March 22nd 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: The future ... after Iraq

CANBERRA OBSERVED: After Iraq: the challenge facing John Howard

MEDICINE: Leading specialists reject destructive embryo research

BIOETHICS: Embryo research and state laws

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Bazaar politics/Sponsors/Beautiful People socialism

COMMENT: The real culprits in the internet porn scandal

FAMILY: Youth legal guide alarms families

MEDIA: Accord strikes a chord / 'Australian' shake-up a matter of opinion

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Deregulation and water could be a tragedy for National Party

LETTERS: Foreign debt (letter)

LETTERS: The vision thing (letter)

How Australian support is rebuilding East Timor

WATER: Towards healthier river systems: a flawed process

NUCLEAR WEAPONS: The future of non-proliferation treaties

BOOKS: Life, Liberty and the Defence of Dignity, by Leon Kass

BOOKS: Australia And Israel: An Ambiguous Relationship, by Chanan Reich

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Towards healthier river systems: a flawed process

by Patrick J. Byrne

News Weekly, March 22, 2003
The proposal to reallocate up to 15% of farmers water allocations for environmental flows down the Murray-Darling Basin is a flawed process, argues Professor John J Pigram. He is Adjunct Professor at the University of New England, was previously Director of the Centre for Water Policy Research at UNE, is President of the International Water Resources Association, and is on the Board of Governors of the World Water Council. This article first appeared in Water, February 2003.


The Water Policy Agreement put in place by the Council of Australian Governments in 1994, and endorsed by successive high level policy groups, signalled a new urgency by governments, state and federal, to pursue efficient, sustainable use of water in Australia. Foremost among the reforms was a commitment to allocation of water to the environment as a legitimate user of water.

However, implementation of arbitrary and unrealistic measures to satisfy ill-defined and unsubstantiated environmental water requirements may well prove counter-productive to the achievement of consensus in the redistribution of demand for water between existing and emerging uses and values, and compromise the process of water reform.

A more professional and responsible approach would see conflicting claims on the resource documented in a credible manner, and best practice in the management of water for in-stream, as well as for off-stream purposes, made mandatory.


Like parenthood, allocating water for the environment is seen by many as a good thing. Not surprisingly, "green" groups are strong supporters, but rural landowners, townsfolk and city-dwellers are also generally in favour of providing water for environmental needs. Why, then, has the issue become so controversial and emerged as perhaps the most difficult aspect of water reform in New South Wales, and other jurisdictions? As with many conflict situations, the answer lies not in what is proposed to be done, but in how it is done. It is the process for allocating environmental flows to river systems which is flawed, not the policy itself. Knee-jerk reactions to placate well-meaning, but emotive and unrealistic wish-lists are premature.

Healthy Rivers

Despite the imprecision of environmental water needs, concerted efforts are being made at state and federal levels to restore Australia's rivers and waterways to a healthy, or at least, a healthier condition.

In the State of New South Wales, a Healthy Rivers Commission has been in place since 1995. Yet, there seems little consensus on what constitutes a "healthy river" and even less on how to achieve this, or how far to go towards restoration or rehabilitation of a degraded stream environment.

In the Commission's view (2000,4): "...the term river health is seen to encompass the full range of attributes that collectively describe a river's ability, to support the environmental, economic and social values citizens expect."

This comprehensive and inclusive perspective, sometimes referred to as the "triple bottom line" approach (van der Lee, 2001, 4), views the river system in a holistic manner, integrating ecological, economic and community dimensions. In this appreciation of a functioning stream environment, no specific aspect of river health is given preference, or to be sought to the detriment of others.

By contrast, remediation strategies being implemented in the interests of healthy rivers would seem to reflect the notion that enhanced ecological outcomes must be paramount. In this view, an improvement in the biophysical parameters of the stream environment must receive priority at the expense of rural and urban water allocations, even if social welfare and regional economies are threatened as a result. On the other hand, if the Commission's holistic approach to river health is endorsed, ecological values would be only one measure of a healthy riverine system. Economic productivity, social health and cultural aspects such as aesthetic values and recreational capability, would also be taken into account.

