Skip to main content
Go to search page

Murray–Darling Basin drought update


24 March 2020

The Murray─Darling Basin has been in drought for some time. Drought is a significant issue for the Basin and continues to impact its environment, industries and communities.

This update provides high-level information on the status of the drought in the Basin, with links to more detailed reports and external websites. This update does not replace any state government alerts and updates.

Key updates 

  • Inflow from recent heavy rainfall in the north has reached Menindee Lakes
  • Low streamflows are forecast for upper southern Basin catchments from March to May
  • Native fish recovery is the topic of this fortnight’s Spotlight

Rainfall and river flows

There has been comparatively little rainfall across the Basin over the past fortnight when measured against February and early March. North-eastern catchments received modest rain, ranging to high falls of up to 100 mm in isolated areas. Southern regions experienced little to no rain, except for patchy falls of between 5 and 10 mm along the Murray and south-eastern ranges.

The Bureau of Meteorology streamflow forecasts for March to May indicate low flows in many upper Murray tributaries, including the Kiewa andOvens, and low unregulated inflows into Hume Dam.

Rainfall totals for weeks ending 16 and 23 March

Rainfall totals for weeks ending 16 and 23 March. Source: Bureau of Meteorology

Previous heavy rainfall in the north through February and early March has resulted in increased flows in many rivers in the northern Basin. This includes over 1,400 gigalitres through the Condamine-Balonne at St George, and more than 1,000 gigalitres in the Warrego River at Cunnamulla.

This rainfall has delivered welcome inflow downstream to Menindee Lakes for the first time in more than 12 months and the first major natural flow since 2016. Lake Wetherell and associated lakes are currently filling, with between 270 and 335 gigalitres forecast to enter the lakes over the coming weeks/months.

In the past week WaterNSW began removing block banks from the lower Darling River that had been previously installed as part of drought contingency measures. Removal is expected to be completed by 7 April 2020, helping flows from Menindee to travel downstream and join with the Murray.


As autumn begins, average temperatures have fallen slightly in the Basin. In the past week temperatures have been similar to the long-term average, varying by a degree or two above or below average in most areas of the Basin.

Maximum and minimum temperature anomalies for week ending 22 March

Maximum and minimum temperature anomalies for week ending 22 March. Source: Bureau of Meteorology

The Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) and El Nino Southern Oscillation are both neutral, however warmer than average sea temperatures to the east of Australia may contribute to changes in weather over coming months.

More information on forecast conditions for autumn and into winter is available below in the latest BoM Climate and Water Outlook.

More information

Water quality

Recent rainfall has affected water quality in many areas of the Basin. Our water quality threats map has been updated for March to reflect changes in status for existing threats and includes new/emerging threats. For more information, see the water quality page of our website.

The MDBA and state authorities are continuing to monitor water quality across the Basin.

New South Wales sites on RED alert for blue-green algae:

  • Chaffey Dam
  • Copeton Dam (near Inverell)
  • Lachlan River – downstream of Wyangala Dam
  • Lake Albert – at Wagga Wagga
  • Lake Hume
  • Lake Wyangan South – at Griffith
  • Lower Darling River — upstream in Weir 32 pool, downstream at Burtundy
  • Lower River Murray – Psyche Bend (near Red Cliffs) to Lock 9 (near Cullulleraine)
  • Malpas Dam (near Guyra)
  • Menindee Lakes — Lake Wetherell (sites 1, 3 and 4)
  • Namoi River – downstream of Keepit Dam
  • Pindari Dam (near Ashford)
  • River Murray – Goulburn Valley Water offtake (at Cobram)
  • Split Rock Dam (near Upper Manilla)
  • Wyangala Dam
  • Yarrawonga Weir / Lake Mulwala

Victorian sites on HIGH alert for blue-green algae:

  • Goulburn Weir backwaters — Turners Island Area in Nagambie Lakes (near Kirwan’s bridge)
  • Gunbower Creek — Gum Lagoon
  • Lake Eppalock (near Derrinal)
  • National Channel No’s 1 and 4 Lagoons (National Channel System, Torrumbarry Irrigation Area)

Bushfire water quality risks - Upper Murray & Lake Hume:

  • Potential water quality risks to Upper Murray and Lake Hume areas from bushfire contamination, as mobilised by rainfall events exceeding 20–30 mm

More information


Salinity levels eased over the past fortnight, with most sites recording levels below the long-term average. Those that were above average were in the range of 6­–11%.

