The Living Murray River restoration program


The Living Murray (TLM) is one of Australia's most significant river restoration programs, with almost $1 billion of funding provided for use between 2004 and 2012.

The program is a joint initiative of the Australian Government and the governments of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. The Murray–Darling Basin Authority provides overall coordination and daily management of the program on behalf of the joint governments.

Over the long term, TLM aims to contribute to the achievement of a healthy working River Murray system for the benefit of all Australians. As a first step towards this goal, TLM focuses on:

  • recovering 500 gigalitres (GL) of water per year, on average, to improve the ecological health of the River Murray system
  • improving environmental outcomes at TLM's six icon sites through development of works and measures to allow targeted environmental watering.

TLM's six icon sites were chosen for their high ecological value — most are listed as internationally significant wetlands under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (the Ramsar Convention) — and their high cultural value to Indigenous Australian and other communities. 

The locations of the six icon sites are shown in Figure 2.1.

TLM is made up of a number of programs that contribute to improved environmental outcomes at these icon sites. The following subsections detail the progress of these programs, with the exception of the Environmental Works and Measures Program, which can now be found in chapter 3 of the annual report (please see pp. 79–80). 

TLM has made significant progress towards its water recovery target of returning an average of up to 500 GL per year to the river for the benefit of the six icon sites, with most of the water recovery measures to achieve this target completed by the end of 2009–10. Water allocated against the recovered entitlements was made available for watering of icon sites during the year.

Figure 2.1 Location of the icon sites. The River Murray Channel icon extends along the river as shown by the dark-blue line.

Figure 2.1 Location of the icon sites. The River Murray Channel icon extends along the river as shown by the dark-blue line.

Birdwatcher, River Murray, Hattah National Park, 2009

Birdwatcher, River Murray, Hattah National Park, 2009

TLM Water Recovery Program


The Water Recovery Program coordinates actions to recover water for The Living Murray (TLM), including:

  • infrastructure measures
  • market-based measures
  • regulatory measures.

The volume of water recovered is calculated as a long-term Cap equivalent volume, or LTCE (see boxed definitions).

All water recovery measures are subject to an independent review on completion. All final listings on the Environmental Water Register (see 'Water recovery registers' in boxed definitions) are approved by the Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council.


Long-term Cap equivalent

The long-term Cap equivalent is a type of average. It takes into account the different characteristics and reliability of water entitlements in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. For instance, the recovery of a LTCE volume of 1.000 GL in the New South Wales Murray region requires purchase of either a 1.053 GL high security water access licence or a 1.237 GL general security water access licence. This measure of water recovery creates a common unit of measure, allowing equitable comparison of a broad range of water recovery measures.

Water recovery registers

Water recovery measures are approved and monitored using a system of three registers. The first stage of approval for a water recovery measure is the Developmental Register, which is the initial list of water recovery proposals deemed feasible as a water recovery measure under TLM. The second stage of approval is the Eligible Measures Register, which lists water recovery measures either ready to be implemented or being implemented. The Environmental Water Register is the third and final stage of approval for a water recovery measure, and the point at which the water entitlement is made formally available for use under TLM.


  • Listed a total of 472.1 GL LTCE on the Environmental Water Register (as at 30 June 2010).
  • Implemented measures sufficient to recover a further 13.9 GL LTCE.
  • Completed or implemented 18 water recovery measures for TLM.

As at 30 June 2010, water recovery measures have recovered 472.1 GL LTCE of water (see Table 2.1). It is expected that a further 13.9 GL LTCE of water will be recovered by measures still being implemented (see Table 2.2).

During 2009–10, the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) began to buy irrigation entitlements under TLM water purchase project. The project received over 400 expressions of interest, with 18.646 GL LTCE of water entitlements purchased from willing sellers in South Australia and Victoria. The Living Murray water purchase project will be completed early in 2010–11. 

MDBA has been working with the Ricegrowers Association of Australia to implement the on-farm water efficiency round 2 project. Under this project, funding is provided to irrigators to implement water savings at a farm-scale level in return for permanent water entitlements. At 30 June 2010, the project had recovered close to its full target of 6.274 GL LTCE of water for TLM; it is expected the project will be completed early in 2010–11. 

