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River Reach – August 2021

High flows in the Murray

Releases from Hume Dam August 2021
Water being released from Hume Dam.

Less rainfall than predicted has stopped pre-releases of water from Hume Dam that were being made to maintain airspace. With the Hume recently at 90% capacity the Murray–Darling Basin Authority released close to 19 GL from 7–15 August. These pre-releases are designed to help maintain storage capacity to accommodate inflows that were expected from forecast rain.

In parallel, the Environmental Water Holders ordered water, from 12 August, to meet flow targets downstream of Yarrawonga Weir. These releases are currently around 9 GL a day.

It is expected this release of environmental water will continue over the next week. It will support flows into the wetlands and creeks of Barmah-Millewa Forest, benefiting native vegetation and fish.

One of the largest water storages in the southern Murray–Darling Basin, the Hume Dam has been slowly filling in recent weeks thanks to good rainfall producing flows into the River Murray.

Hume Dam’s primary purpose is water security – it plays a crucial role in managing flows and securing water along the Murray, including to Adelaide. The MDBA needs to fill Hume Dam before irrigation demands start to exceed inflows, and the level starts to drop. This ensures water allocations are maximised.

Many other southern Basin water storages are also exceeding 80% capacity.

The Bureau of Meteorology is responsible for issuing flood warnings to the public. Check for up-to-date flood warnings in your area.

Read more about how dams are managed to reduce the impact of flooding.

A message from the Chief Executive, Phillip Glyde

Welcome to our August edition of River Reach. We are now more than halfway through 2021 and what a year it has been! Basin communities continue to show a high level of resilience when faced with ongoing pandemic restrictions and are now considering the change in fortune brought by healthy rainfall and higher river flows. It is hard to believe that not too long ago we were staring down the worst drought on record and now we are working with other government agencies to manage the high flows.

In other news, we recently reached an historic point in the roll out of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan with the transfer of the MDBA’s compliance functions to the new Inspector-General of Water Compliance (IGWC). In September 2020, the Australian Government committed to establishing an IGWC office to oversee compliance of water use in the Basin. The transition of compliance functions to the IGWC marks a significant change in the MDBA’s responsibilities in relation to compliance and enforcement under the Water Act 2007.

The MDBA remains responsible for the independent monitoring and evaluation of the Basin Plan and running the River Murray on behalf of Basin state governments. As part of the establishment of the IGWC, the Inspector-General has oversight of water management in the Basin and inquiry powers to investigate the implementation of the Water Act, Basin Plan, and intergovernmental agreements including the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement. This is a big change for the MDBA, but we are looking forward to working with the new IGWC who now has established offices in Goondiwindi, Narromine, Albury, Loxton and Mildura. Read more about compliance and enforcement on the IGWC website.

The MDBA continues to refine and improve the way we engage with our stakeholders. Our regionalisation program has meant that we are better positioned to consult with Basin communities, be a visible presence, as well as experts in our field. Although we are now more dispersed across the Basin, ongoing COVID-19 restrictions have made it difficult to attend events and meet our stakeholders face-to-face. To help with this we have improved our virtual engagement and have continued to look at ways we can learn from local communities including through our regional community forums, which have so far been held online.

I am pleased to share that we have continued to make great progress towards increasing our regional presence across the Basin. As of 30 July 2021, we have a third of our workforce across our Adelaide, Albury–Wodonga, Goondiwindi, Griffith, Mildura, Murray Bridge, and Toowoomba offices. It is truly an exciting time to be part of the MDBA and water management in the Basin.

I hope you enjoy this issue of River Reach. More changes are coming to the way we stay in touch with Basin communities as we power towards the end of the year. I encourage you to reach out with any feedback or suggestions on the changes we’re making to

All the best,

Wet winter provides positive operating outlook for the Murray

Annual Operating Outlook

Rising dam levels in the River Murray System are providing a positive start to the water year according to the MDBA’s 2021-22 Annual Operating Outlook.

The Annual Operating Outlook is designed to help water users forward plan and manage possible risks to water security. The Outlook considers management strategies under potential climate conditions, from extremely dry to very wet.

However, the season is unlikely to play out in accordance with any one scenario and the MDBA will review and adapt operations as the season progresses.

