At a glance
Climate and pests remain the largest pressures on our inland water environments. Climate variability and climate change, and associated changes in rainfall regimes, are the primary risks to inland water environments in both the short and long term. Efforts will need to continue to monitor and manage aquatic pests and weeds. As agricultural development spreads and becomes more intensive across northern Australia, the weed and pest outlook will become more uncertain, with more opportunities arising for new pests to establish and flourish.
In addition, the scientific investigation and management controls associated with exploitation of coal-seam gas and large coalmining developments both potentially benefit and threaten the future health of inland waters. In this regard, the Bioregional Assessment Programme offers the most open and accessible data, information and assessment approach in Australian natural resource history.
Australia’s water resources information is becoming increasingly available in many forms, supporting broader understanding and more informed debate on the future of our water resources and aquatic environments. Also, inland waters continue to receive moderate to reasonable attention in national research and policy agendas, assuring a continuing supply of new ideas and knowledge. The outlook for the National Water Initiative is variable, with marketisation of water and environmental water reforms operating well in some areas but having less traction in others. Finally, cultural water, and co-management of groundwater and surface water are areas in which inland water environments will benefit from attention from government at all levels.
In early 2016, the 2015–16 El Niño event continued a slow and steady decline, after being one of the 3 strongest El Niño events of the past 50 years. This, combined with steady reductions in national water storage levels in recent years and recent record temperatures, is a reminder that climate variability and climate change, and associated changes in rainfall regimes, are the primary risk to inland water environments in both the short and long term. However, there are a range of positive and negative factors when looking forward for inland waters.
Australia’s water resources information is becoming increasingly available, both in raw and in collated and interpreted forms, supporting broader understanding and more informed debate about the future of our water resources and aquatic environments. It is possible that—with the development of online resources, integrated data and information platforms, machine-to-machine information accessibility, and ready and continuous environmental assessment techniques—future assessments of inland waters could be done on-demand or in near real time, based on semi-automated processing of online data repositories. The current development of Essential Environmental Measures is a step in this direction. This program brings together experts to identify measures that are essential for tracking changes in the state of our environment, and to improve the discovery, access and reuse of data and information under those measures. The increased use of remotely sensed information for widespread water assessment (Ward et al. 2013) may be one of the foundation stones of these new approaches. When combined with management-focused on-ground water monitoring regimes, it provides a positive outlook for our ability to observe, understand and, ideally, respond to changes in timely and effective ways.
Inland waters continue to receive moderate to reasonable attention in national research and policy agendas, such as the national Science and Research Priorities, and policies on agricultural competitiveness and developing northern Australia, and research programs, such as the National Environmental Science Programme. The Rural Research and Development for Profit program also offers hope for more and better water information to support both productive and environmental uses, with program priorities that include soil, water and managing natural resources.
The addition of 2 new aquatic weeds to the list of Weeds of National Significance in 2012 highlights the efforts that will be needed to continue to monitor and manage aquatic pests and weeds. In areas of prior and existing land development, many of the weed and pest species are known and have defined control regimes. As agricultural development spreads and becomes more intensive across northern Australia, the weed and pest outlook will become more uncertain, with more opportunities arising for new pests to establish and flourish.
The scientific investigation and management controls associated with recent and proposed exploitation of coal-seam gas across most mainland states, along with other large coalmining developments, provide both an opportunity and a threat to the future health of inland waters. The Bioregional Assessment Programme offers the opportunity for the most open and accessible data, information and assessment approaches in Australian natural resource history. The goal of making all assessments publicly available with their background data and models promises to set a benchmark for future large-scale resource developments, such as those on the table for northern Australia. The threat to inland waters lies in the uncertain individual and cumulative impacts on groundwater and surface-water volumes, quality and biota, especially under climatic conditions that have not been experienced previously.
Evidence is emerging about the information impacts of disaggregating responsibility and reducing resources for the National Water Initiative. The future outlook under the National Water Initiative is variable, with reforms around marketisation of water and provision of water for the environment operating well in some areas but having less traction in others. Two emerging areas for the future in which inland water environments will benefit from whole-of-government attention are those of cultural water, and co-management of groundwater and surface water. Indigenous management of water resources, including accounting for environmental needs, receives significant attention in the north and is likely to increase in future in the Murray–Darling Basin and other parts of the country. Conversely, as water resources development increases in the north, and the importance of groundwater within the annual production cycle increases, it will be important to ensure that both surface-water and subsurface-water ecosystems, including stygofauna, are well understood and managed.