Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder continues vital work to reverse damage in the Murray-Darling Basin

Dept of Climate Change, Energy, Environment & Water
person at lectern presenting a speech

Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder Dr Simon Banks told delegates at the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s River Reflections conference that while significant progress has been made thanks to water for the environment, there is still an urgent need to keep going and do more.

The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) is continuing vital work to restore waterways and wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Speaking at the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s River Reflections annual conference in Albury today, the CEWH, Dr Simon Banks shared his insights with an audience of around 300 people on the gains made to improve the health of rivers and wetlands through the use of water for the environment, but cautioned that more needs to be done.

“We are undertaking a river and wetland restoration program that has never been done at this scale anywhere else in the world,” Dr Banks told delegates.

“Our monitoring and research has revealed that significant progress has been made in the past 10 years towards achieving the environmental outcomes outlined in the Basin Plan, but there is still an urgent need to keep going and do more.

“A decade of robust information from our scientific monitoring, evaluation and research program, known as Flow-MER, has been incredibly insightful and useful. It feeds back into our water delivery decisions constantly, appears in our legislated reporting and is shared with many others for their benefit, too.

“It continues to reveal to us where we can be doing even more with environmental water, and why we must continue to work towards enduring solutions to big problems.

“We need long-term and sustained action to arrest the decline in our waterbird and native fish populations.”

Dr Banks said there was a critical need to continue and increase flows traveling down the full length of rivers benefiting important wetlands at the end of rivers and valleys such as the Lower Murrumbidgee, Macquarie Marshes and Coorong, and flushing salt out of the system.

“River rules and physical constraints like bridges and weirs get in the way of rivers regularly connecting with each other and their wetlands. This is a problem across the Gwydir, Lower Darling-Baaka, mid-Murrumbidgee, Goulburn, mid-Murray (including Werai Forest) and Lower Murray valleys,” he said.

“We still are yet to see a long-term solution that ensures water for the environment is protected from the northern Basin to the southern Basin.

“We must continue to collectively work towards relaxing constraints.”

He raised concerns about the growing occurrence of Commonwealth-held environmental water being called on to mitigate emergency water quality crises in the Basin – essentially taking it away from other important planned purposes.

“We all benefit from good water quality – communities, First Nations peoples, irrigators and other water users – it’s not solely an issue for environmental water managers to resolve,” Dr Banks said.

“Adequate reserves and rules for water quality, particularly during an emergency, must be part of valley and system-based water management planning.”

Expanded science program kicking off

At the conference, Dr Banks announced that the next phase of the CEWH’s flagship monitoring and research program, Flow-MER, would kick off from 1 July 2024.

“Our expanded monitoring and science program will provide an even greater understanding of how water for the environment is making a difference and where to best focus our future efforts,” he said.

“Flow-MER sees seven universities, the CSIRO and One Basin Cooperative Research Centre working on the ground throughout the Basin, often at local community levels to gain important insights.

“Around 150 scientists, researchers and First Nations people work on Flow-MER at sites across the Murray-Darling Basin, many of whom live and work in the Basin.

“I am honoured to partner with such reputable, passionate and knowledgeable people who will continue to capture and translate what’s happening to the environment with the water we deliver and how best to keep using it.

“This new phase expands the program to more places and across an even wider footprint of the Basin.

“With First Nations science and knowledge now being embedded in all research activities we can ensure environmental watering is underpinned by the best-available knowledge.

“And with new approaches in place for greater knowledge exchange between the organisations and across all stakeholders, I look forward to even better monitoring and science outcomes and information to inform adaptive management of the Commonwealth’s water for the environment.”

CEWH and Flow-MER Fast Facts

  • As at June 2024, the Commonwealth holds 2,931 gigalitres of entitlements in the Murray-Darling Basin. The long-term diversion limit equivalent (LTDLE) is 2,033 gigalitres.
  • Since 2009, the CEWH has delivered around 16,729 gigalitres of water to support river and wetland health – this is equivalent to 33 Sydney Harbours.
  • This water has been used to support more than 26,000 kms of waterways and more than 420,000 hectares of lakes and floodplains.
  • It has also supported:
    • 11 internationally significant Ramsar wetlands
    • large-scale waterbird breeding
    • survival, spawning and migration of native fish o river connectivity to the Coorong, flushing salt and mitigating poor water quality.
  • Over the past 10 years, the CEWH has invested around $100 million in its monitoring and science program, Flow-MER.
  • This investment has been essential to demonstrating outcomes from environmental water use, informing ongoing adaptive management of Commonwealth water for the environment, and helping meet legislative reporting requirements of the Water Act 2007, Basin Plan 2012, and Basin-wide Environmental Watering Strategy.
  • The next phase of the Flow-MER includes a funding commitment of $90 million to undertake monitoring, research and evaluation of our water for the environment across 10 (expanded from 7) geographical areas.
  • This funding is over 7 years in total (one year of planning, 5 years of on-ground monitoring/research, one year of synthesizing the results of the final year of monitoring).
  • The 6 research priority areas are:
    1. Research to support adaptive management, particularly in a changing climate
    2. First Nations people’s science
    3. Understanding of flow-ecology relationships
    4. Improvement in monitoring and evaluation techniques
    5. Interactions with non-flow drivers
    6. Understanding multi-cultural socio-ecological outcomes

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