The Murrumbidgee

Water for the environment in the Murrumbidgee valley – keeping our rivers and wetlands healthy for future generations.

OPINION: The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) manages the water that has been recovered under Basin Plan initiatives including water efficiency projects and water purchases. In the Murrumbidgee, the CEWH manages a portfolio of High Security, General Security and Supplementary entitlements. Entitlements managed by the CEWH retain the same characteristics and rules (i.e. allocation, carry over and fees) as other licence holders.  

Amongst the debate on water buybacks, a common question we hear is how are we using all the water recovered to date? How is this water benefitting our local wetlands, plants and animals?

 

Commonwealth Environmental Water in the Murrumbidgee valley

 

Under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, water has been recovered to keep our rivers and wetlands healthy. This water is managed by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH).

In the Murrumbidgee valley, the CEWH has 782 gigalitres of surface water entitlements. Over the long-term, this provides on average 418 gigalitres of water each year.

There is a mix of different entitlement types. This includes 286 gigalitres of General Security entitlements and 429 gigalitres of Supplementary entitlements. The CEWH is subject to the same fees, allocations, carryover, and rules as other water users.

Many people may not know that we use the majority of this water to benefit the local environment. Water recovered in the Murrumbidgee valley is being used in the Murrumbidgee valley. We work with NSW government agencies, irrigator operators (such as Murrumbidgee Irrigation and Coleambally Irrigation), local landholders, First Nations peoples and interested community groups to plan and deliver the water.

We also measure and monitor its use. This means we know what outcomes we are achieving. The results inform our plans and help us innovate to get even better outcomes next time.

 

Examples of how Commonwealth environmental water is benefitting the Murrumbidgee valley

Wetland Preservation

 

There are lots of important wetlands throughout the Murrumbidgee valley. There are around 1100 wetlands lining the Murrumbidgee River between Wagga Wagga and Hay. Below Hay, the river breaks out into a vast floodplain, known as the “Lowbidgee floodplain”. The Yanco Creek system (which includes Colombo Creek and Billabong Creek) has large wetlands, billabongs and more than 800 kilometres of creeks.

McCaugheys near Yanco, is one of the many wetlands along the Murrumbidgee river between Wagga and Hay. Photo: Michele Groat

Commonwealth environmental water is rejuvenating many of these wetlands and floodplains. It is resulting in healthier plants and increased diversity of plants. It is also providing critical habitat for fish, turtles, frogs, rakali (water rats) and fishing bats.

Sunshower near Darlington Point, transforming after receiving water for the environment

 

Waterbird Breeding

 

The Lowbidgee floodplain is one of the most important waterbird nesting areas in the Murray-Darling Basin. It is particularly important for ibis, herons, pelicans, egrets and cormorants. In 2023, the Lowbidgee floodplain supported more than 25 percent of waterbirds breeding in the basin. This included more than 98,000 straw necked ibis nests and 21,000 pelican nests. During these nesting periods, we often ‘top up’ the wetlands with environmental water. This keeps the water levels stable, so the adult birds don’t abandon their nests. It can also reduce the risk of nests becoming accessible to predators like foxes and pigs. We sometimes provide flows to flush the wetlands. This aims to maintain water quality and minimise the risk of disease.

Pelican’s at Gayini on the Lowbidgee floodplain.

 

Native fish breeding, movement and survival

 

Native fish populations in the Murray-Darling Basin have declined by more than 90% over the past 150 years. Factors that have contributed to this decline include:

  • changes to the timing and size of flows down the river
  • barriers to fish movement
  • poor water quality

In the Murrumbidgee valley, environmental water is helping to address these threats. This includes providing flows:

  • at the right time of year (particularly at the right temperature) to support golden and silver perch spawning
  • that connect the river with wetlands that provide nursery habitat for baby fish
  • that allow fish to move back and forth between the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers
  • that mitigate low oxygen water, which can occur in both droughts and floods and cause mass fish deaths.

CSU’s Lachlan Spalding, setting nets in Yanco Creek to monitor native fish. Photo: Anna Turner

 

Conclusion

 

Commonwealth environmental water is playing a vital role in the Murrumbidgee valley. It is benefiting the region’s birds, native fish, wetlands and floodplains. This water is not diverted away from the region. Instead, it is carefully managed to restore and protect the Murrumbidgee environment we all live in.

