Wetlands Australia National Wetlands Update February 2013
Issue No. 22, February 2013
Ten years of The Living Murray program - restoring the health of the Murray River
Murray–Darling Basin Authority
The on-ground works at Wallpolla Island were a key success for me. While the rest of the landscape was basically dying through the longest, biggest drought on record, the little refuges of Horseshoe Lagoon were flourishing with the combination of The Living Murray structures and the local environmental watering program.
Peter Kelly (Mallee CMA, Victoria)
In 2003, the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council announced The Living Murray First Step Decision to restore the health of the Murray River system by recovering 500 gigalitres of water and constructing major water management structures at iconic sites. To achieve this, the New South Wales, Victorian, South Australian, Australian Capital Territory and Australian governments pledged $650 million, making The Living Murray one of Australia's largest river restoration programs.
Ten years later, The Living Murray program has recovered a long-term average of 479 973 megalitres of water, delivered 657 016 megalitres of environmental water, and commenced construction of major water management structures at Gunbower—Koondrook—Perricoota, Hattah Lakes and Chowilla Floodplain and Lindsay—Wallpolla Islands icon sites. The program has also completed 10 of the 14 fishways along the Murray River.
This year major structures will be completed at the Hattah Lakes and Gunbower—Koondrook—Perricoota icon sites. This will enable water managers to provide environmental water to the floodplains with much smaller volumes of water.
The Sea to Hume fishway will also be completed, restoring migratory passage for native fish along 2225 kilometres of the Murray River, extending from the Hume Dam to the Murray Mouth.
During the decade long drought we were able to deliver Living Murray environmental water to Reedy Lagoon, a wetland that is highly valued for its intact vegetation community and is considered a jewel in the crown of Gunbower Forest. The environmental watering created a drought refuge in the forest for animals and increased the resilience of the wetland vegetation.
Anna Chatfield (North Central CMA, Victoria)
Delivering environmental water
The Living Murray delivered its first environmental water to the icon sites during the longest drought in recorded history. Small amounts of environmental water provided refuges for stressed native flora and fauna, and helped prevent local extinctions. Watering at the Lower Lakes maintained water levels in Lake Albert to prevent acidification and the loss of key species such as the endangered Murray hardyhead.
More recently, after record rain, environmental water was used between flood peaks to ensure that water did not recede too quickly and cause waterbirds to abandon their nests. This resulted in one of the best colonial waterbird breeding events in Barmah—Millewa Forest in 60 years. This water also contributed to flows to the Lower Lakes, Coorong and the Murray Mouth.
The prospect of receiving substantial water allocations for the first time since the program began opened up a whole new range of possibilities for environmental water delivery, including large single watering events and watering multiple sites along the river.
Environmental monitoring has shown that the icon sites have begun to improve in the last two years in response to natural flooding, with areas that were watered during the drought showing faster improvement. Some species which were less resilient may take longer to recover, and some may not recover.
A significant outcome of The Living Murray's Koondrook—Perricoota project has also been the strong relationship that has been built between the community and local Indigenous groups during the construction period.
Jamie Hearn (Murray CMA, NSW)
The success of The Living Murray program is underpinned by the strong collaborative approach that has developed between the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the partner governments. This also involves working closely with the local communities, including Aboriginal communities, as well as with land managers, catchment management authorities, water authorities and construction companies.
The Living Murray program has now delivered environmental water through the longest drought in recorded history and during two years of close to record rainfall. Over the next few years, with the completion of the water management structures, and the implementation of the Basin Plan, it is likely that The Living Murray will continue to make significant progress in helping to restore the health of the Murray River.
Throughout the drought, monitoring showed that the last remaining refuge wetlands for Murray hardyheads and southern pygmy perch were in danger of drying out. Small volumes of environmental water from The Living Murray were pumped to these sites and the fish populations were sustained. Small volumes were also delivered to refuge sites on the Chowilla floodplain improving vegetation condition and supporting the successful breeding of many species including the nationally vulnerable southern bell frog.
Mandy Rossetto (Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources, SA)