28 June 2013
Connecting rivers to floodplains, boosting river and wetland health and improving habitat will be some of the key areas Murray–Darling Basin environmental water managers will focus on over the next 12 months.
MDBA executive director Jody Swirepik said the annual watering priorities released today were the first set to be developed under the Basin Plan, and identified a list of sites and natural processes to guide environmental watering activities across the basin.
"Environmental watering isn't new—many groups and agencies in the basin have been doing it in their back yards for many years," Ms Swirepik said.
"For the first time, we have a set of watering priorities that focus on coordinating environmental watering so we get better outcomes for the broader basin, not only local benefits from local watering activities."
Ms Swirepik said this year's priorities included water holders coordinating flows across borders, getting good flows to wetlands at the right time of year to support bird breeding, and overall, getting the rivers to flow better from the top of the system to the end of the system.
"It's not an exhaustive list of all sites and natural processes in the basin, rather a list of the things that we think could do with some more immediate attention over the coming year.
"For example, some of our wetlands really struggled through the millennium drought and, while they've recently had some rain, they still need a bit of a hand to build up their resilience.
"We also want to encourage some watering activities that we know will have good flow-on effects, such as increasing the duration of flows to some of our northern wetlands to support bird breeding when it occurs. "
Ms Swirepik said the 10 priorities were based around two key themes: connecting rivers and floodplains, and supporting in-stream functions, which is about improving the condition of the rivers so they have good water quality and support other natural processes, like fish spawning.
"We've developed these priorities by drawing on decades of information about the basin, as well as speaking with many people, including our state counterparts, who have spent their lifetime managing water and observing different parts of the basin," she said.
"Over time, we'll continue to build our knowledge as we talk with more people across the basin and as we monitor how the environment is responding to these watering activities."
An adaptive approach is applied to environmental watering which means the priorities will continue to be updated each year and will depend on the environment's needs and seasonal outlook.
Details of this year's annual watering priorities can be found on the MDBA's website.
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What is environmental watering and why do we do it?
Environmental watering is about actively delivering water to environmental sites in the basin at certain times of the year.
For the past century, the basin has been developed with a main focus on delivering water for productive use. We have built storages to capture and store water to be used in dry periods, and water is delivered at times when it is most needed for productive purposes.
These changes mean that the natural flows that once reached floodplains and connected our rivers to our wetlands are now often captured and stored in dams. It also means that water is being delivered through the system in regular patterns at times that suits production, and not necessarily in a more natural variable way during periods that most benefits and supports the environment and natural processes, such as bird breeding.
Over recent decades, we have come to recognise that changing how and when the rivers flow has meant some parts of the basin no longer receive enough water, don't receive flows for long enough, or don't receive water at the right time of year.
Environmental watering, which has been done very successfully for many years in some parts of the basin, is a way we can get water to important sites in the basin when it is of the most benefit to the environment.
It is important to point out that environmental watering isn't about returning the basin to a pre-development state. It's about getting flows to environmental areas at the right time of year for sufficient periods of time.
A common misconception is that environmental watering is just done in drier periods. In drier periods, environmental water is critical for drought refuges however, environmental watering is most needed in median wet years when flows would have once naturally watered environmental sites in the basin, but are now captured and stored in dams.
How did you decide what the priorities would be?
We have drawn on decades of information about the basin, for example, the planning and management of iconic sites by states, the hydrological monitoring by states and the CSIRO, work done on The Living Murray initiative, climatic data collected by the Bureau of Meteorology, and the significant amount of information held by all levels of government.
We have also spoken to many people who have spent their lifetime managing water and observing different parts of the basin. These are people like river operators, scientists, ecologists , Catchment Management Authorities, and people who live along the rivers ,including irrigators and farmers.
We have pulled together all of this information and determined which things are in most need of getting some attention, and what we should all be focusing on that will get the best or most returns for the basin's health.
How do these priorities fit into the other environmental watering plans being done, including state watering plans?
These annual priorities are the things that we have determined that most need to be focused on to benefit the basin as one large functioning system. At the same time, the basin governments develop their own priorities that take a more local perspective. Importantly, our priorities complement the state priorities and both will be pursued.
Work is also underway on a basin-wide watering strategy which needs to be completed by the end of 2014. This will be a significant piece of work requiring us to work with the states as well as key stakeholders.
The basin-wide watering strategy will outline the watering strategies to help achieve broader basin outcomes over the long term.
Will this environmental watering affect towns and properties?
No, the Basin Plan is based on current river management arrangements, and the 2750GL of water to be recovered for the environment, and these priorities, can be delivered without flooding towns and properties.
Delivering environmental water for the Basin Plan may change when and how the flows are delivered compared to what has been experienced in the past, but they will still be in the range of flows delivered previously.
There may be some occasions when delivering environmental flows in winter and spring when very little water is being drawn by irrigators means there is a bit more water left in the channel as it moves down the system. But river operators are aware of this possibility and will monitor how much water is in the system. Where necessary, they will take a conservative approach to managing the river to avoid known impacts.
Furthermore, environmental watering may reduce the risk of major flood. Making environmental releases in winter and early spring frees up airspace in dams, meaning there's more capacity to take in floodwaters that would otherwise travel downstream.
Are you changing constraints in the system so you can deliver higher flows?
There will be no changes made to the current operating rules and practices unless the changes have been fully explored and ways to address any third party impacts have been developed and agreed to by Commonwealth and state governments.
At the moment, as part of a study we are doing, we are talking to people in some parts of the basin about what the effects to properties might be if some constraints in the system were changed.
Importantly, the flow levels being explored for this study are well within minor flood levels and will not affect towns and homes.
This study includes looking at ways to address any potential impacts, for instance, through easements or improved access arrangements.
To do this, we'll be working with those landholders who might be affected by any changes so we can work out the extent of impacts to properties and things that we can do to mitigate those impacts, as well as give an indication of the cost taking such measures.
Consulting with people is central to this work and we have been talking to many people over recent months. These meetings are continuing across the basin.
Basin governments have recognised that there would be many benefits for the environment if we could deliver slightly higher flow peaks in the future. This is why they have asked for a constraints strategy to be done to investigate how we can do that in ways that avoids affecting landholders.
Not all the water that has been recovered for the environment has been used yet—does this mean it's not needed?
Just as irrigators don't always use their entitlements annually, environmental water will sometimes be carried over to the next water year so watering can be done early in the next water year if needed.
We have a variable climate and an extremely variable system, so the environment is accustomed to getting variable flows, not the regular watering patterns that irrigators rely on.
So we need to be able to get water to the environment when it needs it, which means those periods that better align with natural flow patterns. This is often in late winter and early spring just after the change of the water year, which is why sometimes we might purposefully carry over water to target those events.