Balancing a productive catchment while protecting an important ecosystem: lessons from Corner Inlet water quality improvement program (11468)
Governments, community and landholders want profitable and productive local economies and healthy resilient ecosystems. In the Corner Inlet area of South Eastern Victoria, the local community have long been concerned about the impact of catchment nutrient and sediment loss on the condition and extent of the Ramsar site’s iconic seagrass beds.
With funding from the Australian Government the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority recently completed a Water Quality Improvement Plan (WQIP) to protect Corner Inlet Ramsar Site. The WQIP was overseen by a panel of technical experts and was undertaken with collaborative engagement of local stakeholders.
A fundamental component of the WQIP was the setting of robust water quality objectives based on ‘SMART’ principles; ones that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. In the past these kinds of targets have been set without explicit consideration of the costs and socio-economic implications for communities.
Setting SMART objectives required a robust, transparent and an iterative process. To do this, integrated bio-economic modelling and the Investment Framework for Environmental Resources (INFFER) were used. This enabled assessment of the costs and benefits of achieving water quality objectives using available science and local knowledge. Bioeconomic modelling enabled a range of scenarios to be assessed so that SMART targets could be developed. This provided decision-makers with information to enable informed choices about balancing the needs of the environment and productive landuses in the catchment.
The water quality objectives agreed upon were as ambitious as possible in order to protect environmental values.. To achieve the objectives, extensive actions were predicted in all river catchments, the largest reductions required from the Western Tributaries (nitrogen and phosphorus), the Albert and Jack catchments (nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment), Franklin and Agnes catchments (sediment). Because the scale of the actions were much larger than in previous programs the WQIP assumes that offset payments to farmers implementing Best Managemetn Practices need to be based on the lost opportunity costs to production. Continued implementation of traditional waterway management activities, including gully and streambank rehabilitation is also required.
The direct costs to achieve and maintain the water quality objectives are estimated to be close to $9million/year, with additional enabling activities and investigations to fill knowledge gaps also required.
The Corner Inlet WQIP sets an Australian benchmark in terms of realistic costs to achieve water quality improvements and the approaches used in its development are being taken by other regions across Australia.