## Abstract

Australian governments have purchased large volumes of water from irrigators to decrease the amount of water diverted for agriculture to improve the health of the Murray River. Irrigation entitlements ‘bought back’ are managed by government agencies and are broadly described as ‘environmental water’. The water reform process, the volume of water bought back from irrigators and the objectives and application of environmental water are all contested by irrigators and local communities. This paper provides the first examination of the social acceptability of environmental water in Australia with a case study of Gunbower Island on the Murray River using a survey of local stakeholders. Most respondents visited Gunbower Island regularly, placed a high value on the island and were committed to maintaining the health of the island. Nevertheless, respondents were more likely to exhibit unfavourable judgements about environmental water. Positive judgements were associated with pro-environmental values, belief in the benefits of environmental water and higher levels of trust in the managing agency. Findings provide insights about how the key agency can improve the social acceptability of environmental water in Gunbower Island, including a greater focus on on-ground work as an opportunity to engage local people in learning and action.

## Introduction

Environmental water is managed to maintain the health of river systems and is a key part of efforts to address degradation resulting from large-scale diversions of river water for agriculture. In this paper, the term ‘environmental water’ refers specifically to water held by government agencies to achieve environmental objectives. Australian governments have typically purchased water entitlements from irrigators. Those entitlements are then held by government agencies and that water is applied to achieve specific objectives, such as maintaining the health of nationally significant assets such as Ramsar wetlands. It is also important to note that any water not used for consumptive purposes (i.e., for irrigation, industry or urban water supplies) is supporting environmental values. As explained below, Australian governments have recognised the need to re-balance the allocation of water supporting consumptive and environmental values, including by purchasing water for the environment (i.e., creating environmental water) and by reducing the entitlements of irrigators in particular regions.

The Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) covers one-seventh of the Australian continent and is the nation's food bowl, contributing 39% of all agricultural production. Much of that production is underpinned by irrigation. Land clearing for agriculture since European settlement around 1830 and the subsequent construction of dams and water diversions for irrigation have led to significant environmental degradation across the MDB. At the time of the development of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (designed to address this degradation, discussed in detail below), 20 of the 23 major river valleys in the Basin were in poor to very poor ecological condition (Murray-Darling Basin Authority, 2010).

While river inflows vary widely from year to year, the mean volume of water that flows in the MDB's waterways is about 32,500 GL (this has varied from under 7,000 to more than 118,000 depending on climatic conditions). Before the water reform process that led to reduced entitlements for irrigators and the purchase of additional entitlements to establish environmental water, water diversions averaged about 11,000 GL a year (80–90% of this was used for irrigated agriculture, depending on seasonal conditions and water allocations) (Murray Darling Basin Authority, 2017). As at the end of 2017, the total amount of environmental water recovered was 2,106.5 GL (Australian Government, 2017). This water is now managed to improve the health of the river ecosystem (i.e., as environmental water or environmental flows).

The timeline of events and decisions taken as part of water reform in the MDB (key steps are identified in the next paragraph) suggest that stakeholder judgements about the acceptability of environmental water had an important impact on water reform outcomes (Crase et al., 2013). As explained below, there is evidence that local stakeholder concerns forced governments to undertake lengthy consultations, scale back the extent water was to be returned to the environment and limit the future use of cost-effective buy-backs.

Widespread concern about the health of the Murray River led to a series of policy initiatives, broadly termed ‘water reform’, beginning with a cap on water diversions at 1994 levels (Nevill, 2009). In 2003, the Living Murray Initiative (a $650 million AUD investment) was established to recover 500 GL of water from consumptive use through water recovery projects (e.g., improved on-farm efficiency), water buy-backs and regulatory changes. In 2007, the Australian Parliament passed the Water Act of 2007 which, among other things, established the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA). The MDBA was charged with developing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (The Plan). The Plan would establish sustainable diversion limits (SDL) for each major catchment and the MDB overall, and then move to recover water to achieve the SDL, principally by purchasing water from willing sellers (i.e., irrigators). The MDBA consulted with stakeholders as part of development of The Plan, including when The Guide to the Proposed Basin Plan was released (Crase et al., 2011). The Draft Plan specified that the additional surface water required to achieve desired environmental outcomes was between 3,000 and 7,600 GL. After considering the socio-economic impacts of the proposed reforms, the MDBA determined that scenarios of 3,000, 3,500 and 4,000 GL/y would be considered. These scenarios proposed reductions in diversions of between 22% and 37% (Murray-Darling Basin Authority, 2010). These proposals were met with strident criticism, protests and lobbying by irrigators. Part of their concern was that the proposed buy-backs would exacerbate ongoing trends of population and service decline in many irrigation districts. The reaction of irrigators and irrigation communities was severe and very public, with copies of The Guide burnt in the streets of some regional towns. As a result of the backlash, the Australian Government launched an inquiry that recommended a reorientation away from buy-backs towards environmental works and the use of water efficiency measures, despite economic analysis suggesting buy-backs were far more efficient (Crase et al., 2013). Amidst this turmoil, the then Water Minister suggested the MDBA might reconsider the SDL and the Chairman of the MDBA resigned, stating he would not oversee a Plan that returned less than 3,000 GL of water to the environment (Crase et al., 2011; Kiem, 2013). The Guide was revised and when the Draft Plan was released, the SDL had been altered to achieve a reduction in diversions of 2,750 GL, with at least 600 GL to be recovered through infrastructure efficiency improvements. A year later, The Draft Plan was again revised following public concerns. There is ongoing debate about the extent of negative social and economic impacts as a result of water recovery for the environment (Crase et al., 2013; Tim Cummins and Associates & Frontier Economics, 2017). Ongoing controversy surrounding the sourcing of environmental water and the high level of investment of public funds (over$10 billion AUD in total) means that environmental watering will continue to come under intense scrutiny by irrigators and environmental interests (Crase et al., 2011). Concerns expressed by farmers and local stakeholders about the absence of scientific evidence to support environmental flows have been echoed to some extent (or, at least, not allayed) by recent statements by scientists. For example, recent reviews have highlighted that only some ecological objectives are likely to be met and that artificial flooding carries ecological risks as well as benefits (Pittock et al., 2013; Bond et al., 2014; Humphries et al., 2015). These views are likely to add to the level of doubt or uncertainty about the practice and feed into judgements about social acceptability.

