Inland Waters Theme Report

Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Prepared by: Jonas Ball, Sinclair Knight Merz Pty Limited, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06750 7

Water quality and sources of pollution (condition)

Contaminants and acidification (condition)

Responses: Reducing pollutants in the environment

  • Wastewater treatment and source control
  • Pesticide regulation, best management practices, integrated pest management and other strategies
  • The National Pollutant Inventory
  • The Revised Australian and New Zealand Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Water Quality
  • Waterwatch - community action on water quality
  • Messages about the reducing pollutants in the environment
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    Wastewater treatment and source control

    The removal of pesticides from wastewater is often impractical because of the high cost. Source control (i.e. identifying the source of the pesticide contamination and controlling it to reduce the impact) is cheaper and more ecologically sustainable, but requires regulatory coordination. In New South Wales, the EPA is working with Sydney Water and the pest control industry to regulate and reduce the use of pesticides found in wastewater discharges from Sydney's inland sewage treatment plants (Sydney Water, pers. com.).

    Lake Burley Griffin was closed in early 2001 due to extremely high levels of bacteria.

    Lake Burley Griffin was closed in early 2001 due to extremely high levels of bacteria.

    Source: Ian Robertson.

    Case study 4: Contamination of Sydney's drinking water in 1998 by Cryptosporidium and Giardia

    High levels of the gastrointestinal parasites, Cryptosporidium and Giardia, were detected in Sydney's drinking water between July and September 1998. In response to concerns about possible health implications of the parasites, NSW Health and Sydney Water responded by introducing boil water alerts.

    The cause of the contamination was investigated as part of an independent inquiry chaired by Peter McClellan, QC. The inquiry concluded that much of Sydney's drinking water supply contains significant sources of Cryptosporidium and Giardia and heavy rains in the catchment that followed a significant period of drought washed the organisms into the stored waters of Warragamba Dam. Although treatment systems operated efficiently, significant numbers of organisms passed into the drinking water supply. Although there was cause for concern about the contamination, it was most unlikely that any person suffered illness because of ingesting the parasites.

    The inquiry determined that improved coordination and integration of catchment management is a priority for protecting drinking water quality and that solely investing in enhancements to the water treatment systems is not necessarily the best solution.

    The catchment management responsibilities for Sydney's drinking water catchments have now been separated from urban water supply functions (i.e. Sydney Water) and invested in a new authority called the Sydney Catchment Authority (see ).

    Pesticide regulation, best management practices, integrated pest management and other strategies

    The greatest management efforts are being directed at pesticide use on land, through initiatives such as the National Registration Authority for Veterinary and Agricultural Chemicals 1995 and the National Pollutant Inventory (see below). Adoption of tools such as best management practices, integrated pest management, chemical control and contingency plans for various crops, as well as the development of some transgenic crops might also help to reduce the incidence of pesticide contamination of surface waters. These issues are discussed in detail in the Land Theme Report.

    Figure 20: Catchments where pH is considered an issue

     Catchments where pH is considered an issue

    Source: NLWRA 2001a.

    The adoption of best management practices and integrated pest management will only reduce pesticide use, not eliminate their use totally, and there will continue to be a significant risk to inland waters from pesticides as their use in agriculture continues to increase. Some genetically modified crops that are resistant to pesticides (e.g. the herbicide Round-up), may encourage the indiscriminate use of larger quantities of pesticides.

    Other strategies to reduce pesticides in inland waters include:

    • wind breaks to reduce over-spray
    • re-establishment of riparian vegetation as wind breaks and filters of catchment run-off (Raupach et al. 2000)
    • greater retention and reuse of excess irrigation water and stormwater.
    The National Pollutant Inventory [IW Indicator 3.6]

    The National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) is an Internet database designed to provide the community, industry and government with information on the types and amounts of certain substances being emitted to the environment. The NPI was designed to satisfy demand for this information and increase understanding of the relative environmental impact of local industry and everyday activities. The information on the NPI is aimed to help governments with environmental planning and management and possibly become an integral part of policy and program formulation for government at all levels. The NPI has been developed as a National Environment Protection Measure (NEPM) through the National Environment Protection Council (NEPC).

    Industrial facilities are required to report NPI substances to the NPI if reporting thresholds are exceeded. There are three reporting thresholds: the first relates to use of a substance, the second relates to fuel use, and the third relates to emission of total nitrogen and total phosphorus to water. Annual reporting aims to help industry to drive cleaner production techniques to reduce pollutant emissions. Industry handbooks containing information about determining reporting requirements and emission estimation techniques have been developed to help industry to comply with the program.