MDBA also commenced purchasing entitlements under the sustainable soils and farms measure during 2009–10. This measure is expected to be completed in early 2010–11 and is aiming to recover 3.026 GL LTCE.

Table 2.1 Listings on the Environmental Water Register (at 30 June 2010)



Volume recovered (GL LTCE)

Final listings

Australian Government

Water through efficiency tender 


New South Wales 

Murray Irrigation Limited supplementary water access licence 


New South Wales

Tandou Limited supplementary water access licence


New South Wales



New South Wales

Wetlands Water Recovery — Stage 1


South Australia

Securing government-held water for environmental use 


South Australia

Purchase from willing sellers 


South Australia

Securing government water and purchase from willing sellers



Goulburn–Murray Water recovery package



Shepparton Irrigation Area modernisation project



Pilot market purchase measure



Ricegrowers Association on-farm water efficiency project: A1


Interim listings

New South Wales

Market purchase measure 


New South Wales

Package B



Lake Mokoan water recovery package



Ricegrowers Association on-farm water efficiency project: round 2



TLM water purchase project




Table 2.2 Listings on the Eligible Measures Register (at 30 June 2010)



Volume to be recovered (GL LTCE)

New South Wales

Market purchase measure


New South Wales 

Package B



TLM water purchase project



Ricegrowers Association on-farm water efficiency project: round 2



Sustainable soils and farms on-farm reconfiguration demonstration project



13.976 (approx.)

TLM Environmental Delivery Program


The Environmental Delivery Program is responsible for delivering water allocations from The Living Murray (TLM) water entitlements to the six icon sites to maximise ecological outcomes. 


  • Allocated volume available to TLM substantially increased because of the increase in the water entitlement portfolio from a long-term average of 342 GL to 472 GL and improved inflows.
  • TLM program delivered a total volume of 65.729 GL of environmental water to icon sites, including key drought refuges and the Lower Lakes in South Australia.
  • Implemented successfully the real-time management strategy and on-ground projects to mitigate acid sulfate soils in the Lower Lakes.

The increase in entitlements in The Living Murray water portfolio was complemented by an increase in annual allocations, due to the improved inflows in the River Murray system. As a result, 155.666 GL became available to TLM in 2009–10.

The Environmental Watering Group, which comprises representatives from each TLM partner government, makes decisions on environmental watering. At the beginning of the water year, a plan is developed to guide decision-making about the use of environmental water during the year. As a consequence of the drought and forecasted low water availability, management objectives for the 'extreme dry' climate scenario were used by the group to identify critical environmental water requirements for 2009–10. The extreme dry objectives are:

  • avoid critical loss of threatened species
  • avoid irretrievable environmental damage or catastrophic environmental events
  • provide refuges to allow flora and fauna to recolonise following drought.

Although inflow to the River Murray increased during 2009–10 compared to the previous few years, it was still significantly lower than the river's long-term average flow. Many areas of the River Murray system remain in extreme drought and conditions at TLM icon sites have not improved significantly. However, TLM was able to achieve positive environmental outcomes by watering critical drought refuges at five of these icon sites. Initial monitoring results showed improvements in vegetation health and an increase in food resources and habitat for waterbirds at most sites. The delivery of 48.3 GL to Lake Albert in the Lower Lakes also helped maintain water levels, avoiding acidification and reducing salinity levels.

Floods in the Lower Darling were partly responsible for a significant proportion of allocation becoming available to TLM in the second half of the year. A decision was made to carryover 85 GL of environmental water into 2010–11, enabling larger watering actions to be delivered in spring to maximise the ecological benefits obtained from this water.

Record low water levels in the Lower Lakes were forecast in the first half of 2009–10 because of the continuing drought and system inflows tracking close to the historic minimum. These conditions resulted in the recording of high salinity levels and an increased risk of acidification due to critically low lake levels (–0.5 m Australian height datum in Lake Albert and –1.5 m AHD in Lake Alexandrina). 

