The following is the established format for referencing this article:Judd, M., M. Boese, A. C. Horne, and N. R. Bond. 2023. Perceptions of climate change adaptation barriers in environmental water management. Ecology and Society 28(1):21.
Climate change is irreversibly changing the water cycle, yet existing environmental flow assessment methods often fail to recognize the non-stationarity of hydro-climatic systems. Failure to do so will lead to the inability of environmental water management to achieve its ecological targets. Australia has undergone major reform over the past 12 years to recover water from consumptive use for environmental benefit and this paper examines how government agencies responsible for planning and delivery of environmental water establish ecological objectives, and whether there are any barriers to including climate adaptations. We used semi-structured interviews and an online survey of environmental water staff throughout Australia, focusing on southeast Australia, to gather information on methods and perceptions regarding these key issues. The results show water managers perceive current ecological objectives as unachievable and are frustrated by using outdated, government-recommended flow assessment methods. There are many general and industry-specific barriers to climate adaptation that are not insurmountable, yet the current lack of legislative and policy guidance provides little assistance on the best way to respond. We conclude that environmental water planning needs to more formally incorporate climate change considerations along with modelling approaches that can evaluate outcomes under a range of possible future hydro-climatic scenarios to ensure proactive decision making can occur. As the industry currently exists in Australia, it is ill prepared for the challenge of meeting legislated ecological targets under future climates.
Regulation of rivers by large dams has greatly altered flow regimes globally, with significant consequences for riverine and floodplain ecosystems (Knouft and Ficklin 2017, Rolls and Bond 2017). Environmental flows play an important role in restoring such ecosystems in regulated and unregulated rivers (Arthington et al. 2018). Environmental water as defined by Horne et al. (2017) is all water available for use, through a range of legal allocation mechanisms, for environmental benefit. Environmental water availability can vary each year depending on stream inflows, and its use is typically determined by a flow assessment method where desired ecological objectives are determined. Flow assessment methods then set recommendations aimed at meeting these ecological objectives through delivery of water at a specified magnitude, duration, frequency, and timing. Objectives are usually set to a desired historic or current condition of flora or fauna assets, such as a specific species, population, habitat, or physical process (Capon et al. 2018, Judd et al. 2022).
Climate change now presents a new challenge as temperature and rainfall patterns change the volume and timing of runoff and streamflows. Predicted increased evaporation rates due to higher temperatures and lower soil moisture will add stress to already stressed river systems (Palmer et al. 2008, Saft et al. 2016). In response to changing hydro-climatic conditions, ecological objectives will need to increasingly reflect future scenarios and inclusion of climate change adaptations (Capon and Capon 2017, Judd et al. 2022). Climate change adaptation is defined as adjusting to anticipated changes in climate and its subsequent effects (IPCC 2014): in the case of environmental water, the ecological adjustments of rivers and wetlands from changed hydro-climatic conditions. Adaptation is an ongoing, iterative process, and ecological adaptations will be highly complex and variable, potentially resulting in permanent alteration of system composition. Ecological adaptation to climate change can occur through three primary ecosystem responses: persist (the ability to maintain existing function under altered conditions), adapt (the ability to maintain function regardless of species involved), or transform (establishment of new function in new circumstances), abbreviated as PAT (Boltz et al. 2019). Management actions and decisions can support these ecosystem responses.
For environmental water managers, climate change adaptation will require decisions and actions to be made with foresight. Actions may be specifically related to water delivery or to complementary river health actions. Potential adaptation actions include increasing landscape connectivity to permit movement to more tolerable habitats; protecting or creating local refuges/habitats within the broader landscape; and revegetating waterways for shade, water filtration, and bank stability (West et al. 2009). Reallocating water use to the environment to offset flow reductions caused by climate change or increasing coordination of water deliveries to achieve multiple objectives (e.g., environmental and irrigation) can also be adopted. Water-saving techniques, such as delivery through pipes and infrastructure, could be considered along with using hatchery-bred fish rather than trying to provide for self-sustaining populations. Further, establishing land easements to provide for flooding private land and focusing on ecosystem function rather than protecting specific species are also encouraged as adaptations to climate change (West et al. 2009, Capon et al. 2018). Climate adaptation can also be incorporated into ecological objectives through adaptive management (Allen et al. 2011, Capon et al. 2018). Adaptive management is an excellent way to learn through doing, but ecological responses can lag and may be too slow for water managers to respond to passing thresholds, and therefore should be included as just one part of adaptation (Allen et al. 2011, Perry et al. 2015, Tonkin et al. 2019, Stults and Larsen 2020).