As explained above, the scale and intensity of local stakeholder concerns forced governments to undertake lengthy consultations, scale back the extent water was to be returned to the environment and limit the future use of the cost-effective buy-backs and attempt to achieve water savings through more expensive investments in system-wide and on-farm irrigation infrastructure and works to improve the outcomes of applying environmental water in specific icon sites (discussed below) (Crase et al., 2013). It is therefore timely to examine the level of social acceptability of environmental water in Australia. This is the first research examining the social acceptability of environmental watering in Australia using a case study approach and the approach adopted should have wider relevance given the large investment of public funds in environmental watering in Australia and the high level of public scrutiny of the policy, partly in response to the assumed trade-offs in terms of reduced farm, industry and community viability. This paper examines social acceptability of environmental watering through a case study of Gunbower Island on the Murray River. The key research questions included: what is the level of social acceptability of environmental watering of Gunbower Creek and Forest among the local community; do judgements of acceptability vary across different stakeholder groups; and what factors influence acceptability judgements.

### Case study site: Gunbower Island

Six ‘icon sites’ along the Murray River were selected to receive environmental water as part of the Living Murray Initiative of 2003 (see Introduction). These sites were selected for their high ecological and cultural value, with each site being recognised under international agreements (Murray-Darling Basin Authority, 2011).

The forest on Gunbower Island is part of the larger Gunbower–Koondrook–Perricoota icon site. The Gunbower Island Forest is recognised under the Ramsar Convention (an intergovernmental treaty regarding the conservation of wetlands). The Gunbower Island Forest is located within Australia's largest inland island (Gunbower Island) and covers about 20,000 hectares along the Murray River floodplain in northern Victoria, about 250 km north of Melbourne (Figure 1). Cohuna (population 2,313), Koondrook (population 769), Gunbower (population 527) and Leitchville (population 247) are the main towns on the southern side of the island in the state of Victoria, Australia.

Fig. 1.

Gunbower Island Forest, in the south-eastern state of Victoria, Australia.

Fig. 1.

Gunbower Island Forest, in the south-eastern state of Victoria, Australia.

Gunbower Island has a variety of permanent and temporary wetlands, including lakes, swamps, lagoons and flooded forest. These wetlands provide habitat for endangered and internationally important species. Gunbower Island Forest comprises the second largest river red gum forest in Australia (Hale & Butcher, 2011).

Gunbower has great significance for Aboriginal people, with shell middens, scar trees, earthen mounds with the remnants of clay campfires and burial sites. Gunbower also has a rich European heritage, including logging and sawmilling, boatbuilding and resin collecting. Gunbower is an important place for recreation such as canoeing, walking, fishing, bird watching and hunting and is an important drawcard for visitors. Gunbower is also used for firewood collection and the forestry industry. Most of the land adjacent to the southern and western boundaries of Gunbower is privately owned and has been cleared for agriculture, principally for stock grazing, including dairying.

River regulation and irrigation diversions have resulted in reduced frequency and duration of flooding of Gunbower. There has been a reduction in the extent of flood-dependent understorey and a shift towards less flood-tolerant vegetation types. Reduced flooding has also resulted in the loss of permanent wetlands and a reduction in other wetlands types. Lack of flooding has impacted on floodplain productivity and connectivity and extended periods between large flow events has limited breeding opportunities for birds (Cooling & SKM, 2012). There are other threatening processes impacting Gunbower Island Forest, including pest animals, invasive weeds and off-road driving damaging native vegetation.

The North Central Catchment Management Authority (NC CMA) is responsible for managing environmental watering of Gunbower. CMAs are regional bodies with management responsibilities for regional waterways, floodplains, drainage and environmental water. As part of that role, CMAs suggest activities to be implemented each year through a seasonal watering programme. The Victorian Environmental Water Holder (VEWH) (which holds environmental water entitlements in Victoria) then determines the amount of environmental water to be released and where that water is applied. Additional water can be sourced from the Australian Government's Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH).

### Background

In this section we explain the key theoretical constructs used to explore judgements by the local community about the social acceptability of environmental water in Gunbower Island Forest. We begin with an introduction to the concept of social acceptability.

#### Social acceptability

Social acceptability judgements are focused on the extent practices in question are appropriate, preferred, desirable, supported or tolerated by an identifiable and politically relevant segment of the population (Shindler et al., 2004). The social acceptability of policies, management options and behaviours have been explored in a range of natural resource management (NRM) contexts internationally, including forestry (Ford et al., 2009; Shindler et al., 2011) and management of wildlife and invasive species (Bruskotter et al., 2009; Koichi et al., 2013), among others.

Research suggests that social acceptability is influenced directly by beliefs, stakeholder identity and trust (Brunson & Shindler, 2004; Dietz et al., 2007; Bruskotter et al., 2009). Values (i.e., guiding principles) are more likely to have an indirect influence on social acceptability (see discussion of VBN, below) (Dietz et al., 2007).

