Setting monitoring program objectives

Clear objectives make it possible to design a sampling program that will obtain the required indicator measurements with appropriate accuracy, precision and quality control.

Key steps in the process of setting monitoring project objectives are defined in Figure 1.

Figure 1 Process for setting monitoring program objectives

Steps are: define the issue, define information requirements, compile available information, develop system understanding and conceptual process model, and set objectives.

Begin by defining the issue and the information requirements to address that issue, then compile available information.

The process to set monitoring program objectives is informed by:

This information will underpin the monitoring objectives that you set.

Approaching the task

A clearly stated monitoring program objective is needed for planning a water quality investigation or monitoring program. Until you have this, you will not be able to fully address the more detailed questions around how to design the study.

The goal of an effective monitoring program is to provide information and knowledge about an issue, efficiently and effectively, to inform stakeholders who have commissioned and will use the data. Good monitoring programs are not just exercises in data collection.

Many monitoring programs aim to collect information relevant to the community values of a water body. Community values reflect the uses of the water body: perhaps by aquatic ecosystems, as water supply for primary industries (irrigation, livestock drinking water, agriculture and aquaculture), for recreational use and aesthetics, or for drinking water.

Monitoring of waters is commonly undertaken to meet general water quality monitoring objectives, such as to:

  • measure the quality of ambient freshwater or marine water
  • provide assurance that the water meets appropriate water quality objectives for its community values and assigned level of protection
  • investigate why the water may not be meeting the water quality objectives
  • assess the loads of materials entering the water body from the catchment (export studies)
  • assess the loads of materials carried past various points, the transformations of materials and the rates of loss in-stream or over-bank so that streamflow mass balances can be calculated
  • characterise the biota within a river, estuary or coastal marine water body
  • assess biological productivity
  • assess the state of the resource as defined by a variety of measurement parameters or indicators (State of the Environment reporting, National Audit reporting)
  • assess the effectiveness of actions for contaminant control, or restoration or rehabilitation of waters
  • assess the extent and cause of impact of an incident, such as an accidental discharge to a water body
  • identify trends in the condition of the water body.

The process for translating issues into monitoring program objectives is illustrated in Figure 1, and a useful checklist is provided in Box 1.

Box 1 Checklist for determining information needs and monitoring program objectives

  • Has the issue or question been defined?
  • Have the identities of all the information users been ascertained so that all stakeholders’ concerns are understood and information needs determined?
  • Has all the available information relating to the issue or problem been collected, checked and collated in a common usable form?
  • Have knowledge gaps been identified and the information obtained, or have the limitations and restrictions of not having that information been evaluated?
  • Has a conceptual process and/or stressor model of the system been developed and made explicit?
  • Have the assumptions underlying the model been made explicit?
  • Has an analysis been completed to identify the essential information required?
  • Are specific objectives clear and concisely defined? Sufficient to specify what is to be achieved? Specific enough to indicate when each objective has been met?

When setting objectives, it is instructive to make a preliminary assessment of the issue and then develop a conceptual model that can form the basis of the proposed monitoring study (Step 1 of the framework).

Defining the issue

Before defining the objectives and information requirements, the first step is to identify the issues to be addressed.

In Australia and New Zealand, 4 types of water quality issues commonly drive the need for monitoring programs:

  • long-term management, protection and restoration of aquatic ecosystems so they can fulfil their environmental values
  • measurement of contaminants, their sources and fates in aquatic ecosystems, the magnitude of the problem and the actions needed to protect the environmental values
  • assessment of the performance of management strategies
  • assurance of conformity with water quality guidelines.

Defining the issue, problem or question to be answered should be done in consultation with the end-users of the information and other stakeholders for the area, taking into account the current understanding (stakeholder involvement). Stakeholders may be individual residents, a community group, an industry group or a government jurisdiction, and they may be found in the local area, or downstream or upstream. Water quality monitoring and assessment experts, with relevant knowledge that others may not have, might also help you to define the issue.

Amongst other knowledge acquired during the conceptual modelling process, a definition of the issue will be informed by the identified community values. At Step 2 of the framework, the stakeholders will help identify the community values, as well as determine the management goals, and associated level of protection, for the assessment being undertaken.

