Protecting the Murray-Darling Basin to secure our waterways

Australia is the driest inhabited continent, with frequent flood and drought cycles and a potentially precarious water supply. How can we sustainably manage our water before it’s too late? At La Trobe University, Dr Ben Gawne researches how water is used in the Murray-Darling Basin, preparing us for a brighter future.

The Murray-Darling Basin is located in south-eastern Australia. It’s a significant area, bisected by the mighty Murray and Darling rivers, and home to more than two million people.

The Basin hosts life, but also sustains life. It provides essential drinking water for regional communities, and supplies water for urban, recreational, industrial and agricultural use.

However, years of mismanagement have threatened the Basin’s health, putting the region’s wellbeing and prosperity at risk.

La Trobe’s Dr Ben Gawne is an ecosystem ecologist. It’s his role to support the protection and restoration of the Basin, helping to ensure the long-term management of this vital resource.

What can go wrong?

Water mismanagement can lead to ecological disaster. Negative environmental conditions can lead to toxic blue-green algae blooms, while excessive flooding can cause ‘blackwater’ (oxygen-depleted water).

These events kill fish and other aquatic organisms, and that has a knock-on effect.

Dr Gawne says the way we we've been managing the Murray and Darling threatens agriculture and tourism.

Exhausted and polluted water supplies, degraded vegetation and declining wildlife have a devastating effect. These conditions impact biodiversity, farming, food production, drinking water, fishing and tourism.

After agriculture, tourism is the Basin’s second-biggest industry. But tourism, too, relies on the health of rivers, national parks and wildlife. Yet, according to Dr Gawne, ‘the way we we've been managing the rivers has threatened those amenity values’.

Inspired by our research?

‘Every year recreational angling pumps millions of dollars into the Basin’s regional communities,’ he says. ‘But our native fish stocks are in decline. People won’t travel the long distance if all they’re catching are a few smelly carps.’

Contested waterways

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which began in 2012, is one of the world’s largest water and river restoration projects.

Dr Gawne supports the Plan by providing evidence-based research and information to the communities, water managers and policy makers in the region. This information helps them to make the best decisions for long-term sustainability.

According to Dr Gawne, scientific research plays a vital role.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan ensures rivers and wetlands are suitable for multiple uses, not just as delivery infrastructure for irrigation.

‘It’s important to give people the capacity to shape their own future rather than having a future thrust upon them,’ he says. ‘Science needs to provide information to communities so they can decide how to manage the systems and decide which values to protect.’

The Basin Plan has its detractors, according to Dr Gawne: ‘There are many stakeholders out there, particularly irrigators, who would like to see it killed off and the water returned for consumptive use.’

Some communities see it as a threat that undermines their industries, but Dr Gawne has a different view.

‘The Plan makes sure communities within the region are sustainable. It ensures rivers and wetlands are suitable for multiple uses, not just as delivery infrastructure for irrigation.’

Helping the community

Dr Gawne has spent years advocating for change in water management. As a result, the Basin’s community leaders come to him full of questions.

They ask: how can we manage water flow? Restore biodiversity and vegetation? Produce drinkable water? Protect fish and wildlife?

‘As scientists,’ he says, ‘we have to step up to the challenge.’

Enter the Murray-Darling Freshwater Resource Centre.

The Centre is a joint venture between La Trobe University and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). It strives to understand how Basin water is used, applying that knowledge to restore and protect rivers and wetlands.

Research with impact

While others reckon science needs to embrace advocacy, identifying problems and offering solutions, for Dr Gawne, it’s about keeping water managers in the Basin well informed with evidence-based research and information: ‘we provide people with the information to make informed decisions, not ignorant decisions’.

‘We’re all about impact,’ he says. ‘We help managers make the Basin Plan a success and deliver an environmental flow that achieves their objectives.’

There’s a lot at stake. ‘If we don’t succeed, we risk losing the water.’

And if we lose the water, the effects are numerous. If water systems degrade, ‘we won’t be able to use the Murray-Darling for irrigation; we certainly wouldn’t be able to use it for angling or picnicking. We’ll risk losing vegetation, shade, fish and birds.’

Ultimately, a healthy and diverse ecosystem contributes to the wellbeing and prosperity of the Basin region, and to communities beyond.

Dr Gawne, CSIRO and the Murray-Darling Freshwater Resource Centre are leading this research.

Not only are they cementing the future of the Basin, they’re securing brighter prospects for generations of Australians to come.

Dr Ben Gawne is based in the Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution at La Trobe University. He’s the Director of the Murray-Darling Freshwater Resource Centre.

See yourself solving some of the biggest issues of our time.

Study environmental management and ecology