91 – Environmental monitoring – why bother?

Is environmental monitoring a good tool to encourage changes in behaviour by people who are adversely affecting the environment? Possibly not, especially if there is a lack of suitable management options that are attractive to those people.

In many parts of southern Australia, dryland salinity, caused by rising saline water tables, affects soils, rivers, vegetation and infrastructure. When I started taking an interest in this issue some years ago, I suspected that farmers’ lack of knowledge of the looming salinity threat might be an important reason why they were not taking strong pre-emptive action to avoid future costs. I thought it would be a good idea for governments to subsidise the installation of bores to allow the monitoring of groundwater levels (piezometers). Surely if farmers could observe the steady rise of the groundwater table under their own farms, they would take action to stop it. Seeing an imminent problem for real is surely a more effective prompt to action than merely being told about it.

When I mentioned my idea to people, I learned that I was not the first to think of it. A number of projects had attempted to do exactly what I was suggesting. Unfortunately, they weren’t being very successful. In some areas, it was proving difficult to get farmers to participate, and difficult to keep them involved in monitoring even if they had installed piezometers.

There was one stunning exception, at Jerramungup, less than 200km from my home in Albany. The local ‘Landcare’ group, supported with great energy by their project officer Carolyn Daniel, had succeeded in getting more than 90% of local farmers to monitor their groundwater levels. This was a remarkable result, especially given the low levels of monitoring in other examples I heard about. However, even around Jerramungup there was a significant decline in the number of farmers who continued to monitor. Over the course of a 9 year period, the percentage of farmers who were monitoring had dropped from over 90% to about 50%.

My collaborator Sally Marsh and I set out to see what we could learn from this wonderful example. For a set of more than 100 bores, we obtained information about the groundwater conditions at the location where they had been installed, about how groundwater levels had changed over time, about farmers’ attitudes to monitoring, and about the frequency of their monitoring over the nine-year period.

We learned a lot from our study, some of it obvious, some not. In summary, we found that farmers were more likely to monitor if they had lower levels of education, a lower age, larger farms, active involvement with a land conservation group, a perception that their properties are more at risk from salinity, or specific on-farm strategies that they wanted to evaluate.

The last point proved particularly important. Farmers who were using the information from monitoring to assess salinity management strategies implemented on their farms were likely to monitor more frequently, and to keep monitoring. This indicated to us that monitoring frequency was driven in large part by the availability of suitable salinity management practices that they could implement. I had been much too naive in my original thought: that adoption of salinity management practices may be enhanced by programs that encourage monitoring. It might help, but only in situations where salinity management practices are attractive enough to farmers to be adoptable. Other studies have shown that the currently available suite of perennial plants is not sufficiently adoptable in many regions.

This is reinforced by another finding of our study: that some of the farmers who stopped monitoring did so because they were sick of getting bad news about which they could do nothing. Why go about regularly stressing yourself with information that your saline watertable is rising, if you feel that there is nothing you can do about it (e.g. because the available preventative management responses are too costly to be viable)?

The results pointed towards the need to develop improved perennial-based farming options, as a higher priority than encouragement for monitoring. Subsequently, I helped establish a new research centre that has a strong program of improving perennial-based farming options, the Cooperative Research Centre for Salinity. This has recently been extended for a further 7 years, in a new form, as the Future Farm Industries CRC.

The results of the Jerramungup study have implications for efforts to promote farmer monitoring of environmental indicators in general. When considering which types of indicators should be promoted, the indicators most likely to be successful will be those perceived by farmers to be practically relevant to their farm management. Effort should be targeted to farmers for whom monitoring is most likely to be beneficial (e.g. it is expected to result in economic gains through improved decision making – Pannell and Glenn, 2000).

I think that governments that undertake environmental monitoring could learn something from the farmers’ approach. Often, environmental monitoring programs are not well linked to management or policy decisions that need to be made. The benefits of monitoring could be increased significantly if they were.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Marsh, S.P., Burton, M.P. and Pannell, D.J. (2006). Understanding farmers’ monitoring of water tables for salinity management, Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 46(7): 1113-1122.

The following is a prior study, based only on physical measures, excluding a survey of farmers’ attitudes that was used in the above study.

Marsh, S.P., Burton, M.P. and Pannell,D.J. (2001). Understanding farmer monitoring of a ‘sustainability indicator’: Depth to saline groundwater in Western Australia. In: A. Conacher (ed.), Land Degradation, Kluwer, Dordrecht, pp. 207-222. Full paper (141K)

Pannell D.J. and Glenn N.A. (2000). A framework for economic evaluation and selection of sustainability indicators in agriculture, Ecological Economics 33(1): 135-149. Full paper (93 K)

Pannell, D.J. (2003). What is the value of a sustainability indicator? Economic and social issues in monitoring and management for sustainability. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 43(3): 239-243. Full journal paper (48K pdf file)

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