Social acceptability has been measured in a number of ways. Most approaches involve researchers listing different management actions and asking respondents to rate the acceptability of these or their agreement with them (Brunson & Shindler, 2004; Shindler et al., 2011). For example, Brunson & Shindler (2004) included trade-off questions in their survey examining the social acceptability of different forest management practices. In other settings, an overall measure of the acceptability for a type or category of action has been employed (Bruskotter et al., 2009; Koichi et al., 2013).

#### Value-Belief-Norm theory

This research drew on aspects of Value-Belief-Norm (VBN) theory, which purports to provide a coherent framework for those examining the influence of social-psychological factors on environmental behaviour (Dietz et al., 2007). VBN theory assumes that positive environmental behaviour is more likely if the individual believes that there may be adverse consequences for something they value highly. That is, behaviour is derived from the core elements of personality and belief structures. These inform people's specific beliefs about human–environmental interactions, consequences and an individual's responsibility for taking action. VBN theory proposes a chain of elements, with one component influencing the next. The elements of VBN theory include values, beliefs (awareness of consequences or does the condition of the asset affect you, others or the environment; ascribed responsibility beliefs; and general environmental concern), personal norms and behaviour (Stern et al., 1999). The development of VBN theory focused on values and beliefs about environmental consequences based on three broad value orientations: biospheric (concerns about the biosphere), altruistic (concern for others) and egoistic (concern for self). Our items and measures are detailed in the Methods section, under Variables and measures.

Those broad value orientations (i.e., ‘held values’) are typically distinguished from ‘assigned values’. Held values are ideas or principles that people hold as important to them (Lockwood, 1999) and are generally highly abstract, generic and conceptual, but guide personal action (McIntyre et al., 2008). Assigned values are those that individuals attach to specific physical goods, activities or services (Lockwood, 1999). Our survey items exploring these topics are detailed in the Methods section, under Variables and measures.

#### Trust and trustworthiness

Trust is an integral part of social acceptability judgements (Shindler et al., 2011; Huijts et al., 2012). In NRM contexts, trust is defined as ‘the willingness to be vulnerable to another’ and is central to social acceptability (Sharp et al., 2013). Trust can play a particularly important role when people know little about a technology or practice. In these cases, trust can act as a heuristic and acceptance can depend on trust in the actors responsible for implementing the policy, programme or practice (Dietz et al., 2007; Huijts et al., 2012). Indeed, trust can allow managers to operate even in the face of low public salience and high levels of uncertainty about benefits and costs (Shindler et al., 2011). Low levels of trust in managing agencies have been noted in previous studies about social acceptability. For example, in their study of fire management, Shindler et al. (2011) found trust in agency competence to be the most highly correlated factor in acceptance of each management practice.

Research suggests that trust (i.e., willingness to rely on another) is based on positive expectations that the other party will fulfil its obligations in the relationship (i.e., trust is based on perceptions of trustworthiness) (Mayer et al., 1995). Mayer et al. (1995) state that trustworthiness is thought to comprise three characteristics, including: trustor perceptions of the trustee's knowledge, skills and competencies (ability); the extent to which a trustor believes that a trustee will act in the best interest of the trustor (benevolence); and the extent to which the trustor perceives the trustee as acting in accord with values and norms shared with or acceptable to the trustor, or acts consistently with the values the trustee espouses (integrity). Our survey items are detailed in the Methods section, under variables and measures.

#### Stakeholder groups

For this research we drew on the community types framework developed by Harrington et al. (2008) to ensure coverage of the range of locally based stakeholder groups. According to that framework, stakeholders may include communities of: place (located within and outside specific political, social or physical boundaries, e.g., residents in adjacent towns); communities of interest (i.e., bound together by shared interests or concerns, e.g., conservation groups); communities of practice (i.e., structured around an activity or common practice, e.g., farmers); and communities of identity (e.g., Aboriginal people).

## Methods

### Data collection

Data collection was undertaken in three phases: a workshop with NC CMA staff; qualitative interviews with selected key informants; and a survey of local residents on the Victorian (southern) side of Gunbower Island. The findings presented in this paper draw upon the survey of local residents. Each survey was hand delivered to 499 randomly selected households out of an estimated 1,325 houses in the towns of Cohuna, Leitchville, Koondrook and Gunbower and surrounding rural areas in September 2014 (i.e., one-third of households). A sample of 499 was selected to ensure data obtained were representative (30% of all households in the study area surveyed), and with an assumed response rate of 60%, we calculated that there would be sufficient respondents for identified cohorts (e.g., farmers) to achieve statistically robust analyses (i.e., >50 cases per cohort).

The research team employed a local resident to conduct the letter box drop. The local resident hand-delivered a survey to every third house unless a house was unoccupied. Surveys were alternatively addressed to the male or female resident in each dwelling. The survey was placed in the household's letter box or near the door if no letter box was available. The research team did not attempt to make direct contact with each recipient unless approached or the opportunity presented itself.

The eight-page survey booklet was developed with topics selected on the basis of preliminary interviews with key stakeholder representatives, a workshop with NC CMA staff and the theory introduced above. The surveys were delivered inside an envelope that included the survey, a cover letter and a stamped return envelope. After the initial letter box drop of surveys, three reminder notices were delivered over successive weeks. After taking into consideration the small number of declines for which there was a reasonable explanation (e.g., illness or absence for vacation) an adjusted response rate of 58% was achieved (N = 279).

