The era in which growing demands for water can be met by developing new large-scale dams appears to be over.
— Professor Darren Ryder, School of Environmental and Rural Science
The single biggest water challenge worldwide is scarcity. The era in which growing demands for water can be met by developing new large-scale dams appears to be over. Developing strategies to share this finite resource will be needed to guide the future of water resource management, and must be underpinned by scientific evidence that supports both sustainable river health and sustainable regional communities. Professor Darren Ryder, who heads up the Aquatic Ecology Group at UNE, has been collaborating with government, industry and local communities for 16 years to understand how rivers and wetlands respond to the delivery of water for the environment.
Amid the politics, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the Murray Darling Basin Plan was originally drafted with a clear aim to shift water away from irrigation and improve the long-term sustainability of rivers. Delivering water for the environment in landscapes that must also sustain industries and rural communities that represent $24 billion in activity every year remains a complex challenge. While questions have been raised over the Basin Plan’s governance, economics, and political commitment by the States, the environmental benefits are emerging. This is where science plays a major role, and where the Aquatic Ecology Group has improved the scientific evidence base for water management in the northern Murray-Darling Basin.
UNE was a key partner in the Long-Term Intervention Monitoring Project (LTIM), which began in 2014, to monitor and evaluate environmental outcomes from the delivery of Commonwealth environmental water – the water being delivered into the Murray- Darling Basin as part of the Plan. In 2019, LTIM transformed into the Monitoring, Evaluation and Research (MER) Program and UNE became the lead organisation to study and report on outcomes from Commonwealth environmental water delivery in the northern Murray-Darling Basin. The LTIM and MER Programs were designed to collect data on the responses of fish, waterbirds, vegetation, food webs and water quality to environmental water, allowing us to measure progress towards a sustainable Basin.
The northern Murray-Darling Basin is vast. Establishing a monitoring and research program in rivers that span over 27% of the 1 million km2 Basin area and contribute over 17% of the average annual flow in the Basin is challenging both scientifically and logistically. Field-based monitoring and research also provides a valuable opportunity for us to connect with local communities and Traditional Owners, allowing us to share the lessons learnt through monitoring outcomes from environmental water delivery, and better understand the diverse perspectives on sharing water.
Professor Ryder says that, “In the highly diverse and internationally-listed Gwydir wetlands we were able to show that the delivery of water for the environment reduced the cover of the invasive plant Lippia by over 80% and allowed Water Couch, a native grass, to flourish for years beyond environmental flooding. While the delivery of this water had clear environmental benefits, the return of Water Couch as valuable fodder in productive landscapes also benefited local primary producers. This is but one of the many examples where our scientific monitoring has identified potential shared benefits to rivers, their environments and local communities from the use of environmental water.”
The recent Murray-Darling crisis that led to drinking water shortages, drying rivers, and fish kills only highlights the need to continue to work towards the long-term sustainability of rivers in the Basin. It’s not yet widely known what environmental water can and cannot do, and how resilient the Basin’s rivers and local communities will be to future climates. Professor Ryder said that “At the end of our current Program we will have collected 9 years of scientific evidence on the responses of water quality, plants and animals to environmental water in the rivers and wetlands of the northern Murray-Darling Basin. We will also have 9 years of engaging and collaborating with our local and regional communities around water for the environment. Our approach is to link government, industry and communities with our improved scientific understanding of what environmental water can and cannot achieve. Robust science and collaborative decision-making strategies for sharing water are key to helping us achieve the Basin Plan goals for the long-term sustainability of rivers in the Murray Darling Basin.”