Consideration is currently being given to lowering the river level at Wentworth on the Murray River to reduce the anticipated impact of salinity from initial flows as the Darling River connects to the Murray in the near future. Confirmation of this action and preliminary advice to the public will be made available as soon as possible through the MDBA River Murray Weekly Report.

The following map shows the average salinity level (measured in μS/cm) for the week ending 18 March 2020 and the change compared to the average since 1 August 2019.

Map of salinity levels in the Murray-Darling Basin

Salinity measurement locations in River Murray system
* The +/- percentage values in the above map represents the % difference between the most recent ‘average weekly reading’ and a previous average reading. It does not show the difference between the current salinity measurement and the previously reported salinity measurement.

Salinity refers to the concentration of salts in water or soil. High salinity can reduce crop yields, affect aquatic ecosystems and vegetation, and damage infrastructure.

Salinity is measured in EC (electrical conductivity) – the unit of measure used across the Basin is generally microSiemens per centimetre (μS/cm). A salinity level below 800 μS/cm is considered low salinity, however, plant and animal tolerances can range significantly with plant levels generally up to an extreme of 5,800 μS/cm (some plants and animals can cope with higher levels of salinity). By comparison, the salinity of seawater varies although 54,000 μS/cm is an approximate value.

Salinity levels are affected by droughts and floods – high flows help to flush salt from the river system

More information

Water in Basin storages

With rainfall easing across northern Basin catchments in the past few weeks, water levels in most northern storages have steadied as the volume of inflows from tributaries reduces. Overall, storages in this region have remained at 13%.

The situation is much the same in the south, with upper storage levels remaining steady or increasing slightly, bringing the total for the southern Basin to 33%, up 1% on the previous fortnight.

Menindee Lakes is an exception to conditions elsewhere, filling from empty to 5% as flow from upper catchments completes its long journey down the Darling River. Water levels in the lakes are expected to continue rising as upstream flows deliver much needed water into the system. These flows will also travel further downstream, connecting the Darling and Murray Rivers.

Water storage levels in the Murray-Darling Basin

Water in Basin storages as reported at 18 March 2020.

More information

Spotlight – bringing back our native fish

Widespread drought conditions over the past several years have put incredible stress on native fish in the Murray­­–Darling Basin, emphasised by multiple fish death events during recent summers. Sadly, these recent events have added to a long-term decline in native fish populations dating back to European settlement, resulting from reductions in water availability, less suitable fish habitats, and poor water quality, amongst other factors.

Native fish are a vital and integral part of the environment, and improving their numbers is fundamental to improving the overall health of river systems and connected ecosystems.

In addition to enacting emergency management and critical incident responses for recent fish deaths, governments have also recognised that longer-term actions are needed to rebuild healthy and resilient native fish populations. This has led to the development of the Native Fish Recovery Strategy, which aims to incorporate the best science, knowledge and investment with increased engagement and community involvement to achieve positive outcomes for native fish.

Following public consultation in September 2019, a draft Strategy was released on 10 March 2020, and is currently available for review through the MDBA’s Get Involved platform. Have your say until 6 April 2020, to help to shape the outcomes, actions and priorities for native fish under the Strategy.

The draft strategy is part of ongoing consultation aimed at building enduring partnerships with communities to design and implement on-ground actions for our native fish.

To download a copy of the draft strategy and have your say, please follow this link:


Support services for farmers and communities

Rural Financial Counselling Service

The Rural Financial Counselling Service (1800 686 175) provides financial counselling services to farmers, including assistance with financial and business options, developing a financial action plan, accessing government assistance schemes, and referring to other service providers.

Australian Government assistance

The Australian Government provides a number of assistance measures to support farm families, farm businesses and rural communities to prepare for, manage through and recover from drought and other hardship.

The Regional Investment Corporation is offering drought loans for farmers to help them prepare for, manage through or recover from drought.​

Assistance in Queensland

The Queensland Government is offering programs to help farm families, farm businesses and farm communities affected by drought.

Assistance in New South Wales

NSW DroughtHub provides a one-stop online destination for information on a vast range of services and support available to primary producers, their families and communities to prepare for and manage drought.

Assistance in Victoria

The Victorian Government supports farmers throughout Victoria to prepare and respond to drought through technical, financial and personal support.

Assistance in South Australia

The South Australian Government provides a number of services and avenues for assistance to support farm families, farm businesses and rural communities prepare for and manage the drought conditions.

Updated: 24 Mar 2020