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Water for the environment

Why do we need to return water to rivers, wetlands and floodplains? Find out more about environmental watering, what it is and why we need to do it, and how governments and communities are working together to help restore the health of the Murray–Darling Basin.

Why do we need water for the environment?

The health of the Murray–Darling Basin has declined in recent decades from the combined impacts of droughts and over-use of water resources.

Water resource development has reduced:

  • natural small to medium-sized floods
  • flows along the system through to the sea
  • flushing of salt to prevent salinity build up
  • floodplain inundation

It has also altered the pattern, or seasonality, of flow so that higher flows which used to happen in winter-spring now occur in summer-autumn to meet irrigation demands.

The Basin supports over 30,000 wetlands and rivers and a wide variety of plants and animals. It is a refuge for threatened species and is an important breeding place for birds migrating to Australia from as far away as the Arctic.

A healthy environment, including good water quality, is essential for the people who live and work in the Basin, as well as people outside the Basin who depend on its resources and value its environment.

The key to improving the health of the Basin's environment is  using water recovered for the environment  to  deliver more natural and variable flows.

What are we trying to achieve?

Our environmental objectives are in the Basin Plan. The Basin-wide environmental watering strategy sets out our long-term targets in more detail, including:

  • what environmental outcomes we want from watering
  • how we can work together to achieve these outcomes across borders
  • strategies for managing and using  water for the environment
  • how we determine the Basin annual environmental watering priorities.

Long-term watering plans and water resource plans that the Basin states are preparing for each region are also important elements in the way water for the environment is planned and delivered.

How is water for the environment delivered?

Water holders and water managers coordinate the delivery of environmental water with irrigation demands and rainfall. The best outcomes for plants and animals occur when environmental water passes through rivers and wetlands in ways that mimic natural conditions and that build on natural flows (such as rainfall events). 

Pilby creek following an environmental water release in the Chowilla wetlands.

In some places, water for the environment is delivered using levees, pipes and regulators, providing benefits without overbank flows.  

Water managers, including the Australian Government, Basin states, The Living Murray program, and river operators, work together to maximise benefits from delivering water for the environment.  This includes using water that was already on its way down the river system for another purpose (such as irrigation), using the same water for multiple watering events, and returning water to the river so that it can be re-used downstream.      

Where does the water come from?

Water is recovered for the environment through improvements in irrigation infrastructure or water buybacks. The Australian Government is investing more than $5 billion in water saving infrastructure and on-farm efficiency projects where water savings are shared between water users and the environment. The government has limited water buyback to within a legislated cap of 1,500 GL.

Together, the water saved and purchased is building the Australian Government's portfolio of environmental water. Some Basin states, The Living Murray program and other smaller programs also have their own holdings.