Quality Considerations: Taking an 'Asset Management' Approach to natural waterways
The benefits of taking a Asset Management approach
An Asset Management System should:
- Locate, map and record waterway assets - particularly in relation to surrounding infrastructure (for example culverts, utilities crossing creek lines, private and public land boundaries) and natural features (for example floodplains).
- Assist council to prioritise investing natrual resource management budgets for best effect, by improving understanding of:
- Where waterways intersect with infrastructure and utilities;
- The condition or health of individual waterway ‘reaches’ (segments with similar biophysical characteristics);
- How this ‘condition’ is likely to change over time;
- The inherent 'recovery potential' of a reach (due to its geomorphological and ecological attributes);
- The level of ‘risk’ a waterway might pose during extreme storms.
- Assist council to deliver multiple objectives through its works and maintenance. For example by better alignment between infrastructure upgrades (replacing a culvert) with 'softer' engineering works for vegetated stormwater assets (improve rock armouring and revegetate creek banks downstream of the culvert).
Challenges, Risks and Shortcomings
The integration of natural assets into corporate asset systems is innovative and not without challenges.
Firstly, it is easy to underestimate the resources required to setup and maintain asset information systems. This is not uncommon for infrastructure assets but the risks are compounded for natural assets by the lack of industry standards.
There is no standard guidance on how councils might assess the condition or health of natural waterways in urban settings. Ecologically based condition assessment can be complex. If asset condition assessment methods are too simple, they will not yield useful information about a creek. If they are too resource intensive councils are less likely to do them or keep the data current.
Natural assets will behave differently to infrastructure assets. For example, the 'value' or 'condition' a natural creek in good ecological condition can increase over time - particularly if 'management interventions' are not
applied! The relationship between the waterway condition and the ‘levels of service’ or benefits offered is not readily quantified. This can make decision making around ‘prioritising’ management interventions difficult.
There is no Australian Standard for ascribing monetary values to natural waterways - and if these accounting standards are applied it creates anomalies. However, if we fail to properly account for a natural asset’s worth within asset systems they can be easily overlooked when allocating resources to their upkeep. Putting a dollar value to natural waterways presents challenges - they may not have “capital works” costs, they provide a range of intangible benefits and are valued differently by different people.
If no capital costs were involved in 'creating' the asset it will not have a formal 'value' under the Australian Standards for accounting.
Finally but perhaps most importantly, an asset management system that focuses on 'individual reaches' may not necessarily deliver cost effective urban waterway management - because the condition of urban waterways ultimately depends on what is going on in their upstream catchment. Investing in individual creek reaches can be a waste of money if the upstream catchment drainage upstream is not 'water sensitive'. To give confidence, broader hydrological, biodiversity and ecological processes need to inform asset decisions such as setting desired 'service levels'.
Information provided by Asset Management, Natural Resource Management and maintenance staff from councils within the Hunter, Central Coast and Lower North Coast regions of NSW.