Priority for restoration of biophysical conditions would have to be fully justified alongside other components of overall river health. In situations where off-stream water allocations for irrigation and other consumptive purposes were to be reduced to satisfy biophysical concerns for the riverine environment, trade-offs would need to be calculated and provision made to offset these losses.

Reference to the Precautionary Principle and to the perceived urgency of the problem of stressed rivers should not be used to rationalise shortcomings in the process for reallocation of water to the environment.

Again, initiatives directed towards river health often become focused on narrowly defined outcomes, such as wetlands restoration or waterfowl breeding events. The Healthy Rivers Commission sees such selectivity as unhelpful. "These (initiatives) invite, rather than deter, the establishment of mutually convenient demarcations of management effort" (2000, 19). The preference is for integrated, system-based river management. This demands an agreed set of criteria for determining priorities for environmental water allocations, and importantly, for the evaluation of outcomes in terms of river health, sustainability and biodiversity of the overall stream environment.

Determination of Environmental Flows

A basic constraint on the effectiveness of environmental water flows is limited understanding of ecological responses to flow modification (Quinn and Thoms, 2002). Despite ongoing research, predictions of ecological outcomes remain tentative and qualified at best and the link between ecological processes and designated flow regimes is not clear.

Given the imprecision in knowledge of ecosystem requirements, environmental water allocations often seem to be in the nature of an "ambit claim" on the resource; a largely undocumented drive to claw back water previously allocated from storage and extracted from streams for irrigation, industry and town supplies. The multifaceted nature of the riverine environment, noted earlier, and the inability of scientific research to specify precisely an appropriate level of water supply to satisfy the ecosystems involved, raises serious questions about the integrity of the process for determining effective environmental flows.

Management of Environmental Flows

Not only is it questionable to claim substantial amounts of water for environmental needs when those needs are not known or fully understood, it is of even greater concern to learn that the water has been allocated without specifying when, in what quantities, and for what purposes, it will be used. Hydrological manipulation is only one component of the restoration process for river health. Remediation is not merely a matter of securing a quantity of water for the environment, so much as specifying how that water is to be used. A management plan for environmental flows must be mandatory, covering the timing, volume and duration of releases of water from storage to achieve the objectives sought.

Monitoring of Outcomes

It is equally surprising that significant acquisitions of water should be designated for the environment without a systematic program being available for evaluating the outcomes. Belated efforts in research are being undertaken, but, at present, there are no reliable means of monitoring the effectiveness of environmental water allocations, or of assessing the difference, if any, they make. Accountability, monitoring, feedback and response are fundamental components of any program to assess the effects of human activities, even those undertaken with the best of ecological intentions. Quinn and Thorns (2002, 60) stress the need for: "... a conceptual model that summarises our ecological understanding of the ecosystem; a flow-response model that links flow regimes with geomorphic and habitat responses; initial survey data to develop monitoring design parameters and determine statistical power; and a set of variables and indicators that represent key biota and ecosystem processes."

To these might be added some means of assessing the economic and social tradeoffs involved in diverting water from off-stream to in-stream use in the interests of the biophysical environment.

