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The central Murray wetlands are located on the lower Loddon River and River Murray floodplains (Figure 5.2.3). The wetland system consists of Round Lake, Lake Cullen, Lake Elizabeth, Lake Murphy, Johnson Swamp, Hird Swamp, Richardsons Lagoon, McDonalds Swamp, the Wirra-Lo wetland complex and Benwell and Guttrum state forests.

Wetlands in this region continue to be important places for Traditional Owners and their Nations. The Registered Aboriginal Party (RAP) in the region is the Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation. Representatives from Barapa Barapa and Wamba Wemba Nations' Traditional Owners were engaged during the development of seasonal watering proposals to propose environmental watering actions that would support culturally significant wetland plants in Guttrum Forest. Those proposals have been incorporated in this seasonal watering plan. Traditional Owners in the region have an ongoing connection to the central Murray wetlands.

System map

Environmental watering objectives in the Central Murray wetlands

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Maintain and rehabilitate river red gum, black box, lignum woodland and wetland plant communities Provide appropriate wetting and drying conditions that support seed germination, seedling survival and recruitment including of semiaquatic plant species in damp areas of wetlands Manage the extent and density of invasive plant species including tall marsh vegetation Support a mosaic of wetland plant communities to provide feeding and breeding habitat for native fauna
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Maintain habitat for the critically endangered Murray hardyhead
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Provide habitat for waterbird resting, feeding and breeding including for threatened species (such as Australasian bittern, little bittern and brolga)
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Provide habitat for the endangered growling grass frog

Environmental values

The wetlands in the central Murray system support vulnerable or endangered species including the Australasian bittern, Murray hardyhead, Australian painted snipe and growling grass frog. The wetlands provide habitat for many threatened bird species (including the great egret and white-bellied sea eagle) listed under legislation and international agreements. There are internationally recognised, Ramsar-listed wetlands in the system including Lake Cullen, Hird Swamp and Johnson Swamp, while the other wetlands in the central Murray system have bioregional significance.

Social and economic values

The central Murray wetlands are used for recreational activities including birdwatching and bushwalking; some wetlands are also used for duck hunting. Tourism to the region supports the local economy. Other indirect economic benefits associated with the wetlands include groundwater recharge and carbon storage.

Conditions 2018

Higher-than-average rainfall at the start of the 2017–18 water year saw the Murray system seasonal determination rise from an opening 66 percent to 100 percent highreliability water shares by October 2017. Despite high rainfall in November and December 2017, natural inflows to the central Murray wetlands were limited by artificial barriers (such as channels, roads and levees). Water for the environment was therefore the primary source of water for most wetlands in the region. Water for the environment was delivered to seven of the central Murray wetlands in 2017–18.

In Round Lake and Lake Elizabeth, water for the environment was used to periodically top-up water levels to maintain suitable water-quality conditions for endangered Murray hardyhead. Round Lake maintains a stable population of Murray hardyhead. Recent monitoring undertaken as part of the statewide Wetland Monitoring and Assessment Program (WetMAP) for environmental watering detected more than 20 Murray hardyhead at Lake Elizabeth, which indicates that the translocation of Murray hardyhead in 2016 was successful; and there is evidence of subsequent recruitment. This is an extremely positive result for the site, as it only started receiving water for the environment in 2014.

Water for the environment was used to support waterbirds, plants and other animals typical of temporary freshwater marshes at Richardsons Lagoon, Wirra-Lo wetland complex, Hird Swamp, McDonalds Swamp and Lake Murphy.

The filling of Richardsons Lagoon marked the completion of the three-year watering cycle recommended in the Richardsons Lagoon Environmental Water Management Plan. Waterbird monitoring has demonstrated that the lagoon and its surrounding woodland support up to 52 bird species including 28 waterbird species. The number of bird species recorded at Richardsons Lagoon in 2017–18 was slightly higher than in recent wet years. Observations of juvenile black swans and nankeen night herons suggests there has been successful bird breeding at the wetland. Richardsons Lagoon will be allowed to draw down and dry over about three years, before it is due to receive more environmental water.

Delivery of water for the environment to Wirra-Lo wetland complex at Duck Creek North and Duck Creek South in spring/summer 2017 aimed to provide refuge habitat and suitable breeding conditions for the nationally-endangered growling grass frog as well as create high-quality feeding and breeding habitat for waterbirds. Growling grass frogs were heard calling at Wirra-Lo wetland complex in summer 2017–18, and this is the first record of growling grass frogs on the Murrabit West floodplain since 2008. The return of the growling grass frog to Wirra-Lo wetland complex within four years of rehabilitation works demonstrates the benefits of providing water for the environment.

Water for the environment supported large numbers of waterbirds at Hird Swamp in 2017–18. Regular monitoring consistently recorded about 40 waterbird species at Hird Swamp between October and December 2017. The greatest abundance of waterbirds recorded in a single survey at Hird Swamp was 2,743 individuals in November including 600 Australasian grebes. Many threatened species were recorded at Hird Swamp in 2017–18 including Baillon's crake, whiskered tern, glossy ibis, royal spoonbill, eastern great egret, Australasian bittern, Australasian little bittern, magpie goose, white-bellied sea eagle, musk duck and nankeen night heron. There was also evidence of bird breeding at Hird Swamp in spring and summer 2017–18 as juvenile waterbirds from various species including black swan, banded rail and brown quail were recorded. A brolga nest with two eggs was discovered in early February 2018, but these were later reported missing, likely due to predation.