Successful adaptation will not just happen and therefore requires proactive management. A number of frameworks have been developed within natural resource management to identify effective and potentially ineffective management responses to climate change (for example, the resist-accept-direct framework of Lynch et al. 2021, Schuurman et al. 2022, and Crausbay et al. 2022). However, such frameworks are yet to be routinely applied in the context of environmental water management. There are also numerous well-documented barriers to incorporating climate change adaptation, such as sea level rise (Tribbia and Moser 2008, Mozumder et al. 2011), management of national and marine parks (Jantarasami et al. 2010), and freshwater ecosystems (Barnett et al. 2015), yet barriers to incorporation of climate change adaptations in environmental water management are rarely examined.
As the scientific and broader community acknowledge the non-stationarity of our environment, current objectives that aim to “restore and protect” existing ecosystems or return waterways to a previous condition need to be revised (Wilson et al. 2009, Hagerman et al. 2010, Capon and Capon 2017). Many legislative requirements still demand ecological improvement as a priority in setting objectives, but there is also a need to recognize social-ecological systems, and the social and cultural benefits inherently connected to ecological condition (Pahl-Wostl et al. 2013, Kiem et al. 2016, Tàbara et al. 2017, van Kerkhoff et al. 2019). In a lower water future, there will be increased competition for water and a need to make trade-off decisions around the ecological objectives that society values. Indigenous water rights are a cultural and social issue that is becoming increasingly important in determining environmental water use. This can be a complex area of management and is not included in the scope of this paper (Jackson 2018, Laborde and Jackson 2022).
This paper uses Australia (focusing on the southeast) as a case study to investigate the knowledge and perspectives of environmental water managers to setting ecological objectives regarding future outlooks, and whether there are certain factors that limit or enable inclusion of climate adaptations. The role of environmental water managers is to determine and prioritize sites and objectives (traditionally only ecological) for environmental watering within the area they manage (management areas can range in size from one catchment to state or basin scale). They subsequently use this information to develop annual plans and oversee daily management and delivery of environmental water. Without a clear understanding of the barriers water managers face and how they interpret them, it will be difficult for managers to move forward. This paper focuses on setting ecological objectives and associated barriers to climate change adaptation without directly investigating perceived political or economic influence. Although this was not included in this study, our results and other literature (Grafton 2019, Bender et al. 2022) acknowledge this as a barrier to climate adaptation.
Case study: a focus on Southeast (SE) Australian environmental water managers
This study area covers all of Australia with a strong focus on SE Australia, which spans parts of the southern Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) and Victorian coastal catchments. The region, and specifically the MDB, has complex historical and contemporary water management arrangements. An in-depth explanation of that history can be found in Garrick et al. (2012), Horne (2016), Alexandra (2018), Pittock (2019), and Hart et al. (2021).
Environmental water management includes multiple tiers of government (Fig. 1) with water allocated in two ways. One is “passive management,” where dam operators are legislated to leave a certain amount of water in the river for environmental benefit (Doolan et al. 2017). The second is to establish a reserve of water that has the same legal arrangements as consumptive water. This type of water is called an “entitlement” (O’Donnell 2017). Environmental water entitlements are only available in regulated rivers and require active management by environmental water managers in terms of delivery location, timing, and quantity (Doolan et al. 2017). Annual allocations against water entitlements are of a specified volume based on inflows to dams.
There have been numerous technical studies examining the likely impacts of climate change on water availability across SE Australia (Chiew et al. 2009, CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology 2015, Clarke et al. 2019, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning et al. 2020). Local studies suggest that winter/spring rainfall has declined by 12% since 1997 (to 2018) compared to 1900–1959 and rainfall runoff relationships have altered (Saft et al. 2016, Rauniyar and Power 2020). Future projections suggest continued decline in winter/spring rainfall by 1%–26% by 2040, with runoff expected to decrease by 5%–40% (Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning et al. 2020). This decrease in runoff will impact water managers’ annual allocations and ability to achieve ecological targets. Although there is significant modelling and projections available on climate change implications across Australia, this has not translated to setting ecological objectives for environmental water planning (Capon and Capon 2017, John et al. 2020, Judd et al. 2022).