We acknowledge that there is potential for non-respondent bias with surveys. It was not possible to compare non-respondents and respondents using another data set. With close to a 60% response rate and a sample of approximately 30% of all town and rural households, we are confident that survey data are representative of the wider population in the local district surrounding Gunbower Forest.

### Variables and measures

To assess social acceptability of environmental water, survey respondents were asked to indicate the extent they agreed with the statement: The overall social, economic and environmental benefits of applying environmental water will outweigh any negative impacts associated with applying that water. This statement is consistent with the definition of social acceptability as an evaluative judgement (Brunson & Shindler, 2004; Huijts et al., 2012). The item required respondents to weigh the relative importance of social, economic and environmental impacts. We deliberately adopted that strategy and believe that citizens make this type of judgement on a range of topics, including, for example, their choice of candidates at elections. Respondents were invited to select from one of six Likert-type qualitative response options, including strongly disagree (1), disagree (2), not sure (3), agree (4), strongly agree (5) and not applicable/don't know (6). Respondents who selected the not applicable/don't know option were excluded from the multiple regression (ordinary least squares (OLS)) analysis presented later in this paper.

As explained earlier, we drew on parts of VBN theory. Assigned values relating to Gunbower were assessed using items covering intrinsic, use, non-use, environmental and cultural values. To explore the influence of held values (guiding principles), the survey employed the 12-item scale developed by de Groot & Steg (2007) adapted from Schwartz's value typology that distinguishes between biospheric, egoistic and altruistic values (Schwartz, 1994). Two items exploring respondents' personal norms were included, which followed the format used by Stern et al. (1999). A number of items measuring respondents' belief in climate change and environmental water were also included in the survey.

The preliminary stakeholder interviews highlighted a number of important concerns regarding environmental water, and a number of items were included in the survey to explore those concerns. For example, there appeared to be concern about the potential for the application of environmental water to reduce access to Gunbower, spread aquatic weeds and contribute to blackwater events (i.e., de-oxygenation of water due to microbial growth caused by increased levels of organic material). Interviews also identified concerns about the NC CMA's willow removal programme (willow is an introduced species in Australia and is classified as a weed), which appeared to affect levels of trust in the NC CMA.

One survey item explored respondents' level of trust in the NC CMA and three items to measure respondents' judgements about the trustworthiness (i.e., ability, benevolence and integrity) of the NC CMA. These items followed the format used by Sharp et al. (2013).

To address community heterogeneity, survey items asked respondents to provide information about group membership, occupation, identity (Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander) and the activities they undertook in Gunbower (e.g., walking, timber cutting). That information enabled the research team to classify respondents using the Harrington et al. (2008) community types. Due to the very limited number of respondents who identified as Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander, identity is not discussed further in this paper.

### Data analysis

Statistical analyses applied to the survey data included pairwise comparisons, comparison between groups and multiple regression. Not applicable and missing responses were removed for the statistical analyses. Kruskal–Wallis rank sum tests were used to test for differences on a continuous variable or a Likert scale variable (e.g., acceptability) based on a grouping variable (e.g., farmer/non-farmer). Spearman's rho was used to test for similarity between social acceptability and numeric or Likert scale items. Spearman's rho provides a coefficient, which indicates the strength of the relationship between the variables. The coefficient can range from between 0 (no relationship) and 1 (a perfect relationship).

We used OLS regression to estimate models to explore factors influencing social acceptability of environmental water. Multicollinearity was tested for using variance inflation factors (VIF). All VIF scores were below 2, indicating that multicollinearity was not an issue to be addressed. We drew upon a framework presented by Dietz et al. (2007) (the context for their framework was public acceptance of climate change policy). In their model, consistent with VBN, values were positioned causally antecedent to general and specific beliefs and attitudes. One held value and one assigned value were included in our model. Trust is affected by values and is predictive of attitudes (Dietz et al., 2007; Huijts et al., 2012). We therefore included trust as the next item in our conceptual model, followed by specific beliefs about environmental water and climate change. The norms component of VBN was not included in our causal chain as bivariate comparisons showed only a very weak association between our norm measure and acceptability. Acceptability is our dependent variable and last in the causal chain. We regressed each variable on all variables further down our model. This strategy tests for direct effects of the variables hypothesised to affect the subsequent variable in the chain, as well as testing whether variables also exert direct effects on variables farther down the chain when intermediate variables are controlled.

## Results

### What is the level of social acceptability of environmental water?

Results indicate that survey respondents were more likely to judge environmental water as being unacceptable than as being acceptable. More respondents (36%) disagreed with the statement The overall social, economic and environmental benefits of applying environmental water will outweigh any negative impacts associated with applying that water (a negative acceptability judgement), than agreed (24%) (Table 1). Over a third of respondents selected the ‘not sure’ option.

Table 1.

The social acceptability of environmental water in Gunbower Island, 2014 (n = 272, N = 279).

