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Managing water for the environment

Water for the environment aims to protect, maintain and increase the health of waterways where possible to support the native plants and animals whose survival depends on them.

Water held for the environment aims to:

  • cue fish migration and breeding
  • improve water quality
  • improve the condition of floodplain trees
  • trigger the growth of wetland plants
  • provide feeding and nesting habitats for waterbirds, and
  • maintain flows or permanent pools in rivers that could dry out.

Meeting the essential water needs of rivers, creeks, wetlands and floodplains also benefits community wellbeing. There are demonstrated social and economic benefits when environmental watering supports places and waterways where people love to relax, play, and connect with nature.

Water for the environment can:

  • sustain healthy Country and help meet cultural objectives for Traditional Owners
  • maximise outcomes for kayakers and other recreation users
  • coincide with tourism events, using environmental flows to improve amenity, water quality and general visitor experience
  • build native fish populations popular with anglers and support bird populations important to twitchers
  • benefit irrigation water users by improving water quality, and
  • aid local and visiting community experiences through better waterway health vital for wellbeing.

Water for the environment is delivered in 19 water supply systems across Victoria under the VEWH’s seasonal watering plan.

Water availability varies from year to year, and is allocated depending on entitlement rules, seasonal conditions like rainfall and run-off in catchments, and water already available in storages.

Collaborative management

Victoria’s environmental watering program is part of the Victorian waterway management program overseen by the Minister for Water through the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA).

The VEWH works with many program partners, stakeholders and communities to plan, manage and deliver water for the environment in Victoria.

Program partners engage and work together to make decisions on how, when and where water for the environment will be delivered for the most effective results.

Every year is different. The environmental watering program aims to prepare for different water availability and climate scenarios.

The annual VEWH seasonal watering plan outlines potential watering under the full range of possible scenarios.

Who is involved?

  • Waterway managers

    Catchment management authorities and Melbourne Water have a major role in planning, advising on priorities and delivering environmental watering in regions across Victoria as waterway managers.

    As well as broader catchment obligations, they work with their partners, stakeholders and communities to:

    • develop environmental seasonal watering proposals for rivers and wetlands
    • identify potential environmental watering actions
    • order water for the environment from storage managers
    • operate infrastructure to generate the most benefit from watering
    • monitor and report on the outcomes of environmental water releases.

    Waterway managers consult and engage with Traditional Owners, stakeholders and local communities on environmental watering priorities and planning to explore the shared benefits for recreation, wellbeing and culture that can be supported by water for the environment.

    Corangmite CMACorangamite Catchment Management Authority

    East Gippsland CMAEast Gippsland Catchment Management Authority

    Glenelg CMAGlenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority

    Goulburn CMAGoulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority

    Mallee  CMAMallee Catchment Management Authority

    Melbourne WaterMelbourne Water

    North Central CMA North Central CMA

    North East CMA North East Catchment Management Authority

    West Gippsland CMA West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority

    Wimmera CMA Wimmera Catchment Management Authority

  • Storage managers

    Victoria’s water storage managers manage, store and deliver water for all uses, including environmental watering. They work with environmental water managers for the most effective outcomes of environmental water delivery within the limits of river operations.

    Central Highlands logoCentral Highlands Water

    Goulburn-Murray WaterGoulburn-Murray Water

    GWM WaterGrampians Wimmera Mallee Water

    Melbourne WaterMelbourne Water

  • Water holders

    In Northern Victoria the VEWH works with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH), the Murray-Darling Basin Authority(MDBA) and other environmental water holder partners in Victoria, New South Wales (NSW) and South Australia (SA) on water for the environment in Victorian waterways and across the southern-connected Murray-Darling Basin.

    The VEWH works with these jurisdictions so that the combined environmental water holdings are used to deliver the highest priority watering actions each year and that watering actions across systems are well co-ordinated.

