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Effects-based physical and chemical stressor guidance

​​​Our default approach for developing guideline values for physical and chemical (PC) stressors uses reference data. Current default guideline values (DGVs) for PC stressors in the Water Quality Guidelines are all reference based.

However, it is valid to develop guideline values for PC stressors using:

Generally, less effort has been put into field-effects and laboratory-effects data approaches for PC stressors in Australia and New Zealand, but two exceptions are national and state efforts to derive toxicity-based guideline values for salinity and low dissolved oxygen.

For PC stressors, field datasets of ecosystem biodiversity and composition from across a range of values or concentrations of the stressor can, where appropriate, be used to develop guideline values.

This approach has been used for salinity in the Fitzroy River Basin and other areas in Queensland (e.g. Horrigan et al. 2005) and for two streams in the Ord River catchment (van Dam et al. 2014). Another example, although not from Australia, is the derivation of a field effects-based water quality benchmark for ionic strength (Cormier & Suter 2013, Cormier et al. 2013).

Users should consider our guidance for deriving guideline values using field-effects data because it is a complex process.

Alternatively, laboratory testing of individual or groups of species can be used to develop dose–response relationships equivalent to those typically used for toxicants, and guideline values can be derived from that dataset.

Considerable research effort in Australia has focused on salinity (e.g. Kefford et al. 2003, Horrigan et al. 2007, Dunlop et al. 2008,  Kefford 2013, Prasad et al. 2014, Dunlop et al. 2015;) and dissolved oxygen (Butler & Burrows 2007, Butler et al. 2007). Although the dissolved oxygen work did not use the species sensitivity distribution (SSD) approach to derive guideline values; instead it used a most-sensitive species-based approach.

Both the field-effects and laboratory data approaches can be used for the same stressor, and some authors (Kefford et al. 2004, Horrigan et al. 2007, van Dam et al. 2014) have found that the field and laboratory test based approaches resulted in generally similar guideline values for salinity.

International consensus that effects-based guideline values are required for salinity is growing, including the need to take ionic composition into account (e.g. Dunlop et al. 2015, Cañedo-Argüelles et al. 2016).

US Environmental Protection Agency released a draft standard based on field-effects data for macroinvertebrates but it’s based on measured electrical conductivity for waters with the salt mixture dominated by calcium, magnesium, sulfate and bicarbonate ions, not for waters dominated by chloride ions (USEPA 2016). That is, it is restricted in terms of applicability to different salt mixtures but, nonetheless, is not based on measured salt concentrations.

This is clearly a developing area, but the efforts so far and future endeavours may result in effects-based guideline values being applied in certain waters, regions or catchments by jurisdictions in Australia and New Zealand.


Butler, B & Burrows, DW 2007, Dissolved Oxygen Guidelines for Freshwater Habitats of Northern Australia, Version 1.0, ACTFR Report No. 07/32, Australian Centre for Tropical Freshwater Research, Townsville.

Butler, B, Burrows, DW & Pearson, RG 2007, Providing Regional NRM with Improved Aquatic Health Risk Assessment and Monitoring Tools: the Nationally Significant Indicator — Dissolved Oxygen, Australian Centre for Tropical Freshwater Research, Townsville.

Cañedo-Argüelles, M, Hawkins, CP, Kefford, BJ, Schäfer, RB, Dyack, BJ, Brucet, S, Buchwalter, D, Dunlop, J, Frör, O, Lazorchak, J, Coring, E, Fernandez, HR, Goodfellow, W, González Achem, AL, Hatfield-Dodds, S, Karimov, BK, Mensah, P, Olson, JR, Piscart, C, Prat, N, Ponsá, S, Schulz, C-J & Timpano, AJ 2016, Saving Freshwater from Salts, Science 351(6276): 914–916.

Cormier SM & Suter II, GW 2013, A Method for Deriving Water-quality Benchmarks using Field Data, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 32(2): 255–262.

Cormier SM, Suter II, GW & Zheng, L 2013, Derivation of a Benchmark for Freshwater Ionic Strength, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 32(2): 263–271.

Dunlop, JE, Kefford, BJ, McNeil, VH, McGregor, GB, Choy, S & Nugegoda, D 2008, A Review of Guideline Development for Suspended Solids and Salinity in Tropical Rivers of Queensland, Australia, Australasian Journal of Ecotoxicology 14(2&3): 129–142.

Dunlop, JE, Mann, RM, Hobbs, D, Smith, REW, Nanjappa, V., Vardy, S & Vink, S 2015, Assessing the Toxicity of Saline Waters: the Importance of Accommodating Surface Water Ionic Composition at the River Basin Scale, Australasian Bulletin of Ecotoxicology and Environmental Chemistry 2: 1–15.

Horrigan, N, Choy, S, Marshall, J & Recknagel, F 2005, Response of Stream Macroinvertebrates to Changes in Salinity and the Development of a Salinity Index, Marine and Freshwater Research 56(6): 825–833.

Horrigan, N, Dunlop, JE, Kefford, BJ & Zavahir, F 2007, Acute Toxicity Largely Reflects the Salinity Sensitivity of Stream Macroinvertebrates Derived using Field Distributions, Marine and Freshwater Research 58(2): 178–186.

Kefford, BJ 2013, Rapid Tests for Community-Level Risk Assessments in Ecotoxicology, in: Férard J-F & Blaise, C (eds), Encyclopedia of Aquatic Ecotoxicology, Springer Netherlands, pp. 957–966.

Kefford, BJ, Paradise, J, Papas, T, Fields, E & Nugegoda, D 2003, Assessment of a System to Predict the Loss of Aquatic Biodiversity from Changes in Salinity,  Land and Water Australia, Canberra.

Kefford, BJ, Papas, PJ, Metzeling, L & Nugegoda, D 2004, Do Laboratory Salinity Tolerances of Freshwater Animals Correspond with their Field Salinity? Environmental Pollution 129(3): 355–362.

Prasad, R, Vink, S & Nanjappa, V 2014, Impact of Salinity and Ionic Composition on Freshwater Macroinvertebrates in the Fitzroy River Catchment, Central Queensland, Australia, Australasian Bulletin of Ecotoxicology and Environmental Chemistry 1: 12–29.

USEPA 2016, Draft Field-based Methods for Developing Aquatic Life Criteria for Specific Conductivity, US Environmental Protection Agency, Washington DC.

Van Dam, RA, Humphrey, CL, Harford, AJ, Sinclair, A, Jones, DR, Davies, S & Storey, AW 2014, Site-specific Water Quality Guidelines: 1. Derivation Approaches based on Physicochemical, Ecotoxicological and Ecological Data, Environmental Science and Pollution Research 21: 118–130.