Negative judgement (unacceptable) Positive judgement (acceptable)

Mean Strongly disagree Disagree Not sure Agree Strongly agree NA/Don't know
The overall social, economic and environmental benefits of applying environmental water will outweigh any negative impacts associated with applying that water 2.8 14% 22% 36% 15% 9% 4%
Negative judgement (unacceptable) Positive judgement (acceptable)

Mean Strongly disagree Disagree Not sure Agree Strongly agree NA/Don't know
The overall social, economic and environmental benefits of applying environmental water will outweigh any negative impacts associated with applying that water 2.8 14% 22% 36% 15% 9% 4%

With a substantial proportion of respondents selecting ‘not sure’ (column 3) response option, we compared those who were ‘not sure’ with those who were ‘accepting/positive’ (agreed or strongly agreed, columns 4 or 5) and those who were ‘unaccepting/negative’ (disagreed or strongly disagreed, columns 1 or 2). Those analyses suggest that respondents who selected ‘not sure’ are more similar in terms of their values to those with positive acceptability judgements for environmental water in Gunbower Island (Table 2) than those with negative acceptability judgements (significant differences for eight out of 20 topics included in the survey between the ‘not sure’ and ‘negative’ cohort). The ‘not sure’ cohort were significantly different from both the ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ groups with regards to trust in the NC CMA and assessments of trustworthiness of the NC CMA (significant differences for all four items included in the survey), most beliefs about environmental watering (six out of seven possible items) and one of two belief items included in the survey exploring climate change beliefs, sitting between the two other groups, giving more positive ratings than the ‘negative’ cohort, but less positive rating than the ‘positive’ cohort. The ‘not sure’ cohort was more likely than the negative cohort to agree that human activities were causing climate change.

Table 2.

Comparing the ‘not sure’ (n = 90–98) to those who gave a positive judgement (agree, strongly agree) (n = 58–65) and negative judgement (disagree, strongly disagree) (n = 85–98).

Topic Item Mean values Not sure compared to negative Not sure compared to positive
Attached values Provides habitat for rare and endangered species, such as the Giant Banjo Frog, Intermediate Egret, fish and native grasses and herbs Negative judgement: 3.8; Not sure: 4.3; Positive judgement: 4.7 P = 0.001 P = 0.036
A place to learn about the environment Negative judgement: 3.6; Not sure: 4.2 P = 0.014
A place to connect with nature Negative judgement: 3.7; Not sure: 4.2; Positive judgement: 4.4 P = 0.032
Supports migratory bird populations Negative judgement: 3.8; Not sure: 4.4 P < 0.001
Sustains life for many plants and animals Negative judgement: 4; Not sure: 4.4 P < 0.001
A place for European heritage Negative judgement: 2.8; Not sure: 3.3 P = 0.037
Is important to local Aboriginal people because of their connection to Gunbower Island Negative judgement: 2.8; Not sure: 3.7 P < 0.001
Helps with flood mitigation Negative judgement: 3.2; Not sure: 3.7; Positive judgement: 4.1 P = 0.032
Trust and trustworthiness assessments The NC CMA keeps the interests of our community in mind when making decisions about managing the application of environmental water in Gunbower Island Negative judgement: 1.9; Not sure: 3; Positive judgement: 3.7 P < 0.001 P = 0.002
Sound principles guide NC CMA decisions about the management of Gunbower Island Negative judgement: 2; Not sure: 3; Positive judgement: 3.7 P < 0.001 P = 0.003
The NC CMA is very knowledgeable about the environment of Gunbower Island Negative judgement: 1.9; Not sure: 2.9; Positive judgement: 3.6 P < 0.001 P = 0.003
I can rely on the NC CMA to manage water flows to improve the condition of Gunbower Island Negative judgement: 2; Not sure: 3; Positive judgement: 3.8 P < 0.001 P = 0.001
Willow removal Disturbance caused by willow removal is justified by long-term benefits for the environment Negative judgement: 2.4; Not sure: 3; Positive judgement: 3.6 P = 0.006 P = 0.042
Environmental watering beliefs Additional water being provided as part of environmental watering will improve the environmental health of the island Negative judgement: 2; Not sure: 3.3; Positive judgement: 4.3 P < 0.001 P < 0.001
The application of environmental water will help rare and endangered species survive Negative judgement: 2.3; Not sure: 3.4; Positive judgement: 4.3 P < 0.001 P < 0.001
The application of environmental water will limit my choices and personal freedom in how I use Gunbower Island Negative judgement: 3.9; Not sure: 3.3; Positive judgement: 2.7 P = 0.047 P = 0.001
Limitations on access to Gunbower Island during environmental watering will be acceptable if reasonable notification is given of changes to access Negative judgement: 2.6; Not sure: 3.6 P < 0.001
The application of environmental water will moderate the impacts of the expected increase in the frequency and severity of droughts on Gunbower Island Negative judgement: 2.1; Not sure: 3.2; Positive judgement: 4 P < 0.001 P < 0.001
If no action is taken in the next decade to provide additional environmental water the condition of Gunbower Island will deteriorate Negative judgement: 2; Not sure: 3.1; Positive judgement: 4.1 P < 0.001 P < 0.001
Climate change beliefs Human activities are influencing changes in climate Negative judgement: 2.4; Not sure: 3.4 P < 0.001
Climate change will lead to increased drying out of Gunbower Island Negative judgement: 1.9; Not sure: 2.8; Positive judgement: 3.4 P < 0.001 P = 0.014
Topic Item Mean values Not sure compared to negative Not sure compared to positive
Attached values Provides habitat for rare and endangered species, such as the Giant Banjo Frog, Intermediate Egret, fish and native grasses and herbs Negative judgement: 3.8; Not sure: 4.3; Positive judgement: 4.7 P = 0.001 P = 0.036
A place to learn about the environment Negative judgement: 3.6; Not sure: 4.2 P = 0.014
A place to connect with nature Negative judgement: 3.7; Not sure: 4.2; Positive judgement: 4.4 P = 0.032
Supports migratory bird populations Negative judgement: 3.8; Not sure: 4.4 P < 0.001
Sustains life for many plants and animals Negative judgement: 4; Not sure: 4.4 P < 0.001
A place for European heritage Negative judgement: 2.8; Not sure: 3.3 P = 0.037
Is important to local Aboriginal people because of their connection to Gunbower Island Negative judgement: 2.8; Not sure: 3.7 P < 0.001
Helps with flood mitigation Negative judgement: 3.2; Not sure: 3.7; Positive judgement: 4.1 P = 0.032
Trust and trustworthiness assessments The NC CMA keeps the interests of our community in mind when making decisions about managing the application of environmental water in Gunbower Island Negative judgement: 1.9; Not sure: 3; Positive judgement: 3.7 P < 0.001 P = 0.002
Sound principles guide NC CMA decisions about the management of Gunbower Island Negative judgement: 2; Not sure: 3; Positive judgement: 3.7 P < 0.001 P = 0.003
The NC CMA is very knowledgeable about the environment of Gunbower Island Negative judgement: 1.9; Not sure: 2.9; Positive judgement: 3.6 P < 0.001 P = 0.003
I can rely on the NC CMA to manage water flows to improve the condition of Gunbower Island Negative judgement: 2; Not sure: 3; Positive judgement: 3.8 P < 0.001 P = 0.001
Willow removal Disturbance caused by willow removal is justified by long-term benefits for the environment Negative judgement: 2.4; Not sure: 3; Positive judgement: 3.6 P = 0.006 P = 0.042
Environmental watering beliefs Additional water being provided as part of environmental watering will improve the environmental health of the island Negative judgement: 2; Not sure: 3.3; Positive judgement: 4.3 P < 0.001 P < 0.001
The application of environmental water will help rare and endangered species survive Negative judgement: 2.3; Not sure: 3.4; Positive judgement: 4.3 P < 0.001 P < 0.001
The application of environmental water will limit my choices and personal freedom in how I use Gunbower Island Negative judgement: 3.9; Not sure: 3.3; Positive judgement: 2.7 P = 0.047 P = 0.001
Limitations on access to Gunbower Island during environmental watering will be acceptable if reasonable notification is given of changes to access Negative judgement: 2.6; Not sure: 3.6 P < 0.001
The application of environmental water will moderate the impacts of the expected increase in the frequency and severity of droughts on Gunbower Island Negative judgement: 2.1; Not sure: 3.2; Positive judgement: 4 P < 0.001 P < 0.001
If no action is taken in the next decade to provide additional environmental water the condition of Gunbower Island will deteriorate Negative judgement: 2; Not sure: 3.1; Positive judgement: 4.1 P < 0.001 P < 0.001
Climate change beliefs Human activities are influencing changes in climate Negative judgement: 2.4; Not sure: 3.4 P < 0.001
Climate change will lead to increased drying out of Gunbower Island Negative judgement: 1.9; Not sure: 2.8; Positive judgement: 3.4 P < 0.001 P = 0.014

