Priming our Basin for drought recovery – 2020-21 priorities for environmental watering

The prolonged drought across the Basin means in the next 12 months environmental water will be used strategically to protect our wetlands, floodplains and river ecosystems from further damage, and place them in the best possible position to recover from the drought when it breaks, according to the latest Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) report.

Head of Basin Strategy and Knowledge at the MDBA, Vicki Woodburn said despite the welcome rain earlier in the year, the Basin has been battered by an intense drought, which has eroded the ecological condition of our rivers and floodplains.

“Three years of above-average warm and dry conditions have taken a toll on the Basin’s environments and the people, plants and animals that depend on them,” Vicki Woodburn said.

“There have been some really positive outcomes from the environmental water that has been strategically used.

“The rain we received in summer and early autumn connected the northern and southern Basin for the first time in three years, and we saw significant flows to Narran Lakes, in north-west NSW, for the first time in seven years. We know from Traditional Owners who have monitored this Lake that it is primed and ready for a bird breeding event.

“This coming year, the focus for environmental water holders, planners, managers, and river operators, will be on avoiding permanent loss of species or ecosystems, providing drought refuges for animals and fish where possible, and supporting breeding events where they occur naturally.”

This year the MDBA and Commonwealth Environmental Water Office have drawn on traditional ecological knowledge when developing the next year’s priorities.

“For the first time, First Nations’ environmental watering objectives will be acknowledged and incorporated into environmental water management at a federal level,” Vicki Woodburn said.

The priorities reflect objectives identified by First Nations, who worked in collaboration through two peak First Nations organisations – the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations (NBAN) and the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) – to produce guidance for water management across the Basin.

“This collaboration exemplifies what it means to follow best practice in co-designing and partnering with First Nations in water planning and management,” Chair of NBAN Fred Hooper said.

“We have a deep-rooted and long held cultural obligation to protect Country, and to take only what we need and leave the rest for downstream and neighbouring Nations. Having First Nations’ priorities reflected in national planning is a significant step forward.”

Chair of MLDRIN Rene Woods says that improved timing of flows is key to sustaining the cultural health of major waterways.

“The Nations’ input highlight shared concern for all major rivers across the Basin and how environmental water can be used so that life returns to our culturally significant places,” Rene Woods said.

The Basin Annual Environmental Watering Priorities 2020-21 report guides the planning and prioritisation of environmental watering across the Murray-Darling Basin for the year ahead.

“These priorities collectively guide all our actions so we are focused on using water for the environment strategically and carefully, so we can improve the overall health of the Basin,” Vicki Woodburn said.

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