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Queensland Waterhole Classification Scheme

Waterholes provide important aquatic refugia and allow organisms to persist within the landscape during dry periods or droughts and then recolonize the broader landscape when favourable conditions return[7][20].

The Queensland Waterhole Classification Scheme (Scheme) was developed to provide a framework for classifying and typing Queensland waterholes. The scheme uses a biophysical framework of physical, environmental and climatic attributes. This classification scheme has been built on the Australian National Aquatic Ecosystem Classification Scheme (ANAE).

Crimson finch, Photo by Queensland Government

Quick facts

Crimson finch
usually favour habitats of mixed eucalypt–pandanus woodlands with a tall, dense understorey of grass, generally in damp environments associated with wetlands. They are occasionally seen on other types of woodlands near wetlands, such as riparian paperbark woodlands. In some regions there is a movement away from pandanus–canegrass habitats to the margins of billabongs / waterholes in the wet season.

Aquatic refugia such as waterholes are a priority for conservation under climate change due to their ability to provide habitat during periods of drought and a water source for terrestrial species[5][6]. Waterholes are also important from an agricultural perspective, providing resources for irrigation and stock watering[2]. Many are culturally significant[3] and are highly prized from a tourism perspective. Waterholes can also harbour invasive flora and fauna due to increased resources and can be used as targets for effective management of these species.  

Waterholes are highly variable and can fluctuate spatially and temporally, often being a sub-habitat within a larger wetland e.g. a waterhole within a riverine wetland[2]. They are found throughout Queensland, from the wet-dry tropics to the arid zone of far western Queensland[12][15]. Due to their wide geographic range, variation in morphology and presence within different wetland systems, waterholes are referred to by a range of different names (i.e. billabongs, lagoons and waterbodies)[4][17][3].

Why classify waterholes?

The principle of ecosystem-based management has been widely applied in Australia for managing ecosystems, species and resources[21][14][11] and is at the core of the international Ramsar Ecological Character Framework[9]. This approach considers the relationships and impacts on an ecosystem and informs decision-making initiatives and actions for successful ecosystem management. Fundamental to such an approach is defining the location (mapping) and the characteristics (classification) of the ecosystems, and documenting this within a recognised framework. Classification provides a common language within a structured framework, enabling synthesis and understanding of ecosystems that can be grouped together for different purposes, based on similarity in characteristics. Such an approach can improve our knowledge of the factors that influence the creation, maintenance and quality of habitat. Through the collation of ecological information, classification assists in creating a transparent, scientifically robust and uniform approach that can inform management, decision making and research.


Institutions and research bodies have repeatedly attempted to classify waterholes[16][5][22][5][8]. Despite the considerable amount of research conducted, a clear and consistent definition and classification system is yet to be widely used and accepted. This lack of consistency has led to discrepancies in terminology, confusion within the literature and provided a challenge for management agencies. There is a need for a standardised and comprehensive classification methodology which can be used throughout Queensland for multiple purposes.

Government agencies, research organisations and consulting groups can all utilise the Queensland waterhole classification scheme for various purposes. The purpose of the scheme may change, however the integrity and foundation logic behind it will not. Populating the attributes of the scheme also enables gaps to be identified where more research or data is needed across the state and metrics that are suitable for inventory and collection.


The bulk of the attributes of this classification scheme are at a community level, as the scheme aims to only provide attributes which are relevant to classifying waterholes. Most attributes at the regional and landscape level would be specified in the ANAE, as at that scale their relevance goes across multiple ecosystems and wetlands.

Development and application of attributes

The Scheme was developed using a transparent approach involving consultation with a range of experts (through workshops and correspondence), a technical advisory group and external review. Workshops were undertaken to develop the definition and identify key waterhole attributes, categories and metrics. The Scheme expanded on existing attributes available in the Australia National Aquatic Ecosystem (ANAE) Classification Framework and those identified from the literature[10][18][1][19][8][13].

The Scheme was developed to provide a framework for classifying and typing Queensland waterholes. The Scheme uses a biophysical framework of physical, biological and chemical attributes based on existing attribute-based classification schemes used within Queensland, including:

Many of the key concepts and principles presented in this document are derived from the Queensland Intertidal and Subtidal Ecosystem Classification Scheme. This project was run through the Queensland Wetlands Program with input from other areas within the Queensland Government, Griffith University, The Commonwealth Scientific and Industry Research Organisation and James Cook University.

Mapping and assessment products

The next stage of the classification process is to acquire inventory data. Synthesised inventory data can also be transformed into mapping or assessment products.


