Lessons from 10 years of integrating biophysical and social research to improve outcomes of environmental flows in Australia

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Water managers are working with increasingly complex social ecological systems with high uncertainty and competing social and environmental demands for water, prompting interest in freshwater adaptive management and environmental flows. Published literature has focused on theory or on documenting the biophysical outcomes of environmental flows. However, there are few examples where the biophysical outcomes of environmental flows are considered concurrently with research on community perceptions and social learning. In this paper we reflect on what we’ve learned from 10 years of integrating biophysical and social research to improve outcomes of environmental flows in Australia. We focus on two flow trials implemented in 2017/18 in the Wakool River system, southern Murray-Darling Basin, Australia. Both trials altered flows from the current operational norms in this system. Biophysical monitoring of these trials examined hydrological connectivity, water quality, river productivity and fish movement. Social inquiry involved semi structured interviews with 18 people with a ‘stake’ in the trials. We also reviewed planning documents, water-use reports and stakeholder committee minutes. The biophysical monitoring showed that the environmental flows had a positive outcome on the river ecosystem. Inductive thematic analysis of the stakeholder interviews revealed multiple framings for understanding the river system. Dominant frames include ‘engineering’, ‘accounting’, ‘restoration’, and ‘systems’. Of note were assumptions about what ‘ought’ to be occurring in the river system, in reference to ‘normal’, ‘natural’, and ‘historical’ river flow patterns, and what was right and wrong with management. These framings influence how stakeholders perceive the effectiveness of the environmental flow trials and the biophysical monitoring. We conclude how the ‘success’ or otherwise of the flow trials would have been perceived without integrated research such as this.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jun 2021
EventInternational Association for Society and Natural Resources Conference 2021 - Online
Duration: 20 Jun 202124 Jun 2021
https://www4.iasnr.org/2021-virtual-iasnr-conference-program/ (Conference program)


ConferenceInternational Association for Society and Natural Resources Conference 2021
Abbreviated titleBuilding a global network for natural resource social science
OtherEach year we gather at our annual IASNR Conference (formerly called ISSRM) to share research, reconnect with colleagues, and make new connections. Because we cannot meet in person this year, we are hosting a virtual conference. We value what each of you contribute to society and natural resources research and practice and we want to provide the opportunity to share those contributions.

The 2021 IASNR virtual conference theme is “Building a Global Network for Natural Resource Social Science”—the conference begins on June 20 and runs through June 24. Presentations, talks, panels, and activities will occur continuously during the four-and-a-half-day conference period so there will always be something in your time zone no matter where you’re located. Many of the sessions will be organized around geographic “hubs” to help scholars and practitioners connect with others working in their region of the globe. We invite long-time IASNR members as well as new participants and young scholars to submit abstracts and participate in this unique opportunity to build bridges among members of the global natural resource social science community.
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