    Commonwealth Environmental Water logoCommonwealth Environmental Water Holder

    Murray Darling Basin WaterMurray-Darling Basin Authority (The Living Murray program)

    New South Wales Department of Primary Industries WaterNSW Department of Primary Industries, Water 

    Victorian Environmental Water Holder logoVictorian Environmental Water Holder

  • Traditional Owners

    The VEWH is committed to increasing the agency and self-determination of Traditional Owners in the Victorian environmental watering program and to supporting Traditional Owners to access and manage water on their own terms.

    Waterway managers engage with Traditional Owners about cultural values and uses of waterways and how the environmental watering program can help realise cultural objectives for Country. The VEWH has started working with Traditional Owners and the government toward establishing Traditional Owner-led seasonal watering proposals.

    More information on the involvement of Traditional Owners in the environmental watering program can be found by clicking the button below.

    Learn more

  • Public land managers

    Public land managers are closely involved in planning and delivering water for the environment on public land in state forests and national parks. They consent to the delivery of environmental flows on their land after considering land management activities, public access and the risks and benefits of a watering action.

    Managers include Parks Victoria, DEECA and Traditional Owner land management boards.

  • Local communities

    Local knowledge, views and experience provide essential information on the rivers and wetlands that communities love and value.

    Community members help program partners find opportunities to get the most shared benefits for recreation, wellbeing and culture from environmental flows. They also help monitor the results of watering.

    The environmental watering program draws on the knowledge of Traditional Owners, local communities and other knowledge holders to understand the environmental values of Victoria's rivers and wetlands and to manage water for the environment effectively.

    Traditional Owners, irrigators, farmers, people living close to or interested in a specific waterway or region, members of recreational and environmental groups and formal environmental water advisory groups are among stakeholders who get involved.

  • Scientist

    Scientists from Victorian research organisation Arthur Rylah Institute, university research centres and consultants contribute vital knowledge and advice on the program’s aims for native plants and animals, adaptation to climate change, and data gathered from extreme flood and drought events.

    Scientists also work with waterway managers to monitor results of the environmental watering program.

    Find out more about how we know environmental water works.

Annual environmental watering management cycle

Management of water for the environment involves a range of people and organisations, including local communities, waterway managers (catchment management authorities and Melbourne Water), storage managers (water corporations), environmental water holders, land managers and scientists.

The management 'cycle' starts with scoping of potential environmental watering activities and environmental objectives in a particular region for that year. These potential activities are outlined in Seasonal Watering Proposals by regional waterway managers (catchment management authorities and Melbourne Water).

We then prioritise where the finite amount of available water for the environment is best used across the state, and then deliver the water at the right time, and in the right amount, to meet our objectives. Current climatic and environmental conditions always influence decisions to deliver the water. Finally, reporting the results of the watering is a key component of the annual management cycle.

Environmental watering cycle

Each year, waterway managers, generally involving local community representatives, develop seasonal watering proposals (which are informed by the priorities determined in the long-term plans and studies previously described).

These proposals scope potential environmental watering actions (and associated environmental objectives) in a particular region for that year. They consider lessons learned through previous environmental watering.

In these proposals, potential environmental watering is listed for a range of climate scenarios: drought, dry, average and wet to very wet. This is done to provide options depending on conditions and water availability during the year.

As this figure shows, environmental watering objectives can change depending on the scenario. For example, in drought conditions, the objective is to protect remaining environmental values and avoid critical loss. In wet conditions, the objective is to reconnect rivers to floodplains.

Every June, the Victoria Environmental Water Holder collates and summarises the seasonal watering proposals into a seasonal watering plan which previews all potential environmental watering across Victoria for the coming water year under each planning scenario.