To understand the knowledge and perspectives of environmental water staff, two methods of data collection were employed. First, semi-structured interviews were used to gather qualitative data regarding current objective setting processes and future planning under climate change. Interviews were conducted in an exploratory manner by using a mix of open and closed ended questions that enabled us to identify the variety of influences on long-term planning (Bryman 2016). On the basis of data collected from the exploratory interviews, an online survey was developed to expand sample size and geographic spread, and to test findings from the interviews as per Jain (2021).
We conducted 18 semi-structured interviews (November and December 2020) with environmental water staff from Victoria (state government and regional authorities), New South Wales (state government-regional representative), and Australian Capital Territory (commonwealth government), representing 11 organizations that manage environmental water. Most participants were working in Victoria (13), with two in NSW and three in ACT. Interview participants were recruited through professional working groups, using purposive sampling to access participants most likely to provide useful information (Creswell 2007, Palinkas et al. 2015). Additionally, the primary researcher and first author is a practitioner in the field and had privileged access to potential participants through professional networks (Walter 2019).
The semi-structured nature of the interviews encouraged the natural flow of conversation, while allowing probing for additional content (DeJonckheere and Vaughn 2019). This interview style ensured key questions were covered while allowing improved understanding of participant perspectives and discovery of unexpected factors. Interviews ranged in length from 55 to 105 minutes and were conducted, and recorded, via videoconferencing (Zoom video communications). Using video conferencing provided convenience and an ability to build rapport through visuals, and was a cost- and time-effective method of reaching geographically spread participants (Archibald et al. 2019). The interview guide consisted of 33 interview questions (Appendix 1). The interview data helped reveal new information not available to the research team, informed the development of questions, and expanded the range of answers for the online survey (Jain 2021). Any quotes included in this paper may have been slightly edited for de-identification or ease of reading (Gillham 2001).
An online survey (Appendix 2) was developed to test and expand on the findings of the interviews (Jain 2021). The survey was distributed by email invitation to 110 people managing environmental water throughout Australia, and recipients were encouraged to further distribute the survey through their relevant networks. The survey was open for one month during March and April 2021.
There were 32 completed responses, with an additional 10 incomplete responses. Incomplete surveys were not included in the data analysis. Survey results were heavily skewed toward Victorian organizations, representing 16 (50%) of the responses. A further four (13%) respondents came from organizations based in the ACT, with three each from South Australia and New South Wales, and two each from Western Australia, Queensland, and Northern Territory. All responses were from representatives of Commonwealth or State government agencies except two (one from a not-for-profit organization and one from a Traditional Owner group). All responses were anonymous.
All interviews were transcribed verbatim and sent to participants to verify the transcript as a true representation of the interview. NVivo 12 Plus (QSR International) was used to assist with the analysis of the transcripts. Data were coded and analyzed on the basis of the research aims, complemented by themes that emerged while analyzing the data (Bryman 2016). The data analysis included assessment of results from questions employing Likert scales, open and closed questions, and theme analysis (Bryman 2016). In reporting the results, we have combined interview and survey data where possible (noting that not all questions were repeated) and specified which method the results are derived from when not combined.
Limitations of method and data
The selected methodology and data have limitations. The data were gained from a small, purposive sample and cannot be generalized to the entire population of water policy managers (Walter 2019). Participation was voluntary, so it is likely that participants are environmental water staff interested in climate change, likely skewing results to higher climate change awareness than the entire population of environmental water staff, representing a level of sampling bias (Bryman 2016). The focus of this research is primarily on ecological outcomes with no direct consideration of socioeconomic or political influences, which also limits the results.
A limitation of the online survey is the lack of opportunity to request clarifications or add explanations (Walliman 2015). The uneven representation of different state representatives in the interviews and survey also means the data are skewed toward Victorian policy makers and practitioners.
Factors considered when setting ecological flow objectives and perceptions of achievability
Interview results show that most organizations managing environmental water in SE Australia have adopted methodologies developed and endorsed at a state government level (e.g., FLOWS method in Victoria, Basin Plan requirements in NSW) to set ecological objectives and flow recommendations. By using these predominantly holistic methods that include biotic and abiotic considerations, input is provided by independent scientific panels, government-employed scientists or engineers, affected landholders, and interested community representatives.
