The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder will use water this year to support the new waterbird fledglings and young native fish born during the flood years, while keeping a close eye on the anticipated return of El Niño, which could bring drought and heatwaves in Australia.
Over the past 12 months, the Darling-Baaka and Murray rivers flowed at the highest levels in decades, replenishing wetlands, floodplains and forests. Rivers reconnected throughout the Murray–Darling Basin, with native fish like the Golden perch spawning and travelling thousands of kilometres.
Flooding and water for the environment paved the way for waterbirds like Pelicans, Straw-necked Ibis, Royal Spoonbill and Egrets to breed in massive numbers, including at internationally significant Ramsar wetlands across the Murray–Darling Basin.
High flows also flushed salt out of the Murray Mouth and significantly reduced salinity levels in the Coorong to healthy levels that support native fish, wetland plants and animals.
Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, Dr Simon Banks said the focus is building on the gains provided by the floods over the last couple of years with environmental flows already underway for the 2023–24 water year, but there is more to do.
“Commonwealth environmental water has worked hand-in-hand with wet conditions to breathe life back into our rivers and wetlands, benefiting waterbirds and native fish and other water-dependent species,” Dr Banks said.
“Waterbird populations have experienced continuous decline over the past 40 years. Native fish populations have declined by 90 per cent over the past 150 years. Reversing these declines requires long-term action with careful and strategic use of water for the environment.
“With lots of young, hungry waterbirds to feed, water for the environment will be used this year to ensure wetland habitat is available for shelter and food.
“For native fish, our focus is ensuring there are river flows that provide cues for them to breed and move between rivers. We’re also targeting areas that were affected by poor water quality caused by flooding.”
Dr Banks said effective water management also meant knowing when not to use environmental water.
“Working with our water delivery partners, we’ll also introduce drying phases in some wetlands, particularly those that have been overrun with carp, which has a devastating impact on the natural environment,” he said.
The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder’s Water Management Plan includes options to sell water this year and carry over water into 2024-25.
“Like other water users, we need to plan for multiple years, and carrying water over is a useful tool to allow us to respond to future conditions. With warm and dry conditions returning, we need water set aside to reconnect rivers, fill waterholes and provide drought refuge for native fish and waterbirds,” Dr Banks said.
“Our Water Management Plan outlines what we will do in all scenarios – wet, dry and in between – we must plan for them all.
“If we decide to sell annual water allocations, the funds raised will be used for environmental activities such as upgrading fishways or installing new infrastructure that allows us to further improve the outcomes we get from water for the environment.
“We partner with state agencies, First Nations peoples, community members, scientists and industry to carefully plan where and when water for the environment will be used.
"Input and support from our partners ensures we are considering local needs when delivering water and making decisions that are backed by science. We look forward to working with our partners over the next 12 months.”
You can find more information on the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder’s annual Water Management Plan at: Water Management Plan 2023-24: A summary
For more information on environmental outcomes observed in 2022-23 visit: Largest bird-breeding in decades as water for the environment flows
To find out more about how the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder uses proceeds of trade for environmental activities visit: CEWO Environmental Activities Framework (CEAF)