Perceptions and information disclosure of water quality issues in Australia 2019

Changes to marine environment health in the coastal zone are becoming more complex, pervasive and are occurring at a much faster rate, primarily due to human-related activities (Cloern et al., 2016). Wastewater disposal into the marine environment is a key factor leading to the deterioration of coastal water quality. Poorly managed disposal can lead to increased concentrations of nutrients, organic and inorganic pollutants, as well as alter levels of turbidity, pH and bacteria (Beck and Birch, 2012, Carey and Migliaccio, 2009, Cheung et al., 2015). An increase in the level of pollutants can have an impact on coastal ecology and biodiversity and affect the health of recreational users (Boehm et al., 2017, Reopanichkul et al., 2009, Schwarzenbach et al., 2010). Often the marine-related businesses, such as oyster farm, are also affected due to high level of bacteria contamination which causes less production during harvest season (Campos et al., 2015).

In order to reduce water quality degradation, there is a need to increase communication between the relevant stakeholders and the general community. The effectiveness of science communication will enable the general public to make a sound choice regarding the environmental issues as well as helping the decision makers to improve the marine environment management (Mea et al., 2016). Public notifications, particularly in relation to water quality events, play an active role in managing health risks for both humans and the environment. However, public notification or mis-notification can be fraught with errors (Thoe et al., 2014), For instance clean beaches can be closed inadvertently because managers may feel unsure of the spatial extent of water contamination. On the other hand, contaminated beaches may remain open, because due to the time mismatch between sampling and notification (Pendleton, 2008). Around the world, programs have been developed to notify the public about water quality issues. For instance, the Beachwatch monitoring program NSW, which was started in 1989 in response to community concern about sewage pollution washing up on Sydney’s beaches (Beder, 1991, OEH, 2019). However, amongst the programs, communication practices are variable and lack formal evaluations for their effectiveness (Pratap et al., 2011).

Consideration of public perception is important for assessing the effectiveness of notification programs and managing the risks and behaviour of the public with regard to recreational water usage. Public perception research is critical in this regard as a means of assessing science and policy initiatives (Gelcich et al., 2014, Jefferson et al., 2015, Treise and Weigold, 2002). The purpose of this research is to gain an understanding of user perceptions and information disclosure of water quality events around Australian coastal regions. Water quality changes may be caused by different events such as sewage release and stormwater run-off into an estuary or the coastal ocean. This may cause declines in water quality and potential health issues through contact with the affected water. Sewage runoff may occur in dry weather because of problems with, for example, mechanical failure at wastewater treatment plants. Wet weather may also cause the capacity of the wastewater treatment plants to be exceeded because of large volumes of stormwater in the sewer system. Sewage run-off has some characteristics, which may be detected by odour, sight, water discoloration, turbidity, and oily films.

This research aims to gather information about community perception of where water quality events occur, whether they are linked to weather events, and the effectiveness of communication efforts to notify the community of the occurrence of these events. This research is important as it assesses an understanding of perceptions, behaviours and expectations of the community using water bodies that may be affected by water quality events. Research has found that improved knowledge and communication of water quality in coastal areas can improve individual’s management of health risk associated with bypass events.

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