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Decisions about where water for the environment goes are based on restoring waterbird populations for the health of the entire river system.

How we use water in our rivers, has changed natural flow volumes, timings and patterns of rivers. Waterbirds are very sensitive indicators of river health because they are responsive to flow and the health of their environment.

If waterbirds are missing from our environment we know the balance is not right in our rivers and wetlands.


Protecting and restoring waterbird populations

The graph shows the steep decline of waterbird abundance from 700,000 waterbirds in 1983 to fewer than 100,000 in 2017.

Restoring waterbird populations is going to take a long time and relies on restoring native fish and vegetation too, because all the animals and plants in river ecosystems rely on each other.

Water for the environment protects waterbirds

Waterbirds need high water quality, including nutrients in water (which relies on nutrient cycling), good food sources – like plants, insects and small vertebrates, frogs and fish – and shelter from native plants. They depend on rivers and wetlands to feed, grow, breed and shelter from predators.

Many colonial nesting waterbirds (birds that nest in large colonies) need wetlands to be flooded to start and complete breeding. As a result of water resource management, or how we use water in our rivers, floods have become smaller and less frequent. This means wetlands have longer dry spells and waterbirds sometimes miss out on the water that they need to feed and breed.

Shorebird numbers fluctuate from year to year. These species rely on multiple international 'staging' sites (or safe places to stop on their global journeys) during their annual migration and are highly specialised foragers (they eat specific food in a specific way). Shorebirds need exposed tidal flats for their food to grow, and to hunt their food.

Water for the environment ensures there is enough water for waterbirds, including migratory birds at the right time of year so they can feed, grow and breed. Australia has an important role to play in protecting these birds in our global ecosystem.


Waterbirds are important for people

Waterbirds are culturally significant to Australian Aboriginal people who live in the Basin. Many other people also value waterbirds; they attract people for tourism and cultural activities.

Nearly half of all wetlands where colonial nesting waterbirds breed in Australia are located in the Murray–Darling Basin. The spectacular colonies and high concentrations of waterbirds on many of the Basin’s wetlands were the reason for their nomination as wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

Deciding where water goes to help waterbirds

This year: annual watering priorities for waterbirds

Each year we set priorities to restore waterbird populations. The annual priorities are a guide for where water should be delivered to improve the health of plants and animals for the overall health of the Basin over the long term, as set out in the Basin watering strategy.

2018–19 priorities for waterbirds are:​

  • Provide flows to support waterbirds and their habitat
  • Maximise habitats for shorebirds to feed (shorebirds are waterbirds that feed in a specialised way).

Annual priorities are small steps in the short term to achieve long term goals.

One important component to determine the locations and amount of water to be delivered each year is the resource availability scenario. This considers climate conditions (rainfall, runoff and soil moisture), surface water availability in dams and the climate outlook.

Longer term: multi-year environmental watering priorities

The annual environmental watering priorities support multi-year environmental watering priorities. Multi-year priorities remain in focus over a number of years to achieve long term outcomes.

Multi-year watering is important because restoring health to rivers and the plants and animals that rely on them, takes a long time.

Multi-year watering provides and relies on cumulative progress over time, e.g. watering in one year may only wet a dry riverbed, but follow up watering the next year provides more water to fill the river and reach wetlands either side of the river where it waters plants and animals.