Water storages are at higher levels across the board, with Hume Dam currently at 90%, Menindee Lakes at 73% capacity, and good flows entering the Murray from the Victorian tributaries and the Murrumbidgee River.

Access to water in the Menindee Lakes provides the MDBA with greater flexibility to draw on water to meet delivery demands throughout the river system. The MDBA expects to start calling on water from Menindee Lakes in spring or early summer which is in line with the operating rules to maximise water availability, while considering the needs of communities and the environment.

The risk of shortfall in water delivery to entitlement holders is low this season due to wet weather, although managing the risk of short-term spikes in demand will continue to be a focus for the MDBA River Operations team over summer.

The Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting wetter than average conditions in the Upper Murray catchments over winter and spring, which means there is an increased chance of flooding. The MDBA will progressively re-evaluate forecast rainfall and inflows to guide management of Hume Dam over the year. Communication of flood risk in partnership with the Bureau of Meteorology and on-ground agencies will be a priority if wet conditions continue.

The River Murray System Annual Operating Outlook is prepared by the MDBA with input from the Australian, New South Wales, Victorian and South Australian Governments.

Read the Annual Operating Outlook summary.

A wet winter for the Namoi and Gwydir

Gilgai country on the Namoi floodplain west of Narrabri
Gilgai country on the Namoi floodplain west of Narrabri.

Take a look at this impressive aerial shot of some Gilgai country on the Namoi floodplain, west of Narrabri in New South Wales.

According to the Bureau of Meteorology the Gwydir and Namoi were still experiencing some of the driest conditions on record at the beginning of 2020. Since then, the area has seen a significant turnaround, receiving well above average rainfall over the past 12 months.

Dam levels and the river system in the Gwydir and Namoi have been well and truly replenished from the big rain events, which has significantly boosted agricultural production in the area. There’s a positive outlook for a bumper winter cropping harvest.

This photo was taken by Bryce Guest from North West Helicopters as he did a fly over the Namoi floodplain.

The depressions in the paddock are known as ‘gilgais’ or ‘melon holes’ and are caused by the expansion and contraction of soil. This farmer had to plant around the gilgais because they were too wet.

While there are still areas across the Basin in drought, it’s great to see some locations benefiting from much-needed rainfall.


Flows in the River Murray System

Flows in the River Murray advert graphic
Yarrawonga Weir and an example of flows in the River Murray graphic.

Flows in the River Murray System vary widely depending on a range of factors, including rainfall, inflows, evaporation, and demand for water for human use.

At any given time, water flowing through the river is destined for various uses, including irrigation, industry, communities, the environment, and meeting South Australia’s flow entitlement. The exact mix of these flow components is determined by demand and water availability, amongst other factors.

Each month we release a report detailing the flows in the River Murray System including the total flow volume for consumptive use, water for the environment and it’s intended environmental outcomes.

For more information view this month’s report or previous flow reports on our website.

Yarrawonga weir crossing to close to traffic

Aerial view of Lake Mulwala with Yarrawonga Weir in foreground
Aerial view of Lake Mulwala, with Yarrawonga Weir in the foreground.

The Yarrawonga weir road bridge has been an important part of its region's history since the weir was opened in 1939. On average 1500 crossings of the weir, located on the River Murray, are made each day.

From 15 October 2021, the weir crossing will be permanently closed to public traffic once essential maintenance work on the major Yarrawonga Mulwala Bridge has been completed.

The crossing closure will ensure the ongoing safety of weir workers and preserve the integrity of the structure as an essential component of water management on the River Murray.

The weir controls the flow of water in the river and enables reliable supply to communities downstream in the River Murray as well as irrigators connected to the Yarrawonga Main Channel in Victoria and the Mulwala Canal in New South Wales.

Work on the Yarrawonga Mulwala Bridge is expected to be completed by the end of September 2021.

Fish back from the brink

Native fish are reappearing in areas of the Murray–Darling Basin where they were believed to be locally extinct or critically endangered.

Recent monitoring has shown an increase in several species including the recreational fishing favourite, the Murray cod.

A Murray cod released into the Mitta Mitta River

Murray cod in the Mitta Mitta

A recent study has revealed natural recruitment of Murray cod in the lower Mitta Mitta for the first time in several decades.