### Do judgements of social acceptability vary across local stakeholders?

Tests revealed significant differences in the acceptability of environmental water in Gunbower Island between community types and between interest groups. For example, between farmers (more negative judgement) and non-farmers (more positive judgement); between rural residents (more negative judgement) and town residents (more positive judgement); between those who had not been involved in bird watching (more negative judgement) and bird-watchers (more positive judgement); and between those who had not walked on Gunbower Island (more negative judgement) and those who had (more positive judgement) (Table 3). The reader is advised that the non-town/farmer groups, and town/non-farmer groups overlapped. Ninety per cent of town-based respondents were non-farmers and 71% of non-town respondents were farmers.

Table 3.

The social acceptability of environmental water on Gunbower, 2014 (n = 270, N = 279).

Stakeholder group Negative judgement (unaccepting) Positive judgement (accepting)

Strongly disagree Disagree Not sure Agree Strongly agree NA/Don't know Mean P value
Non-farmer (n = 203) 10% 21% 37% 18% 10% 4% 0.005
Farmer (n = 57) 25% 23% 35% 7% 7% 4% 2.5
Town (n = 218) 11% 22% 37% 17% 9% 4% 2.9 0.01
Non-town (n = 54) 24% 24% 33% 9% 6% 4% 2.5
Bird-watching (n = 106) 12% 18% 34% 21% 13% 2% 0.02
Non-bird watching (n = 151) 13% 25% 39% 11% 6% 6% 2.7
Walking (n = 193) 8% 21% 38% 19% 10% 4% <0.001
Non-walking (n = 69) 26% 25% 35% 4% 6% 4% 2.4
Stakeholder group Negative judgement (unaccepting) Positive judgement (accepting)

Strongly disagree Disagree Not sure Agree Strongly agree NA/Don't know Mean P value
Non-farmer (n = 203) 10% 21% 37% 18% 10% 4% 0.005
Farmer (n = 57) 25% 23% 35% 7% 7% 4% 2.5
Town (n = 218) 11% 22% 37% 17% 9% 4% 2.9 0.01
Non-town (n = 54) 24% 24% 33% 9% 6% 4% 2.5
Bird-watching (n = 106) 12% 18% 34% 21% 13% 2% 0.02
Non-bird watching (n = 151) 13% 25% 39% 11% 6% 6% 2.7
Walking (n = 193) 8% 21% 38% 19% 10% 4% <0.001
Non-walking (n = 69) 26% 25% 35% 4% 6% 4% 2.4

### Strong local connection with and commitment to Gunbower

The environmental values of Gunbower are important for most respondents, and most respondents indicated a personal commitment to being involved in the management of Gunbower. For example, the median level of visitation was 16 times per year. Almost all respondents (93% rated important/very important) agreed that it was important to Preserve Gunbower for future generations (second highest ranked value statement behind A place for recreation) and 82% rated Gunbower as being important/very important because it sustains life for many plants and animals. Almost all respondents (93%) agreed that It is important that people in the community play a part in protecting Gunbower Island, over half (59%) agreed I feel a moral obligation to take action as an individual to protect Gunbower Island (personal norm), over half (58%) agreed I feel a moral obligation to take action as part of a group to protect Gunbower Island. There was also acknowledgement of the links between a healthy Gunbower and a healthy and viable community, including by supporting tourism. Most (82%) respondents agreed or strongly agreed that A healthy Gunbower Island improves the wellbeing of local people. Over half (61%) agreed that Projects that improve the environmental health of Gunbower Island will lead to increased tourism and tourist income for the local community.

