literature review of biophysical data and an analysis of previous studies for the basin. Social and biophysical knowledge informed the design and implementation of a pilot water quality monitoring program.

While national and state water quality guidelines provide a broad framework regarding the process of identifying environmental values and setting water quality objectives, several environmental values and uses identified from the interviews did not fit into established government classification schemes. This research resulted in finer detail by engaging a wider range of community members to verify existing uses and values while providing additional opportunities to further elicit uses and values of waterways not found in the guidelines.

Results from the interviews included an assessment of key stakeholder perceptions of basin water quality conditions and existing monitoring programs, while also outlining main differences between these groups. Findings also identified key waterbody pollutants from a community perspective including source categories and basin hotspot areas.

Community perceptions of basin water quality conditions differed greatly between groups, and depended on age, background and uses. Fifty-three percent of Traditional Owners and 39% of local residents considered local waterways to be in poor condition. However, 43% of farmers and general community members stated local waterway conditions were good to excellent. Despite differences in stakeholder perceptions about water quality conditions, all groups agreed that improved water quality monitoring was needed for this basin to better characterise current water quality conditions, and assist in refining water quality objectives.

Interviewees also stated there were several sources and threats to basin waterways. More respondents from the Traditional Owners and general community members groups listed agricultural activities to be sources of pollutants in the basin, as compared to other groups. Other sources and threats listed included sediment, erosion and urban areas. A higher percentage of farmers stated that sediment and erosion were sources and threats to basin waterways, while more general community members listed urban areas than did other groups. These findings clearly show that stakeholders may have diverse views in regards to perceived sources and threats to basin waterways. These results helped inform the design of the pilot water quality monitoring program by helping to identify potential sampling station locations to encompass stakeholder responses.

Participants from all stakeholder groups also stated that chemicals used in agriculture (e.g. pesticides and herbicides) should be sampled as part of a monitoring program. In addition, more Traditional Owners stated they would like to see fish and other aquatic life be sampled than other groups. This higher response rate by Traditional Owners may be due to their greater dependence on aquatic food sources to suppliment their daily foods than other groups. Interviewees from all stakeholder groups also said they would prefer a mix of participants (e.g. government, universities, industry, local residents and Traditional Owners) be involved in a sampling program for this basin.

Interview results also highlighted potential human health concerns in this basin. Interview responses verified that a large percentage of stakeholders regularly drink untreated water from local waterways. Ninety-seven percent of Traditional Owners, 65% of farmers, and 61% of local residents stated they drink directly from waterways when participating in recreational activities (e.g. fishing, camping and hiking). If potential human health concerns or risks exist, regular water quality monitoring should be established in this basin, and locals should be appropriately informed of the results.

An important step in the conceptual framework included a comprehensive review of biophysical knowledge for the Tully Basin. Key water quality issues include nitrates (sugarcane, bananas, cropping), particulate nitrogen (eroding soils, grazing, cropping, urbanisation), and herbicide residues (diuron and atrazine).

The personal interview results and biophysical knowledge provided the basis for the development and implementation of a three month pilot water quality monitoring program for this basin. The integration of this knowledge was an important step in the conceptual framework. Results from the pilot water quality monitoring program indicated some water quality parameters (i.e. nitrates and total phosphorus) had higher than expected values. Nitrate values exceeded federal guideline values (17 μg N/L) at several locations. Highest nitrate values were between 325-329 μg N/L, comparable to previous studies in the basin. Total phosphorus values (13-98 μg P/L) also exceeded state water quality guidelines (10 μg P/L) at several basin locations. The highest nutrient values were located in sub-basin areas draining sugarcane and below urban areas. Groundwater influences may also be an important contributor leading to elevated nutrient levels.

The pilot water quality monitoring study verified that long-term data collected across all seasons could be used to better refine potential pollutant sources in the basin, characterise current water quality conditions, indicate pollutant levels, identify water quality changes, and help protect and improve the environmental values and uses of basin waterways. A long-term water quality monitoring program could also be valuable in developing co-management opportunities for water resources in the basin (both freshwater and marine), providing assistance with enforcement measures, and developing future research opportunities.

The pilot water quality monitoring program also confirmed that a community based long-term monitoring program could be successfully undertaken by a local community group. Girringun Aboriginal Corporation (representing the interests of Traditional Owners in the Tully Basin) assisted in all phases of the pilot water quality monitoring program, and will continue the pilot program over a longer timeframe. The Corporation (in partnership with the local not-for-profit natural resources management body) recently secured a three year state environment grant, taking a lead role in basin water quality monitoring, using the pilot study as a basis for their program.

The results of this research contributed to the credibility of community participation and knowledge integration to improve water quality outcomes and also facilitated and enabled knowledge co-production, important in the development and implementation of water quality improvement processes. The design and application of a wide range of tools and processes tailored to a local context provided a Wet Tropics case study of transdisciplinary research which contributes towards achieving a more holistic and forward looking approach to refining water quality objectives and monitoring.

In conclusion, the transdisciplinary approach developed in this research: 1) provides a conceptual framework that integrates multiple values to assist in refining water quality objectives; 2) contributes to and enhances the integration of social and biophysical knowledge for water quality improvement; 3) shares knowledge gained by research activities, and provides recommendations; 4) outlines factors that may promote or inhibit the implementation of freshwater quality objectives; 5) highlights the inadequacies of existing government guidelines and policies that do not account for uses and values beyond those listed in current classification schemes; 6) presents potential co-management opportunities for water resources; and 7) offers a novel participatory approach that can serve as a template for other tropical basins worldwide.

Item ID: 39909
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: aboriginal; environment; environmental knowledge; environmental monitoring; freshwater; Great Barrier Reef; groundwater; indigenous; natural resource management; rural water; surface water; Torres Strait Islander; Tully Basin; Tully Region; urban water; water monitoring; water quality; water resource management; Wet Tropics
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Additional Information:

Publications arising from this thesis are available from the Related URLs field. The publications are:

Chapter 2: Tsatsaros, J.H., Brodie, J.E., Bohnet, I.C., and Valentine, P. 2013. Water Quality Degradation of Coastal Waterways in the Wet Tropics, Australia. [Water, Air] and Soil Pollution. 224:1443. DOI: 10.1007/s11270-013-1443-2.

Date Deposited: 13 Aug 2015 02:53
FoR Codes: 05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050201 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Environmental Knowledge @ 33%
05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050209 Natural Resource Management @ 34%
05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050206 Environmental Monitoring @ 33%
SEO Codes: 96 ENVIRONMENT > 9606 Environmental and Natural Resource Evaluation > 960608 Rural Water Evaluation (incl. Water Quality) @ 33%
96 ENVIRONMENT > 9606 Environmental and Natural Resource Evaluation > 960611 Urban Water Evaluation (incl. Water Quality) @ 33%
96 ENVIRONMENT > 9611 Physical and Chemical Conditions of Water > 961103 Physical and Chemical Conditions of Water in Fresh, Ground and Surface Water Environments (excl. Urban and @ 34%
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