MDBA responded to the acidification risk by establishing a real-time management strategy to avoid acidification of the Lower Lakes. In 2009–10, this strategy supported the monitoring of water levels and the presence of acid sulfate soils in the Lower Lakes and their associated tributaries from July to December 2009. The risk of acidification eased in January 2010 when environmental water and higher inflows from the Darling and Murray river systems and Lower Lakes' tributaries reached the Lower Lakes, which ensured the lakes remained above the critical acidification levels. 

As well as establishing the real-time management strategy, MDBA contributed $6.9 million towards the South Australian Government's Goolwa Channel water level management project, which successfully mitigated the risk of acidification in the Goolwa Channel in 2009–10. The project included:

  • the construction of a temporary blocking bank across Goolwa Channel and Currency Creek
  • pumping 26.95 GL to raise the newly formed weir pool to 0.7 m AHD 
  • limestone-dosing in the upper reaches of Goolwa Channel tributaries. 

An ecological monitoring program conducted during this project found that fish, birds, vegetation and invertebrates had not been negatively affected by this work. 

The South Australian Government has developed a long-term management plan to support the health of the Lower Lakes and the Coorong.

Swans, Coorong Lakes, South Australia

Swans, Coorong Lakes, South Australia

TLM Environmental Monitoring Program


The Environmental Monitoring Program assesses the environmental outcomes of The Living Murray (TLM), focusing on fish, bird and vegetation communities aligned with the icon site ecological objectives. Environmental monitoring projects are in place at these icon sites to provide both long-term ecological assessments and to determine the immediate ecosystem benefits of environmental watering.


  • Conducted icon site condition and event monitoring of fish, birds and vegetation communities during 2009–10, which indicated that while severe drought conditions continue to impact on the health of wetland, floodplain and riverine habitats, the limited environmental watering of key refuges during the drought has resulted in positive ecological responses.

In 2009–10, TLM Environmental Monitoring Program continued implementing standardised condition monitoring of fish, waterbirds and vegetation, enabling consistent reporting on progress towards the long-term ecological objectives at all TLM icon sites.

The Living Murray stand condition model was used in a project to assess the health of forests and woodlands across icon sites. Using a combination of ground surveys and satellite imagery, this model predicted tree-stand condition at 175 sites throughout the six icon sites. Overall findings in 2009–10 indicated that 79% of the river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) and black box (E. largiflorens) communities in TLM icon sites were in a stressed condition (i.e. in moderate to severely degraded condition), which is similar to the results for stand conditions at these icon site in 2008–09.

This result suggests that water availability (rainfall and flooding) across TLM icon sites remains insufficient to maintain the majority of forests and woodlands in healthy condition. It also indicates that environmental watering, despite its limited coverage, has improved the condition of forests and woodlands at these sites in the areas watered.

The third annual aerial survey of waterbird populations at icon sites was conducted in November 2009. This project was undertaken in conjunction with the Eastern Australian Waterbird Survey to enable survey results to be understood in the context of waterbird populations of the broader south-eastern Australian landscape. 

Survey results showed that drought conditions continued to impact on waterbird communities and to limit the availability of other wetland, floodplain and riverine habitats throughout the Murray–Darling Basin. Concentrations of waterbirds were found in the north of the Basin on the Paroo overflow lakes and the Georgina–Diamantina river system. The total number of waterbirds (247,923) surveyed in 2009 across all TLM icon sites represented a 44% increase in the number of waterbirds surveyed at the same time of year in 2008, which had been 4% lower than the number for 2007.

The overall condition for river fish communities in 2009–10 was poor, with some species severely affected by the ongoing drought. However, new fishways are restoring passage for the migratory fish community, and resnagging between Lake Hume and Yarrawonga has increased numbers of some native fish species. Detailed studies are continuing to determine whether the observed increases in the resnagged reach will result in growing populations of native fish.

