One key issue around all environmental problems is transparency. If those affected, or those who believe that might be affected by some form of pollution or other environmental degradation are not able to access the full information about the real state of the problem, it is very likely that the gravity of the situation is going to be exaggerated. On the other hand, government environmental departments and industry tend to keep information under a closed lid, apparently for the very reason to prevent exaggeration of the actual situation. This behavior than simply promotes guess work, conspiracy theories, alarmism, and defensiveness on the part of industry.
There are few examples where these problems of transparency are successfully resolved, typically by involving the public directly in monitoring environmental conditions. Surface water quality is a prime example, as it can be monitored easily and cheaply by members of the public (e.g. high school students), who go and take samples, and report results on the main water quality parameters. There are programs like this throughout the world, including one in Sydney called Streamwatch.
This program is funded by the main water supply utility, Sydney Water. Since 1990, this program involved 170 local schools, whose students took part in testing water quality in waterways. However, Sydney Water recently decided to revamp this program, and shift it away from direct public involvement, and into administration of the Australian Museum. The main reasons cited are costs savings (only about $100,000 a year, really peanuts), and potential risks to collectors of samples (I have not heard any reports of any accidents ever happening). So, not very compelling reasons.
While I am sure that the Museum is going to do a good job in testing and reporting water quality with utmost integrity, tarnishing of transparency by cutting the direct involvement of the public is going to be detrimental. People are already starting to ask: Who and why wants to mud the waters?

Author: Tiho Ancev

Tiho Ancev is a Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics in the School of Economics, University of Sydney. His main research areas are agricultural, environmental, natural resource and energy economics. Tiho’s main contributions have been in water economics and policy, economics of energy, economics of air pollution and climate change policies, and economics of precision agriculture and agricultural input use. He has published widely on these topics in top international peer reviewed journals. Tiho has led and contributed to national and international research projects in these research areas. He is currently the Managing Editor-in-Chief of the Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics.