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Decisions about where water for the environment goes are based on restoring waterbird populations for the health of the entire river system.

How we use water in our rivers has changed natural flow volumes, timings and patterns of rivers. Waterbirds are very sensitive indicators of river health because they are responsive to flow and the health of their environment.

If waterbirds are missing from our environment, we know the balance is not right in our rivers and wetlands.

A graph showing waterbird abundance in blue colour and species richness in orange colour. There is a waterbird abundance steep declined from 700,000 in 1983 to fewer than 100,000 in 2021

Protecting and restoring waterbird populations

The graph shows the steep decline of waterbird abundance from 700,000 waterbirds in 1983 to fewer than 100,000 in 2021.

Restoring waterbird populations is going to take a long time and relies on restoring native fish and vegetation too, because all the animals and plants in river ecosystems rely on each other.

Water for the environment protects waterbirds

Waterbirds need high water quality, including nutrients in water (which relies on nutrient cycling), good food sources – like plants, insects and small vertebrates, frogs and fish – and shelter from native plants. They depend on rivers and wetlands to feed, grow, breed and shelter from predators.

Many colonial nesting waterbirds (birds that nest in large colonies) need wetlands to be flooded to start and complete breeding. As a result of water resource management, or how we use water in our rivers, floods have become smaller and less frequent. This means wetlands have longer dry spells and waterbirds sometimes miss out on the water that they need to feed and breed.

Shorebird numbers fluctuate from year to year. These species rely on multiple international 'staging' sites (or safe places to stop on their global journeys) during their annual migration and are highly specialised foragers (they eat specific food in a specific way). Shorebirds need exposed tidal flats for their food to grow, and to hunt their food.

Water for the environment ensures there is enough water for waterbirds, including migratory birds at the right time of year so they can feed, grow and breed. Australia has an important role to play in protecting these birds in our global ecosystem.

Waterbirds are important for people

Waterbirds are culturally significant to First Nations people who live in the Basin. Many other people also value waterbirds; they attract people for tourism and cultural activities.

Nearly half of all wetlands where colonial nesting waterbirds breed in Australia are in the Murray–Darling Basin. The spectacular colonies and high concentrations of waterbirds on many of the Basin’s wetlands were the reason for their nomination as wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

Deciding where water goes to help waterbirds

This year: annual watering priorities for waterbirds

The annual priorities are a guide for where water should be provided to improve the health of plants and animals for the overall health of the Basin over the long-term, as set out in the Basin watering strategy.

2022–23 priorities for waterbirds

In the northern Basin:​

  • Continue to support colonial nesting waterbird breeding and recruitment triggered by natural flows in the Narran Lakes, Macquarie Marshes and Gwydir Wetlands.
  • Support foraging and nesting of waterbirds by ensuring shallow-water and shoreline habitat.

In the southern Basin:

  • Maintain foraging and roosting habitat at refuge locations, with a focus on drier areas of the southern Basin. Support breeding and recruitment where naturally triggered.
  • In moderate conditions, maintain waterbird breeding habitat in ‘event ready’ condition. Support breeding where it is naturally triggered. Where conditions permit, trigger and provide ongoing support for small-scale breeding across functional groups. including the wetlands of the Lowbidgee that have shown a strong response to natural flows.
  • Maintain waterbird habitat including productive shorebird habitat and foraging availability in the Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray Mouth – allowing for varying requirements within the different habitats offered by the Coorong and Lower Lakes.

The annual environmental watering priorities are the focus for the current year and are small steps in the short-term to achieve long-term goals.
Longer term goals are documented in the Basin-wide watering strategy and multi-year priorities.

One important factor used to decide how much water to provide for the environment each year is the resource availability scenario. This is based on climate conditions (rainfall, runoff and soil moisture), surface water availability in dams and the climate outlook.

Longer term: rolling, multi-year environmental watering priorities

The annual environmental watering priorities support rolling, multi-year environmental watering priorities that guide watering over the medium-term (the next 3–5 years) based on different conditions, from very wet to very dry.

Multi-year watering provides and relies on cumulative progress over time. For example, watering in one year may only wet a dry riverbed. Watering for a second year provides more water to fill the river and reach wetlands – these flows reach plants and animals that may would not have received water the previous year.