Basin stories

The Murray–Darling Basin sustains us and is significant to all of Australia. Healthy rivers are important not just to the Basin, but to the whole country.

Read stories from the Basin about the people, plants, animals and industries that rely on the rivers.

MDB Map

A map of the Murray-Darling Basin in broader Australia.

Riverland Ramsar wetland

River flowing through the Riverland Ramsar wetland
Riverland Ramsar wetland | Copyright Department of Environment - Photographer Nerida Sloane

The Riverland Ramsar site is in South Australia. The site runs along the Murray River, from the town of Renmark to the Victorian and New South Wales border.

The Riverland wetlands include the Chowilla Floodplain and Lindsay Walpolla Islands. The site is made up of a series of creeks, channels, lagoons, billabongs, swamps and lakes.

The area is home to the nationally threatened Regent Parrot, Murray Cod, Murray Tortoise and Southern Bell Frog. There are extensive stands of River Red Gums bordering the creeks and backwaters.

The Ramsar wetland is an important habitat for a large number of migratory and waterbirds. Riverland provides a critical summer or stopover habitat for migratory birds listed as in danger of extinction.

The Maraura, Ngintait and Erawirung peoples occupied the area for some 12,000 years.

Banrock Station Ramsar wetland

Banrock Station Ramsar wetland
Banrock Station Ramsar wetland | Copyright shared Department of Environment and SAGov Photographer Paul Wainwright

Banrock Station Wetland is on the River Murray floodplain in the Riverland of South Australia and is Ramsar listed because of its international significance.

The area is carefully managed to support tourism and to sustain more than 120 species of plants and 138 species of birds – 14 bird species are listed as threatened waterbirds and wetland dependent. The site is one of the few locations in South Australia where the rare River Snail has been successfully bred.

The Coorong, and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert Ramsar wetlands

The mouth of the River Murray – where the river flows into the Southern Ocean.
The mouth of the River Murray – where the river flows into the Southern Ocean.

In the Millenium drought (2001-2009) the Ramsar listed Coorong and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert were severely threatened.

It’s one of Australia’s most important wetland areas – where the Murray River flows into the Southern Ocean.

The Lower Lakes began to dry up, exposing acidic soils, and the Murray Mouth closed, forcing around-the-clock dredging to ensure salt and other pollutants could be flushed out of the river system.

Parts of the Coorong became too salty for many native plants and animals to survive, becoming five times saltier than the sea.

Australia designated the site, about twice the size of Singapore, or 140,500 ha in South Australia, as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 1985.

Work to repair its wide range of environmental features including 23 wetland types, endangered sedgeland and swamps, is ongoing. It provides habitat for a range of animals including waders, waterfowl and nationally threatened species such as the Orange Bellied Parrot and the Murray Cod.

Curlew Sandpiper – critically endangered

Curlew Sandpiper
Curlew Sandpiper | Copyright shared Department of the Environment and creator photographer Brian Furphy

The Murray–Darling’s rivers play a critical role internationally as a habitat for migratory shore birds. The Curlew Sandpiper is critically endangered and between the 1980s and 2004 populations declined by 79% at the Coorong, in South Australia. It likes to winter in Australia, migrating from Siberia where it breeds.

While here, the Curlew Sandpiper return to the same estuaries, bays, inlets, lagoons, and lakes near the coast for shelter and food. They can fly from Singapore to Australia in one go and spend from August to March growing strong so they can migrate to their breeding grounds.

Dry land farming

Aerial photo of paddocks using dry land farming
Paddocks using dry land farming.

Of the $30 billion of agriculture produced in the Murray-Darling Basin each year, $8.5 billion is the result of irrigated agriculture. The rest comes from dry land farming.

Dry land farming, also known as ‘dry farming’ or ‘dryland agriculture’ means that farmers do not use irrigation to supply crops with water. Instead, they rely on soil moisture and rain.

Common dry farming crops include wheat, barley, canola and oats.

Cotton – innovating to use less water

Cotton fields being watered using irrigation channels
Irrigated cotton crops.

Of the $30 billion of agriculture produced in the Murray–Darling Basin each year, some of it is food and some of it is fibre, like cotton.

In the Murray–Darling Basin, cotton is mainly grown in northern NSW and southern QLD.

Cotton production is highly variable and is driven by seasonal conditions. It is often grown using irrigation.

Australia’s cotton industry has innovated to become one of the most water efficient industries in the world. Water-use productivity by Australian cotton growers has improved by 52% since 1997.

Agriculture is adapting to a future with less water.

Rice

Aerial photo of Rice fields
Rice fields | Copyright shared Department of Environment and photographer Arthur Mostead

Sustainably managing the Murray–Darling rivers is essential to ensuring there is enough water to support the food and fibre industries that feed and clothe Australians.

Most of Australia’s rice is grown in the Murray–Darling Basin although volumes are highly variable, reflecting water availability and the prices of alternative crops. Rice is sown from October to December and harvested in March to May in southern New South Wales.

Farms that produce rice also typically produce other crops using irrigation water, such as cotton, pastures and perennial horticulture, as well as dryland crops such as wheat. Many also have beef and sheep enterprises.

Grapes

Grape vines growing in a field
Grape vines | Copyright Department of Environment - Photographer John Baker

Around 90% of grapes grown in the Murray–Darling Basin are wine grapes. The irrigation techniques to produce them have changed over the years from flood and furrow and sprinklers to the far more efficient drip and trickle system.

While water application rates per hectare are largely unchanged less water is wasted.

Agriculture is adapting and innovating to a future with less water.

Oranges

Oranges growing on a tree
Orange tree | Copyright Department of Environment - Photographer Cecilia Burke

Orange trees take about three years to produce fruit and rely on water to grow. Around 95% of Australia’s oranges are grown in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Yearly variations in production are highly influenced by seasonal conditions. For example, unusual frosts or heatwaves during flowering and fruit set can significantly reduce production.

Food and fibre produced in the Basin is regularly exported around the world and contributes significantly to Australia’s economy.

Almonds

a spoonful of almonds
Almonds
Almond trees in blossom
Almond trees in blossom

Australians eat, on average, more than a kilo of almonds each a year.

10 years ago the Murray–Darling Basin produced about 73,000 tonnes of almonds. Now the region produces more than 140,000 tonnes and exports around 105,000 tonnes contributing $765 million to Australia’s economy.

River Red Gum

River Red Gums at Reedy Lagoon
River Red Gums at Reedy Lagoon.

The iconic River Red Gum is the dominant eucalypt flanking the Murray–Darling rivers.

The River Red Gum can live for 1000 years and form large forests. And they can grow big – 45 metres tall and 11 metres around.

River Red Gums need access to groundwater or regular rain and flooding to remain healthy. While they can tolerate periods of drought, the trees show signs of stress when there’s not enough water to top up groundwater reserves.

They do a lot of work – providing medicine and materials for Aboriginal people and food and shelter for animals.

Dairy farming

Cows on a dairy farm
Dairy cows | Copyright Department of Environment - Photographer Andrew Tatnell

One litre out of every five litres of milk we buy from the supermarket relies on water from the Murray–Darling rivers. That’s because farmers grow pasture so they can feed dairy cows throughout the year. The Basin’s dairy industry stores the pasture grown as hay or silage and feeds it to dairy cows when needed to sustain milk production.

The Murray–Darling Basin produces about 1.5 billion litres of milk a year. Generating a farmgate value of $1.14 billion in 2022-23.

One third of Australia’s food is produced in the Basin.