No water for the environment was delivered to Johnson Swamp, Lake Cullen or Guttrum and Benwell forests in 2017–18. Johnson Swamp and Lake Cullen were managed for drying and drawing down respectively. Some parts of the Guttrum and Benwell forests received natural inflows during early summer 2017 from high flows in the River Murray. However, most of the forest understorey and wetlands remain in poor condition. The forests require a more-natural watering regime to support recovery from the Millennium Drought and historical grazing pressure.

Scope of environmental watering

Table 1 shows potential environmental watering actions (including wetland drying) and their environmental objectives.

Table 1 Potential environmental watering actions and objectives for central Murray wetlands

Potential environmental watering

Environmental objectives

Wetland watering

Guttrum and Benwell forests (fill Reed Bed Swamp and Little Reed Bed Swamp in winter/ spring and autumn/winter, top-ups to support bird breeding)1

  • Rehabilitate aquatic vegetation, semiaquatic vegetation and river red gum communities in semipermanent wetlands 
  • Provide feeding, breeding and refuge habitat for waterbirds, frogs and turtles 
  • Support colonial waterbird breeding, if it occurs

Johnson Swamp (fill in spring)

  • Provide feeding and breeding habitats for waterbirds 
  • Minimise the growth of tall marsh vegetation

Lake Cullen (spring fill)

  • Support waterbird populations by providing suitable roosting and feeding habitat 
  • Increase the growth and recruitment of aquatic vegetation

Lake Elizabeth (top-ups as required to maintain water-quality targets)

  • Maintain habitat for translocated Murray hardyhead 
  • Support submerged salt-tolerant aquatic plant assemblage and a high diversity of waterbirds

Lake Murphy (partial fill in autumn/winter)

  • Promote the growth of a variety of vegetation communities (including recently planted juvenile river red gums) to support waterbird and frog feeding and breeding habitats

McDonalds Swamp (fill in spring and provide top-ups if required to support bird breeding)

  • Increase the variety of vegetation communities by supporting the survival and growth of juvenile river red gums and reducing the spread of tall marsh 
  • Facilitate early plant germination and provide suitable conditions for winter frog breeding

Round Lake (top-ups as required to maintain water-quality targets)

  • Maintain habitat for Murray hardyhead 
  • Maintain suitable waterbird habitat

Wirra-Lo wetland complex (top-ups as required to support a mosaic of wet and dry habitat)

  • Rehabilitate river red gum and a variety of aquatic vegetation communities, providing suitable habitat for the growling grass frog and a high diversity of waterbirds including brolga 
  •  Provide habitat for water-dependent animals

Wetland drying

Hird Swamp, Richardsons Lagoon

  • Not to be actively watered in 2018–19 
  • Seasonal drying helps to maintain the health of existing trees in the bed of the wetlands 
  • The drying phase of Hird Swamp will help to manage tall reed vegetation and promote herbland species

1 Infrastructure projects for Guttrum and Benwell forests are being assessed as part of the Sustainable Diversion Limit Offset component of the Basin Plan. Until works are approved and completed, only semipermanent wetlands that can receive water pumped from the River Murray will be considered for watering.

Risk management

In preparing its seasonal watering proposal, North Central 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

Table 2 shows the partners, stakeholder organisations and individuals with which North Central CMA engaged when preparing the central Murray wetlands seasonal watering proposal.

Seasonal watering proposals are informed by longer-term regional catchment strategies, regional waterway strategies, environmental flow studies, water management plans and other studies. These incorporate a range of environmental, cultural, social and economic perspectives and longerterm integrated catchment and waterway management objectives. For further details, refer to the North Central Regional Catchment Strategy and the North Central Waterway Strategy.

Table 2 Partners and stakeholders engaged in developing the central Murray wetlands seasonal watering proposal

Partner and stakeholder engagement
  • Barapa Barapa Nations Traditional Owners 
  • Birdlife Australia 
  • Central Murray Wetlands Environmental Water Advisory Group (made up of community members, private landholders, interest groups including Game Management Authority, North Central CMA project staff and Board representation) 
  • Commonwealth Environmental Water Office 
  • Community members * Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning 
  • Field & Game Australia 
  • Gannawarra Shire Council 
  • Goulburn-Murray Water 
  • Gunbower Operations Advisory Group (with representation from Goulburn-Murray Water, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Vic Forests, State Forests NSW, North Central CMA, Murray–Darling Basin Authority, Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and the Victorian Environmental Water Holder) 
  • Landholders owning a wetland that receives environmental water 
  • Loddon Shire Council 
  • North Central CMA Board 
  • Parks Victoria 
  • Swan Hill Rural City Council 
  • Victorian Environmental Water Holder 
  • Wamba Wemba Nations Traditional Owners