  1. ^ a b Aquatic Ecosystems Task Group (2012), Aquatic Ecosystems Toolkit, Module 2: Interim Australian National Aquatic Ecosystem (ANAE) Classification Framework, Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Canberra..
  2. ^ a b Arthington, AH, Balcombe, SR, Wilson, GA, Thoms, MC & Marshall, J (2005), 'Spatial and temporal variation in fish-assemblage structure in isolated waterholes during the 2001 dry season of an arid-zone floodplain river, Cooper Creek, Australia', Marine and Freshwater Research, vol. 56, pp. 25-35, CSIRO.
  3. ^ a b Box, JB, Duguid, A, Read, RE, Kimber, RG, Knapton, A, Davis, J & Bowland, AE (2008), 'Central Australian waterbodies: The importance of permanence in a desert landscape', Journal of Arid Environments, vol. 72, p. 1395, Elsevier Ltd.
  4. ^ Costelloe, J, Shields, A, Grayson, RB & McMahon, TA (2007), 'Determining loss characteristics of arid zone river waterbodies', River Research and Applications. [online], vol. 23, no. 7, pp. 715-731. Available at: Scopus.
  5. ^ a b c Davis, J, Pavlova, A, Thompson, R & Sunnucks, P (2013), 'Evolutionary refugia and ecological refuges: Key concepts for conserving Australian arid zone freshwater biodiversity under climate change', Global Change Biology. [online], vol. 19, no. 7, pp. 1970-1984. Available at: Scopus.
  6. ^ Davis, J (2014), Australian rangelands and climate change – aquatic refugia, Ninti One Limited and University of Canberra, Alice Springs.
  7. ^ Davis, L, Thoms, M, Fellows, C & Bunn, S (2002), 'Physical and ecological associated in dryland refugia: waterholes of Cooper Creek, Australia', Function and Management Implication of Fluvial Sedimentary Systems, vol. 276, p. 77.
  8. ^ a b c Department of Science, ITIDSITI (2015), 'Waterhole refuge mapping and persistence analysis in the Lower Balonne and Barwon-Darling rivers.', Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation., Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation, Queensland.
  9. ^ Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (2008), National Framework and Guidance for Describing the Ecological Character of Australia’s Ramsar Wetlands. Module 2 of the National Guidelines for Ramsar Wetlands: Implementing the Ramsar Convention in Australia.. [online], Australian Government Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Canberra.. Available at:
  10. ^ a b Environmental Protection Agency (2005), Wetland Mapping and Classification Methodology – Overall Framework – A Method to Provide Baseline Mapping and Classification for Wetlands in Queensland, Version 1.2.. [online], Queensland Government, Brisbane, Brisbane. Available at:
  11. ^ Fletcher, WJ, Shaw, J, Gaughan, DJ & Metcalf, SJ (2011), Ecosystem Based Fisheries Management case study report – West Coast Bioregion, vol. Fisheries Research Report No. 225, Department of Fisheries, Western Australia.
  12. ^ Gibling, MR, Nanson, GC & Maroulis, JC (1998), 'Anastomosing river sedimentation in the Channel Country of central Australia', Sedimentology. [online], vol. 45, no. 3, pp. 595-619. Available at: Scopus.
  13. ^ a b Glanville, K, Ryan, T, Tomlinson, M, Muriuki, G, Ronan, M & Pollett, A (2016), 'A Method for Catchment Scale Mapping of Groundwater-Dependent Ecosystems to Support Natural Resource Management (Queensland, Australia)', Environmental management. [online], vol. 57, no. 2, pp. 432-449. Available at: Scopus.
  14. ^ Granek, EF, Polasky, S, Kappel, CV, Reed, DJ, Stoms, DM, Koch, EW, Kennedy, CJ, Cramer, LA, Hacker, SD, Barbier, EB, Aswani, S, Ruckelshaus, M, Perillo, GM, Silliman, BR, Muthiga, N, Bael, D & Wolanski, E (2010), 'Ecosystem services as a common language for coastal ecosystem-based management.', Conservation biology : the journal of the Society for Conservation Biology. [online], vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 207-216. Available at:
  15. ^ Jardine, TD, Pusey, BJ, Hamilton, SK, Pettit, NE, Davies, PM, Douglas, MM, Sinnamon, V, Halliday, IA & Bunn, SE (2012), 'Fish mediate high food web connectivity in the lower reaches of a tropical floodplain river', Oecologia, vol. 168, pp. 829-838.
  16. ^ Knighton, AD & Nanson, GC (2000), 'Waterhole form and process in the anastomosing channel system of Cooper Creek, Australia', Geomorphology. [online], vol. 35, no. 1-2, pp. 101-117. Available at: Scopus.
  17. ^ Medeiros, ESF & Arthington, AH (2008), 'The importance of zooplankton in the diets of three native fish species in floodplain waterholes of a dryland river, the Macintyre River, Australia', Hydrobiologia. [online], vol. 614, no. 1, pp. 19-31. Available at: Scopus.
  18. ^ Mount, R & Prahalad, V (2009), Second National Intertidal Subtidal Benthic Habitat Classification Scheme Workshop Report., Australian Government Department of Climate Change / University of Tasmania.
  19. ^ Neldner, VJ, Wilson, BA, Thompson, EJ & Dillewaard, HA (2012), Methodology for survey and mapping of regional ecosystems and vegetation communities in Queensland. Version 3.2 Updated August 2012., Queensland Herbarium, Queensland Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts, Brisbane.
  20. ^ Sheldon, F, Bunn, SE, Hughes, JM, Arthington, AH, Balcombe, SR & Fellows, CS (2010), 'Ecological roles and threats to aquatic refugia in arid landscapes: dryland river waterholes', Marine and Freshwater Research, vol. 61, p. 885, CSIRO.
  21. ^ Slocombe, DS (1998), 'Lessons from experience with ecosystem-based management', Landscape and Urban Planning. [online], vol. 40, no. 1-3, pp. 31-39. Available at: Scopus.
  22. ^ Warfe, DM, Pettit, NE, Davies, PM, Pusey, BJ, Hamilton, SK, Kennard, MJ, Townsend, SA, Bayliss, P, Ward, DP, Douglas, MM, Burford, MA, Finn, M, Bunn, SE & Halliday, IA (2011), 'The 'wet-dry' in the wet-dry tropics drives river ecosystem structure and processes in northern Australia', Freshwater Biology. [online], vol. 56, no. 11, pp. 2169-2195. Available at: Scopus.

Last updated: 14 January 2020

This page should be cited as:

Department of Environment, Science and Innovation, Queensland (2020) Queensland Waterhole Classification Scheme, WetlandInfo website, accessed 1 February 2024. Available at:

Queensland Government
WetlandInfo   —   Department of Environment, Science and Innovation