    Sub-threshold industry emissions of NPI substances are estimated by state and territory governments. State and territory governments also estimate emissions from a range of other activities that release NPI substances. Other activities that are considered include lawn mowing and motor vehicle use in designated airsheds. There are 90 substances on the NPI reporting list and reporting all 90 substances has been required from July 2001.

    Australia's state and territory environment authorities will collect the emissions figures from industry, along with estimates of emissions from non-industry sources and facilities using less than the specified amount of NPI substances. Environment Australia makes this information available on the NPI Internet database.

    It is planned that the NPI will demonstrate trends in the amount of emissions entering the environment, and the database will include details of where emissions occur. This will allow meaningful comparisons between emissions in different areas.

    Industry, the community and local governments have been consulted to make sure that the NPI's design reflects Australia's diverse environment and the interests and needs of Australians. They will continue to be involved during the implementation of the NPI.

    The NPI was reviewed at the end of 2000 and a number of relevant issues were considered, including:

    • changes to the NPI reporting thresholds
    • effectiveness of the NPI National Environment Protection Measure
    • the resources allocated to implementing the NPI
    • the substances listed on the NPI
    • whether reporting on pollutant transfers should become part of the NPI
    • the reporting process.

    The review will also take into account the results of the various NPI trials (see ).

    The Revised Australian and New Zealand Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Water Quality
  • Scope and management focus
  • Holistic, integrated assessment that is relevant to specific sites
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    The Australian Water Quality Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Waters (NWQMS 1992) is one of a suite of 21 documents forming the National Water Quality Management Strategy and was released in 1992 as one of the first guideline documents. In 1993 the ANZECC Standing Committee on Environmental Protection (SCEP) agreed to review the water-quality guidelines to incorporate current scientific, international and national information in a sufficiently clear and understandable document. The revised guidelines, The Australian and New Zealand Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Water Quality were publicly released in August 2001.

    The objective of The Australian and New Zealand Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Water Quality is to provide an authoritative guide for setting water quality objectives required to sustain current, or likely future, environmental values (uses) for natural and semi-natural water resources in Australia and New Zealand. The guidelines have been prepared as part of Australia's National Water Quality Management Strategy (NWQMS) that is based on ecologically sustainable development. Scientific and management approaches of the past may not be appropriate for current water-quality issues and in their place, holistic, best-practice approaches are being developed to ensure that water resources are managed sustainably. To this end, the new guidelines provide an improved management focus and adopt an innovative new approach to setting of water quality objectives, including the following:

    Scope and management focus
    • The guidelines are not mandatory, nor should they be regarded as such. Each state, territory or regional council uses its own water planning and environmental policy tools to establish a framework that is compatible and consistent with the agreed national guidelines (see Figure 21). The emphasis is on involving the community in setting management goals and levels of protection, and establishing the balance between social, cultural, political and economic concerns and considering costs and benefits .
    • The new guidelines move away from a confrontationist and regulatory mindset, and instead, promote a cooperative best-management approach with all parties working together to maintain or improve water quality.
    • Cultural and spiritual values of waters for Indigenous people are now recognised as a distinct environmental value, though no guidelines have yet been developed.
    • For the first time, guidelines for aquaculture and human consumers of aquatic foods have been provided.

    Figure 21: Management framework for applying the guidelines.

     Management framework for applying the guidelines

    Source: National Water Quality Management Strategy 1992.

    Holistic, integrated assessment that is relevant to specific sites
    • The guidelines recognise that water quality, ecosystem health and the surrounding environment are all intimately connected. Other drivers of aquatic ecosystem health are now considered, not just water quality. For protection of aquatic ecosystems, the guidelines have been broadened to include biological assessment as well as assessment using the traditional physical and chemical indicators. Sediment guidelines are now included, and advice is provided on how to determine suitable environmental flows in rivers and streams. Similarly, the guidelines for irrigation consider potential impacts on soils and the wider environment as well as on the crops and pastures being produced.
    • The most significant advance in the new guidelines is the move away from applying universal single number, default guideline values. Instead, the guidelines have adopted an innovative new approach that allows water quality objectives to be derived, assessed and tailored for specific locations, thereby addressing specific management goals and problems.
    • The new guidelines consider water quality issues (e.g. algal blooms) and not simply concentrations of individual chemicals (e.g. nutrients).