According to interview and survey results, a range of issues are considered when setting ecological objectives. These primarily include contemporary ecological values, which in turn are based on historic reference states (to varying degrees), protecting or restoring populations of threatened species, and restoring pre-development hydrology (Fig. 2). There is an absence of consideration of prospective issues, such as future streamflow and ecological response to climate change. Traditional owner input is also less often considered, and just one participant mentioned their organization incorporating adaptive management in development of their objectives. Some interview participants acknowledged that ecological objectives developed using current flow assessment methods are not very good at setting objectives for future conditions. As one participant stated, “[I]f you’re setting objectives based around your historical flows, you’re just setting yourself up for failure.”
Another interviewee noted: “The environmental response was based on historical studies, so it doesn’t include a future where the area is two degrees hotter and environmental water needs are different to what they’ve been historically.” Many participants expressed frustration that environmental flow assessment methods lack consideration of climate change and suggested that increased knowledge and economic investment are required to incorporate future flow and ecological response scenarios.
Of the 11 organizations represented in interviews, five gave some consideration to lower water availability when setting objectives. Most were cursory considerations and did not involve future climate or hydrologic modelling, with just one organization increasing the flexibility of delivery times in acknowledgment of changing rainfall seasonality. The survey results show that 12 of the 32 respondents included consideration of some kind of future scenario, such as climate, streamflow, or ecological change. Of these 12 respondents, only three altered their objectives. Reasons given for not altering objectives included sites requiring only small, irregular volumes of water; fear of losing water entitlements; and fear of community backlash if consumptive water recovered for the environment does not achieve the stated objectives.
Interview and survey participants who did not give any consideration to future water availability or ecological change provided the following reasons.
Lack of information
- Not enough information, including hydrological extremes (i.e., how to turn flashier storms and longer droughts into daily flow simulations).
- Large knowledge gaps around ecological response to hydro-climatic changes.
- Locally relevant information and methods for incorporating information is just becoming available.
Not knowing how to use the information
- Not knowing which climate scenario to plan for.
- Infancy of environmental flow management, with climate change only just beginning to be deliberated.
- Plans are reviewed regularly enough to allow adaptive management.
- Political pressure to keep flow assessment methods unchanged.
When asked if participants believed they would be able to maintain their full suite of objectives into the future, the majority responded with either “no” or “not sure” (Fig. 3). Reasons given include increased competition for water and reduced water availability; other climate change issues, such as heatwave days impacting ecology; the changing environment unable to support the same suite of species it currently does; and objectives being already ambitious without even considering climate change.
Despite objectives and flow recommendations determined by robust scientific processes, policies of the day may, at times, influence the ability to achieve objectives. Although we did not specifically ask about political influence, it was shown to affect achievement of objectives. One participant described a community-determined ecological objective to deliver water onto a floodplain, but current state policy’s prohibition on flooding any private land has limited the ability to achieve this objective.
The ways in which environmental water organizations currently respond to the challenge of unachievable objectives fall into four categories:
- Regularly updating plans to incorporate learnings from adaptive management.
- Using existing environmental water entitlements to “buffer” the system from climate change and build resilience.
- Putting efforts into securing more environmental water entitlements; some organizations are using this as an adaptation strategy and investing a lot of resources in this option. It is often organizations with highly flow stressed rivers who are considering this option.
- Assisting in helping the ecosystem transition to a new state, e.g., aiming to make objectives achievable over a larger spatial scale and abandoning sites no longer deemed feasible.
This last option was discussed with interview participants as suggested by the following extracts:
[D]o we start looking for other sites and maybe dropping some off the list that we don’t think meet that particular objective. We might have to start reconsidering our priorities.
Another interviewee stated:
[W]hen do you let it go? People like to keep things as they are, and I think sometimes we try to keep things in the zoo. It doesn’t concern me - if change happens that’s what’s going to happen. We’ve just got to identify and support it. Why are we throwing all this money, when it’s naturally shifting - when do you kind of, just let it happen? I have no answer. This concerns me.
