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The Barmah-Millewa Forest covers 66,000 ha and straddles the Murray and Edwards rivers between the townships of Tocumwal, Deniliquin and Echuca. The Victorian component is the Barmah National Park and River Murray Reserve covering 28,500 ha of forest and wetlands.

Water management in the Barmah-Millewa Forest depends on gravity distribution from the River Murray. When river flows are above 15,000 ML/day downstream of Yarrawonga Weir, both sides of the forest are managed as a whole. When flow is less than 15,000 ML/day, each side of the forest can be managed separately by operating the regulators individually. When flow downstream of Yarrawonga Weir is less than 10,500 ML/day, all regulators are usually closed to prevent unseasonal flooding of the forest in summer and autumn.

River regulation and water extraction from the River Murray has reduced the frequency, duration and magnitude of flood events in the Barmah-Millewa Forest. This has reduced the diversity, extent and condition of vegetation communities and the habitat and health of dependent animal species.

Environmental water releases aim to protect essential habitat under dry conditions and when possible to build on unregulated flows and consumptive water en route to optimise environmental outcomes. Environmental water delivered to the forest can often be used again at sites further downstream as part of multisite watering events.

System map

Environmental watering objectives in the Barrmah Forest

Plant icon
Enhance the health of river red gum communities and aquatic vegetation in the wetlands and watercourses and on the floodplain

Increase germination and growth of Moira grass
Maintain or increase the habitat available for frogs
Maintain or increase the number of waterbirds feeding in the forest

Successfully recruit colonial nesting waterbirds
Maintain or increase the habitat available for turtles
Protect and increase populations of native fish by providing flows to encourage them to spawn

Maintain or increase the availability of habitat for native fish, including suitable drought refuges
Enable nutrient cycling (particularly carbon) between the floodplain and the river through connectivity

Environmental values

The Barmah-Millewa Forest is the largest river red gum forest in Australia and the most intact freshwater floodplain system along the River Murray. The forest supports important floodplain vegetation communities including the threatened Moira grass plains and is a significant feeding and breeding site for waterbirds including bitterns, ibis, egrets, spoonbills and night herons. Significant populations of native fish, frogs and turtles also live in the forest's waterways.

Social, cultural and economic values

The Barmah Forest supports a variety of recreational and tourism activities (such as bushwalking, fishing, river cruises and bird watching). Camping is popular along much of the 112 km frontage to the River Murray: with its majestic river red gums, sandy beaches and a large variety of wildlife, the Murray provides the ideal backdrop for camping. Four canoe trails have been developed in the park, and the forest also provides excellent fishing opportunities, particularly for Murray cod, golden perch, freshwater catfish and yabbies.

The forest is valued for its part in Australia's heritage and for its natural and Aboriginal and post-European settlement cultural heritage values. Aboriginal sites of significance include scar trees, middens, burial sites, artefacts and ovens. The Barmah Forest is highly significant for Traditional Owners of the Yorta Yorta Nation who have a continuing connection to Country including important ceremonial places and resources (such as foods and medicines). The Barmah Forest is jointly managed by the Yorta Yorta Nation. Non-Aboriginal artefacts are largely associated with past forestry and grazing practices in the forest.

Conditions mid-2017

Spring 2016 saw the return of wet conditions and the largest flood event in Barmah-Millewa Forest since 1993. Environmental water deliveries maintained flows in November and December which improved the health of floodplain vegetation and provided water to wetlands through to February to help nesting waterbirds successfully fledge their young.

In most years, downstream demands from other water users result in the river being at capacity through the forest in summer and autumn (10,500 ML/day downstream of Yarrawonga). In 2016-17, flows were lower in these seasons because of reduced irrigation demand from Hume Reservoir. Environmental water was delivered from January to April to maintain a higher flow in the River Murray to support a trial delivery of water through a creek in Millewa Forest, to improve habitat for native fish.

Wetland plants and river red gums responded well to the large, prolonged flood event in Barmah Forest. Environmental water was used to maintain the flooding of Moira grass plains through November and December. Moira grass is a key species of the open plains and excellent growth was recorded across most watered areas. Moira grass flowered profusely at some watered sites, but it was patchy at sites where filamentous brown algae smothered its stems. The nationally endangered river swamp wallaby grass also grew well at sites that received natural flooding and environmental water in 2016.

Waterbirds had a fantastic year across the Barmah-Millewa Forest in 2016-17, with thousands of pairs of birds from a wide range of species nesting and successfully breeding. These included listed species such as egrets and likely breeding of the highly cryptic Australasian little bittern. Environmental water was delivered to particular wetlands to help ibis and spoonbill chicks survive and fledge. Without the delivery of environment water, adult birds would probably have abandoned their nests in response to dropping water levels before the young could look after themselves.

Preliminary results of native fish monitoring showed native species (such as Murray cod and silver and golden perch) spawned in spring. Larval Murray crayfish were found in the River Murray below Barmah Lake, a significant finding as crayfish were extremely uncommon in this area of the river after the 2010-11 hypoxic blackwater event, which caused widespread deaths of fish and crustaceans. Another unusual finding in 2016-17 was of a platypus in a Barmah Forest wetland, adjacent to the river.

