Twin Creeks before and after environmental watering
Photo: E. Lenon SAMDBNRM Board
Buying back water to restore the environment is one of the priorities of Water for the Future. The Australian Government is investing $3.1 billion in buying back water in the Murray-Darling Basin over 10 years. The water will be used to protect and restore environmental assets such as wetlands of international importance and areas which support listed migratory and threatened species.
Managing that water – determining where, when and how much to release to gain the maximum benefit for the environment – is a new role for the Commonwealth.
A number of bodies hold and manage water for the environment in Australia. They include non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and governments working together such as The Living Murray (TLM) initiative, a partnership of the Australian, NSW, Victorian, South Australian and ACT governments.
The position of Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) has been established within the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) to manage all the water entitlements that the Commonwealth owns. The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder will work with the states and NGOs to help deliver Commonwealth-owned water.
The Australian Government is buying water entitlements but like any other entitlement holder, it will receive water only when there is an allocation against those entitlements.
This means that in very dry years the Commonwealth may be allocated limited water. Holdings are updated regularly on the website:
Water will become available for environmental use for the first time in 2008-09. When water is available, the priority for releasing it will be determined according to the requirements of the Water Act 2007. The key requirement is that the water must be used to protect and restore environmental assets.
In the case of the Murray-Darling Basin, an environmental watering plan will be prepared to guide long-term environmental management arrangements. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) is developing the environmental watering plan as part of the Basin Plan, which is due to be completed in 2011, after consultation with state governments and other interested stakeholders. Outside of the Basin, watering plans will be developed for areas where the Commonwealth owns water entitlements and these plans will guide the management of this water.
Murray River at Boundary Bend
Environmental watering will vary depending on the needs of the system. In drought years, environmental water may be used to replenish waterholes in river channels which act as drought refuges for threatened species including native fish. In wet years, environmental water may be used to prolong floods in important wetlands to allow bird breeding events to progress to successful fledging.
In determining the priorities for environmental watering, the CEWH will consider a number of factors, including:
- Ecological significance of the environmental site, including matters such as Ramsar listing, the presence of nationally listed threatened, migratory or rare species
- Expected ecological outcomes from the proposed water use, based on the current health of the assets, the likely response to watering, the existence of a site management plan, and other factors which may affect ecological health, and
- The long-term likelihood of sustaining the ecological values of the site.
For more information about the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and environmental watering call 1800 218 478 or visit:
The CSIRO's ground-breaking work on modelling water availability in the Murray-Darling Basin provides a sober assessment of the challenges in the next two decades to put water use on a sustainable footing.
The Murray-Darling Basin Sustainable Yields (MDBSY) Project was commissioned by the Australian Government following the Summit on the Southern Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) on 7 November 2006, convened by the then Prime Minister in response to the extended dry conditions in the Basin, which accounts for 40 per cent of Australia's food and fibre production.
CSIRO worked with a large number of external groups to deliver the study. They assembled data on surface water and groundwater interaction and usage in the catchments of 18 reporting regions across the MDB. They then assessed current and potential future water availability under four scenarios:
- Historical climate and current development, the baseline against which other scenarios are compared
- Recent climate and current development, to examine the situation of the conditions of the previous 10 years were to continue
- Future climate and current development, which evaluates three global warming scenarios using 15 global (IPCC) climate models to provide a spectrum of possible climates for 2030. Three of these variants are reported: median or 'best estimate', wet variant and dry variant, and
- Future climate and future development, which considers the effects of the 2030 climate as well as the expansion of farm dams, commercial plantation forestry and growth in groundwater extraction assuming current policy settings continue.
Reports on each catchment were released progressively during 2007 and 2008, and each was followed by stakeholder briefings. The Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator Penny Wong, released the final report providing a Basin-wide assessment in late November 2008. This was followed by a series of stakeholder briefings in seven locations across the Basin.