Barriers to climate change adaptation in environmental water management are common
Given that future hydro-climatic scenarios are rarely considered when setting objectives, and staff overwhelmingly believe their long-term objectives cannot be met, both interview and survey participants were specifically asked about barriers to the inclusion of climate change considerations (Fig. 4). The most common general barriers include “insufficient funding and staff resources,” “uncertainty around ecosystem response to climate change,” “lack of political leadership,” and “legacy land use and water sharing issues.” Most of these barriers are universal throughout adaptation literature (Kemp et al. 2015, Lukasiewicz et al. 2016, Esteve et al. 2018).
A common barrier identified in the interview and survey data was a lack of information on streamflow and ecological change. The survey explicitly asked participants to rank their agreement on whether there is ample information on ecological response to climate change. Of the 32 respondents, 22 either disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement. Although not specifically asked in the interview, data analysis suggests 12 (from 18) respondents disagree with this statement. Participants suggested their organizations felt unable to make decisions on climate adaptation while there is such high uncertainty. The following statements from two interviews show these concerns:
[T]here’s a high uncertainty about what the future climate looks like and hence, high uncertainty around what the most appropriate flow regime and flow priorities should be in the future, so what do you do?
Even now I don’t think we would have enough information and knowledge to be able to confidently make changes to the objectives and targets based on what we know right now.
Environmental water management faces specific barriers
Data analysis also revealed specific barriers to environmental flow management, such as:
- Climate change is not adequately addressed in environmental flow policy or legislation.
- Environmental flow assessment methods do not include climate change.
- Planning documents are based on historic data.
- Uncertainty regarding the impacts of climate change on environmental water.
- Slow ecological response to flow, and political pressure to incorporate climate change is not high.
- Decreased water availability and increased competition among users.
- Inadequate communication from environmental water organizations to gain community support.
- A lack of community support for alternate water sources (e.g., recycled water).
- Too much emphasis on local outcomes rather than landscape-scale outcomes.
- Lack of monitoring for adaptive management.
- Managers are not ready to think about it yet. One interview participant commented: “I think we’ve been really focused on just getting environmental water up and going, and into existence, and probably now we’re starting to be able to have the freedom to think a bit more broadly about it as an industry.”
We suggest changes that are required to address the specific barriers identified in this research (Table 1). Suggestions fall under categories of knowledge, policy and legislation, planning and monitoring, legitimacy, and political and governance. Some suggestions will be easy to address (e.g., improve communication of scientific error in data); some may never be resolved, so alternate pathways will be required (e.g., uncertainty surrounding ecosystem change can be addressed through decision-making methods that include uncertainty); and others will need institutional changes, foresight, and courageous political support.
After identifying barriers to adaptation, survey participants were asked what was needed to overcome these barriers (Fig. 5). The results showed a strong desire for more knowledge, the ability to test the robustness of existing objectives, and reviews of flow assessment methods and policy. Knowledge and research topics included quantified ecosystem response models and tipping points, species vulnerability assessments, fit for purpose hydrology models, incorporation of future climate and hydrological scenarios in flow assessment methods, improved knowledge on drought refuge needs (e.g., quantity and spatial spread), and a framework to guide decision making under uncertain circumstances (which also includes socioeconomic issues). One approach that some participants nominated was to start conversations with their communities regarding the changing environment and need to update or change objectives.
The outcomes of this paper have implications for future environmental flow assessment methods, water planning, policy, and legislation. The results suggest environmental water management in Australia is in its infancy and is grappling with a backward-looking worldview where most planning involves reference to observed past streamflows and ecological values. The slow response of ecosystems to flow restoration may mean there is less social urgency than in other areas of climate adaptation.
Although the sample’s small size and relatively uneven spatial coverage make it difficult to determine relationships between issues or to widely extrapolate from these findings, there were many common issues that are likely relevant to environmental flow management more broadly.
This research shows the complex interplay of management and policy in environmental water management. Existing ecological objectives have been set on the basis of government-recommended flow assessment methods, most of which do not include consideration of future hydro-climatic conditions and in fact use historical flow regimes as the basis for assessment. This research shows a lack of government commitment to updating legislation, policies, and guidance to include climate adaptations for long-term planning. This absence of commitment is evident in barriers, such as lack of funding, resourcing, and political will. It is unclear if this lack of commitment comes from identified obstacles, such as knowledge uncertainty, or a political aim to maintain electoral votes for major water reform recently undertaken. Whatever the reason, water managers are challenged to deliver on objectives identified through outdated, government-endorsed flow assessment methods, yet at times are unable to achieve objectives because of political and policy constraints.