Protecting and restoring the rivers and wetlands of the Murrumbidgee Valley

OPINION: Local Engagement Officer for the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) Michele Groat shares her thoughts on the response by CEWH to maximise the opportunities and minimise the risks of the recent floods affecting the Murrumbidgee. The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) manages the water that has been recovered under Basin Plan initiatives including water efficiency projects and water purchases. In the Murrumbidgee, the CEWH manages a portfolio of High Security, General Security and Supplementary entitlements. Entitlements managed by the CEWH retain the same characteristics and rules (i.e. allocation, carry over and fees) as other licence holders.  

 

As a Local Engagement Officer for the CEWH I have been asked with all the flooding is there still a need for environmental water this year? Hasn’t nature done it all for us? Interestingly, while nature has done most of the heavy lifting there are still plenty of reasons environmental water is needed in wet years. So what do we use it for in a wet year?

 

Supporting Waterbird Breeding

 

As the old saying goes, “if you build it, they will come”. Over the past couple of years, Commonwealth and NSW environmental water managers have been working together with landholders, including the Nari Nari Tribal Council, to deliver water onto the floodplain to grow wetland plants, frogs and bugs in the lower part of the Murrumbidgee River (Lowbidgee). When the big rains and floods came last year, the wetlands were in good condition to support a large influx of waterbirds, with thousands of birds making the most of the very good habitat and food available in the Lowbidgee. Over 52 different waterbird species have been observed, including the nationally threatened Australasian Bittern, as well as grebes, ducks, black swans, herons and white-bellied sea-eagles…. the list goes on. Many of these waterbirds rely on floods and full wetlands to breed.

Many of these species have also bred, with some in the tens of thousands, like Pelicans and the straw-necked ibis, also known as the ‘Farmer’s friends’ (and not be confused with its cousin, the white ibis or “Bin Chicken”). Importantly, if the water levels in their breeding grounds (rookeries) rise too high, nests can flood. If they drop too much, adult birds may abandon their nests and feral animals, such as foxes and pigs, can gain access to the colonies. And if the water quality deteriorates in the rookeries, the birds are at risk of diseases. So environmental water managers monitor these large breeding colonies and use water for the environment to support these breeding sites when necessary. The skies in the Lowbidgee are full of juvenile birds taking full advantage of healthy wetlands, good habitat and plentiful food.

Pelican breeding colony, Gayini. Photo: Madeline Clark

 

Waterbird surveys over the last 40 years have shown a long-term decline in bird numbers so the prolonged flooding and wetter conditions we have been experiencing over the last 2 years has been a real reprieve for Australian waterbird populations, as in dry times, these large breeding events simply do not occur.

Find out more here: Waterbird breeding bonanza in the Basin – DCCEEW

 

Mitigating low oxygen water

 

In wet years like this, low oxygen (or hypoxic) blackwater events become a real risk.

Blackwater can occur when floods wash organic matter (such as leaves, grass and bark) into the rivers. Carbon is released from organic matter and the water becomes very dark – like a really-strong pot of tea. This provides food for water bugs, crayfish and native fish and plays an important role in maintaining a healthy river.

However, too much organic matter from big floods can see naturally occurring bacteria multiply quickly to feed on the massive amounts of carbon, but in doing so deplete the water of oxygen. When oxygen levels become too low, it can kill fish and other aquatic animals. During floods the river is at greater risk of low oxygen blackwater – especially during the hot summer months.

Blackwater in Cowabbie Cr entering Bundidgerry Creek. Photo DPI Fisheries

Over summer, river operators, irrigation corporations and environmental water managers worked together to mitigate low oxygen blackwater across a number of valleys, including in the lower Murrumbidgee River. As floodwaters receded, we delivered water for the environment to improve water quality. No major fish deaths have been reported in the lower Murrumbidgee valley this year, which has been a great result for our native fish. As always, we’ve been careful to avoid exacerbating flooding conditions and negatively impacting any landholders.

Find out more here: Low-Oxygen Blackwater and Water for the Environment – DCCEEW

 

Extending natural flows

 

The Murrumbidgee River is a ‘working river’, which means water storages are managed to conserve water and only drawn upon to meet minimum flow targets for river health and water orders for irrigation, town water supply, other industry demands and environmental water orders. The ‘tail-end’ of natural flows are typically captured in the dams. This can reduce the duration of flows reaching wetlands. It can also cause a sudden drop in river height, which may lead to riverbank slumping and erosion and can sometimes have detrimental effects on native fish habitat.

Water for the environment can be delivered on the back of these flows to extend the volume and duration of water reaching important wetlands, such as the Mid Murrumbidgee Wetlands. It can also allow for a slower, more gradual recession, reducing the risk of bank slumping and erosion.

