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Published: 12 September 2018   •   Media release

Authorities have used satellites to keep track of river flows in the northern Murray–Darling Basin in a successful trial to help guard against water theft.

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) used imagery provided by Geoscience Australia to track water flows in the Barwon and Darling River systems during a major release of water for the environment into northern rivers between April and June.

A report into the trial, which found satellite images provide an important line of evidence for compliance, has been published by the MDBA. The report can be found on the MDBA website.

MDBA’s acting head of compliance Brent Williams said the satellite images, coupled with on-ground gauge data, kept a close watch over the water, where it was going, and changes to on-farm activities along the river.

"We’ve been looking to the sky to make sure we know what is happening on the ground," Mr Williams said.

"Satellite technology has helped us have a detailed look over a large area, giving us a valuable new tool to ensure water is delivered to where it is needed and is not diverted for unauthorised use.

"We now know the technology works, in concert with other lines of evidence. We’ll now look at how to use it wholesale to strengthen monitoring and compliance across the Basin."

The Murray–Darling Basin covers more than one million square kilometres across four states and one territory, including 23 river valleys and 77,000 kilometres of rivers.

The report is based on the coordinated release of Commonwealth and state environmental water into northern rivers between April and June. The water travelled more than 2,000 kilometres and arrived at Menindee Lakes near Broken Hill.

Water users along the Barwon-Darling were told of the water release and the New South Wales Government imposed a ban on extractions during the event.

The MDBA then used freely available Sentinel satellite images and data, operated by the European Space Agency, to compile fresh images of the Basin every few days.

The images were so detailed they could detect water in irrigation channels and on-farm storages as well as any changes to crops. Changes could be quickly noted, cross referenced with other data, and passed on for investigation if required.

"The satellite images were a great help to see exactly how the water behaved as it made its way down the Barwon and Darling rivers," Mr Williams said.

"For example, we could monitor how the water moved through the surrounding landscape.

"But perhaps most importantly, we could quickly measure any major changes to private storages at a time when there was an embargo on any consumptive extractions."

The trial found no major changes to farm dam or water storages or any sudden or unexpected changes to the flow itself during the watering event, signalling a low probability of any compliance issues.

The satellite trial is the latest in a suite of changes over the past 12 months to strengthen water compliance across the Basin.

Following an independent review of compliance, the states and the MDBA have agreed to implement more accurate metering of water, and to be more transparent about compliance activities and penalties.

The MDBA has also set up an Office of Compliance, while the Australian Government has appointed former AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty as a Northern Basin Commissioner to make sure Basin Plan rules are being followed.

Fast facts:

  • The Murray–Darling Basin accounts for about 14 per cent of Australia’s land mass and produces about 40 per cent of our food and fibre.
  • 2.6 million people live in the Murray–Darling Basin and more than 3 million rely on it for drinking water.


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