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Murray–Darling Basin drought update

10 September 2019

Bushfires in the Pilliga, NSW - image sourced from NSW DPI via Flickr (CC-BY)
Bushfires in the Pilliga. Source: NSW DPI Flickr stream (CC-BY)

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

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

The Bureau of Meteorology climate outlook for September to November 2019 indicates a drier than average spring is likely for most of Australia. This is being driven by positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) conditions, which often result in below average rainfall for much of central and southern Australia during winter-spring. The positive IOD is likely to be the dominant climate driver for Australia during the next three months.

Updates on environmental watering activity during winter and spring 2019 are available from the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office website.

Rainfall and river flows

The recent trend of rain in the south and dry conditions in the northern Basin continued, although some areas in the Basin’s far north received light falls with the highest falls – up to 15 mm – recorded in Queensland’s Darling Downs. Western and central areas of the Basin recorded no rain during the last fortnight.

The early start to the fire season in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland has been influenced by the drought. Vegetation and any remaining grass cover are tinder dry, and a lack of water makes fighting fires even more difficult. For bushfires information, visit the Queensland Rural Fire Service Current Bushfires site, or the NSW Rural Fire Service Fires near me site.

Rainfall in the southern Basin was heaviest in the Victorian Alps, with the highest weekly rainfall of 31 mm recorded at Falls Creek – the following maps show rainfall across the Basin for the previous two weeks to 9 September.

The Bureau of Meteorology reports that rainfall was 71% below the Basin’s long-term average for August and the 8th lowest on record (and the lowest since 2006). Scattered areas of the Basin – such as eastern South Australia and the central west of New South Wales – received their lowest rainfall on record during August.

As a consequence, the Murray River system inflows for August 2019 remained quite low, about 530 GL which is less than half of the median inflow for August. River flows in the upper tributaries of the Murray River system continued to recede during the last fortnight.

BOM rainfall totals for the previous two week period

Murray–Darling Basin rainfall for the weeks ending 2 and 9 September 2019. Source: Bureau of Meteorology

BoM Rainfall anomaly August 2019

Rainfall deciles August 2019. Source: Bureau of Meteorology

Temperature 

The Bureau of Meteorology reports that the August average temperature for Australia was higher than average. Maximum temperatures were near average for the southern Murray-Darling Basin, whilst minimum temperatures were well below average for large areas of NSW, South Australia and northern Victoria, reflecting the generally clear and dry conditions experienced for much of August.

Areas of the northern Basin have experienced unseasonably high temperatures in recent days, exacerbating the difficulties faced in fighting bushfires.

BOM minimum and maximum temperature maps

Maximum and minimum temperature maps August 2019.  Source: Bureau of Meteorology

More information

Water quality

Continuing low rainfall across the Basin is affecting water quality. Water quality is continuously monitored, and some areas are on high alert level for blue-green algae.

New South Wales sites with blue-green algae red alert:
•    Lake Wetherell (Menindee Lakes).
 
Victorian sites with blue-green algae red alert:
•    Tullaroop Reservoir (Tullaroop Creek).

As part of drought contingency measures, WaterNSW has installed four temporary block banks across the Lower Darling below Pooncarie near Jamesville, below Burtundy near Ashvale, and upstream of Pooncarie at Court Nareen and Karoola. Water held in these pools will assist in maintaining supply to domestic, stock and permanent plantings along the Lower Darling. The MDBA continues to work with state authorities to manage water quality risks. These measures are expected to remain during the drought.

The risk of fish deaths due to drying pools, predicted high temperatures and potential water quality issues as warmer weather arrives, has seen the commencement of the relocation of native fish from the Darling River at Menindee, to downstream sections of the Lower Darling that offer a more secure habitat and provide the best chance for their survival. The NSW Department of Primary Industries is undertaking this relocation over two weeks to rescue as many fish as possible. These fish will be able to migrate upstream when Darling River flows increase. 

More information

Salinity

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 rivers.

The following map shows the average salinity level (measured in μS/cm) for the week ending 4 September 2019 and the change compared to the average since 1 August 2019. Salinity levels have been relatively stable during the last fortnight, with the exception being a substantial reduction at the Goolwa Barrages.

River Murray Salinity Measurement Map

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.

More information

Water in major Basin storages

For the first time in months, several northern Basin storages increased in volume. Increases were only small, but pleasingly against the recent trend of declining storage volumes.

Southern Basin storages also recorded increases with the exception of the Basin’s largest storage, Lake Dartmouth which fell by one percent due to the continued transfer of water to Lake Hume in preparation for the upcoming irrigation season.

In the west of New South Wales, Lake Victoria is now at 83% following a transfer of water from Lake Hume. The Menindee Lakes are effectively dry with only 1% water left in storage – Lake Menindee, Lake Cawndilla and Lake Pamamaroo are dry and Lake Wetherell is almost dry.

The volume of bulk water transfers will be regularly re-assessed in light of the Bureau of Meteorology’s rainfall outlooks, Lake Victoria water levels and other factors.

Murray-Darling Basin storage levels

Water levels in MDBA major storages as reported at 4 September 2019.

More information

Spotlight – Drought refuges in the Murray–Darling Basin

Creating and maintaining refuges so that animals can shelter, breed and feed is very important during extended dry periods. It is more important than ever that we use the water available strategically, to help to build and maintain resilience in the Basin so the system can withstand these dry times and bounce back when the drought finally breaks.

The 2019–20 environmental watering outlook released in February, focusses on protecting critical habitat for native fish and waterbirds with the possibility that warmer and drier than average conditions will continue in the Basin into next year. It is important to note that environmental water holders receive the same allocations as other holders of the same entitlements, and when there isn't much water available, allocations will be low. Allocations for the environment, particularly in the Northern Basin, are expected to remain low due to the very low levels of water in storage.

Many of the Basin's rivers, wetlands and floodplains have not recovered from the millennium drought (up to 2010). The outlook highlights that some important wetlands and floodplain forests, including key sites for waterbirds, have not received water for long periods due to the prolonged dry conditions.

Fish deaths in the lower Darling and other Basin catchments recently are a graphic demonstration of the stress the system is under. It highlights the importance of fully implementing the Basin Plan to manage water effectively to protect our rivers and the plants and animals that depend on them.

Successful examples of water delivered to support fish refuges and habitat for waterbirds is the Macquarie Marshes in 2017–18, and the northern connectivity event – a coordinated delivery of 23 gigalitres of water which travelled 2,000 km along the Barwon–Darling rivers to the Menindee Lakes, between April and June 2018.

Each year, the Murray–Darling Basin Authority sets the Basin environmental watering priorities. These focus on river flows and connectivity, native vegetation, waterbirds and native fish and are set out as rolling, multi-year priorities to guide environmental watering over the medium term (3–5 years).

Drought refuges in the Condamine River

Condamine River, Queensland

More information about Basin annual environmental watering priorities

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.


Masthead image - bushfires in the Pilliga, NSW. Source: NSW DPI Flickr stream. Used under creative commons CC-BY

Updated: 12 Sep 2019