    The new features of the guidelines will lead to more efficient and cost-effective environmental management that involves holistic best practice to ensure that water resources are managed sustainably.

    Waterwatch - community action on water quality [IW Indicator 3.11]

    A significant proportion of the water quality data collected around Australia is undertaken by volunteer community-based networks as part of the Waterwatch program. Waterwatch is a national community-based water monitoring and environmental education program aiming to actively involve the community in the protection and management of their local waterways.

    Currently over 3000 Waterwatch groups monitor over 5000 sites across Australia. The number of monitoring groups provides both a geographical coverage and collection of data from areas that are not able to be covered by any other government or resource management agency monitoring program. Therefore, the data being collected by the community have been identified as a significant and valuable source of information to supplement state and regional monitoring programs and to be used in natural resource management. There are currently a number of government and scientific monitoring programs using the data that Waterwatch provides.

    Waterwatch monitors from the Swan Bay Integrated Catchment Group, Victoria.

    Waterwatch monitors from the Swan Bay Integrated Catchment Group, Victoria.

    Source: Waterwatch (photographed by Fine Focus Video and Photography).

    The participation of community groups and individuals in Waterwatch can be seen to reflect the level of community awareness of environmental issues related to inland waters. This indicator 'Waterwatch Participation' therefore attempts to quantify community/public participation in water quality and other monitoring as a means of assessing the amount of community involvement currently throughout Australia. Table 25 indicates the participation (based on numbers of people and groups) in Waterwatch, as well as the types of groups involved.

    Table 25: Waterwatch participation: total number of participants, monitoring sites, catchments monitored and Waterwatch groupsA
    State Participants Monitoring sites Catchments Total number of groups Primary schools Secondary schools Tertiary institutions Landcare/ Bushcare/ Parkcare Conservation/ catchment/ community Individuals Government Local councils OtherB
    ACT 2 400 100 10 75 27 15 3 11 12 3 0 0 4
    NSW 15 138 981 45 700 258 317 10 24 43 1 5 40 2
    NT 1 890 114 21 31 2 0 0 14 5 2 2 4 2
    QLD 7 000 700 29 305 116 48 3 21 82 9 2 14 10
    SA 4 968 573 15 186 125 23 0 9 12 2 1 0 14
    TAS 3000 250 70 130 20 40 2 32 12 4 4 11 5
    VIC 11 089 2 277 29 575 127 78 8 103 44 175 4 1 35
    WA 5 000 500 27 200 90 72 4 12 6 0 0 14 2
    National 50 485 5 495 246 2 202 765 593 30 226 216 196 18 84 74

    A Data as at October 1999.
    B Other includes industry, Indigenous groups and youth.

    Source: Environment Australia.

    There is a broad cross-section of groups involved in Waterwatch. A significant proportion of these are primary and secondary schools which is attributed to the program's early beginnings as a school-based program. This is a positive result when the important educational role of Waterwatch is considered. Over time, the program has evolved to become much broader, encompassing a diverse range of monitoring parameters, with an increased focus on technical training for volunteer monitors and the inclusion of many Landcare groups and individual landholders in the program. Efforts are also being made by the Waterwatch program to reach other sectors of the community, such as retirees and small businesses.

    Statistics collected from the Waterwatch state and regional facilitators provide a snapshot of those people directly involved in monitoring and various other Waterwatch activities. These statistics do not reflect the broader community that the Waterwatch message reaches, including parents and families of school students doing Waterwatch; industry, business and local government communities providing sponsorship to regional Waterwatch programs; and members of Waterwatch regional and state committees. It is difficult to determine, from these statistics, the proportion of Australia's population that is aware of issues affecting inland waters through their participation in and monitoring with Waterwatch. One way to make the indicator more meaningful would be to collect more specific information on a more regular basis about the people involved in the Waterwatch program in the broadest sense. This would allow a more meaningful assessment of awareness over time.

    In general, participation in Waterwatch on a percentage scale of Australia's total population is moderately low, but in comparison to other educational programs Waterwatch is achieving a high level of awareness and involvement in water quality and catchment issues among the broader community. Participation in the program has increased by over 10% over the past 5 years, and this involvement continues to grow more rapidly as the program expands in both rural and urban areas.

    Messages about the reducing pollutants in the environment
    • National information on the location and quantity of pollutants discharged to inland waters will be available for the next SoE reporting cycle from the National Pollutant Inventory.
    • New guidelines, strategies and best-management practices developed primarily by the Commonwealth Government (in consultation with states and territories) provide important tools for assessing and managing pollutants.