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Key principles for rehabilitation

The overarching goal for site management and rehabilitation is the wise and sustainable use of aquatic ecosystems (wetlands).

The Aquatic Ecosystem Rehabilitation Process applies seven key principles to achieve this goal.

1. Create a clear strategy/plan

Undertaking a rehabilitation project, even a small one, can involve a lot of work. Planning the project properly will save time, money and frustration by reducing extra unnecessary and unexpected issues. It is important to outline the purpose of rehabilitation, and the services or values to be maintained or improved in a Aquatic Ecosystem Rehabilitation Plan. In addition:

  • Seek expert advice/ensure appropriate skills are available: Aquatic ecosystem rehabilitation can be technically challenging as these are complex systems, involving the interaction of water, plants, animals and humans. Management interventions should be developed and implemented by appropriately qualified people (e.g. fluvial geomorphologists, hydrologists, botanists, ecologists, engineers, social scientists).
  • Check Legal Obligations: Ensure that the actions to be undertaken do not cause environmental harm or break the law. Federal, state and local legislation, policy and planning need to be considered in any rehabilitation activity. Legal requirements may impose significant time and financial constraints on projects. It is recommended that pre-lodgement advice is sought through the State Assessment and Referral Agency to identify any impacts on potential state triggers that may result in the need for a development approval.
  • Use best management practices: It is tempting to use tried and tested methods or simple activities that may have worked elsewhere. Consider what intervention options are best suited to the project.
  • Include maintenance: Any aquatic ecosystem rehabilitation project needs to consider both the initial works and the ongoing maintenance requirements to achieve the long-term outcome, and factor the costs of both, into the rehabilitation plan.
  • Monitoring, evaluation and adaptation: Rehabilitation should integrate monitoring, evaluation and adaptation in the rehabilitation plan. This includes collecting baseline wetland condition information before rehabilitation works begin and monitoring for changes after works have concluded. This information can lead to the improvement of future management activities. Celebrate the success of implementation but continue to monitor to ensure long-term outcomes are achieved.

2. Understand your system at multiple spatial and temporal scales

Aquatic ecosystems can provide numerous ecosystem services that are valued by different beneficiaries They also actively respond to changes that occur both locally or further away at varying timescales. Understanding the form and processes of the site and its broader landscape (catchment) can improve outcomes. This includes knowing past activities, interventions and disturbances. The future impacts of climate change and the timing of implementation also need to be considered.

Melaleuca and open water Photo by Gary Cranitch © Queensland Museum

3. Consider if intervention is necessary

Any aquatic ecosystem rehabilitation project needs to consider the dynamic nature of these systems. For example, rivers naturally move across floodplains over time through the processes of erosion and deposition – therefore is intervention necessary? If it is deemed necessary, avoid only managing current issues. Instead, consider goals and objectives that relate to the medium to long term. Include consideration of the future impacts of climate change and future development on aquatic ecosystem dynamics. Also consider what management interventions would reduce the need for future interventions after future triggers such as floods and cyclones.

4. Involve First Nations people and other stakeholders

All aquatic ecosystem rehabilitation management planning should consider impacts on a broad range of stakeholders (including beneficiaries). Identify and involve stakeholders from an early stage in the process. Take time to understand their different perspectives and possible competing values. Consider that not all community members benefit from the services or values and some people might be negatively impacted by the rehabilitation activities.

First Nations people have a deep relationship with, connection to, and responsibility for aquatic ecosystems. This is part of their identity and therefore the cultural, physical and spiritual health of First Nations people is intimately connected to the health and wellbeing of these systems. First Nations people have been enduring custodians for tens of thousands of generations. Consideration and incorporation of traditional knowledge and values of First Nations people is fundamental to achieving sustainable aquatic ecosystem rehabilitation outcomes that respect both Country and people. In many places, it is considered necessary to not only involve the appropriate Traditional Owners, but to gain their prior and informed consent to work on their traditional lands.

5. Optimise rehabilitation outcomes

Individual aquatic ecosystems cannot provide all ecosystem services at all times. Optimising the key services required of the aquatic ecosystem should dictate the rehabilitation and management actions. Seeking complementary outcomes rather than focusing on a single service and checking for unintended consequences is important (e.g. the planting of some vegetation may encourage some birds but make the site unusable for others). Also remember that the maintenance of existing services and values is more cost effective than re-creating them when they have been lost. A cost-benefit analysis of rehabilitation activities should thus consider any local development works that are planned. Is it cost effective to invest in rehabilitation, or are there other actions that can be undertaken to avoid causing further damage to local aquatic ecosystems?

6. Share

Documenting what has been learned and sharing this information both internally and externally will support the adaptive management and continuity of the individual project and foster a learning environment that benefits the broader rehabilitation community.

It is important to share both successes and learnings, so that lessons from rehabilitation projects can be applied in the future. It is important to wait for an appropriate period to measure outcomes as rehabilitation may be successful in the short term, but this may not be sustained. Alternatively, some actions may take years for the full benefits to be sustained.

7. Adaptive management

Aquatic ecosystem rehabilitation should be undertaken in an adaptive management cycle where management is modified as conditions at the site change or new information becomes available ('learning by doing')[1]. Monitoring, evaluation, and sharing are critical elements of the adaptive management cycle.

Monitoring is essential to inform whether objectives are being met, the trajectory of the system, and for establishing project timeframes. Evaluation is undertaken as the learning step of the adaptive management. Evaluation is the analysis of monitored data and the project targets and goals, leading to the production of options for future measures. At this evaluation stage, a key decision needs to be made on whether the interventions are working, or if other interventions are necessary - providing the option to adjust direction to improve progress towards project outcomes.

The project can be evaluated, restarting an adaptive management loop, for several different reasons. Examples include:

  • A threshold in the monitoring: Either an objective has been met, and there needs to be reflection on the efficacy of the process, or the objective has not been met and the reasons why need to be examined.
  • Project milestones: Initial targets may have been set, for example, based around one-, five- and twenty-year timeframes. These may be evaluated to assess the initial project establishment and the medium- and long-term targets.
  • An unintended consequence has occurred: If monitoring reveals that something unintended, usually detrimental, has occurred, then there may be a need to reassess. An example might be an environmental flow that has engaged the intended floodplain wetlands, but has also triggered a spawning event of an invasive species of fish, vegetation, or both.
  • A change in the pressures to the system: There may be changes to the site and/or catchment that were not anticipated in the original design. For example, urbanisation in the catchment may increase the amount of stormwater entering the aquatic ecosystem, this in turn may increase the peak discharges the system experiences.
  • An alteration in the services desired at the site: An intervention site may need to meet differing social expectations because it becomes more accessible to the public. There may also be a change in the water quality requirements at the site or downstream that mean a different intervention may be necessary.

These evaluation milestones are yet another opportunity for sharing. This is a time to report the success of the project to multiple stakeholders and the community. Explain using data and other visual tools, such as photographs, why the site looks the way it does and suggest the trajectory it may take.


  1. ^ Speed, R, Li, Y, Tickner, D, Huang H, Naiman, R, Cao, J, Lei G, Yu, L, Sayers, P & Zhao, ZY (2016), River Restoration: A Strategic Approach to Planning and Management, UNESCO, Paris.

Last updated: 29 June 2022

This page should be cited as:

Department of Environment and Science, Queensland (2022) Key principles for rehabilitation, WetlandInfo website, accessed 1 July 2022. Available at:

Queensland Government
WetlandInfo   —   Department of Environment and Science