The final report revealed that consumptive water use in the Basin has reduced average annual streamflow at the Murray mouth by 61 per cent. Water fails to reach the river mouth 40 per cent of the time, compared to 1 per cent in the absence of water resource development. Climate change could further reduce flood events in many parts of the Basin, affecting birds, fish, plants and animals.
Other key findings of the report are:
The Murray River and the Snowy Mountains
Photo: J.Baker and MDBA
- The median decline in water availability for the entire Basin is projected to be 11 per cent by 2030 – 9 per cent in the north and 13 per cent in the south
- Under the median 2030 climate, and current water sharing policies, diversions in driest years would fall by more than 10 per cent in most New South Wales regions, 20 per cent in the Murrumbidgee and Murray regions, and from around 35 per cent to 50 per cent in the Victorian regions
- Under the dry extreme 2030 climate, and current water sharing policies, diversions in driest years would fall by around 40-50 per cent in New South Wales regions, over 70 per cent in the Murray, and 80-90 per cent in major Victorian regions
- Current groundwater use is unsustainable in seven of the 20 high-use groundwater areas in the Basin and will lead to major drawdowns in groundwater levels in the absence of management intervention
- Water resource development has had major impacts on the flooding regimes of many important floodplain forests and wetlands, including several Ramsar-listed wetlands. For example, the proportion of years in which the Narran Lake Nature Reserve receives sufficient flooding to provide optimal birdbreeding habitat has been more than halved while the average period between environmentally beneficial flooding of the Macquarie Marshes has more than doubled, and
- In the three highest water use regions (the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Goulburn-Broken) current water sharing arrangements would protect water users from much of the climate change impact, transferring the major impacts of the reduction to the environment.
Without adequate water, the Murray-Darling Basin's environmental values will continue to deteriorate. CSIRO concluded that without changes to water sharing arrangements in the south of the Basin, climate change would be likely to lead to irreversible ecological degradation.
The findings of the MDBSY project will become an important resource in planning for the MDB, including as scientific input in the development of the Basin Plan and the Environmental Watering Plan,which will include new integrated surface water and groundwater diversion limits based on sustainability principles.
Read the CSIRO report, Water Availability in the Murray-Darling Basin at:
On the Chowilla Floodplain in the southern Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) many wetlands are retreating and River Red Gum and other ecological communities are dying. The loss of habitat is affecting waterbirds, fish and other floodplain and river animals.
Like other wetlands throughout the MDB, the Chowilla Floodplain has been affected by changes to the natural flow of rivers and longer periods between beneficial flows. The construction of storages, weirs, barrages and diversions for human use, the current drought and early impacts of climate change have combined to cause the ecological decline of many wetlands. To reverse this, water is being recovered and redirected to revive the wetlands through a process called environmental watering.
The Chowilla Floodplain and Lindsay-Wallpolla Islands, covering 43,856 hectares, is one of the six Icon Sites under The Living Murray Initiative. The sites have several major floodplain areas; downstream of Mildura in Victoria and straddling the SA and NSW border. Significant areas of the Chowilla Floodplain in South Australia are part of the Riverland Ramsar site which was listed under the Ramsar Convention in 1987.
Chowilla area near Renmark
Photo: A.Copus and DEWHA
The Ramsar site supports extensive stands of River Red Gum and Black Box woodlands and nationally threatened species such as the Regent Parrot (Eastern), the Southern Bell Frog, Murray Cod and Murray Hardyhead. The site also provides critical summer or stopover habitat for a number of migratory birds and habitat for nomadic waterbirds particularly during drought. However, few water birds were recorded in 2007-08 when water was restricted to the main channels of the wetland and a limited number of deeper billabongs.
A small volume of environmental watering in 2007-08 has helped save some River Red Gums and other habitats in parts of the site. New growth is appearing on many of the Red Gums, some of which are several hundred years old and were at risk of dying.
Experience from previous environmental watering at Icon Sites has shown that follow-up watering is needed to support continued regeneration.