In the mid-1990s Murray cod were believed to be extinct in the Mitta Mitta River in Victoria, with research conducted from 2014 to 2020 showing that cold water pollution in the Mitta Mitta River interfered with several parts of the breeding and recruitment cycle.

With conditions in 2021 reducing the need for releases from Dartmouth Dam and reduced cold water pollution effects, recent electrofishing surveys found an increase in the number of young Murray cod in the lower Mitta Mitta River. Further testing revealed this included both stocked fish and natural recruits.

The occurrence of natural recruits is the first confirmed natural recruitment of Murray cod in the lower Mitta Mitta River since the construction of Dartmouth Dam. The finding shows that Murray cod can recruit in the Mitta Mitta River under warmer water conditions and comes after more than a decade of research and changes to release strategies from Dartmouth Dam. This information will be used to further develop improved river operations strategies aimed at enhancing numbers of Murray cod in the Mitta Mitta River.

The fish monitoring was funded by the MDBA in collaboration with Goulburn–Murray Water, the Arthur Rylah Institute, North East Catchment Management Authority, and the Mitta Mitta Community and Fishing Club.

A critically endangered trout cod

Murray–Darling rainbowfish and trout cod in Gunbower Creek

Since 2013, threatened and critically endangered native fish have been benefiting from water for the environment in Gunbower Creek in Victoria.

How well native fish are responding to these flows was demonstrated again when the North Central Catchment Management Authority found 100 threatened Murray–Darling rainbowfish and 28 critically endangered trout cod during construction works. The fish were discovered while building fishways at the Cohuna and Koondrook weirs. Fifty Murray cod were also found. Delivery of water for the environment has supported native fish breeding cycles and helped both naturally bred and stocked fish to survive and grow in Gunbower Creek. Fish monitoring to check in on the health of the local native fish population in Gunbower Creek is carried out each year through The Living Murray program.

Murray hardyhead

Murray hardyhead at Katarapko

Record numbers of critically endangered Murray hardyhead were rediscovered in the River Murray at Lock 4 within the Katarapko Floodplain in South Australia.

The weir pool at Lock 4 was raised 30 cm above normal levels using water for the environment to inundate parts of the Katarapko Floodplain.

Throughout the weir pool raising, South Australia Department for Environment and Water (DEW) completed monitoring of the Murray hardhead population in the Gurra Gurra Wetland Complex to see what influence the water for the environment event was having. During a single sampling event the team caught almost 25,000 Murray hardyhead and across the whole survey period more than 75,000 individuals were captured. The monitoring will investigate the links between Murray hardyhead breeding and weir pool raising to inform future management. This work forms part of the $155 million South Australian Riverland Floodplains Integrated Infrastructure Program to improve the health and resilience of riverland floodplains.

Images: (Top) A Murray cod released into the Mitta Mitta River. (Middle) A critically endangered trout cod. (Bottom) Murray hardyhead, courtesy SA DEW.

First Nations supporting a healthy Basin

The Barkandji river rangers
The Barkandji river rangers

First Nations people across the Basin are continuing to play an active role in protecting and managing the land and their culture thanks to the Murray–Darling Basin Indigenous River Rangers Program.

The program is one of several initiatives under the Murray–Darling Communities Investment Package and allows river rangers to use their knowledge and connection to Country and water to manage and restore rivers and wetlands across the breadth of the Basin.

The Barkandji river rangers, based in Menindee, New South Wales, are actively involved in preserving and supporting the Darling (Baaka) River. For the past 3 months, the Barkandji river rangers have been out on the river once a week collecting information about oxygen levels and temperature. The work is being done under the guidance of the MDBA and the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries – Fisheries and aims to provide agencies with a broader understanding of water quality.

Work such as this is now more likely to continue in other parts of the Basin with the Australian Government recently awarding funding to the following organisations to establish 5 new Indigenous river ranger groups:

  • Border Ranges Contractors
  • Dharriwaa Elders Group
  • First People of the Millewa–Mallee Aboriginal Corporation
  • Yarkuwa Indigenous Knowledge Centre Aboriginal Corporation
  • Nari Nari Tribal Council

Each of these organisations applied for funding to be part of the Murray–Darling Basin Indigenous River Rangers Program, which will allow at least 27 new positions to be created in these areas.

