1. Systematic conservation planning is a process widely used in terrestrial and marine environments. A principal goal is to establish a network of protected areas representing the full variety of species or ecosystems. We suggest considering three key attributes of a catchment when planning for aquatic conservation: irreplaceability, condition and vulnerability.
2. Based on observed and modelled distributions of 367 invertebrates in the Australian state of Victoria, conservation value was measured by calculating an irreplaceability coefficient for 1854 subcatchments. Irreplaceability indicates the likelihood of any subcatchment being needed to achieve conservation targets. We estimated it with a bootstrapped heuristic reserve design algorithm, which included upstream–downstream connectivity rules. The selection metric within the algorithm was total summed rarity, corrected for protected area.
3. Condition was estimated using a stressor gradient approach in which two classes of geographical information system Layers were summarised using principal components analysis. The first class was disturbance measures such as nutrient and sediment budgets, salinisation and weed cover. The second class was land use layers, including classes of forestry, agricultural and urban use. The main gradient, explaining 56% of the variation, could be characterised as agricultural disturbance. Seventy-five per cent of the study area was classified as disturbed.
4. Our definition of vulnerability was the likelihood of a catchment being exposed to a land use that degrades its condition. This was estimated by comparing land capability and current land use. If land was capable of supporting a land use that would have a more degrading effect on a river than its current tenure, it was classified vulnerable (66% of the study area). 79% of catchments contained more then 50% vulnerable land.
5. When integrating the three measures, two major groups of catchments requiring urgent conservation measures were identified. Seven per cent of catchments were highly irreplaceable, highly vulnerable but in degraded condition. These catchments were flagged for restoration. While most highly irreplaceable catchments in good condition were already protected, 2.5% of catchments in this category are on vulnerable land. These are priority areas for assigning river reserves.