Riverbed in drought


Main objective: Protect

  • Avoid critical loss
  • Maintain key refiges
  • Avoid catastrophic effects
Dry riverbed


Main objective: Maintain

  • Maintain river functioning with reduced reproductive capacity
  • Maintain key functions of high priority wetlands
  • Manage within dry-spell tolerances
Average conditions for riverbed


Main objective: Recover

  • Improve ecological health and resilience
  • Improve recruitment opportunities for key animal and plant species
Wet riverbed


Main objective: Enhance

  • Restore key floodplain and wetland linkages
  • Enhance recruitment opportunities for key animal and plant species

Sometimes the need for water for the environment is greater than the water available. It's therefore important to consider where water is most needed and how to use it efficiently to achieve the best results.

When the demand for water for the environment is higher than the supply, environmental water managers may need to make difficult trade-offs between:

  • different regions (that is, deciding to commit water to a river or wetland in one region over a river or wetland in another region)
  • different river reaches or wetlands in one river system (that is, deciding to commit water to one river reach or wetland over another in the same system)
  • different environmental flows in a particular river or wetland

Each year, these trade-offs are influenced by things such as how the river or wetland has been watered in the past, the risks in or near the river or wetland, and seasonal conditions.

Types of water in the river

  • Unregulated flows: occur naturally in a waterway, generally after heavy rainfall, including when storages spill.
  • Water for the environment: owned by environmental water holders, held in storages and actively released at a time and rate designed to provide environmental outcomes. Otherwise known as 'held' or 'managed' water for the environment.
  • Consumptive water: owned by water corporations or private entitlement holders, held in storages and actively released to meet domestic, stock, town, industry and irrigation needs.
  • System operating water: managed by storage (reservoir) managers, generally held in storages and actively released to ensure the system can deliver consumptive water, managed water for the environment and water to meet other needs.

After prioritising, water is committed by environmental water holders for delivery to particular river reaches or wetlands.

Where water needs to be released from a storage, the waterway manager responsible for that river or wetland places an order with the relevant storage manager. The order specifies the desired volume of water per day to be delivered through the river reach or into the wetland.

Water is delivered in different ways depending on the river or wetland. Water can be released to a river from a storage or to a wetland through pumps, outlets, gates and channels. For wetlands, it can sometimes be as simple as opening a gate, allowing a river to flow into a wetland. For example, Dowd Morass in Gippsland can receive water for the environment when Latrobe River water levels reach a particular height.

Storage managers are not only responsible for delivering water for the environment, they also release water for other purposes, including water to supply towns, industry and irrigation or system operating water to ensure the river has enough flow to be able to deliver environmental or consumptive water. Storage managers have a big responsibility to balance the needs of all water users.

Managing risks

Deliveries of water for the environment, like deliveries for households and businesses, are managed to minimise risks such as flooding private land or 'double-booking' a channel for water delivery.

Channels can get crowded. For example, when water for the environment is committed to Johnsons Swamp near Kerang, the timing of the delivery is organised so it doesn't conflict with the delivery of water to irrigators who rely on the same channels.

Using other 'types' of water to meet environmental objectives

Obviously heavy rain can meet environmental objectives, avoiding the need to release water for the environment. The timing and route for delivery of consumptive water can sometimes be changed to achieve environmental objectives without using water for the environment.

Heavy rain (resulting in unregulated flows) can naturally meet an environmental objective, so water for the environment is not needed. Similarly, the timing and route for delivery of consumptive water can sometimes be altered to achieve environmental objectives without using water for the environment.

Depending on how or where the water was delivered, storage managers or waterway managers report on the actual volumes of water delivered to a particular river reach or wetland.

Water for the environment is 'debited from' the environmental entitlements held by the Victorian Environmental Water Holder.

The benefits achieved from environmental watering and the lessons learned are reported by waterway managers and environmental water holders on their websites.

Monitoring enables environmental water managers to report on what's been achieved. Find out more about how we know if environmental watering is successful.

Options for managing environmental water

Like other environmental water holders, the VEWH uses tools to manage its entitlements to meet environmental demands as efficiently as possible.

