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The Ovens River runs from the steep forested mountains of the Victorian Alps, through wide valleys and open plains to join the River Murray near Lake Mulwala. 

The Ovens River is significant for its diverse aquatic habitats. It contains a range of threatened species, including fish species such as the Murray cod and the Murray spiny crayfish. It contains a range of threatened species, including fish species such as the Murray cod and the Murray spiny crayfish. The  region contains numerous ‘representative’ river sites, including several important or nationally significant wetlands such as the lower reaches of the river, extending from the confluence of the Ovens and King rivers to Lake Mulwala. Downstream of Wangaratta, the river and its floodplain support native fish habitats and an ibis breeding site. The area is also is home to a flora reserve and the Lower Ovens Wildlife Reserve.

The Ovens River catchment is home to about 2.3% of the Basin's people. Beef and sheep grazing are the major sources of income but there is a diverse and successful economy based on viticulture, horticulture and orchards. Tourism is important to the region, with a focus on food and wine, fishing and snow sports.


Catchment area

0.7% of the Murray–Darling Basin

Contribution to Basin water


Annual stream flow

1,775 GL (at Peechelba)

River length

191 km


Morses and Reedy creeks, Buckland, Buffalo and King rivers

Towns include

Bright, Beechworth, Myrtleford, Wangaratta

Water storages

Lake Buffalo (24 GL), Lake William Hovell (14 GL)

Water users

Irrigated agriculture, urban water supply, stock and domestic

The landscape and its water

The Ovens River rises in the Victorian Alps near Mount Feathertop and Mount Hotham, where it is linked to significant freshwater meadows and marshes on the slopes of the Alpine and Mount Buffalo national parks. Formed by the confluence of its east and west branches at Harrietville, the Ovens River flows north-west towards Bright, fed by numerous creeks.

The Ovens River has many tributaries that also have their headwaters in the Great Dividing Range. The Ovens is joined by the north-flowing Buffalo River at Myrtleford, and then by the second largest river in the catchment, the King River, on the floodplain at Wangaratta. After Wangaratta, the river meanders northward across the plain, taking in the waters of the Reedy and Fifteen Mile creeks. The Ovens flows through wetlands and river red gum forests into the River Murray east of Lake Mulwala.

Annual average rainfall in the catchment ranges from more than 1,400 mm in the mountains of the Great Dividing Range in the south, at an elevation up to 1,800 metres; to 500–600 mm on the plains in the north near the River Murray, where the elevation is less than 100 m. 65% of the region’s annual rainfall falls in winter, with snow covering the high ground and forming a rainfall-intensifying obstacle to the moist west winds. Summer rainfall is infrequent but can be heavy.

Groundwater quality in the Ovens River basin is generally good, with 2 shallow aquifer systems and a deep sand aquifer 80─100 metres below the surface, in the ancient valley of the Ovens River. The northern half of the basin features ‘shoe string’ aquifers that are randomly distributed throughout the riverine plain. The water in these alluvial aquifers tends to be saline in certain areas, however it is widely used for stock, domestic and irrigation purposes. The southern half of the Ovens Basin is underlain with weathered and fractured basement rocks with aquifers yielding relatively fresh water.

People, industry and water use

The Ovens River catchment falls in the traditional lands of the Bangerang nation and neighbouring Taungurung and Yorta Yorta nations, to the south and west, respectively. The Waywurru nation is also located within the Ovens River valley. Aboriginal people in the region used traditional netting and spearing methods to catch fish and crayfish in the Murray and Ovens rivers, and built weirs to trap fish returning to the main channel from the swamps.

European explorers arrived in the area in the 1820s and cattle and sheep grazing commenced soon afterwards. Gold was discovered in 1852 at Beechworth, resulting in a mining and population boom that brought American, European and Chinese settlers to the area. Market gardens and tobacco crops were established along the Ovens River to supply the goldfields, with tobacco remaining a key industry during the 20th century. Other important industries established include plantation forestry and milling.

The Ovens region has about 2.3% of the Basin’s population, concentrated in the major centres of Wangaratta, Myrtleford, Beechworth and Bright.

