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River Reach special edition - June 2021

River Reflections conference

The opportunity to connect Basin communities, industries and ideas was taken up by a sold-out crowd in Griffith at the first annual MDBA regional river conference, River reflections.

A virtual audience also tuned into the live stream of Day 1 of the conference held at the Griffith Exies Club on 9–10 June. To catch up on the sessions you can watch them here. 

Griffith is in the Murrumbidgee catchment, home to the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, established in 1912 and contributing $5 billion annually to the Australian economy. It is one of the most diverse and productive agricultural regions in Australia.

The comprehensive conference program included almost an A-Z of interests: agronomists, economists, elected representatives, farmers, First Nations representatives, fishers, irrigators, scientists and others were among the presenters and in the audience.

River reflections included discussions on topics ranging from First Nations to climate adaptation, and the announcement that the Australian Government would invest $25 million in the Northern Murray–Darling Basin Metering Program.

The next River reflections conference will be held in the Sunraysia region in Victoria, mid-2022.

Image: Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia, the Hon Kieth Pitt MP announced funding for northern Basin metering at last week’s River reflections conference.


A message from Chief Executive, Phillip Glyde

MDBA Chief Executive Phillip Glyde

Welcome to a special issue of River Reach where we take a closer look at our inaugural River reflections conference.

This was the Murray–Darling Basin Authority’s first regional water conference and I would like to thank the Riverina community for the warm welcome showed to the conference attendees and our staff.

My personal reflections on the conference are many, but what I appreciated the most was this: I listened, I learnt, and I heard some quite different perspectives which was one of the main purposes of the conference. I made some new contacts and established relationships, but importantly got to refresh and deepen some existing relationships by being able to meet people from all over the Basin and in particular the Griffith region.

Our Authority Chair, Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston AK, AFC (Ret'd), summed it up during the conference dinner when he said that the conference was an opportunity for people – from different parts of the Basin, different industries, and with different interests – to come together – to listen, learn and share.

Early feedback from attendees has been overwhelmingly positive, with many anecdotes focusing on the valued opportunities to connect, consider and converse with people offering a variety of viewpoints. The presenters were generous in sharing their knowledge and even though not all agreed on some discussion points, there was genuine appreciation of the chance to hear and reflect on the angles put forward.

As Sir Angus acknowledged, the MDBA is committed to enhancing our relationship with the Basin communities and this is particularly evident through our regionalisation initiative. We now have almost 100 of our 267 staff in offices around the Basin. The value of having team members on the ground cannot be understated. It’s reshaping the way we work and think.

We are also launching new community forums to bring local perspectives on water management into the conversation and share science that matters in communities.

I am thankful that we have a strong connection to the many First Nations of the Basin, which has been boosted by the leadership of Rene Woods, our First Nations Authority member.

I hope you enjoy this special issue of River Reach. Please feel free to connect with us if you require more information. As 2021 progresses you will see more changes to our e-newsletter, and we welcome any feedback on the changes we are making to engagement@mdba.gov.au.

All the best,

Phillip


Caring for Culture and Country under spotlight at River reflections conference

First Nations Authority member Rene Woods addressing the conference.
First Nations Authority member Rene Woods addressing the conference.

The importance of Gayini (Nari Nari word for water) and land to First Nations people across the Murray–Darling Basin was a feature presentation on day 1 of the River reflections conference last week.

First Nations MDBA Authority member Rene Woods, who was appointed to the Authority late last year, shared the importance of learning and understanding from First Nations people and their Gayini requirements, including the 65,000 years of management of these resources. 

Mr Woods is a Nari Nari man from southwest New South Wales and has had a long involvement in Gayini for First Nations people across the Basin. 

“Water is an intrinsic part of the Cultural and spiritual identity of First Nations people and we are working towards an increased role for First Nations people to manage and plan for water operations,” Mr Woods said.

“I have seen firsthand how managing Country for conservation, sustainable agriculture and Indigenous heritage works well.

“I have been involved with the Nature Conservancy Australia program at Gayini Nimmie-Caira in southern New South Wales where we have seen endangered birds and animals return to the landscape that is now thriving under First Nations custodianship.

“It’s been a collaborative project drawing on the traditional knowledge of the Nari Nari people and expertise from other organisations.

“There have been both cultural and environmental benefits through this work which is really exciting.”

Mr Woods said there had been research with The National Cultural Flows Research Project at Gooraman Swamp in the Northern Basin.

“It’s a highly significant area for the First Nations mob that shows where the connectivity of ground and surface water is very important to First Nations people,” he said.

“Getting back to Country and improving its health has meant more healthy people.