Tools can include carryover and trade, the use of return flows and coordination with other deliveries. The timing of environmental releases can be coordinated with other sources of water such as:

  • system operating water, including passing flows
  • heavy rainfall resulting in unregulated flows
  • alterations to the timing and rate of delivery of consumptive water.

Figure 1-4-2 website

click to enlarge


Some entitlements allow us to carry over unused water to the following financial year.

This means that water allocated in one year can be kept in storages for use in the following year, subject to certain conditions.

Carryover provides flexibility and enables water for the environment to be delivered at a time that is of the greatest value to the environment.

For example, carryover can help ensure environmental water holders can meet high winter and spring demands when there is a risk there will be little water available under entitlements at the beginning of the water year.

The Victorian Water Register has more information on carryover, including rules, FAQs and videos explaining what it is.

Water trade

Water trading allows us to move water to systems where and when it is most needed, and to smooth out some of the variability in water availability across systems and across years.

We can trade water allocated to our water entitlements by:

  • administrative water transfers between our entitlements
  • administrative water transfers with other environmental water holders
  • purchasing water allocation
  • selling water allocation.

Administrative water transfers are the most common trades we undertake.

These occur between our entitlements (or accounts) to move water to where it is most needed. Other environmental water holders also transfer their water to us for delivery in Victoria. These types of water trades are often referred to as administrative transfers as there is no financial consideration associated with the trade.

We can also buy or sell water allocation where it is in line with our statutory objectives: that is, if it benefits the environment. We have bought or sold a small amount of water allocation each year since we were established in 2011.

Water has been purchased to enhance environmental outcomes in systems where there's not enough environmental water available, and it has been sold where all foreseeable environmental demands were able to be met.

Revenue raised by selling water allocation can be used to purchase water to meet shortfalls in any Victorian system, or to invest in measures (such as monitoring, technical or small structural works, or other improvements to Victoria's environmental watering program).

Subject to the approval of the Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water, we can also trade our water entitlements, referred to as a permanent trade. However, permanent trades are infrequent.

Below is a decision tree that shows what guides our carryover and trade decisions. Go to our page on trading for more information, see our trade fact sheet [PDF File - 968.1 KB], see our Annual water allocation trading strategy [PDF File - 392.3 KB] or visit the Victorian Water Register.

Water trade flow chart

Return flows

In some systems, water for the environment delivered through upstream sites can be used again downstream.

This helps to ensure water for the environment is used efficiently and effectively to achieve optimal environmental benefits, as the Goulburn River example below illustrates.

This reuse policy, known as return flows, is available in many systems across northern Victoria. It increases the efficiency of water use and helps reduce the volume of water needed to be recovered for the environment from consumptive water users.

Our access to return flows is enabled through rules in our environmental entitlements. Reuse of return flows is also available to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority when we deliver water on their behalf.

Where possible, return flows are reused to provide benefits at Victorian environmental sites.

If not needed in Victoria, the Victorian Environmental Water Holder, Living Murray and Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder return flows will continue to flow across the border to South Australia, where they will be used to provide environmental benefits at sites such as the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth region.

Case study:  Making every drop count in Northern Victoria

Waterway managers, environmental water holders and storage managers work hard to deliver effective and efficient environmental outcomes in three ways:

  • Reusing environmental return flows
  • Maximising environmental benefits from consumptive water on its way to homes, farms and businesses
  • Combining environmental wand consumptive water releases to achieve greater results (for instance, environmental water 'piggybacking' on other water deliveries to achieve larger flows required to trigger fish breeding).

Here are some examples of where these measures were able to be used to achieve efficient and effective environmental benefits in 2014-15.

Example of return flows

Managing risk

Managing risk is an important part of environmental watering.

Regardless of their role or activity in the environmental watering program, each organisation involved carries risk.

These risks are, to varying extents, shared by two or more partners. Just as environmental watering is not limited to organisational boundaries, neither are the risks associated with its management.

