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ScienceWise - Sep/Oct 2007

What a CLAM can do for your local waterway

Article Illustration
Robert Quirk - Tweed Valley sugar cane grower and recognised world leader in best management practice of acid sulphate soils, takes CLAM researchers Dr Rebecca Letcher and Dr Jenifer Ticehurst on a tour of his farm
Article Illustration
Above: the complex web of interacting factors that clam uses to generate predictions about future conditions in the waterway such as salinity, flow rates and biodiversity. The system also serves as a very user friendly cross referenced repository for local knowledge of the system.

A new resource management tool for coastal lakes

Coastal lakes form at the mouths of many of Australia’s rivers and streams when wave action forms a sand bank between the river mouth and the ocean. Over time these sand banks can isolate the lake system from the sea forming a lagoon. Periodically when river flows or tides are high, the sand bank is breached creating a brackish mixing of sea and river water. This all creates a unique environment in which many species of flora and fauna thrive including some of very high economic value such as oysters. However increasing pressure on water resources coupled with demand for urban development is beginning to take its toll on these delicate ecosystems. Local councils often find themselves in the difficult position of having to make decisions on development approval based on minimal quantitative information. The same situation often hinders environmental restoration programs where there is a desire to make improvements but limited resources. In such situations it’s often far from obvious where those resources are best spent. In an ideal world, it would be possible to fund an extensive research program into every such river system then having gathered data for many years, make appropriate decisions. However, in the real world this is a luxury councils rarely have. Decisions need to be made quickly and all too often the only information to base them on is qualitative local knowledge and “gut feelings.”

However, a group of researchers from the ANU Integrated Catchment Assessment and Management Centre (iCAM), and the former NSW State Department of Natural Resources (now the Department of Environment and Climate Change, DECC) have developed a modelling approach and software tool that may help change all this. CLAM, the Coastal Lake Assessment and Management tool is the brainchild of Dr Rebecca Letcher, Dr Jenifer Ticehurst and Dr Wendy Merritt. The CLAM software allows users to enter data into a complex, yet flexible model of the entangled web of interrelated factors that contribute to the health of a particular coastal water system. But what’s really special about CLAM, is that it’s based on Bayesian logic processes. The practical upshot of this is that it can accommodate both hard quantitative data and expert and local knowledge into the same model. This has been central to the success of the system because it allows decision makers to take advantage of the huge body of qualitative knowledge that often exists in local communities. Because the system draws on this local knowledge and participation, it fosters a sense of inclusion amongst stakeholders which in turn often smooths the process of change. CLAM has multiple levels and multiple functions ranging from easily accessible archiving of local knowledge and research data to extrapolations of various future scenarios. For example, by entering in factors affecting catchment condition such as urbanisation or local vegetation, CLAM can output the likely consequences to all the facets of the water system. The system is easily updated to include the latest data and is also accessible enough to allow back tracking from predicted outcomes to reveal the assumptions that underlie them.

28 CLAMs have so far been developed in collaboration with NSW State Government agencies, local councils, and catchment management authorities. The system has proved so successful that a training and accreditation system has been developed under the auspices of ANU-Enterprise. This allows users to train on the system and gain accreditation allowing them to independently build CLAM models of particular water systems.

CLAM’s contribution to the conservation and improved sustainability of coastal lakes has been recognised by Environs - the Local Government Environment Network. The recent Northern Rivers Catchment Management Authority CLAM project was granted an award for “Outstanding Sustainability Partnership” and “Outstanding Sustainability Leadership.” The CLAM Coordinator, Naomi Brydon, accepted these awards at the Local Government Sustainable Development conference dinner on Tuesday, 11 September this year.

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