Integrated monitoring and management for watersheds: What I learned in Australia

One sunny day in the early 1990s the Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Jim Soorley, was gazing down from an airplane as he flew over Moreton Bay, halfway up Australia’s east coast. He noticed a discolouration of the water where the Brisbane River entered the bay – a dark plume that extended out into the bay. He pointed out the plume to his travelling companion and asked him what caused it. His travelling companion was probably the best person in the world to answer that question – Bill Dennison from the University of Queensland. Bill was an American biologist who had come to Australia to develop a comprehensive research program for Moreton Bay. Bill explained that the plume was sediment running off land cleared of vegetation for agriculture and urban development. There had been concern about water quality in the Brisbane River and Moreton Bay since the 1970s but nothing much had been done about it1. Soorley and Dennison decided to change that.

That’s a story I heard from at least three different members of the Australian Rivers Institute last year while on sabbatical. I had travelled to Brisbane, South East Queensland (SEQ), to learn more about the Healthy Land and Water Program. HL&W is a 2016 merger of two organisations, Healthy Waterways which began in 1998 and SEQ Catchments. Healthy Waterways had served as a model in my work with the Canadian Water Network’s (CWN) Canadian Watershed Research Consortium.

The Watershed Consortium is what brought me to the University of Waterloo in 2013 as CWN’s last Scientific Director. It addressed a concern expressed by provincial and territorial decision-makers about their responsibility to provide frameworks and information to support cumulative effects assessments in watersheds and regions. Managers weren’t sure what those frameworks should look like or what kind of data were needed. It wasn’t that they didn’t know how to do monitoring – Canada is a world leader in the development of environmental effects monitoring programs. What we haven’t done well yet is implement frameworks that link those monitoring programs to relevant governance. The Watershed Consortium was an initiative to learn through doing: provide resources to half a dozen groups across Canada to develop monitoring frameworks in support of cumulative effects assessment at the watershed or regional scales. One of the best examples of an excellent aquatic monitoring program that has resulted in better decision-making is the Healthy Waterways program in SEQ, Australia. It is for that reason that I wanted to visit SEQ: to learn how they had managed to develop the Healthy Waterways program and to see if we could implement that model in Canada.

The Soorley/Dennison teamwork was the first lesson. Both men were dynamic champions with excellent communication and collaborative skills and they worked well together. The take-home message for me was that big undertakings need big champions. It is essential to have a technical champion but you also need a political champion to get things done, to develop what Dennison refers to as a “…successful model of integrated science and management…”2. Dennison and Soorley were those technical and political champions, respectively, who were able to mobilize people around the issue of the health of Moreton Bay and its watersheds.

The second big lesson, for me, was that the continued support for Healthy Waterways may be, to a large extent, explained by the episodic nature of the Australian climate3. Rahm Emanuel, who served as Barack Obama’s White House Chief of Staff is famous for having said “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” The Millenium drought (1996-2010) scared people and governments of southern Australia and resulted in “drought-proofing” measures including municipal wastewater re-use, new water-sharing networks and the construction of six desalination plants at vast expense. This was followed by massive floods in 2011 and 2013 which scared people even more. The 2013 flood brought so much sediment into the Brisbane River from the Lockyer Creek sub-watershed, a catchment of intense irrigated vegetable horticulture, that Brisbane’s two big water treatment plants had to be shut down. Identifying Lockyer sub-watershed as a major source of sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen prompted support for research into how to reduce sediment runoff and then financial support for revegetating the banks of the creek, including from interests downriver who would benefit from the improved water quality.

So, could we follow this example and institute an integrated monitoring and management program for one or more watersheds in Canada? If so, where? What I learned in Australia is that the place to test this would be somewhere with strong technical expertise and relentless political champions for solving an urgent need. In a future article I will describe why I, and scientists and managers from DFO, the Province of PEI, the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence Coalition on Sustainability, the University of Prince Edward Island and the Université du Québec think Prince Edward Island is that place.

1 Bunn, S.E., E.G. Abal, P.F. Greenfield and D.M. Tarte. 2007. Making the connection between healthy waterways and healthy catchments: South East Queensland, Australia. Water Science and Technology: Water Supply. 7(2): 93-100.

2 (Bill Dennison CV)

3 Personal Communication, 26 February, 2019: Dr. Jim Smart, Associate Professor, School of Environment, Australian Rivers Institute and Business School, Griffith University, Nathan Campus, QLD 4111, Australia