Water quality for primary industries

The quality and quantity of water resources are critical for agriculture in Australia and New Zealand, and water quality is important to protect human consumers of agricultural food products.

Growth of primary industries, together with expanding urbanisation and other industrial development, has increased the demand for good quality water and exerted escalating pressure on the quality of available water resources. Water quality for primary industry enterprises must take into account:

  • productivity issues
  • possible adverse effects on downstream activities and water quality.

Irrigation and livestock watering are the largest agricultural uses of water. Minor amounts are used for other production purposes, such as the mixing of pesticide, fertiliser, veterinary formulations and livestock dietary supplements. Irrigated agriculture and livestock production industries in Australia rely heavily on the use of groundwater and surface water resources. Groundwater is an important source of stock water in parts of New Zealand.

We provide guidance and default guideline values (DGVs) for primary industries that are applicable to both surface water and groundwater quality, where appropriate. DGVs for general on-farm water use are included with the irrigation DGVs and cover topics such as corrosion and fouling of pipes and fittings.

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.

Livestock drinking water quality

Good water quality is essential for successful livestock production. Poor quality water may reduce animal production and impair fertility. In extreme cases, stock may die.

Contaminants in stock drinking water can produce residues in animal products (e.g. meat, milk and eggs), adversely affecting their saleability and sometimes creating human health risks.

Livestock production operations and meat processing plants may impair downstream water quality (e.g. through faecal contamination), highlighting the need for an integrated approach to land and water management in rural catchments.

Refer to Primary Industries — Livestock Drinking Water Guidance (Table A) for revised advice and DGVs for biological, physiochemical and radiological characteristics of water quality that may affect animal health.

DGVs are thresholds within which there should be minimal risk of adverse effects to animal health. If a parameter does not meet a DGV, we recommend further investigation to determine the level of risk.

Irrigation and water for general on-farm use

An important goal of water quality for irrigation and general use is to maintain the productivity of irrigated agricultural land and associated water resources, in accordance with the principles of ecologically sustainable development and integrated catchment management.

The quality of the water available or the cost of treating it so that is fit for purpose should be a consideration in any irrigation strategy — alongside soil and crop type, climate and yield — to fully understand economic viability.

Refer to Primary Industries — Irrigation Guidelines for guidance and default guideline values applicable for the assessment of surface water and groundwater quality for irrigation water in Australia and New Zealand. Includes guidance on biological parameters, salinity and sodicity, inorganic contaminants (specific ions, including heavy metals and nutrients), organic contaminants (pesticides) and radiological characteristics of irrigation water.

DGVs are thresholds within which there should be minimal risk of adverse effects to animal health. If a parameter does not meet a DGV, we recommend further investigation to determine the level of risk.

Aquaculture and aquatic foods

Aquaculture covers the production of food for human consumption, fry for recreational fishing and natural fisheries, ornamental fish and plants for the aquarium trade, raw materials for energy and biochemicals, and a number of items for the fashion industry.

With wild fisheries approaching maximum sustainable levels and many already overexploited, aquaculture is globally important as a source of aquatic food and other products.

Adequate water quality is needed for maintain viable aquaculture operations. Poor water quality can:

  • result in loss of production of culture species
  • reduce the quality of the end product.

Aquaculture production is reduced when influent water contains enough contaminants to impair development, growth or reproduction and potentially result in death.

Product quality is reduced when low levels of a contaminant cause no obvious adverse effects but gradually accumulate in the culture species to the point where it poses a potential health risk to human consumers.

Both production and product quality need to be considered if useful and usable guideline values are to be provided for the aquaculture industry.

Influent and source water quality

Refer to Primary Industries — Livestock Drinking Water Guidance (Tables A to AA) for advice and DGVs for influent (incoming water) or source water quality. This addresses the safety of aquatic foods for human consumers, whether the foods be produced by aquaculture or commercial, recreational or indigenous fishing.

Aquaculture and human consumption of aquatic foods

Guidance for aquaculture and human consumption of aquatic foods in the Water Quality Guidelines has not been revised since the ANZECC & ARMCANZ (2000) guidelines. Most of these guideline values should be used with caution as few are based on a critical assessment of a wide dataset. The aquatic ecosystem guideline values can be used as additional indicative information as they will generally be protective of aquaculture species.

In addition to guideline values for the protection of aquaculture species, refer to Primary Industries — Livestock Drinking Water Guidance (Tables B to BB) for faecal coliforms, biotoxins and off-flavour compounds in aquatic foods for human consumption produced via aquaculture.

Wild fish stocks

The Primary Industry Guidelines for protecting the health of commercial fish species do not apply to recreational and commercial fisheries based on wild populations of aquatic organisms. Wild fish stocks are dependent on healthy ecosystems to support them throughout their life cycle (e.g. feeding, breeding, habitat). For the protection of wild fish stocks, it is best to apply our guidance for managing aquatic ecosystems.

Seafood production

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) sets out food safety and suitability requirements for seafood generally from pre-harvesting production of seafood up to, but not including, manufacturing operations.

Other sources of water quality guidance

Some water quality issues were considered out of scope for the revision of the Water Quality Guidelines because advice can be found elsewhere.


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.

DEST SEAC 1996, Australia, State of the Environment: An independent report, Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories State of the Environment Advisory Council (Australia), CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood.