Default guideline values

Default guideline values (DGVs) can provide a generic starting point for assessing water quality. We recommend using DGVs for generic applications in the absence of more relevant guideline values (jurisdictional, site specific).

In the Water Quality Guidelines, we provide DGVs and associated guidance for aquatic ecosystem protection and primary industries, and direct you to DGVs for human health (drinking water, recreation and aesthetics).

It is important to know that the Water Quality Guidelines’ DGVs are not mandatory and have no formal legal status, but that, where appropriate, state, territory or local jurisdictions may incorporate the processes and tools, including the DGVs, provided within the Water Quality Guidelines, into their water quality protection policy and regulatory tools.

Ideally, use guideline values with measurements from other lines of evidence in a weight-of-evidence process to determine if water quality represents a risk to a particular community value.

Aquatic ecosystems

Physical and chemical stressors

ANZECC & ARMCANZ (2000) derived physical and chemical (PC) stressor DGVs for large geographic regions that encompassed a broad range of catchments and water types. In the Water Quality Guidelines, we have adopted a more appropriate set of geographic regions.

Find PC stressor DGVs derived from regional reference-site data for your location

Levels of species protection

PC stressor DGVs are provided for different levels of protection, depending on the current or desired ecosystem condition.

  • High conservation/ecological value systems should have no change from ambient conditions, unless it can be demonstrated that such change will not compromise the maintenance of biological diversity in the system. Where comprehensive biological-effects data are not available, a monitoring program is required to show that values of PC stressors are not changing, using statistically conservative decision criteria as the basis for evaluation.
  • Slightly to moderately disturbed systems need DGVs based on either 80th or 20th percentiles of minimally impacted reference-site data.
  • Highly disturbed systems need DGVs for less conservative 90th or 10th percentiles of minimally impacted reference-site data, with a goal of continual improvement.

See also:

  • Level of protection — advice on determining an ecosystem condition and associated level of protection and selecting the appropriate PC stressor DGV

Environmental issues

Follow our guidance for PC stressors associated with environmental issues when assessing PC stressors for water quality.


DGVs are provided for many toxicants in freshwater, marine waters and sediment.

Water quality guideline values

Our preference has been to derive toxicant DGVs for water quality from ecotoxicity testing using a species sensitivity distribution (SSD) of chronic toxicity data. We derived water quality toxicant DGVs that will protect 80, 90, 95 or 99% of species.

The DGVs for different levels of species protection are applied according to the current or desired ecosystem condition and associated level of protection.

Reliability of DGVs is defined by the type and number of data points and the goodness of fit of the data in the SSD.

Many toxicant DGVs for water quality were retained from the ANZECC & ARMCANZ (2000) guidelines. Some were derived using the assessment-factor or quantitative structure–activity relationship (QSAR) approaches.

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Sediment quality guideline values

Derivation of toxicant DGVs for sediment quality is less advanced than for water quality.

In common with many other countries, we used effects-based values from North America in the Water Quality Guidelines. We revised several sediment quality toxicant DGVs published in the ANZECC & ARMCANZ (2000) guidelines.

A methodology for the derivation of future sediment quality guideline values that accounts for both sediment grain size and organic carbon content has been demonstrated for copper. This may lead to an increase in the number of guideline values derived in this way.

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No DGVs for biodiversity or other ecosystem receptor indicators are provided in the Water Quality Guidelines, although reference-site ecological and biological-effects data can generally be used.

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Primary industries

We revised guidance for livestock drinking water quality in the Water Quality Guidelines. Other guideline values for primary industries published in the ANZECC & ARMCANZ (2000) guidelines have been retained, including water for aquaculture and the production of foods for human consumption, and water for irrigation.

Some issues are outside the scope of the Water Quality Guidelines, such as water quality for washing of farm produce or for dairy operations. Refer to local health and hygiene regulations and the Australian and New Zealand Food Standards Code.

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Drinking water

Health authorities in Australia and New Zealand are primarily responsible for establishing guidance and guideline values or standards for drinking water:

Cultural and spiritual values

No DGVs are provided specifically for cultural and spiritual values.

Our recommended approach to protect the cultural and spiritual values of waterways includes testing whether guideline values for other community values, particularly aquatic ecosystems, can also support the protection of the water quality components of cultural and spiritual values. After doing this, the process includes discussing options with indigenous people and the wider community, on matters including the cultural, economic, environmental and social implications of using these guideline values for other community values.