During 2009–10, a number of projects to monitor responses to environmental watering events at TLM icon sites were coordinated under the umbrella of the Environmental Monitoring Program. These projects included:

  • Monitoring of wetland bird responses to drought refuges created by watering at the Lindsay–Wallpolla islands and Hattah Lakes icon sites. The project found that the watered sites supported a high diversity and abundance of wetland birds, including 19 rare and threatened species, while 17 species were recorded breeding. These icon sites are therefore considered to be high-value refuges for wetland bird conservation and important to achieving icon site ecological objectives.
  • Assessing the effects of watering the Narrung wetland, a key refuge in the Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray Mouth icon site, by examining the response of Ruppia tuberose (a native aquatic grass plant) seeds. The project found that the number of Ruppia tuberose seeds collected after the watering in October and November 2009 was statistically higher than that found in samples collected before watering. However, the density of seeds was still relatively low after many years of poor conditions in the Lower Lakes.

Dr Tamara Boyd and Paul O’Connor monitoring waterbird nesting after water allocation, Kinnairds Swamp, Victoria

Dr Tamara Boyd and Paul O’Connor monitoring waterbird nesting after water allocation, Kinnairds Swamp, Victoria

More information about the Environmental Monitoring Program and recent monitoring reports are available on the MDBA website, <>.

TLM Communications and Consultation Program


The Living Murray's Communications and Consultation Program aims to:

  • increase awareness and understanding of The Living Murray (TLM)
  • engage communities and provide opportunities for them to contribute their views through consultation forums
  • provide feedback to communities on how their views have been considered in decision-making or planning activities.


  • Consulted, at multiple levels, with communities living near icon sites where TLM program is building water management structures.  
  • Developed and updated communication products across a range of media.

TLM Communications and Consultation team comprises staff from the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) and relevant agencies in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. The team is responsible for the development and effective implementation of TLM Strategic Communication and Consultation Strategy.

The team communicates the achievements of TLM program by developing and updating products such as media releases, publications and website content in conjunction with partner governments. It recently developed an environmental watering activities webpage (now available on the MDBA website). 

In 2009–10, the team ensured that local communities were consulted about construction of TLM's water management structures at the icon sites of Gunbower–Koondrook–Perricoota Forest, Hattah Lakes, and Chowilla Floodplain and the Lindsay–Wallpolla islands. These structures are the largest environmental works of their kind in Australia and will deliver water to approximately 37,000 hectares of the River Murray's significant forests, wetlands and lakes. 

Consultation included:

  • holding community events such as public meetings (including with Indigenous Australian stakeholders) 
  • disseminating products such as digital video discs of Google Earth flyovers of icon sites
  • opening a shopfront in Barham, Victoria to provide information about the Koondrook–Perricoota environmental works.

Following consultation with communities near TLM icon sites, amendments were made to the planning and construction phases of water management structures, including:

  • building a levee bank at the Koondrook–Perricoota site to provide extra protection for neighbouring properties against flooding
  • scheduling partial and staggered closures to public access to the Chowilla Floodplain, rather than total closure for the full duration of the construction period.

Cap on water diversions


The Murray–Darling Basin Authority is responsible for managing the implementation of the Cap on water diversions for each river valley in the Murray–Darling Basin as set by Schedule E of the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement. The annual Cap target in each valley is calculated by a Cap model approved by MDBA.

The MDBA's responsibilities include arranging the audit of compliance with the Cap by the Independent Audit Group, and preparing and publishing the annual water audit monitoring reports. 


  • The Cap audit for 2008–09 (conducted and reported in 2009–10) found that in all valleys where a Cap applies, except for the combined Barwon–Darling — Lower Darling valley in New South Wales, diversions were within acceptable bounds.
  • Out of 18 models requiring approval, 12 have been approved and five are being audited. 
  • The annual Cap audit, usually conducted at the end of October, was completed in September 2009 and the audit report published and distributed in November for the first time.
  • The annual water audit monitoring report, usually published in the following June, was published and distributed earlier, in April 2010.

The Cap has kept the aggregate level of water extractions in the Basin below the level of extraction in 1993–94 (see Figure 2.2; green line represents 1993–94 extraction level).