Quinn and Thorns (2002) do not discount the difficulties of designing a monitoring system for evaluating the effectiveness of environmental flows. They point out that replication (of riverine ecosystems) is rarely possible and control or reference systems may not exist. Likewise, "... different variables and indicators will respond to flow changes in different ways and at different time scales, eg. aquatic plants in wetlands ... (in contrast with) ... breeding success of waterbirds." (2002.61)

Yet, these challenges do not seem to have deterred the vigour with which, claims on water for the environment are pursued. Indeed, accountability for the effective use of environmental water allocations has been dismissed as a priority by at least one interest group. A representative of the Inland Rivers Network expressed the view that, because environmental water needs cannot be specified precisely, in terms of species, location or timing, "...we shouldn't require the environment to be 100% accountable for all the water it uses." (Hunt, 2001, 8). This disturbing attitude appears to reflect a conviction that environmental claims on water are not to be queried or evaluated, a view that may well be shared by other supporters of a policy of diverting increasing amounts of water to in-stream use. A recent comment by a freshwater ecologist advocates "... a yearly audit of water taken by irrigators" (Cullen, 2002, 8). However, no such assessment, apparently, is considered necessary for the long-term implications of environmental water allocations, or of the effectiveness of their management.

Adaptive Management

The shortcomings identified in the scientific justification for environmental flows, and the relative neglect given to appropriate managerial protocols for the water allocated, suggest the need for a more flexible approach to restoration of river health. Adaptive management is a logical response to inadequate decision support and incorporates the monitoring of system variables and adjustment of flow regimes where necessary, according to changing circumstances.

Thus, if an environmental allocation proved to be in excess of requirements at a particular time, it would seem to make sense, in the short term, to dispose of the surplus to willing buyers in a water market. Conversely, if an environmental allocation was found, with experience, to be insufficient, it should be possible to cover the shortfall by entering the market to acquire more water for the purposes specified, eg. support for a bird breeding event. Unfortunately, those interest groups which lobby governments so strongly for more water for the environment appear to be resolutely opposed to any reference to a water market to facilitate adjustments to water allocations.

Sound River Management

An alternative and more constructive approach can be found in the principles set down by the NSW Healthy Rivers Commission for sound river management (Crawford, 2001). Implementation of these principles should assist in achieving a more cooperative and collaborative relationship between stakeholders and have a major impact in reversing the decline in river health in New South Wales through the adoption of a holistic approach to the process of sharing the state's water resources.

The principles encompass:

(i) Whole system management - whereby rivers are managed as systems interconnected through a range of biophysical processes which interact with human activities.

(ii) Rivers as productive assets - serving diverse, critically important functions as valuable environmental, social and commercial assets.

(iii) Effective river planning - based on management strategies for river health in which issues, goals and priorities are systematically identified and responsibility for management clearly assigned.

(iv) Accountability - for actions, results achieved and monitored and agreed processes being followed.

(v) Government-community partnerships - with each having clearly stated responsibilities, and with opportunities for public consultation and participation in management of river health.

(vi) Adaptive management - reflecting uncertainties in knowledge and understanding of natural processes, requiring regular monitoring and review of actions, and adaptation where indicated.


We have identified flaws in the process for determining, managing and monitoring environmental flows. As the large scale diversion of water from off-stream to in-stream use proceeds, irrigators and other consumptive users have had to contend with sharply reduced water allocations. Their response has been to "do better with less" - to contain their claims on the resource and work towards leaving streams in a healthier condition. Likewise, interest groups, who have largely succeeded in acquiring substantially greater amounts of ware under management for the environment, should now expect to be obligated "to do better with their more" - to account for the water placed under their stewardship and service effectively the environmental purposes specified.


Cullen P (2002), "Running rivers like a business", Sydney Morning Herald, October 9, 2002 p.8.

Crawford P (2001), "From here to accountability: securing healthy rivers", Water Science and Technology, 43, 9, 243-250.

Healthy Rivers Commission (2000), Securing Healthy Coastal Rivers, Sydney: Healthy Rivers Commission.

Hunt S (2001), "Measuring environmental flows: a bean counter's version," Inland Rivers Network News, 6, 1, 8-9.

Quinn G and Thoms M (2002), "Environmental flows - and ecological perspective," Water, 29, 6, 58-61.

Van der Lee J (2001), A Triple Bottom Line Approach to River Basin Management, Centre for Ecological Economics and Water Policy Research, University of New England, Armidale.

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