The capacity to allocate more water to revive the Murray-Darling Basin's wetlands hinges on the availability of water. The Australian Government is spending $3.1 billion over 10 years to buy water entitlements from willing sellers to return water to the environment so that out unique wetlands have a greater chance of surviving.
Find out more about the Chowilla Floodplain and The Living Murray Initiative at:
Photo: L.Selg and DEWHA
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) has commenced operation with the aim of putting water use in the Murray-Darling Basin on a sustainable footing to ensure a viable irrigation industry, secure water for cities and towns, and restore the health of the Basin's river systems.
As a central component of the Water Act 2007, the MDBA has been established as an independent, expert-based body providing a whole-of-basin focus on water planning in the Murray-Darling Basin.
The Authority officially commenced on 15 December 2008, after legislation was passed in all the Basin states and through the Australian Government. The MDBA has absorbed all the functions of the former Murray-Darling Basin Commission, which had managed the Basin since 1992.
Key objectives of the MDBA include advising the Minister on the accreditation of state water resource plans, developing a water rights information service which facilitates water trading across the Murray-Darling Basin, measuring and monitoring water resources in the Basin, gathering information and undertaking research, and engaging the community in the management of the Basin's resources.
The MDBA will be required to develop and administer a strategic plan for the integrated and sustainable management of water resources in the Murray-Darling Basin, referred to as the Basin Plan.
Photo: A.Tatnell and DEWHA
The centrepiece of the new management arrangements for the Murray-Darling Basin is the development of a Basin Plan with a sustainable diversion limit, or 'cap', on the Basin's surface and groundwater resources. The Basin Plan will also include water quality and salinity management targets, an environmental watering plan and rules about trading water rights.
It will play an important role in identifying responsibilities for managing risks associated with reductions in water availability and changes in reliability, including the impacts of climate change, and in developing strategies to manage those risks.
The Basin Plan will be developed in consultation with Basin communities and will draw on scientific and other studies, including the Murray-Darling Basin Sustainable Yields project conducted by the CSIRO for the Australian Government. The Basin Plan will be approved by the Australian Government Minister for Climate Change and Water and administered by the MDBA. It will form the framework for detailed water resource planning by the States and the ACT.
The MDBA will release a concept statement in March/April 2009, which will explain the contents of the Basin Plan, the timing of its development and the processes to involve interested parties and individuals. A proposed Basin Plan will be released in 2010 to allow for extensive consultation with stakeholders. The first Basin Plan is to be completed by 2011, after which the Basin Plan will be regularly reviewed and updated.
The new governance arrangements for the MDBA will help prepare the Basin for the challenges of securing enough water for the future. For more information about the MDBA call (02) 6279 0100 or visit: www.mdba.gov.au
In our November issue, Water Matters introduced the Australian Government's $12.9 billion Water for the Future plan aimed at securing Australia's water resources and restoring rivers and water-dependant ecosystems.
This article examines the National Urban Water and Desalination Plan which aims to support initiatives that drive investment in diverse water supply options as well as encouraging industry and the community to save and use water more efficiently.
Perth Seawater Desalination Plant
Photo courtesy of the WA Water Corporation
Desalination was once considered most relevant to desert countries, but is now part of the suite of measures being used in Australia to secure water supplies for cities and towns, following successive years of below-average rainfall, and projected falls in future water availability due to climate change.
Since 1997 inflows to the water storages of Australia's five largest cities have been halved. Melbourne's dams have received 65 per cent of long-term average inflows, Brisbane 44 per cent, Sydney and Perth 43 per cent, and Adelaide 65 per cent.
Desalination works to create water that is fit for a range of uses including human consumption, by separating salt molecules from water. One of the biggest advantages of seawater desalination is that it can provide a reliable source of water that is independent of rainfall.
Australia's first large-scale commercial desalination plant was built in Perth and began operation in November 2006. The plant supplies the city with 45 gigalitres of desalinated water each year and accounts for 17 per cent of the city's drinking water supply. The WA state government has plans for a second desalination plant near Binningup in the south west.