Scope of environmental watering

Table 1 Potential environmental watering actions and objectives for Barmah Forest

Potential environmental watering

Environmental objectives

Spring/summer freshes in the River Murray channel (3 events of up to 1,000 ML/day for 8days each in October–December)

  • Provide flow variability within the main river channel to cue spawning of native fish species, primarily golden and silver perch

Winter/spring low flows to various waterways in Barmah Forest ('translucent regulator' operation providing variable flow rates in July to November)

  • Maintain fish and turtle populations in permanent waterways
  • Maintain connectivity to the river
  • Remove accumulated organic matter by cycling carbon to the river system and minimising the risk of anoxic (low oxygen) blackwater
  • Maintain water quality
  • Provide increased flow variability within the forest

Spring/summer freshes to Gulf and Boals creeks (100 ML/day for 3–5 days as required in November–April)

  • Maintain critical drought refuge areas in Barmah Forest
  • Protect fish and turtle populations in permanent waterways
  • Maintain water quality

Spring/summer low flows to Gulf and Boals creeks (100 ML/day for 30–60 days as required in November–April)

  • Maintain refuge areas in Barmah Forest
  • Maintain fish and turtle populations in permanent waterways
  • Maintain connectivity to the river
  • Remove accumulated organic matter by cycling carbon to the river system and minimising the risk of anoxic (low oxygen) blackwater
  • Maintain water quality

Spring inundation of floodplain marshes (variable flow rates to extend the duration and inundation extent of natural flooding in September-December)1

  • Provide flooding of sufficient duration to allow the growth of floodplain marsh vegetation in open plains 
  • Create foraging ground for birds and increase the habitat available for turtles, frogs and small-bodied native fish

Targeted wetland watering to Boals Deadwood, Reedy Lagoon and Top Island wetlands (100–250 ML/day for 4 months in September–February)

  • Initiate and/or maintain the breeding of colonial nesting and flowdependent waterbirds

Summer/autumn River Murray high flow (8,000 ML/day downstream of Yarrawonga in January to April)

  • Increase large-bodied native fish populations in the River Murray and anabranch creeks

Autumn/winter River Murray low flows (4,000 ML/day downstream of Yarrawonga in May to June)

  • Increase large-bodied native fish populations in the River Murray and anabranch creeks

1 Environmental water is delivered at flow rates outlined in the MDBA's Objectives and outcomes for river operations in the River Murray System (MDBA, 2016).

Risk management

In preparing its seasonal watering proposal, the Goulburn Broken CMA considered and assessed the risks of environmental watering and identified mitigation strategies. Program partners continually reassess risks and mitigation actions throughout the water year.

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 Goulburn Broken region communities are involved in decisions about the Goulburn River and wetlands, Broken River and wetlands and the Murray River and wetlands. This happens through formal advisory groups: Environmental Water Advisory Groups focusing on rivers, a wetland advisory group and the Barmah Millewa Operations Advisory Group.

Who is engaged and how

Recreational users

Through formal advisory groups, recreational users provide local advice and raise opportunities for 'shared benefits' including whether the timing of environmental watering may align with key recreational events such as cod and duck opening. Recreational users are informed of environmental water deliveries and provide data that assists with reporting on the outcomes of environmental watering.

Goulburn-Murray Water directly engages with recreational user groups that use Goulburn-Murray Water water storages for recreation through planned consultations and meetings to discuss storage levels and potential impacts of environmental water releases from storages.

Environment groups

Through formal advisory groups, environment groups provide local knowledge, land management advice and advocate for the environment. They are also informed of environmental water deliveries and provide data that assists with reporting on the
outcomes of environmental watering.

Landholders/farmers

Through formal advisory groups, farmers and landholders (who often own land with river frontages) provide local knowledge and land management advice. They are also informed of environmental water deliveries and provide data that assists with reporting on the outcomes of environmental watering.

Traditional Owners

Through the Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority Indigenous Facilitator, the Yorta Yorta Nation (responsible for managing some land and reserves in the region) is given the opportunity to provide input to seasonal watering proposals through annual briefings with the Catchment Management Authority.

There are Yorta Yorta representatives from the Goulburn Broken region who are members of the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations. The Victorian Environmental Water Holder, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and the Murray Darling Basin Authority engage Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations on strategic (often longer term) issues related to environmental watering.

Councils

Through the wetland advisory group (due to their role as land managers for some wetlands), Councils provide local advice.
They also support local advertising during water delivery and share data for reporting.

Goulburn-Murray Water consults with the Greater Shepparton City Council and the Moira Shire Council regularly on water management, including on environmental water management.

General public

The Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority communicates through their website, media releases, advertisements in local papers, a column in Country News, in the Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority bi-monthly newsletter, social media, radio, community forums and partnered research.