How do you design a water quality monitoring program?

Monitoring programs can be carried out for a wide range of purposes. However, the general principles for designing a monitoring program are common to all types of programs. Proper design of monitoring programs is crucial to achieving useful outcomes. Programs that have vague objectives, unspecific indicators and inadequate sampling design will give little useful information and waste limited resources.

Professionalism involves helping the client understand the observed symptoms and critical questions. It involves using state-of-the-art physical and statistical tools to collect information that can be interpreted using a conceptual, deterministic or stochastic model of some sort. Professionalism also involves critical reflection on the whole sampling process to ensure cost effectiveness and to manage errors so they are kept within known and acceptable limits.

Management agencies have often underestimated the intellectual effort required to design and operate monitoring programs, and have been unprofessional in their on-going scrutiny of the outputs of these programs. Sampling and monitoring issues are an interesting science in their own right, and one where significant payoffs can be achieved.

In the section below, we list a series of questions, which when addressed, can lead to cost effective sampling.

Questions to considerations when planning a monitoring program

  • Has the problem/reason for sampling been clearly stated?
  • Are specific objectives: (i) clear and concisely defined; (ii) sufficient to specify what is to be achieved; (iii) specific enough to indicate when each stage is complete; and (iv) agreed between the users of data and the collectors.
  • Has a conceptual model of the system been made explicit and agreed?
  • Have the study boundaries been agreed?
  • Has the length of study been agreed?
  • Has the scale of the study been agreed?
  • Have appropriate indicators been identified?
  • Have testable hypotheses been established?
  • Will data from different sources be compatible?
  • Will data yield information to test the hypotheses?
  • Are statistical procedures clearly identified?
  • Are the assumptions of the proposed statistical tests met?
  • Has the smallest differences to be detected been specified?
  • Have the potential sources of variability been identified?
  • Are there sufficient stations to accommodate variability?
  • On what basis is frequency of sampling proposed?
  • Are there procedures to identify, measure and control errors?
  • Does the sampling device collect a representative sample?
  • How are samples to be preserved before analysis?
  • Have sampling protocols been written for samplers?
  • Can the integrity of the sample be guaranteed?

This information is sourced from: Maher, W. A., Cullen, P. and Norris, R. (1994). Framework for designing sampling programs. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 30 :139-162. Download the full version (PDF 1.37MB) or the summary (PDF 168KB)

This information can also be found in more detail in the ANZECC 2000 Guidelines for Monitoring and Reporting. These guidelines provide a comprehensive guide to the design of monitoring programs, as well as a range of examples.

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Additional resources

This information can also be found in more detail in the ANZECC 2000 Guidelines for Monitoring and Reporting. These guidelines provide a comprehensive guide to the design of monitoring programs, as well as a range of examples.

Monitoring program details : Download and fill out a form with details on your monitoring program. An example form is provided to assist with filling out this form.


Water quality monitoring toolkit This toolkit will assist those who have direct responsibilities in water quality monitoring (WQM). ( Water Quality Monitoring )

An interim approach for water monitoring in New South Wales (NSW Environmental Protection Agency)
Find out the potential indicators for NRM monitoring for your water quality issue from the navigation bar on the left. Each indicator requires a different monitoring strategy. The information presented is from the publication Users' Guide for Estuarine, Coastal and Marine Indicators for Regional NRM Monitoring .

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