The graph below shows how water for the environment (in green) was used to extend the duration and manage the recession of flows at Wagga Wagga in March 2022.

Flows at Wagga Wagga in March 2022. Water for the environment (in green) was delivered to extend the duration and provide a more gradual recession after an unregulated flow (in blue). Credit: WaterNSW

 

Working together to build resilience into the future

 

After a couple of good years, we are looking to build the resilience of our rivers and wetlands before the next drought. We are starting our planning for next year, however, providing ‘top-up’ flows to wetlands is likely to be needed to lock in the gains that have been achieved to date. This will include using our carry over allowance, so we can provide environmental flows early in the new water year, mimicking how rivers would have behaved naturally.

Environmental water management is a collaborative exercise involving numerous partners, including NSW Department of Planning and Environment, WaterNSW, Murray-Darling Basin Authority, First Nations peoples, local landholders, and scientists. We are grateful for their support and look forward to continuing to work together to benefit the rivers and wetlands of the Murrumbidgee valley.

 

Michele Groat is the CEWH Local Engagement Officer in Griffith, NSW supporting the management of the water that has been recovered under Basin Plan initiatives. She has extensive knowledge and experience in areas of water management and environmental stewardship having held roles at NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA), RiverReach, Murrumbidgee Valley Stakeholder Group and Ricegrowers’ Association prior to her current position. 

 

Fast 5 with Tony Reneker, Leeton Shire Council’s Mayor Councillor

Tony Reneker, Leeton Shire Council’s Mayor Councillor, moved to Leeton in 2000. Before this, he had 35 years in the NSW Police and was attached to Griffith Local Area Command, retiring five years ago as Chief Inspector. He had geographical responsibilities for Leeton, Narrandera, and other areas and so knows the region well. Having worked all over NSW and experiencing other places, he feels confident in saying how good the Murrumbidgee area is.

Where do you work and your title?
I’m the Mayor of Leeton Shire Council, and I’m a second-term Councillor. I’ve been on the Council here for eight years, and I’ve been the Mayor since December 2021. I’m on a number of committees too. Some of these include the Country Mayors Association and Whitton and Yanco Town Improvement Committees. Plus, ones that relate to water and the environment, including Leeton Flood Plain Management Committee, Leeton Weeds Committee, Bushfire Management Committee, Fivebough and Tuckerbil Wetlands Advisory Committee, Riverina and Murray Joint Organisation, and Executive Murrumbidgee Irrigation Strategic Liaison.

What made you decide to work in the field?
I think it was two things: firstly, I don’t like people to whinge about things and do nothing about it, and I think if you want to change things, then you have to be involved. Secondly, I was motivated to be involved in the Council and to try to effect positive change for the benefit of the Leeton Shire residents.

What do you love most about what you do?
Lots of things; it’s an enjoyable job. Because of the role, you have an opportunity to be a positive influence in the community. You meet people from all walks of life and get to know them pretty well. And you meet some fascinating people and have your mind opened to different points of view.

What is something surprising about your role / business?
The realisation that you can’t please everybody, and you never will, and you wouldn’t be able to survive if you’re trying to do that. I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is that all decisions have to be made to the benefit of the whole community rather than individuals. If you keep that in mind, then things become clearer and are easier to decide upon.

What do you love about the Murrumbidgee?
The Murrumbidgee is the heartbeat of the area and our community – economically, culturally, and also for our well-being. Without the Murrumbidgee, there would be no industry, no town. It’s nature at its best, and it provides a lifestyle that we take for granted sometimes – and it’s a great lifestyle we have here – and if it wasn’t for the Murrumbidgee, we wouldn’t have that. I’ve worked all over NSW [Tony worked with the NSW Police for 35 years], which is why I feel so confident in saying how good this area is because I’ve had that previous experience in other places.

Fast Five with Jackie Kruger, Leeton Shire Council’s General Manager

Jackie Kruger was appointed Leeton Shire Council’s General Manager in 2015. She and her husband, Graeme, have been proud Leeton residents since August of that year.  Previously she worked with Tamworth Regional Council and Southland District Council and Invercargill City Council in New Zealand. Jackie shares with us her passion for working with the community, which began in her native South Africa. There she worked with impoverished communities outside national parks. This awakened an appreciation of public policy’s role in people’s lives and how clarity of vision, solidarity, advocacy, creative thinking and innovation can help communities to thrive.

Where do you work and your title? 