Beef and sheep grazing is the major agricultural use of private land, followed by viticulture. The King Valley and Myrtleford district were traditional tobacco growing areas, however, many of these farms have successfully converted to grape growing and wine production. Other horticultural crops grown in the region include hops, hazelnuts, walnuts, chestnuts, herbs, berries and apples. Public land is used for the production of hardwood and softwood. Tourism has long been established in the area, being close to the alpine ski fields and resorts, as well as excellent rivers and streams for fishing. The region also specialises in wine and food tourism.

The CSIRO reports that the region uses 0.2% of the total surface water diverted for irrigation in the Basin and 0.4% of the total groundwater. Average annual water use was 1.4% of available surface water in the catchment, which is considered to be a low level of use. Groundwater extraction, including stock and domestic use, makes up around one third of total water use in the catchment.

Regulation of water

The catchment is largely unregulated with only two dams in the Ovens River system. The Lake Buffalo dam completed in 1965 and Lake William Hovell on the King River completed in 1973.

Lake Buffalo is used to supplement flows in the Ovens River for irrigation in summer, mainly for vineyards and urban water supply. Its capacity of 24 GL represents only 6% of the average annual flow in the Buffalo River. Lake William Hovell has a capacity of 14 GL and supplies water for irrigated crops, vineyards and grazing properties – it also generates 1.6 MW of hydro-electricity when water is being released.

Environmental importance

The Ovens River catchment supports a wide range of ecosystems, from the alpine grassland and heath in the Australian Alps, to the Victorian riverine plains where the Ovens River meets the River Murray.

The Ovens River wetlands are listed as nationally significant in the Directory of Important Wetlands. The wetlands are close to the River Murray and the river reach corridor features an extensive network of billabongs, anabranches and islands. It provides important habitat for many species of waterbirds, including the great egret, and there is a significant ibis rookery. Other wetlands in the area include Billabong and Chinaman creeks, the latter which forms an important link between the Killawarra State Forest and the river. Both creeks contain good riparian zones, which are important food sources for birds in the river reach.

The lower Ovens River contains a significant rare flora community, with 9 threatened species including river red gum forests, silver wattle, river bottlebrush and rough barked honey myrtle. The riparian vegetation within the reach also provides an important habitat corridor containing 48 threatened species of fauna, of which three are listed nationally. Threatened or vulnerable species within the mature river red gum forests include the broad-shelled tortoise and the large-footed myotis bat. The Ovens River in-stream condition is in a largely natural state, providing good habitat for native fish species. It has high conservation value for at least seven species including the Murray cod and freshwater hardyfish.

The Sustainable Rivers Audit  reported the overall ecosystem health of the Ovens River to be poor. Flow regulation has impacted species abundance and diversity and the fish community was rated as poor overall. The abundance and diversity of macroinvertebrates was rated as moderate. Riverine vegetation was in poor condition overall, with changes most significant on the lower reaches of the river. The physical form of the river was rated in good condition, although impacts of sedimentation were evident. Flow seasonality and variability was rated in good condition.

Water recovery

The Basin Plan sets Sustainable Diversion Limits, which is how much water can be used in the Murray–Darling Basin, while leaving enough water for the environment. A Sustainable Diversion Limit (SDL) was established for each catchment (or group of catchments) and the reduction in diversions required to achieve the SDL was identified.

The use of environmental water in a specific catchment or region will vary from year-to-year. The MDBA has a Basin-wide environmental watering strategy to guide the use of environmental water across the Murray–Darling Basin to help achieve the best possible results over the long term. Environmental water managers make the day-to-day decisions on what to water and when, in line with the strategy and taking into account seasonal conditions, priorities and the availability of environmental water. Watering decisions are made in consultation with various waterway managers and local landholders.

Catchment or regionally-specific details about environmental water use in the catchment including watering actions, portfolio details and planning, and monitoring of environmental watering, can be found through the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder or the state government environmental water manager. 

More information

Water management

Rural water authority

Urban water authority

State government water

Use of environmental water

Irrigation water allocation