The latest Indigenous River Rangers Program grant round also saw the Barkandji Native Title Group Aboriginal Corporation secure more than $4.2 million funding to continue the Barkandji river rangers’ operations until 2028.

More information about the Indigenous River Rangers Program is available on the National Indigenous Australians Agency website.

Water initiatives a priority for the Australian Government

Agriculture at Griffith, New South Wales
Example of irrigation modernisation at Griffith, New South Wales.

The Australian Government is committed to delivering water infrastructure and climate change projects to help benefit and secure the future of the Murray–Darling Basin.

The $3.5 billion National Water Grid Fund aims to support smaller-scale water infrastructure projects that increase water availability and storage capacity. While the ongoing development of the Climate Services for Agriculture (CSA) digital platform will enable farmers to access historical climate information and future projections in one location.

The Australian Government recently announced that $108 million allocated from the 2021–22 Federal Budget would be used to deliver 40 new projects through the National Water Grid Connections funding pathway. Twenty-five of these projects will be carried out in the Basin states of South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland, with the aim of improving water security and reliability across the nation.

For more information about these projects is available on the National Water Grid construction program website.

Meanwhile, an additional $5 million was allocated through the 2021–22 Federal Budget to continue development of the prototype CSA digital platform. The digital platform is being developed by the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology with the first-generation prototype launched in July 2021. Engagement with farmers in the following 4 pilot regions is now taking place to support further development of the platform:

  • Queensland Dry Tropics
  • Condamine and the Northern Tablelands
  • Victoria Mallee and south-east South Australia
  • South-west Western Australia

The prototype CSA digital platform is part of the Australian Government’s $5 billion Future Drought Fund, which provides $100 million each year for programs that build drought preparedness and resilience.

The first-generation prototype CSA digital platform draws on existing national datasets to present historical and projected climate information at a 5 km2 scale – including rainfall, temperature, heat and frost risk and evapotranspiration.

For more information on the prototype delivery timeline and how to access it see Climate Services for Agriculture.

River Murray water quality

To help keep the water from the River Murray System suitable for drinking, agriculture, the environment, and recreation, the MDBA has launched a study to better understand water quality trends.

On behalf of Basin state governments, the MDBA commissioned La Trobe University to analyse water quality data from 28 monitoring sites along the River Murray and lower Darling.

This data has been collected by Basin states since 1978 and is routinely assessed to detect sudden changes in water quality that could indicate a source of pollution or emerging problems.

The difference of this study compared to routine water quality checks is that it will focus on analysing data to detect longer term trends that impact water quality, which was last analysed in detail by the CSIRO in 2013.

The physical and chemical data available for this study is extensive and will provide an in-depth insight into water quality parameters like temperature, salinity and nutrients and look at how they’re changing over time.

This will help shed light on what drives a range of water quality issues and highlight emerging risks and watchpoints in the river system.

It was essential when developing this study that the MDBA worked closely with Basin governments to ensure this study would benefit all governments involved. All findings from this study will be provided to Basin states to assist them with their shared responsibility for managing water quality for all River Murray communities.

Analysis on the water quality data has started and findings are expected to be available in mid-2022.

Read more about the River Murray Water Quality Monitoring Program.

Community forums land with a splash

Map of Murray-Darling Basin with regional community forum areas

The first round of regional community forums saw about 1,000 comments collected from the more than 100 virtual participants across all 6 sessions.

Basin communities hold generations of local river knowledge and experience and the MDBA aims to tap into this to build on our approach to water management from a local to a Basin-scale.

The first round of forums had a strong focus on condition monitoring and sought to understand how the MDBA can improve monitoring with stronger guidance from Basin communities.

Participants included landholders, scientists, First Nations, community leaders, and those with a general passion for their local waterways.

Some of the key messages to emerge across all 6 forum groups included:

  • the importance of a connected Basin system
  • knowledge sharing across all levels of the community
  • the importance of a healthy river to a healthy community.

We are now analysing the information and insights collected, to develop a range of monitoring indicators to help give a better signal of the social, cultural, economic, and environmental health of the Basin.

These community-led indicators will form a key foundation to monitoring in the Basin over the next few years.

Read more about the regional community forums and find out how you can be involved.

On the horizon

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Updated: 18 Aug 2021