Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge

The projects in this theme aimed to inform decision making about tropical rivers and coasts. To manage and preserve our natural resources effectively, we need to have a level of understanding of how they will respond to (combinations of) various management actions. The large uncertainties involved in managing these complex systems are one of the major challenges of natural resource management.

In the first phase of research, projects in this theme sought to bring together information from the other themes to develop predictions based on realistic scenarios. During TRaCK’s synthesis and adoption year (2011-2012), the project team built on work started in this first  phase of research, to develop a framework supported by a software package that integrates the knowledge of researchers and natural resource management organisations in the Daly River catchment.

Valuation of freshwater aquatic and coastal resources is essential for decision making about the allocation of these resources to different and sometimes competing uses. Value, however, is contingent on cultural, economic and geographical perspective.

In the first phase of work, researchers in this theme worked closely with landowners, land managers, industry and community groups, examining the full range of values associated with tropical rivers and coasts. They assessed the effects of water-use decisions on social, cultural, economic and ecological values and explored ways to better incorporate these values in decision making.

A key focus of this work aimed to address the fact that Indigenous values associated with rivers tend to be poorly understood by decision makers and that Indigenous people had rarely been effectively engaged in research on water resource management on their country.

During the synthesis and adoption year, researchers sought to provide opportunities to further involve Indigenous people in research, through an evaluation of its indigenous engagement, co-authored scientific publications and seasonal calendars.

Due to the vastness of northern Australia and the limited knowledge we have about the region’s tropical rivers, researchers in this theme aimed to develop:

  • A better understanding of the physical attributes of various river systems, and the demographics and economics of local communities in the three focus catchments.
  • A classification system that would allow information about one catchment to be transferred to another, so that knowledge could be applied in areas where little information is available.

Work from this theme was refined into an online classification engine, the Australian Riverine Landscape Classifier (AURICL).

AURICL allows users to classify tropical catchments and their rivers based on the similarity or dissimilarity of a wide range of parameters, such as soil type, water availability, topography, or average income and economic activity along the river. Hosted by Geoscience Australia on the OzCoasts website, AURICL builds on Geoscience’s extensive web GIS system to add catchments to the estuaries and coastline information already available.

Researchers in this theme sought to predict the effects of land use and climate change on the sources, amounts and movement of water, carbon, sediment, and nutrients. Indicators for monitoring and assessing water quality and quantity were also developed.

With interest in monitoring tools like I-Tracker increasing, along with government interest in outsourcing some of their monitoring work, TRaCK  developed a guide to monitoring river health in the wet-dry tropics with the expertise of other researchers in the program, and state and federal government staff.

Food webs describe ‘who eats who’ in ecosystems. In tropical aquatic systems, the sources of organic matter that drive the food webs are largely unknown.

Researchers in this theme:

  • identified sources of organic matter;
  • developed models that predict the effects of land use change on food webs and aquatic biodiversity; and
  • developed tools for determining environmental flows and monitoring biodiversity and ecological condition.

As a result of this work, we have a much better understanding of the importance of floodplains, river connectivity and refugial water holes. The research also generated exciting new information on how tropical ecosystems are structured, including the relative importance of different food sources driving aquatic food webs, patterns of regional biodiversity, hydrological bio-regionalisation and conservation priorities.

There are many impediments to the development of enterprises in riverine and coastal environments across northern Australia. These impediments range from the logistic and technical difficulties arising from tropicality and remoteness to communication with audiences that speak English as a second and sometimes third language. Researchers in this theme identified sustainable and culturally appropriate uses of riverine and coastal resources, which offer opportunities for innovative enterprise development in remote and regional communities.