The three main risks are unplanned impacts on third parties (such as property damage from high water levels), environmental outcomes not occuring (or cannot be shown) and unplanned negative impacts on the environment (for example, blackwater).

The Victorian Environmental Water Holder and its partners works hard to ensure that these risks are minimised:

A Risk Management Framework sets out a clear process for identifying and assessing risks, assignment of risk mitigation, and monitoring and review of risks. This framework is consistent with the Australian Standard for Risk Management (AS/NZS ISO 31000: 2009, Risk Management: Principles and Guidelines) and the Victorian Government Risk Management Framework.

There are many ways partners in the Victorian environmental watering program work together to manage risks throughout the year. For example we:

  • Identify and assess risks for the coming water year and record this in the seasonal watering proposals.
  • Undertake agreed actions to minimise potential risks.
  • Review risks before delivering water for the environment, or monitor and respond to risks when environmental conditions change and an action is triggered.
  • Report, investigate and respond to incidents as they occur in line with the agreed incident reporting approach.
  • Review the risk management approach in the previous year and adapt management to minimise future risks.

Best-practice shared risk management continues to be a focus for the program.

How we learn and adapt

We continuously adapt and improve how we manage water for the environment.

We learn by monitoring the effects of delivering water, from practical experience and through scientific research projects.

The Victorian Environmental Water Holder invests in projects that improve knowledge, inform decisions and show the benefits of water for the environment. These projects are most commonly carried out by catchment management authorities in their region.

Examples include animal and plant surveys which map-out environmental values in specific waterways and water quality monitoring, which helps us better respond to the impacts of drought.

Citizen science projects

We also invest in innovative citizen science projects relating to environmental watering, such as the Western Victoria angler project. It helps anglers find out how the limited volumes of environmental water available is being used in the Wimmera and Glenelg rivers. This project is run by the Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority and the Wimmera Catchment Management Authority.

Other projects help identify Aboriginal environmental outcomes for environmental watering.  These projects help incorporate traditional ecological knowledge into environmental water management and assist Traditional Owners to negotiate for their Country's water needs.

We also fund improvements to environmental water metering and infrastructure works in rivers and wetlands to improve efficiencies and to get more benefit from the same amount of water for the environment.

For more information about research projects contact us.

Girl watching boat in the river

Broader integrated catchment management and water resource management

The environmental watering program is a vital element in the management of land, water and biodiversity from the top to the bottom of Victoria’s catchments.

The VEWH contributes and responds to government policies including:

click to enlarge

How the environmental watering program considers climate change

The VEWH’s 10-Year Strategy 2023 to 2033   [PDF File - 1.5 MB]sets out how its work will deliver on government policy directions and evolve the environmental watering program to adapt to key challenges, like less available water under accelerating climate change.

Victoria’s environmental watering program already adapts to variability as the VEWH works with partners to plan seasonal watering each year and target the most appropriate actions for the ‘boom and bust’ cycles of floods, drought and everything in between.

Intensifying seasonal variability brings the importance of water for the environment into sharper focus.

Water is reserved for watering in drought in some systems and used in other years to seal the benefits of wet conditions and floods, which builds resilience in plants, animals and their ecosystems.

Figure 1-1-3 Website

click to enlarge

Figure 1 projected changes in run-off in 2065

The statewide seasonal watering plan guides decisions for delivering water for the environment in the coming water year.  It tells program partners, stakeholders and communities what to expect under different climate scenarios.

The VEWH and its program partners address the challenges of climate variability and climate change by:

  • setting environmental watering objectives that describe the environmental outcomes that can be achieved under a range of climatic scenarios each year
  • strengthening decisions about where and how water for the environment is used through our approach of working closely with people on the ground and listening, learning and adapting
  • optimising environmental outcomes of operational water releases.

Figure 1-1-4 Website

click to enlarge

Figure 2 changes in long-term surface water availability for the environment since 2005

Page last updated: 27/11/23