When organizations considered lower water futures, objectives were at times not altered for fear of community backlash if they were deemed unattainable. This suggests environmental water staff feel pressure to deliver water for ecological outcomes as required by legislation, but also feel the need to gain social license for the use of environmental water by local communities. This in turn may result in political pressure to show that stated ecological objectives can be achieved, and a reluctance from water staff to modify objectives in light of a changing climate and water availability (whether by removing some restoration targets or altering the type of outcome that is sought). This social and political pressure may lead to environmental water use targeted at short-term gains rather than achieving long-term outcomes.
Achieving existing ecological objectives will be made more difficult under climate change, and governments need to recognize and address the barriers identified in this research. Current flow assessment methods need revising along with guidance on how to adapt management to different adaptation pathways to ensure a consistent approach. Ideally, ecological objective setting should be guided by the best available science and community values (including traditional owner groups). The process of setting objectives should be iterative and test flow recommendations against future scenarios. A good example of such processes are presented in Judd et al. (2022) and Horne et al. (2022). Judd et al. (2022) suggest a process for setting “climate ready” ecological objectives that incorporate the latest science and community values and iteratively testing objectives against future scenarios until an acceptable trade off (if required) is reached. Horne et al. (2022) provide a new flow assessment method that uses ecological models to include consideration of future change and uncertainty. The proposed method includes a participatory approach to setting objectives and understanding the science, along with an iterative adaptive management style loop, including monitoring and evaluation, and a communication strategy.
By setting objectives with consideration to future scenarios, trade-off decisions and adaptations can be discussed. Through these discussions communities will have the opportunity to decide which adaptation path they would like to pursue (persist, adapt, or transform) and its corresponding adaptation actions. During such discussions, the barriers identified in this research will be determined to be either a barrier (defined as an “obstacle that can be overcome”) or a limit to adaptation (“where adaptation actions fail to protect something”; Barnett et al. 2015). These determinations will be contextual and specific to each catchment and community. For example, in response to the barrier of decreased water availability, some communities may decide to follow a transform adaptation path where a lack of water no longer becomes a barrier to achieving objectives, whereas others may choose to follow a persist adaptation strategy and aim to “restore” ecosystems to a historic reference point. In this case, the lack of water can be viewed as a limit to adaptation. The contextual basis of these decisions will be local catchment conditions as well as community values, legacy issues, and ability to attract funding, as is evident from the mixed responses in this research on approaches for managing unachievable objectives.
This research has also identified some underlying constraints that, if not collectively addressed through structural change by environmental water practitioners, will greatly restrict the benefits that publicly funded environmental water can achieve. Legislation that guides environmental water use is backward looking, aiming to “restore and protect” ecosystems with no recognition that the environment is changing. Until legalization is changed, environmental water managers will be mandated to restore and protect ecosystems, even if science suggests (and communities wish to follow) a transform adaptation path. Current institutional arrangements in Australia can also be viewed as a limit to adaptation. The scale of management is primarily influenced by small-scale catchment needs with little conflict between systems. However, under a lower water future there will be a need to make decisions on the best use of a limited bucket of water, and this decision making cannot be solely undertaken by local, community-oriented organizations. Institutional and governance changes will be required to enable independent trade-off decisions between catchments for the effective management of the entire ecosystem.
Different adaptation pathways will require different adaptation actions, but the barriers identified in this research are surmountable. Overcoming these barriers will require community support, strong political will, and empowerment of water managers to manage ecosystems for proactive change. However, to do this in a consistent manner, government resolve and guidance on climate change adaptation for environmental water management in Australia is desperately needed.
Ecological restoration is by nature backward looking, with an aim to restore degraded environments. Yet with a future characterized by a no analogue environment (i.e., one structured differently from today; Williams and Jackson 2007), water management should not only continue to look backward, but specifically and deliberately look forward. Our analysis highlights significant gaps in the extent to which this is occurring in Australia.
