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Basin-wide environmental watering strategy

A basin-wide approach to water for the environment. The Basin’s rivers, floodplains and wetlands provide vital natural services (ecosystem functions) like clean air, water and soil for people, communities and industries.

The Basin Plan aims to protect and restore key water-dependent ecosystems, safeguarding these vital services for the long-term benefit of all Australians.

The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia’s largest connected river system. This connectivity means that actions involving water taken in one place influence downstream areas.

To manage water efficiently and effectively at a basin scale requires thinking about the water resource as a whole, taking account of the Basin’s connectivity and how best to protect rare, unique or representative species or habitats such as the estuary and the internationally-significant migratory bird sites.

The Basin Plan takes this basin perspective, setting limits on how much of our scarce water resources are used for consumptive purposes so that water use is sustainable for the long term.

What we aim to achieve and when

The basin-wide environmental watering strategy builds on the Basin Plan. It guides the work of governments, water holders and environmental managers. It sets out the expected outcomes at a whole-of-basin scale that should be achievable with the environmental water available, and efficient and effective strategies to achieve them.

The first basin watering strategy, released in 2014, aims to halt the decline and then improve the condition of key water-dependent ecosystems through a range of actions including managing water to improve health of the river system through more natural and variable flows.

In some places, it’s not possible to deliver water to the environment because of constraints and potential impacts on landholders and communities, or because areas are too high up in the catchment.

For the areas that can be watered – the managed floodplain – and flows in rivers, we expect the additional water available for the environment to improve:

  • native vegetation
  • waterbirds
  • native fish
  • river flows and connectivity

Working together to deliver water at the right times and places to stimulate a desired environmental response is expected to achieve the outcomes summarised below.

Basin-wide watering strategy results for river flows, vegetation, waterbirds, fish
Basin-wide watering strategy at a glance


Important flow types

How we will achieve it

To complement the Basin watering strategy, Basin governments are developing long-term watering plans that will provide detail on environmental outcomes at a regional scale.

To achieve the environmental outcomes sought, water resource plans being developed by basin governments will need to provide for environmental watering to occur consistently with this strategy and the long-term watering plans.

This long-term approach is supported by annual planning. Each year, we prepare basin-wide annual environmental watering priorities to guide the planning of environmental watering across the basin and help achieve the strategy’s long-term environmental outcomes.

Measuring success

The outcomes in the basin watering strategy are measurable to help evaluate success and to inform changes to managing environmental water in response to what is learned.

The strategy will evolve and be reviewed over time in response to monitoring and evaluation, new knowledge and changing circumstances.

It will take time to see basin­-scale improvements. The Basin Plan is still being rolled out and the water recovery target is yet to be reached. As well, there are lags in nature’s response to improved conditions, such as the time it takes for new populations to establish and new vegetation to grow.

Some positive early signs are starting to emerge, particularly at the local scale:

  • watering for the environment has maintained core wetland habitat and supported some significant water bird breeding events across the basin although overall populations are still declining
  • floodplain vegetation watered during the drought is in better condition than surrounding areas but several important vegetation communities such as Ruppia and Moira grass are still under threat
  • some fish populations have started to improve but ongoing support is needed for threatened species.

A run of normal climatic conditions is needed before we can really improve the condition of these populations.