“We are also looking for opportunities to increase the participation of women in the First Nations space as women hold a lot of knowledge around water.”


Late frosts and erosion amongst the key climate risks facing the Murray–Darling Basin

Professor Mark Howden
Professor Mark Howden

Delegates at the River reflections annual water conference heard about the increased risks to agriculture and water infrastructure due to climate change.

In his address, Are we ready? Our changing climate Professor Mark Howden, Director of the Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions at the Australian National University shared the future watch points for farmers and water managers.

“We’ve seen a sharp increase in the number and areas affected by extremely high temperatures and this trend is consistent with future projections,” Professor Howden said.

“Somewhat paradoxically – but not news for farmers in this particular region – cold extremes such as late frosts have also been increasing in the southern Basin because of climate change.

“The risk of damaging late frosts is increasing due to a combination of lower average rainfall and more clear, cold nights along with intensification of the high-pressure systems which are bringing cold air onto the mainland from deep in the Southern Ocean.

“These late frosts are likely to continue for at least a decade before being overwhelmed by the warming trend.”

Professor Howden said the existing trends towards, on average, less water in the Basin particularly in the south due to lower rainfall was likely to continue but will be punctuated by increasing flood extremes.

“Consequently, we will increasingly value our dams and other water infrastructure and have strong incentive to take better care of it.

“Associated with this risk of increasing flood extremes will be increased erosion risk due to higher rainfall intensities,” Professor Howden said.

He said it was unsurprising that a hotter and drier climate would mean the existing climate ‘drag’ causing lower productivity and profitability of agriculture in the Basin was likely to continue and grow.

“What we mean by this is that higher temperatures and reduced rainfall during the growing season is pushing down on potential farm productivity even while improvements in technology and management are pushing them upwards,” Professor Howden said.

“The result is often growth – but much more slowly than would have occurred in the absence of climate change.”

The average reduction of agricultural productivity in Australia from climate change is the same as the global average.

“We expect there will be greatly increased competition for water between agricultural, urban, industrial and environmental users requiring careful attention to policy frameworks and to enhanced water use efficiency,” Professor Howden said.


Industry spotlight: horticulture

The Riverina region in New South Wales has been home to the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area since 1912.  The area also includes the Coleambally Irrigation Area which spans 400,000 hectares and was established in 1958.  

The region is one of several highly-productive horticulture regions in the Murray–Darling Basin with 80% of Australia’s grapes and 96% of Australia’s oranges produced by irrigated agriculture in the Basin.

Attendees to Day 2 of the River reflections conference toured a great example of the horticultural productivity of the Basin – a Leeton mixed farm, Moricom Orchard which is home to the Seedless Delite mandarin and includes avocadoes.

Grapes

  • Australian table grapes - 208,000 tonnes produced, valued at $693 million in year ending June 2019.
  • Victoria’s Murray Valley and Sunraysia grow most of Australia's table grapes with the Riverina region of New South Wales growing the second most – combined they grow about 180,000 tonnes.
  • ​In the year ending June 2019 Australian dried grape production was 66,000 tonnes.

Citrus

  • Most of Australia’s oranges come from the Riverian region of New South Wales and Victoria’s Murray Valley.
  • ​For the year ending June 2019, 528,095 tonnes of oranges were produced at a value of just under $400 million with 41 % sent for processing; predominantly for juicing.
  • Australia’s fresh orange exports totalled 188,000 tonnes in the same period.
  • For mandarins, in the year ending June 2019, 156,000 tonnes were produced valued at $298 million, with just 2 % sent to be processed.
  • Queensland is the biggest mandarin production state, growing 81,000 tonnes of mandarins in the year ending June 2019, while Victoria and NSW produced 34,000 tonnes combined and South Australia 31,000 tonnes.
Head of Research and Development at Horticulture Innovation Australia, Byron de Kock checking out some almond trees.

Head of Research and Development at Horticulture Innovation Australia, Byron de Kock said table grape production is front and centre in the Murray–Darling Basin region; especially in the Riverina and in recent years opportunities for export has seen this industry grow significantly.

Mr de Kock said Australian horticultural producers are characterised by diversity – in the types of farming commodities they produce and the farming communities they operate in.

"Be they fruit, nut or vegetable growers, all horticulture growers share a common motivating priority – to optimise the use of their most precious resource – water, which has a flow-on benefit to the local water catchment.

“Water use efficiency is a key priority for the Hort Innovation crop productivity research program with a number of best practice management initiatives under way,” he said.

“Irrigation is king – horticulture is not a rain-fed, broadacre crop – orchards particularly can’t survive under natural rainfall alone, so water is the key production priority and so is improving water use efficiency.