### What factors influence social acceptability judgements?

We conducted a series of OLS regression models to explore what factors influence social acceptability judgements. In our final model, environmental water beliefs, climate change beliefs, trust and attached values were all significant positive predictors of the acceptability of environmental water. The level of visitation to Gunbower was also a significant positive predictor on the acceptability model. A highly satisfactory 71% of the variance was explained by the final model (Table 4).

Table 4.

OLS regression modelling results*.

Attached value Trust Climate change belief Environmental water belief Social acceptability
Biospheric held value: Respecting the earth and living in harmony with other species 0.41 (<0.001) 0.14 0.16 (0.045) 0.00 0.05
Attached value: Provides habitat for rare and endangered species   0.39 (<0.001) 0.04 0.12 0.11 (0.054)
Trust: I can rely on the NC CMA to manage water flows to improve the condition of Gunbower Island     0.42 (<0.001) 0.43 (<0.001) 0.24 (0.000)
Climate change belief: Climate change will lead to increased drying out of Gunbower Island       0.33 (<0.001) 0.14 (0.018)
Environmental water belief: Additional water being provided as part of environmental watering will improve the environmental health of the island         0.50 (< 0.000)
Number of times visited Gunbower past year − 0.02 − 0.05 − 0.05 0.06 0.11 (0.017)
Adjusted R2 and p value 16% p < 0.001  20% p < 0.001 25% p < 0.001 50% p < 0.001 71% p < 0.001
Attached value Trust Climate change belief Environmental water belief Social acceptability
Biospheric held value: Respecting the earth and living in harmony with other species 0.41 (<0.001) 0.14 0.16 (0.045) 0.00 0.05
Attached value: Provides habitat for rare and endangered species   0.39 (<0.001) 0.04 0.12 0.11 (0.054)
Trust: I can rely on the NC CMA to manage water flows to improve the condition of Gunbower Island     0.42 (<0.001) 0.43 (<0.001) 0.24 (0.000)
Climate change belief: Climate change will lead to increased drying out of Gunbower Island       0.33 (<0.001) 0.14 (0.018)
Environmental water belief: Additional water being provided as part of environmental watering will improve the environmental health of the island         0.50 (< 0.000)
Number of times visited Gunbower past year − 0.02 − 0.05 − 0.05 0.06 0.11 (0.017)
Adjusted R2 and p value 16% p < 0.001  20% p < 0.001 25% p < 0.001 50% p < 0.001 71% p < 0.001

*Statistically significant results (p value <0.05) are highlighted in bold, p value is shown in brackets.

As suggested by theory, acceptability of environmental water in Gunbower Island appears to be grounded in the values of survey respondents. Examination of the different models revealed that held values had an indirect influence on social acceptability. Pro-environment held values (i.e., guiding principles) were positively associated with pro-environment assigned values (i.e., importance of specific environment elements). In turn, assigned values were positively associated with increased levels of trust in the managing agency (i.e., NC CMA). Trust was then positively associated with belief in climate change. It is noteworthy that the held value included in the modelling also had a direct influence on belief in climate change. The trust and climate change belief items both had a positive influence on belief in environmental water.

As part of our data analysis, pairwise comparisons were used to explore relationships between the acceptability measure and other survey items. Those results provide some additional insights that we suggest have implications for managers of environmental water in Gunbower Island. For example, more negative social acceptability judgements were associated with increased concerns about restricted access to Gunbower Forest during environmental water events (Spearman's rho, rs −0.4, p < 0.001), increased concern about blackwater events associated with the application of environmental water (rs −0.2, p < 0.001), and lower levels of trust in and assessments of the trustworthiness of the NC CMA (rs 0.6, p < 0.001). A programme of willow removal undertaken prior to the environmental water programme and also implemented by the NC CMA had been controversial. Greater concern about willow removal was associated with more negative assessments of the acceptability of environmental water (rs −0.4, p < 0.001).

## Discussion

There is a body of social acceptability literature examining acceptability judgements in various NRM contexts, but none of the application of environmental water in Australia. The Gunbower Island study is therefore important both in terms of the results and approach employed. With 71% of the variance in the social acceptability measure explained by the variables included, there is ground for confidence that key influences in this case have been identified.

The theoretical framework underpinning this study assumed that acceptability judgements of environmental water among local people would be grounded in their held values (deeply held guiding principles) (Lockwood, 1999). In this study, held values had an indirect influence on social acceptability through relationships between those items and other variables. In this case, those variables were the values attached (i.e., assigned) to a particular object or place, beliefs (in this case about environmental water and climate change) and judgements of the trust and trustworthiness of the managing agency. The level of visitation was also linked to acceptability judgements.

