Review of water quality studies in the Australian Alps

Nerida Davies and Richard Norris, Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology | April 1999

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Executive Summary

1. The Australian Alps differs from most of the other alpine areas of the world because it makes up only a small proportion of the continent and the mountains of the Alps are small by world standards. The Alps is a significant area containing some of the few remaining areas of Australia in which environmental quality comes close to pre-European conditions. Thus, it is important to make sure such conditions are preserved.

2. Many land uses threaten the physical, chemical and ecological condition of the streams and rivers of the Australian Alps. Increased tourist pressure, recreation, tourism, river regulation, erosion, sedimentation, willow encroachment and reduced flows from water abstraction are all issues that threaten the ecological, conservation and water quality values of the Alpine National Park.

3. Current water quality monitoring of the Australian Alps has focussed on physical and chemical measures, with little information available about the biota, especially in the Victorian Alps. There are many areas of the Australian Alps for which no water quality data exist.

4. Water quality information for the Victorian Alps is poor, with sparse sampling locations and much data yet to be analysed. Some water quality studies have been undertaken for the lower Snowy River, although much work has been undertaken outside the park. While water quality monitoring has been undertaken on the Macalister, Mitchell and Mitta Mitta Rivers the majority of these data come from few sparsely distributed stations, many of which are located outside the boundaries of Alpine National Park. Generally, adequate coverage of the region is severely lacking and most measures of water quality have been physical and chemical, overlooking the ecological values of sites in many cases.

5. Water quality monitoring of the Alps of NSW has been largely associated with the ski resorts. Much of this highlights the importance of monitoring and having strict control over the levels of nutrients in the effluent that enters the streams downstream of the sewage treatment plants. Substantial knowledge exists on the streams in Kosciuszko National Park, particularly for the Snowy and Thredbo Rivers and their tributaries. However, there are many streams in the NSW Alps for which no water quality data exist. Many of the other dispersed (camping, four-wheel driving, walking etc) activities within the National Parks are not monitored and may pose threats to the water quality and ecological integrity of streams and Rivers within the national Parks of the Australian Alps.

6. Water quality information for Namadgi National Park in the ACT is restricted to a few streams, with little known about the streams and rivers in the mountainous areas of the park. Biological monitoring has been undertaken at a few sites within the park. Those sites located in relatively undisturbed areas were described as being in good condition. While a few other sites surrounded by agriculture or camping had impaired biological condition. Therefore, further water quality monitoring is also required in Namadgi National Park.

7. Further investigations into the aquatic ecology, water quality and land use activities are required to address the knowledge gaps that have been identified in this report. In addition, a consolidation of the various ecological assessment methods used and analysis of environmental water requirements is also needed.

8. Effective water quality monitoring in the Alpine National Park requires the implementation of a biological monitoring program that can accurately monitor a large number of sites within the park and provide information on the ecological integrity and water quality of the rivers and streams. Such a program would also provide targets or baselines against which other samples and impacts could be compared, provide information to develop more effective water quality guidelines and management strategies and identify the impact of dispersed recreation on the water quality of streams in the Alps.

9. An integrated monitoring program would enable assessment of the effectiveness of river management activities, in terms of improving river stability, water quality, habitat conditions and ecological health.