Everything you need to know about the River Murray’s ‘water for the environment’

Heard this phrase in the news but not sure what it means? Learn what it is and its importance to the River Murray.

Over time, you may have heard expressions like ‘environmental water’, ‘e-water’ or ‘water for the environment’ when we talk about the River Murray.

But what exactly is it, why is it important and why is it necessary? We’re here to help.

What is ‘water for the environment’?

The River Murray is our life-blood. It provides essential water for irrigation and industry, as well as our day-to-day domestic and recreational use.

As South Australians, we live in the driest state in the driest inhabited continent in the world. Since colonisation, wetlands and floodplains across the Murray-Darling Basin, including in SA, have undergone major modification and widespread degradation.

As a result, we’ve seen declines of iconic and keystone flora and fauna species. Natural flood events now occur infrequently, their magnitude and duration are greatly reduced, leading to a deterioration of our wetland and floodplain ecosystems.

To keep the River Murray healthy, some water is allocated solely to the environment – known officially as ‘water for the environment’. This water is critical to maintaining the health of the River Murray, and its wetlands and floodplains.

How does it work?

Delivering the right amount of water for the environment, in the right places and at the right times can be complex.

But in a nutshell, water is allocated to federal and state environmental water holders across the Murray-Darling Basin, who work with state and federal water managers to make decisions about when, where and how much water is released for the environment.

Through the use of ‘works’ – or water-control structures including dams, weirs, locks, levy banks, pumps and regulators – water is released to selected sites at specific times to ensure the best possible outcomes for our environment.

The Victorian Environmental Water Holder has put together this great video explaining in much greater detail how it works.

How has it helped the environment?

‘Water for the environment’ has delivered great outcomes for many species and habitats that rely on the environmental flows.

For instance, the condition of Bookmark Creek, which flows around the western edge of the Renmark township and connects to the main river channel, has vastly improved, shifting from a dry and salty irrigation disposal site to a healthier, fast-flowing creek habitat. This has resulted in a noticeable increase in native fish, frog, and waterbird species in the area.

Likewise for the Chowilla Creek (near SA’s border with Victoria), where successful use of the Chowilla Environmental Regulator to raise water levels gave the area a much-needed drink. Fish monitoring after the flows revealed a small number of large golden perch in the wetlands, as well as a range of small native fish and large numbers of shield shrimp and fairy shrimp, juvenile mussels and other macro invertebrates.

The wetlands and lakes in the region became feeding grounds for a range of waterbird species including grey teal, great cormorants, black-fronted dotterel, yellow-billed spoonbills and large numbers of pink-eared ducks and avocets.

For more details about great environmental outcomes in the River Murray resulting from ‘water for the environment’, keep your eye out for our upcoming blog: How ‘water for the environment’ is helping the River Murray’s species and habitats. In the meantime, learn more about the Murray with these fast facts.

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