This study has exposed a desire by environmental water managers to include climate change considerations in long-term planning, yet there remains a clear need to update environmental flow assessment methods to ensure future hydrological scenarios and ecological conditions are included. Environmental water policy and legislation needs updating to include consideration of a no analogue future. A review of governance would be beneficial to encourage adoption of landscape-scale management that would enable easier adoption of climate change adaptations. Effective and efficient use of environmental water under climate change would benefit from increased resources and funding, and increased research and knowledge exchange. Improved knowledge needs include agreed-upon hydrological models and scenarios, vulnerability assessments, and decision-support frameworks. These barriers are impacting the ability of water managers to effectively make the best use of a limited resource in a rapidly changing climate.We have identified a range of mechanisms by which environmental water managers can incorporate climate change considerations. Many of the recommended changes will require significant investment in research, and institutional cross-collaboration and coordination. The changes needed for future management of environmental water require political courage and the recognition that water and land use changes will occur. The recommendations of this article are a first step toward making considered, proactive changes to water management under climate change, in contrast to costly, ill-planned reactive decisions, or missing the opportunity to decide at all.
RESPONSES TO THIS ARTICLE
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MJ is funded through an industry PhD position with funding from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Victoria, Australia, and Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority. AH was funded through an ARC DECRA award (DE180100550). This study was carried out under a human ethics permit issued by La Trobe University. We would also like to thank all the interview and survey participants who contributed their time and experiences to this study.
The data that support the findings of this study are available on request from the corresponding author [MJ]. Ethical approval for this research study was granted by La Trobe University Human Ethics Committee (HEC20347).
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Table 1. Suggested changes to overcome barriers identified in this research.
|Uncertainty how ecosystems will respond||Continue funding research into changing hydrology and rainfall-runoff relationships.
Continue funding research into ecological response to predicted eco-hydrologic changes.
Provide funding for more vulnerability assessments.
|Availability of useable, local information||Work with local scientific organizations (e.g., CSIRO) to downscale global and national climate and flow forecasts.
Be clear with the limit of confidence and error margin in downscaled results.
|Uncertainty about which climate change scenario to choose or where to start||Provide guidance to managers/end users on assessing and planning for a range of scenarios rather than just one.
Improve knowledge exchange between science and managers/end users of climate scenarios and how to prepare robust plans.
State governments to provide guidance to environmental water managers in a specific, easy-to-use format.
|Siloed approach to environmental water management||Improve knowledge sharing and integration with complementary river health works.|
|Current legislation does not consider climate change.||Need for legislative change through parliament and international treaty agreements.
Review water use throughout the country and make policy decisions on the best place and use of water.
Government to assist community and industry transition to new enterprises where required (e.g., dryland farming).
|Legacy land use and water sharing arrangements||Will need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, but aim for consistency where possible.|
Planning and monitoring
|Planning occurs predominantly on an annual time scale||Water entitlement holders and delivery partners to plan on annual, five-year, and longer time frames.
Ensure these plans reflect local and basin-wide goals. If there is a conflict, ensure resolution of objectives for the most effective use of water for entire ecosystem.
|Planning occurs on a single river basis||Change setting ecological objectives from a single river system to a broader scale.
Inclusion of operational restrictions when setting long-term ecological objectives.
|Lack of monitoring information for adaptive management||Improve auditing and monitoring of environmental water deliveries against ecological objectives.
Ensure monitoring is appropriate for adaptative management decisions and identify tipping points.
|Lack of confidence from managers in climate and hydrology predictions||Encourage greater collaboration between researchers and end users: fund knowledge brokers.
Communicate errors of margin and uncertainties in predictions.
|Lack of public support||Improved communication of the benefits of environmental water: in the context of ecological/ecosystem services as well as economic and social benefits.
Fund more regionally located communication officers who are members of local communities.
Political and governance
|Lack of political leadership||Remove politics from the science of river health and water management.
Base decision making on co-designed processes informed by the best available science.
|Conflicting objectives for organizations managing water||Review organizational responsibilities and objectives.|
|Current water governance arrangements||Review organizational responsibilities.
Decide on the most efficient scale of administration to manage environmental water in a changing world.
Encourage state governments to take a larger role in trade off and decision making for water use.
|Lack of staff and funding||Fund specific climate adaptation roles in regional organizations.
Fund knowledge broker roles in state and commonwealth agencies.