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Murray–Darling Basin drought update

29 January 2020.

Drought update masthead image

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 

  • Rainfall was recorded across most of the Basin during the past fortnight
  • Overall water storage levels continued to decline
  • Threats to water quality have increased in many catchments
  • This fortnight’s Spotlight provides an update on fish deaths.

Rainfall and river flows

Widespread rainfall was recorded across the Basin during the past two weeks, as shown in the Bureau of Meteorology charts below. Heaviest falls were recorded along the Great Dividing Range, where up to 115mm fell at Armidale, and 110mm at Leslie Dam, near Warwick in Queensland.

In the south, Jamieson on the Goulburn River recorded more than 70mm, along with Rocky Valley at Falls Creek, Victoria.

The Bureau is forecasting rain across the northern Basin over the coming days.

Rainfall totals as at 28 December 2019

Murray–Darling Basin rainfall for the weeks ending 20 January and 27 January 2020. Source: Bureau of Meteorology.


Following on from the warmest December on record, increased rainfall was recorded across the Basin, coinciding with slightly lower average temperatures over the last fortnight.

Maximum and minimum temperature deciles, week ending 27 January 2020

Mean maximum and minimum temperatures for the week ending 27 January. Source: Bureau of Meteorology.


More information

Water quality

Water quality is currently declining in many catchments, with reports of fish deaths in the upper Murray, Macquarie, Gwydir and the ACT. Further deaths may be triggered by a range of factors, including rainfall contributing to poor water quality following prolonged periods of low or no inflows.

Bushfires in several Basin catchments have the potential to affect water quality as rain washes ash and sediment into waterways. The extent and timing of any impacts depends on the location of the fire and the volume and intensity of rain that falls. Despite a high threat of contamination in the Upper Murray region, bushfires are not currently impacting River Murray operations.

Last week we updated the threats to water quality map with current information as shown below. Please note that the status of blue-green algae alerts may have changed since the map was updated.

Murray-Darling Basin water quality threat map

Threats to water quality in the Murray-Darling Basin, January 2020.

The MDBA and state authorities are continuing to monitor bushfire activity and water quality across the Basin. For information on changes to water quality status, see the water quality page of our website.

Blue-green algae alerts

New South Wales sites with blue-green algae at Red Alert levels:

  • Wakool River at Stoney Crossing
  • Menindee Lakes at Lake Wetherell
  • Darling River at Louth
  • Bogan River at Gongolgon
  • Barwon River at Brewarrina
  • Namoi River downstream of Lake Keepit
  • Lake Cargelligo outlet
  • Burrendong Dam
  • Copeton Dam
  • Pindari Dam
  • Mehi River at Gundare
  • Macintyre River at Lake Inverell
  • Macquarie River downstream of Burrendong Dam

Victorian sites with blue-green algae red alert:

  • Tullaroop Reservoir
  • Lake Eppalock
  • Gum lagoon, Torrumbarry Irrigation Area
  • Number 4 Lagoon, Torrumbarry Irrigation Area

Reduced inflows and stream flows have impacted water quality at many locations throughout the Basin, and conditions are expected to deteriorate as summer continues.

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.

More information


Salinity levels across the River Murray system remained relatively steady over the past fortnight, with many measurement sites recording average or below average readings.

The following map shows the average salinity level (measured in μS/cm) for the week ending 22 January 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 rivers.

More information

Water in Basin storages

Despite significant rainfall in some catchments, the total volume of water in Basin storages continued to decline over the past fortnight. Some storages in the northern Basin recovered by a single percent, while others in the south fell several percent.

The major southern storages Hume and Dartmouth continued to fall as water is released to meet downstream needs. Lake Victoria saw the largest percentage decrease, falling 4% to sit at half capacity. Wyangala Dam on the Lachlan River dipped below 10%.

Catchments that experienced substantial rainfall (particularly in the north-east) are likely to see their storage levels recover slightly over coming weeks, however there would need to be a long period of sustained above-average rainfall to break current drought conditions.

Water storage levels in the Murray-Darling Basin

Water in Basin storages as reported at 22 January 2020.

The CSIRO recently held a webcast on ‘Droughts and dams’ that covers their involvement in a range of on-farm research relevant to developing and maintaining drought resilience.

More information

Spotlight – Fish deaths across the Basin

Concerns that native fish would die due to bushfire debris and ash being washed into the Basin’s waterways, have been realised this month, with reported fish deaths across the Basin.

Recent rain, although a welcome relief from drought, has been one of the catalysts for fish deaths including in and downstream of fire affected areas.

There are numerous locations across the Basin where fish deaths have recently occurred due to a range of factors, including drought and bushfire debris, in the Macquarie, Namoi, Gwydir, Border Rivers, Barwon-Darling, Lachlan, Upper Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers have all incurred deaths, and the lower Darling continues to be a concern as the drought progresses. 

Basin governments are on the ground working hard to mitigate the impact of fish deaths, relocating fish, installing aerators and undertaking strategic releases of environmental water.

Basin governments are working together to reduce the impacts of fish deaths across the Basin and are applying the lessons learnt from the fish deaths last summer. They have committed $5 million to a new long-term Native Fish Recovery Strategy, which will be released by the end of April 2020. The strategy will outline a long term plan to recover native fish and will supplement and build on existing native fish programs in the Murray–Darling Basin.

Nariel Creek, Upper Murray catchment - Hugo Bowman, MDBA

Nariel Creek, Upper Murray catchment

The Australian Government has committed $70 million to deliver a suite of measures to recover native fish habitat and help native fish recovery over the long-term.

This includes:

  • $25 million for metering in the northern Basin
  • $5 million for cameras to live-stream river flows to provide absolute transparency to the public
  • o $20 million to expand research on the Murray- Darling Basin for better water and environmental management
  • $10 million toward replenishing native fish stocks
  • an additional $5.24 million for the Toorale Water Infrastructure Project.

Find out more

Native fish

Fish deaths in the Basin

Bushfires and water quality

Native Fish Recovery Strategy

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: 29 Jan 2020