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The Snowy River originates on the slopes of Mount Kosciuszko. It drains the eastern slopes of the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales before flowing through the Snowy River National Park in Victoria and emptying into Bass Strait.

There are four major dams and multiple diversion weirs in the Snowy River catchment. The Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme diverts water to the Murrumbidgee and River Murray valleys and previously resulted in the diversion of 99 percent of the Snowy River's mean annual natural flow at Jindabyne. Travelling downstream, the hydrological effects of the scheme are still substantial but are mitigated by the contribution of flows from tributaries (such as the Delegate River in New South Wales and the Buchan River in Victoria).

While playing an important role in electricity generation and irrigation supply, flow diversion and other activities have affected the river's hydrology and resulted in a significant deterioration in the health of the Snowy River. The Victorian, New South Wales and Commonwealth governments have recovered water (equivalent to 21 percent of the average natural flow) to help restore damage done by decades of limited flow.

Victorian environmental water available for use in the Snowy system is held in the Murray, Goulburn and Loddon systems. This water is made available for environmental flows in the Snowy River via a substitution method, whereby Victorian environmental water replaces water that was earmarked for transfer from the Snowy to Victoria to support irrigation demands.

New South Wales Department of Primary Industries does the planning for environmental flows in the Snowy River, and consults the Victorian and Australian governments and stakeholder groups about environmental water released to the Snowy River.

System map

Snowy System SWP
Grey river reaches have been included for context. The numbered reaches indicate where relevant environmental flow studies have been undertaken. Coloured reaches can receive environmental water.

Environmental values

The Snowy River contains freshwater-dependent fish in the upper reaches and tributaries (such as the river blackfish and Australian grayling). Fish species that migrate between saltwater and freshwater (such as the estuary perch and Australian bass) are in the lower reaches. The estuary contains estuarine and saltwater species (such as the flathead, mulloway and black bream). The floodplain wetlands of the Snowy River near Marlo provide feeding and breeding areas for wetland and migratory birds.

Social and economic values

Electricity generation through the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme provides substantial economic value and Snowy water supports irrigated agriculture in New South Wales and Victoria. The Snowy River and estuary are a drawcard for the many tourists who enjoy rafting, boating, swimming and recreational fishing.

The waterways of the Snowy system (including the Snowy River) hold significance for the Aboriginal communities in the region. The Snowy River is also an iconic and culturally significant Australian river made famous by Banjo Patterson's poem The Man from Snowy River.

Conditions mid-2016

In the 2015–16 water year, 147,884 ML of environmental water was released to the Snowy River. The releases aim to rehabilitate the Snowy River below Jindabyne Dam into a smaller but healthy river, recognising that it is not possible to restore the Snowy River to its former size with one-fifth of its former flow volume.

Over time, environmental water releases will improve ecosystem function by scouring fine sediment to improve in-stream habitat and by flushing plant matter and other material into the river to stimulate the food chain. The flows also mix pools in the upper reaches and improve the salinity dynamics in the Snowy Estuary. Repairing these river functions helps the river support healthier aquatic communities.

Recent investigations have shown that high flows delivered to the Snowy River from Lake Jindabyne can mobilise the fine sediment within the channel. This improves habitat quality and increases potential sites for benthic biofilms (for example, algae attached to surfaces) to colonise and increase river productivity. The studies have improved understanding of the required magnitude and frequency of flows and the optimal intervals between events. This knowledge is incorporated into the annual planning for 2016–17.

Scope of environmental watering

Environmental water releases are planned to occur every day from May 2016 to April 2017 and aim to mimic the typical flow pattern of a mixed snowmelt/rainfall river system characteristic of the Snowy Mountains. The flow regime provides hourly, daily, seasonal and annual flow variability within the bounds of a natural but smaller Snowy Montane River.

Five high flows are scheduled in winter/spring 2016. A large flushing flow is scheduled for early October 2016 and includes an eight-hour peak of over 8,000 ML per day. Other peak flows mimic winter rainfall events. These peak flows aim to improve the physical attributes of the river by scouring sediment and limiting the growth of riparian plants (which can block the river channel).

High flows are sustained from July–December to assist with water mixing in the estuary for the benefit of plants and fish (such as Australian bass). Low flows will then be released until the end of the water year in April 2017.

The total volume planned for release in 2016–17 (including contributions from water savings in Victoria and New South Wales) is 131,071 ML.

Engagement

Waterway managers meet communities on environmental watering regionally, although other program partners also play a role.

In each region of Victoria, community engagement on environmental watering happens when environmental watering objectives and priorities are scoped (long term and annually), when delivering environmental water, and when reporting on environmental watering results.

In the East Gippsland region communities are involved in decisions about the Snowy River system.

                                                                                                                          Header banner image: McKillops Bridge, Snowy River, by Ken Judd

Who is engaged and how

Recreational users

Local angling clubs were invited to the East Gippsland Catchment Management Authority's investigation into the ecological needs of the estuarine reach of the Snowy River.

The Catchment Management Authority aims to explore opportunities to achieve shared benefits from environmental watering to optimise opportunities for recreational paddling in the Snowy River.

Parks Victoria, as the land manager for parts of the Snowy river system (Snowy River National Park), interact directly with many recreational users - sometimes on environmental watering.

Environment groups

Local Landcare members were invited to the Catchment Management Authority's investigation into the ecological needs of the estuarine reach of the Snowy River.

Landholders/farmers

From a Victorian perspective, landholders or farmers are not specifically engaged about environmental water in this region. However, the Catchment Management Authority has a large focus on engagement with farmers generally.

Traditional Owners

There are many Traditional Owner groups that claim connection to the waterways of the Snowy Mountains. The NSW Office of Water has been leading engagement with Traditional Owners regarding incorporation of cultural values in environmental water management for the Snowy River.

Parts of this region are under Gunaikurnai Native Title managed by the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation. The Catchment Management Authority recognises the recently developed Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation draft Whole Of Country Plan which contains aspirations for rivers and wetlands in Gippsland.

Councils

The Catchment Management Authority distributes the Snowy Hydro environmental water delivery schedule with the East Gippsland Shire Council for risk management purposes related to potential flooding.