Figure 2.2 Annual diversions against annual Cap targets, 1997–98 to 2008–09 

Figure 2.2 Annual diversions against annual Cap targets, 1997–98 to 2008–09 

* The overall decline in flow to the sea and the lowering of Cap targets and consequent reduction of diversions resulted from decreased inflows into rivers and decreased water availability.

Definition: the Cap

The 'Cap' refers to a limit on surface-water diversions from the Murray–Darling Basin. It was established in 1995 to stop increases in such diversions.

The Cap is an essential first step in establishing management systems to achieve healthy rivers and sustainable water use throughout the Basin.

The Cap varies from year to year, depending on inflow. Its main objectives are to:

  • enhance the riverine environment by maintaining and, where appropriate, improving existing flows in the waterways of the Basin
  • achieve sustainable water consumption by developing and managing Basin water resources to meet ecological, commercial and social needs. 

The Cap promotes sustainable use of Basin resources by: 

  • preserving the existing security of supply for river valleys 
  • helping maintain water quality 
  • encouraging efficient use of water, which reduces waterlogging and land salinisation
  • preventing further deterioration of the flow regime for the environment. 

The Cap will be replaced by sustainable diversion limits under the Basin Plan.

Cap audit

The Independent Audit Group usually conducts the Cap audit at the end of October every year. However, the 2008–09 audit was completed in September 2009, and the resulting Review of Cap implementation 2008–09 was published and distributed in November for the first time. The Water audit monitoring report 2008–09 was published and distributed in April 2010, two months earlier than usual. 

The key findings of the Independent Audit Group's 2008–09 Cap audit were:

  • Diversions of 4,119 GL from rivers in the Murray–Darling Basin were the lowest since 1983–84, reflecting worsening drought conditions and the onset of possible climate change throughout most of the Basin.
  • Diversions in all Cap valleys in South Australia and Victoria were within acceptable bounds for Cap management. 
  • Diversions were within acceptable bounds for Cap management for all New South Wales valleys where the Cap has been defined, except for the Barwon–Darling — Lower Darling valley. 
  • The Cap for New South Wales Border Rivers is expected to be finalised in 2010.
  • In Queensland, the Cap has been set for the Border Rivers, Warrego, Paroo, Nebine and Moonie catchments. 
  • The Resource Operation Plan for Condamine–Balonne was finalised in March 2010 following the conclusion of a judicial review. 
  • A Cap proposal for the Condamine–Balonne system is expected within six months of the finalisation of its Resource Operation Plan.
  • Queensland Border Rivers, Warrego, Paroo, Nebine and the Moonie valleys were found to be within the Cap.
  • In the absence of a Cap model, the Australian Capital Territory Cap could not be audited. 

Progress of accreditation of Cap models

Accreditation of Cap models progressed significantly in 2009–10. Of 24 Cap valleys in the Basin, caps have not been defined in three valleys and three other valleys currently do not require a Cap model. Of the remaining 18 Cap valleys, Cap models have been approved for 12 and five are currently being audited. 

Significant progress has been made towards developing a Cap model for the Australian Capital Territory.

Breaches of the Cap

In New South Wales, diversions in the combined Barwon–Darling — Lower Darling valley continued to exceed the Cap. As a consequence, MDBA declared the continuance of the Cap breach in the valley. As required by Schedule E of the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement, New South Wales reported to the Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council in June 2010 on the reasons for the Cap breach and proposed to reduce the annual allocation by 30 GL from 2010–11 to address it; however, New South Wales deferred the proposed action until after the outcome of 2009–10 Cap audit, which is scheduled for late September 2010.

Adjusting the Cap for environmental entitlements and uses

In 2008, the Ministerial Council adopted a protocol under Schedule E for adjusting caps for environmental entitlements and uses. This protocol requires that the MDBA's annual water audit monitoring reports include information on:

  • environmental entitlements created
  • allocations for environmental use
  • trade in environmental entitlements and allocations
  • Cap adjustments for environmental use.

In 2009, the Cap adjustment for environmental use was 109 GL.

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