See also:

Recreation and aesthetics

NHMRC (2008) published Guidelines for Managing Risks in Recreational Water to protect human health from threats posed by the recreational use of coastal, estuarine and fresh waters, such as natural and artificial hazards. It includes key aspects of the WHO (2003) Guidelines for Safe Recreational Water Environments and combines much of the international consensus on healthy recreational water use with current understanding of Australian waters, to provide guidance relevant to local conditions. Consistent with the approach for the Water Quality Guidelines, the NHMRC recreational water guidelines advocate a preventive approach to the management of recreational water that focuses on assessing and managing hazards and hazardous events within a risk-management framework. To support this, the NHMRC recreational water guidelines include DGVs for recreation and aesthetics for microbiological parameters and some chemical and physical parameters. The NHMRC (2008) recreational water guidelines supersede previous recreational water quality guidance, such as the ANZECC & ARMCANZ (2000) guidelines and the NHMRC (1990) Australian Guidelines for Recreational Use of Water.

Microbiological parameters in New Zealand’s recreational waters are available in MfE (2003) Microbiological Water Quality Guidelines for Marine and Freshwater Recreational Areas.

Terrestrial and semi-terrestrial wildlife drinking water

Although terrestrial and semi-terrestrial wildlife drinking water is not a community value currently covered by the Water Quality Guidelines, we have provided some initial information and guidance here based on that provided by ANZECC (1992) and ANZECC/ARMCANZ (2000).

With few exceptions (for example Commonwealth of Australia 2008), there remains limited guidance on water quality requirements of terrestrial and semi terrestrial wildlife. However, in general, it is considered that guideline values for the protection of aquatic ecosystems will be sufficient to protect wildlife from detrimental effects associated with wildlife drinking contaminated water. The aquatic ecosystem protection guideline values are often, but not always, the most stringent for all the community values, and generally ensure that other related community values, such as human consumption of edible fish and shellfish, and terrestrial and semi-terrestrial wildlife, are also protected. Given the lack of existing guidance, this is an area warranting further investigation.

It is important to be aware that drinking water is not the only source of contaminants for terrestrial and semi-terrestrial wildlife, and other sources, typically their food, are likely to be more significant, and also need to be considered. Terrestrial and semi-terrestrial wildlife linked to aquatic food chains are at risk from a suite of water-borne contaminants that can bioaccumulate in organisms and biomagnify along the food chain. In these instances, guideline values that protect aquatic species from waterborne contaminants may not convey safety for species that consume aquatic organisms. These substances include certain organic forms of metals (for example methyl mercury) and particular non-metallic organic compounds (for instance some pesticides and persistent organic pollutants) that can biomagnify through food chains to levels of high toxicity.

Additional discussion of how to understand risks to aquatic and terrestrial and semi-terrestrial wildlife associated with bioaccumulating and biomagnifying contaminants can be found in ANZECC/ARMCANZ (2000; Sections and However, the information is now dated and would benefit from being updated to reflect the current state of the science. 


ANZECC 1992, Australian Water Quality Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Waters, Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council, Canberra.

ANZECC & ARMCANZ 2000, Australian and New Zealand Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Water Quality, Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council and Agriculture and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand, Canberra.

Commonwealth of Australia 2008, Cyanide Management . Leading Practice Sustainable Development Program for the Mining Industry, Environmental Management booklet, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

DEST SEAC 1996 Australia, State of the Environment 1996: An Independent Report, Department of Environment, Sport and Territories State of the Environment Advisory Council, CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood.

MfE 2003, Microbiological Water Quality Guidelines for Marine and Freshwater Recreational Areas, Ministry for the Environment, Wellington.

NHMRC 1990, Australian Guidelines for Recreational Use of Water, National Health and Medical Research Council, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

NHMRC 2008, Guidelines for Managing Risks in Recreational Water, National Health and Medical Research Council, Canberra.

NHMRC 2016, Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (2011) — Updated 2016, National Health and Medical Research Council, Canberra.

WHO 2003, Guidelines for Safe Recreational Water Environments, Volume 1 Coastal and Fresh Waters, World Health Organization, Geneva.