It is widely assumed that assigned values are less stable than held values, and being more site specific, are a potentially useful ‘lever’ for those setting out to encourage positive environmental attitudes and behaviours (McIntyre et al., 2008). We explore this suggestion further in the conclusions section below. The finding of a direct relationship between attached values and acceptability judgements (compared to the indirect links for held values) suggests that other researchers exploring social acceptability of environmental strategies and policies should include measures of assigned values.

The importance of trust (and trustworthiness) as an influence on acceptability in the Gunbower Island case study is consistent with previous research in NRM contexts (Dietz et al., 2007; Shindler et al., 2011). That earlier research illustrated the extent that high levels of public trust can allow agencies to continue to operate in the face of uncertainty which is increasingly accepted as the key condition of the environmental water context (Bond et al., 2014).

In other settings, stakeholder identification has been an important influence on social acceptability judgements (Bruskotter et al., 2009; Ford et al., 2009; Koichi et al., 2013). In the Gunbower Island study, it seems concerns about the negative economic impacts of water-buyback have shaped the acceptability judgements of some stakeholders. For example, farmers were more likely than non-farmers to have negative assessments of environmental water.

## Conclusions

The analysis of the 2014 survey of local residents on the southern (Victorian side) of Gunbower Island showed that more respondents judged the application of environmental water as being unacceptable than as being acceptable. About a third of respondents selected the ‘not sure’ option suggesting they had not formed a firm view at that time. Further analysis suggested the ‘not sure’ were more similar to those with positive rather than negative assessments of environmental water. This and other results provide useful insights about how to improve social acceptability of environmental water in Gunbower Island. Given that this is the first study of this topic, those insights should have wider relevance.

In this study, acceptability judgements appear to be shaped by values and trust in the managing agency. Almost all respondents expressed a strong attachment to Gunbower Island and are committed to taking action to maintain the health of Gunbower Island. These attributes represent an opportunity for the NC CMA to more effectively engage local people in the decision-making and management activities on Gunbower and thereby enhance the social acceptability of environmental water. The challenge is to identify cost-effective approaches based on shared values which provide meaningful opportunities for local people to address important issues for them (e.g., maintain access roads, control pest plants and animals).

The North Central CMA should also link their projects in Gunbower Island to the well-being and viability of local communities. Those opportunities for engagement could involve the facilitation of discussions about key issues, including the origin and impact of blackwater events, opportunities for tourism enterprises, the efficacy of willow removal and opportunities to upgrade access tracks. Any activities should capitalise on opportunities to provide learning experiences (e.g., about native fish biology, bird migrations) and opportunities to partner with other organisations and individuals, including landholders (e.g., to manage feral animals) and local government (e.g., to promote tourism). This type of engagement should be the first priority for the NC CMA, even if that means slowing down the speed of implementation of their works programme on Gunbower Island. This approach should lead to more positive judgements about the organisation's trustworthiness across the three key elements of ability, benevolence and integrity. Thirty-six per cent of survey respondents indicated they were not a member of any local community group (e.g., Rotary, sporting clubs). Given this finding, the NC CMA should consider facilitating the establishment of an independent (i.e., independent of the NC CMA) ‘Friends of Gunbower’ group. Such a group would be able to coordinate the activities of other local groups and reach out to stakeholders outside the local area (e.g., campers), and importantly, provide a platform for dialogue, learning and action beyond the life of the current environmental water programme.

The approach taken in this research (including the use of a workshop, field visits, interviews and the survey of local residents) can be considered by others examining the social acceptability of environmental watering. The very high level (71%) of variance explained by the final model suggests that the key variables were included in the study. Expected relationships between the single item measure of acceptability and items measuring aspects of values, beliefs, personal norms, attitudes, concern about issues and trustworthiness suggest that the acceptability item was a valid measure. For example, there was a significant (p < 0.001) and strong (rs 0.7–0.8) Spearman's rank correlation coefficient between agreement with the acceptability item and a separate item exploring belief in the environmental benefits of environmental water. A copy of the survey is provided in a technical report (Mendham & Curtis, 2015).

As the first study examining the social acceptability of environmental watering, this research has important implications for those implementing that policy. In the first instance, survey data confirmed that the policy is not accepted by a substantial minority of local people (i.e., 36% of the survey respondents) and many others are unsure of their attitude towards environmental watering. It seems there is much work ahead of the lead agency to improve the level of social acceptability. The benefits of increased social acceptability among local people of environmental watering include increasing their involvement in on-ground work to manage threatening processes, now and in the future (in this case, pest plants and animals), increased acceptance of management actions to improve environmental condition (in this case, the flooding of the forest and seasonal closure of roads/tracks), and increased ability of managers to focus their effort and resources on improving the health of environmental assets rather than responding to protests, including those activities resulting in negative media attention and the intervention of elected officials. This study suggests that those setting out to enhance the social acceptability of environmental watering need to identify common ground between the objectives of the programme and local people, and build trust through early and effective stakeholder engagement processes. Acknowledging local knowledge and expertise is an important part of trust building and was emphasised by a number of interviewees in this study. The low level of social acceptability of environmental watering also needs to be acknowledged publicly and accepted within the lead agency, then addressed over time. For example, the lead agency should take more time about implementing on-ground works, taking time to identify opportunities to engage local people in activities consistent with their values and concerns about issues affecting the health of the forest. Those activities would also provide opportunities to improve the low level of ecological knowledge in the local community.

## Acknowledgements

Staff from the North Central Catchment Management Authority (CMA) and residents in the areas around Gunbower Island Forest made important contributions to data collection and interpretation. Charles Sturt University's Spatial Data Analysis Unit prepared Figure 1.

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