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The lower Murray wetlands are found across the floodplain of the River Murray between Swan Hill and the SA border. The system includes creeks, wetlands and floodplains that are ecologically important and reflect the natural character and attributes of the River Murray floodplain.

Regulation and diversion of River Murray flows has substantially reduced the frequency and duration of the high river flows that are needed to provide water to the lower Murray wetlands. This change to the water regime has caused a decline in the environmental values associated with billabongs and other floodplain habitats. 

Environmental water can be delivered to some wetlands in the region through a combination of direct pumping from the River Murray and through use of irrigation supply infrastructure. All the wetlands can be managed independently of each other.

System map

Environmental watering objectives in the Lower Murray wetlands

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Improve the condition of river red gums, black box and lignum to provide habitat for large animals (such as lace monitors and bats)
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Provide feeding and breeding habitat for a range of waterbird species including threatened and migratory species and colonial species (such as the egret)
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Improve water quality and increase habitat for fish
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Increase the diversity, extent and abundance of wetland plant life

Environmental values

The lower Murray wetlands are comprised of multiple wetlands, creek and billabongs on the floodplain of the River Murray. Depending on their location in the landscape, interactions with groundwater and their management history, the wetlands may be permanent, temporary, freshwater or saline. The differences in water regime and water quality among the wetlands provide a range of habitats for plants and animals. For example, permanent, saline wetlands (such as Brickworks Billabong) provide vital habitat for the endangered Murray hardyhead fish. Unlike permanent wetlands, temporary freshwater wetlands fill and dry intermittently. During the wet phase, they provide short-term boom periods when river red gums and wetland plants grow, spread and provide habitat for aquatic animals. During the dry phase, sediments aerate and oxygen is replaced, and terrestrial plants grow and complete life cycles.

Social, cultural and economic values

There are several irrigation districts in the Sunraysia area that are supplied by the River Murray and contribute significant wealth to the local economy. Camping, fishing and other water-based recreational activities are popular along the River Murray including at some wetlands in the lower Murray system. Waterbirds provide opportunities for bird watching and hunting. 

The wetlands of the lower Murray wetlands system hold significance for Traditional Owners. For thousands of years they provided resources such as food and materials to the Latji Latji, Wadi Wadi, Dadi Dadi and Wamba Wamba peoples.

Conditions mid-2017

Major floods in spring 2016 provided natural inflows to most of the floodplain wetlands that are on lower elevations of the River Murray floodplain. Broad, landscape-scale watering last occurred in summer 2010–11. Before the peak of the flood arrived, several small earthen levees that were built by Mallee CMA to contain environmental water that was pumped into wetlands in previous years were cut to allow floodwater to pass between wetlands. The natural flood met the environmental water objectives for the lower Murray wetlands, and there was no need to deliver environmental water to the system in the first half of 2016–17.

The floods prompted a boom in productivity and growth for most wetlands and provided welcome relief for sites that are heavily affected by salinity. Despite the size of the flood, not all wetlands received flows. Some wetlands at higher elevations and wetlands that are disconnected from the floodplain by levees or road infrastructure remained dry. In March 2017, environmental water was delivered to Lake Heywood to augment natural inflows and enable watering of Little Heywood Lake, which did not received natural inflows in spring.

Scope of environmental watering

Table 1 Potential environmental watering actions and objectives for the lower Murray wetlands

Potential environmental watering

Environmental objectives

Wetland watering

Brickworks Billabong (spring, autumn and top-ups as required to maintain water quality targets and minimum water level)

  • Maintain and improve the condition of aquatic vegetation and water quality for Murray hardyhead

Cardross Lakes (partial fill as needed to maintain water-quality targets and minimum water level)

Lake Koorlong (partial fill as needed to maintain water-quality targets and minimum water level)

Lock 15 wetlands (fill or partial fill year-round)

  • Improve the productivity of connected riparian zones and wetlands
  • Rehabilitate floodplain productivity to maintain resident populations of terrestrial animals including carpet python and insectivorous bats
  • Contribute to the carbon requirements of the River Murray channel ecosystem

Lake Hawthorn (partial fill in spring or as required to maintain water at the minimum level)

  • Reintroduce saline marsh habitat, particularly Ruppia
  • Provide habitat for shorebirds

Nyah Floodplain (fill in spring/summer)

  • Improve condition and structure of wetland vegetation
  • Provide seasonal feeding and reproductive opportunities for native fish
  • Provide breeding habitat for waterbirds including colonial nesting species
  • Rehabilitate floodplain productivity to maintain resident populations of terrestrial animals including carpet pythons, sugar gliders and grey-crowned babblers

Vinifera Floodplain (fill in spring/summer)

Burra Creek North (fill in winter/spring)

  • Rehabilitate seasonal connectivity along Burra Creek
  • Improve the health and structure of vegetation
  • Stimulate the growth of emergent and semi-emergent aquatic vegetation

Burra Creek South (fill in winter/spring)

Burra Creek South Proper (fill in winter/spring)

Little Heywood Lake (fill in winter/spring)