I work at Leeton Shire Council and I’m the General Manager.

What made you decide to work in the field?

I love working in local government because it’s an area of work where you’re constantly making a difference to people’s well-being and lifestyles. Whether it’s on the health, economic, or community development front, what Council does day in, and day out makes a difference.

While some projects are longer-term, most are things that people use every day, like travelling on their roads and switching on their taps for water. I think the work we do on the look and feel of the town and how it presents gives people a sense of pride and well-being. It’s a pleasure to work in such a positive job.

 What do you love most about what you do?

I love looking at all the strategic directions that we need to take and delivering for our community. To be a successful community it’s a mix of economic and community development and infrastructure that we need to plan for. It’s looking at all those big-picture things and how they integrate.

I love advocacy too and working for things that our community aspires to, like decent health services and a fully functioning hospital. This is so important to the community that it feels like a privilege to have a part in trying to get an outcome that will meet its needs. You’re serving your local community on behalf of the elected councillors who’ve got an ear to listen to what the community needs and wants.

What is something surprising about your role / business?

With a general manager role, you get to appreciate how local government has so many tentacles into every aspect of life and living. One minute you’re talking about sport and sporting facilities then doctors and hospitals, bridges and engineering, and then planning a new wing on a school. It’s so diverse and while we don’t deliver all those services, we touch them.

This role gives you a good sense that local government is the tier of government closest to the people.

What do you love about the Murrumbidgee?

I love that it’s easy to feel proud of the Murrumbidgee area. People once thought it was an unliveable, uninhabitable place. The foresight of people like Sir Samuel McCaughey and his ability to persuade the government to put in this magnificent Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme has turned this area into the food bowl of Australia, never mind NSW.

What’s fascinating to me is how irrigation farming improves every year – people are constantly innovating to farm in the most environmentally friendly way with the least water possible.

We’ve got an entrepreneurial spirit in the MIA and that flows through to every aspect of the region – right from the farmers and growers to manufacturing firms that produce value-added goods. Just to see that flow to the plate or to the clothing that people wear is a remarkable story for this region.

I take my hat off to everyone who just rolls up sleeves and makes it happen. It seems like in the Murrumbidgee, people don’t just talk about stuff, they make it happen and make it happen quickly.

Personally, I love going to the Murrumbidgee River for rest and relaxation. There’s nothing nicer than seeing flowing water and hearing the birds. It’s not only a wonderful source of this very important water, it’s a place to restore yourself and where you can enjoy the environment.

 

Fast Five with Sarah Braude, Sustainability Manager, Casella Family Brands

For Sarah Braude, the Murrumbidgee is central to her work as Sustainability Manager with Casella Family Brands. She spoke with us about her ties to the river, which were forged long before joining the world’s largest family wine company, based in Yenda, NSW, as her mother grew up on the banks of the Murrumbidgee.

Where do you work and your title?

I work at Casella Family Brands as Sustainability Manager. Founded in 1969, Casella has wineries in some of Australia’s premier regions. We also have expertise and capability in beer and spirits crafted at our brewery (Yenda) and distillery (Rutherglen, Victoria).

My role includes working across various strategic sustainability-led initiatives, including GHG emissions, energy auditing, packaging, biodiversity, waste reduction and water management. While I’m based in our Sydney office, I often travel to provide input to operations within the Murray catchment, including the Murrumbidgee.

What made you decide to work in the field?

I don’t recall ever actually deciding; I naturally gravitated towards the environment and sustainability. I took environmental science in my final years at school, the first time it was offered at my school and went to university to study atmospheric science and geomorphology.

I have always wanted to work in the outdoors and enjoy developing strategy and decision-making. I’ve been lucky to find this balance in my line of work.

What do you love most about what you do?

What I love most is helping people see and understand that maybe there is a better way to do what they are doing.

I think society has, over time, become increasingly removed from what powers our world, and it’s not the economy! The environment underpins the economy, not the other way around. It all starts there.

What is something surprising about your role / business?

Casella operates in all three states that the Murray River (including the Murrumbidgee tributary) ventures through. Water from the Murrumbidgee near our Yenda (Griffith) site will eventually flow to South Australia, where we have the Peter Lehmann winery and numerous vineyards. Our operations are all connected to the flow of the river system.

I guess you could say Casella starts at the Murrumbidgee, which means we need to look after the system.

What do you love about the Murrumbidgee?

Its stories. My mum grew up on the banks of the Murrumbidgee, and while I did not, her many stories often made me feel like I did.