Typical issues for new monitoring programs could include:

  • contaminants, being accumulated by biota with potential later effects on the health of human consumers
  • contaminants, having acute or chronic effects on aquatic organisms or limiting water use
  • effects of pH changes
  • effects of suspended particulate matter
  • effects of temperature changes
  • excess nutrients, leading to algal blooms
  • maintenance of dissolved oxygen concentration (DOC)
  • microbial contamination, from human or animal wastes, making water unsuitable for drinking or recreational use
  • salinity, leading to water being unacceptable for drinking or agricultural use, and having effects on aquatic ecology.

When defining the issue, start considering the components of the ecosystem (ecosystem receptors) that might be at risk from the issue and may need to be monitored. This information will assist you when you need to select relevant indicators (at Step 3 of the framework).

Compiling available information

The next step is to collect the available information relating to the issue, much of which will typically have been compiled for development of the current understanding.

Depending on the issue, this step could involve:

  • a comprehensive literature review of current international understanding
  • a review of relevant previous monitoring information collected for the sites of interest or for other locations
  • interviews, recorded observations and evidence gathered by members of the local community.

Information gained in previous investigations (e.g. monitoring or assessments) will help refine the information requirements and objectives of the present monitoring program. But don’t allocate scarce funds merely to repeat studies on the issue or at the sites of interest.

Previous monitoring work can often be used to:

  • inform choices of sampling methods to use
  • highlight options that have worked well at the sites in question
  • inform decisions about ensuring compatibility of new monitoring data with existing data.

You will need to identify gaps in the assembled knowledge and address them if possible. If you cannot find the information, you must assess the limitations and restrictions caused by not having that information.

Existing data will probably consist of water quality measurements, stream-flow records and some biological data. Some of these data may have been published; others may be in the records of various agencies or research providers. They will need collation, checking and standardising into a common form using suitable data storage practices.

Understanding the system and developing conceptual models

After you have defined the issue for monitoring, and collected the available information about the issue (at Step 1 of the framework), it is time to decide on the questions that the monitoring program must tackle — its objectives.

To do this, it is important that the collected information is brought together to form some preliminary understanding of the ecosystem in question and its key processes. System understanding derived from this information is best formalised in a conceptual model, or a set of conceptual models.

A conceptual model sets out the collective knowledge, experience and perspectives of a waterway system to illustrate your assumptions about how it functions and what you believe to be the important or dominant processes and their linkages.

Read detailed information about conceptual models and how to develop them.

Setting clear objectives

After your monitoring team has defined the issue for monitoring, agreed on a conceptual model or models, and determined the information that needs to be collected and why, you can document a set of monitoring objectives.

Good monitoring objectives should be specific and precise, measurable, result oriented, realistic and attainable, meaningful, concise and clear, and understandable.

Reviews of water quality monitoring programs in Australia show that inadequate objectives are a common problem. Development of useful objectives requires practice and experience.

Examples of objectives for monitoring programs

Objectives relating to nutrient dynamics and effects in aquatic systems might be to:

  • determine annual phosphorus loads to a specified lake from surface inflows, groundwater and sediment release (where the conceptual model has shown that all these sources are important)
  • determine the frequency of blue–green algal blooms in a number of specified water bodies over a defined period
  • determine annual nutrient exports from a catchment to a specified river system.

Another objective might be to determine if contaminant concentrations being released to a river under base flow from a specific industrial activity are exceeding the default guideline values (DGVs) for the protection of aquatic ecosystems in the receiving waters beyond the mixing zone.

Objectives do not specify details, such as sampling season or sampling frequency, which are considered in study design, the next stage of developing a monitoring program.

The process of setting monitoring program objectives commonly extends beyond scientific issues to include management issues. This means you will need to involve the resource manager in negotiation of the objectives. The resource manager must understand how the information to be collected will be used in the decision-making process (Step 8 of the framework).

If the only resources that a resource manager can make available are insufficient to meet the objectives set for the monitoring program, then the program is not worth undertaking. You may need to rethink and set more realistic objectives set by revisiting the management goals (Step 2 of the framework).


Fairweather PG 1991, Statistical power and design requirements for environmental monitoring, Marine and Freshwater Research 42: 555–567.