Monitoring consists of a systematic and planned series of measurements or observations that are appropriately analysed and reported, to generate information and knowledge about a water body.

Water quality monitoring provides us with information on the health of waterways and for the management of catchments, water resources and the environment. Monitoring may be required for single studies and to focus on particular issues or knowledge gaps, or it may be part of a more regular ongoing operation.

Monitoring data are essential for people involved in planning, licensing and approval processes and natural resource management, as well as agencies, consultants, researchers and community groups interested in monitoring, assessment and reporting.

Water quality monitoring at different scales

Monitoring is often needed for the development of catchment-based, water quality management plans to ensure the protection of the identified environmental values. At these broad scales, monitoring also underpins State of Environment Reporting and national or regional audits.

We also need monitoring at a more local scale to support the approval or assessment of development proposals, for existing operations for which there is potential for water quality impacts and for specific investigations. This would include:

  • developing and assessing environmental impact assessments
  • developing waste discharge license conditions and assessing their compliance
  • reviewing environmental impact assessments
  • identifying contaminant sources as well as possible causes of unexplained events.

More broadly, we need monitoring programs at a range of spatial and temporal scales, preferably with harmonised and standardised measurement programs associated with identified pressures, stressors and ecosystem receptors.

Characterising water quality in this way helps us to:

  • understand the baseline or assess ecosystem ‘health’
  • track changes in that condition and potentially how it may respond to management action over both time and space
  • identify and understand key drivers of condition or specific events (e.g. an algal bloom)
  • support the development or calibration of process models
  • inform and improve final study design.

Monitoring process for water quality

The monitoring process (Figure 1) captures all aspects of a monitoring program.

  1. Define the information requirements and monitoring program objectives.
  2. Design a monitoring study, including its type, scale, measurement parameters and sampling programs, including preferred methods for sampling.
  3. Determine the preferred approach for field sampling (field sampling design), including how to prepare, collect and preserve samples of waters, sediments and biota efficiently and safely.
  4. Design a program for laboratory processing and analyses of water, sediment and biota samples that provides accurate results in an efficient and safe manner.
  5. Analyse and interpret the data collected with respect to the monitoring program objectives and the underpinning conceptual models of the study area.
  6.  Report and disseminate information and results from the monitoring program in ways that address different stakeholder needs and backgrounds.

Designing a monitoring program is an iterative process, as indicated in Figure 1 , and earlier components in the process should be refined on the basis of findings in later stages (field sampling program, laboratory analyses, data analysis and interpretation).

Figure 1 Process for monitoring of water quality
Figure 1 Process for monitoring of water quality

This monitoring process provides the basis for consistent, systematic and scientifically appropriate water quality monitoring and reporting.

Elements of the monitoring process can be incorporated into comprehensive planning practices, such as catchment management plans, or can remain relatively small-scale and focused for local areas or specific issues. Depending on the purpose, emphasis will be on different components of this process.

The monitoring process is useful across a range of water quality issues and activities that that may take place as part of managing that water quality. The broader context is captured by the Water Quality Management Framework, where monitoring is critical to assess the status of water/sediment quality and provide key inputs to — or responding to outputs from — the steps in the framework.

The importance and depth of the interactions between the monitoring process and the Water Quality Management Framework cannot be overstated.

We have summarised specific monitoring guidance for the 7 typical uses described in the Water Quality Management Framework. You can use this advice to structure your monitoring, assessment and reporting.

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