Desalination plants are also planned, or under construction, to supply water to Melbourne, the Gold Coast, Adelaide, and Sydney. By 2013, approximately 460 gigalitres per annum of drinking water will be produced from desalination plants around Australia. Large-scale desalination plants can cost from under $1 billion to more than $3 billion.
The Australian Government is supporting desalination through its $1 billion National Urban Water and Desalination Plan, details of which were announced in December 2008. Projects costing upwards of $30 million will be eligible for funding of up to 10 per cent of the capital costs, to support the construction of desalination plants, as well as recycling and stormwater harvesting infrastructure in cities with a population of 50,000 or more.
State, territory and local governments, and public water utilities can apply under the plan for large funding grants with a maximum government contribution of $100 million for any one project. Private companies will be able to apply for refundable tax offsets.
While desalination and recycling provide alternative sources of water that don't rely on rainfall, they are energy intensive. To ensure that these projects do not add to Australia's greenhouse gas emissions, projects deemed eligible for funding will need to source all their energy needs from renewable sources, or offset their carbon emissions.
The Australian Government has also called for proposals to host a Centre of Excellence in Desalination in Perth, and a Centre of Excellence in Water Recycling in Brisbane. The Centres will help to drive investment in energy-efficient desalination and water recycling technology.
For more information about the National Urban Water and Desalination Plan call 1800 218 478 or visit:
Throughout Australia, wetlands feed into and out of our many rivers. They are an integral part of our landscape and our waterways. Not only do wetlands hold cultural and aesthetic values, they also provide important habitats for plants and animals such as amphibians, fish, reptiles, mammals and birds.
The term 'wetlands' encompasses a vast range of waterbased area including swamps, marshes, billabongs, lakes, salt marshes, mudflats, mangroves, coral reefs, fens and peatlands. Wetlands regulate water flow, reduce the impact of floods, purify water by removing wastes and contaminants, and protect shores from wave action.
For these reasons, it is important to recognise the significance of our wetlands on World Wetlands Day, celebrated internationally each year on 2 February. It marks the anniversary of the signing of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention) in Ramsar, Iran, on 2 February 1971. Australia has 65 wetlands listed under the Ramsar Convention, covering about 7.5 million hectares.
World Wetlands Day was first celebrated in 1997. Since then, government agencies, non-governmental organisations and community groups have celebrated World Wetlands Day by undertaking actions to raise public awareness of wetland values and benefits and promote the conservation and wise use of wetlands. Activities include seminars, nature walks, festivals, launches of new policies, announcement of new Ramsar sites, newspaper articles, radio interviews and wetland rehabilitation.
World Wetlands Day provides an opportunity for wetland managers and local communities to showcase their local wetlands by offering activities and providing information about Australia's wetlands.
The international theme for World Wetlands Day 2009 is "Upstream-Downstream: Wetlands connect us all". This is in recognition of how interconnected we all are within river basins and the impact that activities upstream have on the lower parts of a river catchment.
Sustainable river basin management is extremely important to maintain the functions and ecosystems services of a wetland. World Wetlands Day 2009 aims to raise awareness about how we can all support healthy rivers and assess how our actions affect those downstream.
Restoring the health of wetlands and rivers is also a high priority for the Australian Government. The Restoring the Balance in the Murray-Darling Basin program provides $3.1billion to purchase water entitlements from willing sellers over 10 years and to use that water for the environment.
The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder manages the entitlements and uses them to protect and restore environmental assets, such as important wetlands.
Other wetland conservation activities that the Australian Government supports and funds include: improved wetland planning and management; wetland rehabilitation; and increasing understanding and awareness about wetlands in the Australian landscape.
For more information on wetlands and to find out what is happening in your local area on World Wetlands Day, visit:
World Wetlands Day 2 February 2009
To celebrate World Wetlands Day 2009 there are a range of products available from the Australian Government Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts including posters, bookmarks, magnets, stickers and postcards. Free call 1800 803 772 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Lake Goyder, SA. Photo: P.Canty
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