“All growers in these communities share the same challenges and opportunities regarding water use efficiency and selling more produce into export markets,” Mr de Kock said.

Image: Head of Research and Development at Horticulture Innovation Australia, Byron de Kock checking out some almond trees.


Murray–Darling Basin Agreement explained

During the past month the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) has released close to 60 GL of water from the Menindee Lakes to support the River Murray system in response to drier than anticipated conditions across the southern Basin. 

The MDBA has worked closely with the local community, First Nations groups and local landholders in the lead up to and during the release of this water and modified the flow rate to maximise the environmental benefits as best we can for the Darling downstream of Menindee.

Planning is underway to identify when the MDBA may need to resume drawing water from the lakes as part of the Annual Operating Outlook. This will depend on rainfall and flows in the Darling, Murray System, Murrumbidgee and Goulburn rivers. The MDBA will continue to evaluate conditions as they unfold.

In accordance with the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement (the Agreement), the MDBA accesses water from the Menindee Lakes for use in the River Murray system on behalf of Basin states once the volume of water in the lakes rises above 640 gigalitres and until it falls below 480 gigalitres.

The Murray–Darling Basin Agreement is a long-standing arrangement that aims to share water as agreed by the Basin states in the southern Basin and outlines the rules for the way the River Murray is managed and operated.

The MDBA is legally responsible for adhering to the rules laid out in this agreement. It acts as an independent body to make sure each state gets the water it is entitled to from state tributary inflows and state tributary flows and the major River Murray storages (the Hume and Dartmouth Dams and Lake Victoria), and in some instances, water from the Menindee Lakes.

Water is not simply divided into 3 even parts.

Victoria and New South Wales each receive:

  • 50% of water flowing into the Hume Dam
  • 50% of water flowing in the Kiewa River
  • 50% of water flowing into the Dartmouth Dam
  • 50% of water in the Menindee Lakes when they contain more than 640 gigalitres of water, at which point the MDBA has access to the lakes. When the amount of water falls below 480 gigalitres, only NSW receives water from them until they next reach 640 gigalitres.

South Australia receives a maximum volume (currently 1,850 gigalitres) which it can rely on in most years, except when there has been very low rainfall. Victoria and New South Wales each provide half of South Australia’s share from the water they have available.

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority has recently launched a new webinar series. The latest webinar delved into and explained the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement and its elements. A special webinar was recently held about Menindee Lakes to share more information on the history of the lakes, the operational roles of governments and what happens when the water sharing arrangements between the states come into effect.

You can learn more about water sharing in the River Murray or view the MDBA’s webinar recordings.


Menindee Lakes fly over

Take a bird’s-eye view tour of the Menindee Lakes following the recent large flows into the system.


Out and about in the Basin

Beau Byers, Spatial Analyst, Remote Sensing and Dr David Weldrake, Manager GIS and Remote Sensing travelled to north-western NSW last week to share the latest remote sensing technology with locals.
Beau Byers, Spatial Analyst, Remote Sensing and Dr David Weldrake, Manager GIS and Remote Sensing travelled to north-western NSW last week to share the latest remote sensing technology with locals.

MDBA staff enjoyed the chance last week to not only engage with local students but also see how water for the environment is benefitting the Narran Lakes ecosystem.

After a planned Narran Lakes Nature Reserve open day was cancelled due to wet weather staff still managed to spend time at the Ramsar-listed site and observe first-hand the positive impact flows through this system from last year’s first flush have had.

The Narran Lakes Nature Reserve in New South Wales was first listed under the Ramsar Convention in 1999 for its wetlands, with a further area added in 2016. To protect nesting birds, access to the reserve is limited to those undertaking scientific studies and is not open to members of the public.

Narran Lakes Nature Reserve holds great significance to First Nations people who are involved in managing the site through the Narran Lakes Nature Reserve Aboriginal Co-management Committee.

After last week’s planned Narran Lakes Reserve Open Day did not go ahead many of the exhibitors instead took the science to the school instead.

The MDBA’s David Weldrake and Beau Byers provided a display of remote sensing capabilities highlighting the use of advanced technology to track flows.

They spoke about how the MDBA works with other agencies such as the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office to track and convey information about the environment of the Murray–Darling Basin.

The trip provided David and Beau with the chance to collect geolocated imagery, which will allow the MDBA’s Remote Sensing team to complete a validation of some of its remote sensing methods and improve its accuracy and precision in the Narran Lake Nature Reserve.



On the horizon

Key upcoming dates of interest:

 

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Updated: 12 Jul 2021