I love how one river system can deliver not just a livelihood but also great memories and experiences. Ask anyone around the river’s community, and they will have a story for you!

Is there anything else you would like to share or add?

When it comes to the environment, everything is connected. Whatever you do, you need to consider how it impacts the system as a whole, including local communities.

When it comes to mother nature, nothing is for free. Ultimately, we are all custodians, and it’s in our best interest to respect the land and manage water responsibly.

Widespread flooding raises risk of water quality issues in the Murray–Darling Basin

 

 

The NSW Department of Planning and the Environment has released this video and information below with widespread flooding in the Murray–Darling Basin and the increased risk of water quality.

From Water News October 2022:

The Murray–Darling Basin continues to experience widespread flooding in some areas, prompting an increased risk of water quality issues like low-oxygen blackwater as temperatures increase.

Governments and water authorities are working together to monitor the unfolding conditions which may see low-oxygen blackwater and blue-green algae emerge which can lead to fish deaths and increased water treatment.

Hypoxic blackwater events are a natural feature of Australian rivers and occur as leaf litter and other carbon-based debris are swept into waterways. As this material is consumed and broken down by bacteria, oxygen from the water is used up, making it difficult for fish and other aquatic animals to survive.

Currently, there are isolated reports of crayfish exiting floodwaters to escape poor water quality. With the onset of warmer weather in the coming weeks, water temperatures will start to climb increasing the possibility of hypoxic blackwater, which unfortunately could result in fish deaths.

We will continue to monitor the situation as large amounts of organic material enter rivers from the floodplain.

To report areas in NSW where fish may be struggling or a fish death event has occurred, call the NSW Fisheries Hotline on 1800 043 536.

Widespread flooding raises risk of water quality issues in the Murray–Darling Basin

Widespread flooding raises risk of water quality issues in the Murray–Darling Basin

The NSW Department of Planning and the Environment has released this video and information below with widespread flooding in the Murray–Darling Basin and the increased risk of water quality.

From Water News October 2022:

The Murray–Darling Basin continues to experience widespread flooding in some areas, prompting an increased risk of water quality issues like low-oxygen blackwater as temperatures increase.

Governments and water authorities are working together to monitor the unfolding conditions which may see low-oxygen blackwater and blue-green algae emerge which can lead to fish deaths and increased water treatment.

Hypoxic blackwater events are a natural feature of Australian rivers and occur as leaf litter and other carbon-based debris are swept into waterways. As this material is consumed and broken down by bacteria, oxygen from the water is used up, making it difficult for fish and other aquatic animals to survive.

Currently, there are isolated reports of crayfish exiting floodwaters to escape poor water quality. With the onset of warmer weather in the coming weeks, water temperatures will start to climb increasing the possibility of hypoxic blackwater, which unfortunately could result in fish deaths.

We will continue to monitor the situation as large amounts of organic material enter rivers from the floodplain.

To report areas in NSW where fish may be struggling or a fish death event has occurred, call the NSW Fisheries Hotline on 1800 043 536.

Working Together, industry calls for Basin action

NSW Irrigators’ Council has launched a new Working Together campaign, calling on leaders to switch gears away from the divisive and destructive water policy approaches of the past and towards new partnership models.

“The Basin Plan’s environmental outcomes will only be delivered by working with the affected communities, rather than continuing to impose blunt solutions developed from afar,” said NSWIC CEO, Claire Miller.

“We have to move away from the polarising implementation approach of the past 15 years, towards models of co-operation and collaboration. If our leaders are serious about looking after our river environments as well as Basin communities, they will switch gears.”

NSWIC’s Working Together report showcases just some examples of irrigation infrastructure operators and others already showing the way forward, working with environmental water holders to deliver environmental water where it needs to go on public and private land.

 

Full media release here: https://www.nswic.org.au/media_release/working-together-industry-calls-for-basin-action/

You can see the full campaign document here: https://www.nswic.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Working-together.pdf

Image: courtesy Working Together 

New Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder appointed

New Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder appointed

Dr Simon Banks has been appointed as the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) following the recent retirement of Hilton Taylor.

The CEWH manages water for the environment on behalf of the Australian Government to support the rivers and wetlands of the Murray­–Darling Basin.

Dr Banks brings a wealth of experience to the role and a good understanding of the work, having previously been in a senior role at the Commonwealth Water Office (CEWO) from 2009 to 2014.

Full media release here:

https://www.dcceew.gov.au/about/news/new-commonwealth-environmental-water-holder-appointed

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