1. Stream ecosystem health monitoring and reporting need to be developed in the context of an adaptive process that is clearly linked to identified values and objectives, is informed by rigorous science, guides management actions and is responsive to changing perceptions and values of stakeholders. To be effective, monitoring programmes also need to be underpinned by an understanding of the probable causal factors that influence the condition or health of important environmental assets and values. This is often difficult in stream and river ecosystems where multiple stressors, acting at different spatial and temporal scales, interact to affect water quality, biodiversity and ecosystem processes.
2. In this article, we describe the development of a freshwater monitoring programme in South East Queensland, Australia, and how this has been used to report on ecosystem health at a regional scale and to guide investments in catchment protection and rehabilitation. We also discuss some of the emerging science needs to identify the appropriate scale and spatial arrangement of rehabilitation to maximise river ecosystem health outcomes and, at the same time, derive other benefits downstream.
3. An objective process was used to identify potential indicators of stream ecosystem health and then test these across a known catchment land-use disturbance gradient. From the 75 indicators initially tested, 22 from five indicator groups (water quality, ecosystem metabolism, nutrient cycling, invertebrates and fish) responded strongly to the disturbance gradient, and 16 were subsequently recommended for inclusion in the monitoring programme. The freshwater monitoring programme was implemented in 2002, funded by local and State government authorities, and currently involves the assessment of over 120 sites, twice per year. This information, together with data from a similar programme on the region’s estuarine and coastal marine waters, forms the basis of an annual report card that is presented in a public ceremony to local politicians and the broader community.
4. Several key lessons from the SEQ Healthy Waterways Programme are likely to be transferable to other regional programmes aimed at improving aquatic ecosystem health, including the importance of a shared common vision, the involvement of committed individuals, a cooperative approach, the need for defensible science and effective communication.
5. Thematic implications: this study highlights the use of conceptual models and objective testing of potential indicators against a known disturbance gradient to develop a freshwater ecosystem health monitoring programme that can diagnose the probable causes of degradation from multiple stressors and identify the appropriate spatial scale for rehabilitation or protection. This approach can lead to more targeted management investments in catchment protection and rehabilitation, greater public confidence that limited funds are being well spent and better outcomes for stream and river ecosystem health.