  • Maintain black box woodland
  • Provide shallow water habitat for waterbirds

Neds Corner East and Central (fill in spring)

  • Provide breeding and roosting habitat for colonial waterbirds

J1 Creek (fill in winter/spring)

  • Maintain and improve the health of river red gum, black box and lignum

Yungera Wetland (fill in winter/spring)

Carina Bend Wetlands (fill in winter/spring)

  • Improve the condition of mature river red gum
  • Provide aquatic habitat to support fish and frogs
  • Provide habitat for waterfowl

Planigale Wetland (fill in winter/spring)

  • Promote the growth of vegetation that aligns with the intermittent swampy woodland, lignum swampy woodland and riverine chenopod ecological vegetation classes
  • Improve habitat for mammals and reptiles
  • Support growling grass frogs

Old Homestead Wetland (fill in winter/spring)

  • Promote growth of vegetation that aligns with the intermittent swampy woodland, lignum swampy woodland and riverine chenopod ecological vegetation classes

Woolshed Creek (fill in winter/spring)

  • Improve the condition of woodland vegetation
  • Improve habitat for mammals and reptiles
  • Support growling grass frogs

Inlet Creek (Karadoc Swamp) (fill in winter)

  • Improve the condition of mature black box trees
  • Provide habitat to support frogs and fish
  • Provide habitat for waterbirds

Bullock Swamp (fill in winter/spring)

  • Provide freshwater inflows and flushing flows to reduce salinity levels and improve the condition and diversity of wetland vegetation
  • Improve ecological function

Butlers Creek/Ducksfoot Lagoon (fill in spring/summer)

  • Provide feeding habitat for waterbirds
  • Control noogoora burr

Cowanna Billabong (fill in winter/spring)

  • Increase wetland productivity
  • Provide opportunities for fish to move between wetlands and the River Murray

Margooya Lagoon (fill in winter/spring)

Improve the condition of river red gums

Improve the native fish assemblage of the lagoon

Rehabilitate submerged aquatic vegetation in the open-water areas of the wetland

Liparoo East (fill in winter/spring)

  • Improve the condition of the lignum swampy woodland vegetation community and provide habitat for waterbird breeding

Liparoo West (fill in winter)

Sandilong Creek (fill in spring/summer)

  • Support catfish recruitment
  • Maintain terrestrial vegetation

Keera Wetland 1 (fill in spring)

  • Promote the growth of vegetation that aligns with the intermittent swampy woodland, lignum shrubland and lignum swampy woodland Keera Wetland 2 (fill in spring) ecological vegetation classes

Keera Wetland 2 (fill in spring)

Wetland drying

Kings Billabong, Bridge Creek, Heywood Lake, Lakes Powell and Carpul, Sandilong Billabong

  • These wetlands will not be actively watered in 2017-18
  • Drying will support a wide range of wetland-dependent birds and animals and to promote the growth and establishment of vegetation in and surrounding the wetland

Risk management

In preparing its seasonal watering proposal, Mallee 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 Corangamite region communities are involved in decisions about the Moorabool river and Lower Barwon wetlands. This happens through formal advisory groups including a Moorabool stakeholder advisory and the Lower Barwon community advisory committees.

Who is engaged and how

Recreational users

The Mallee Catchment Management Authority meets with recreational users (such as fishers, bushwalkers, various 'Friends of...' groups) on an ad-hoc basis, where recreational users have an opportunity to communicate their priorities and perspectives. A gap in engagement is anglers as there is not an organised representative group.

Parks Victoria is the land manager for many of the sites that receive environmental water. Parks Victoria notifies recreational users about planned environmental water deliveries and communicates the potential impacts of environmental watering (through their website and on-site public signage).

Environment groups

The Catchment Management Authority engages environment groups (such as the Field Naturalists, Landcare and Birdlife Australia) through direct meetings 2-3 times a year. These groups provide advice, communicate their priorities and are keen to understand environmental watering objectives and outcomes. Some groups also provide information on the outcomes of environmental watering (e.g. through bird surveys.)

Landholders/farmers

The Catchment Management Authority engages the Victorian Farmers Federation, and industry groups such as table grape growers, dried fruit growers, citrus growers and landholders with river frontage or private wetlands.

These groups are engaged on environmental water planning (long term and annual scoping) and environmental water delivery. These groups are also engaged on related projects such as the Sustainable Diversion Limit adjustment proposals.

Traditional Owners

There are representatives from multiple Traditional Owner Nations from the Mallee region on the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations. The Victorian Environmental Water Holder, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office and the Murray-Darling Basin Association engage the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations on strategic (often longer term) issues related to environmental watering.

Through the Catchment Management Authority Indigenous facilitator, individual Aboriginal stakeholders and groups are directly engaged throughout the year via the Catchment Management Authority Aboriginal Reference Group.

Councils

The Catchment Management Authority engages with the Mildura and Swan Hill Rural City Councils quarterly. Councils provide advice on potential community impacts of environmental watering and communicate environmental watering information back to the broader community.

General public

The Catchment Management Authority engages and communicates with the general public about environmental watering via SMS, their website, publications and media releases.