Australian arid-zone rivers are known to be ecologically variable and go through “boom and bust” cycles based on highly variable and unpredictable flow regimes. They are facing increasing pressure from land and water resources development and, whilst they are considered to be still in relatively good condition, no studies have yet been carried out to verify this. Such baseline studies are crucial if we are to assess any ecological changes in response to development and management interventions. The ecological condition of four of these endorheic rivers (Georgina, Diamantina, Cooper-Thomson and Bulloo) flowing into the Lake Eyre and Bulloo Basins in central Australia was assessed using several criteria (level of human influence, habitat condition, water chemistry and aquatic macroinvertebrate composition). Using criteria based on the level of human influence, most of the sites were assessed to be relatively unimpacted (reference) condition. The most discernible and widespread impact was riparian and bank damage by stock access. However, the level of this impact was considered to be only moderate.
Most aquatic macroinvertebrates found in the area are considered to be opportunistic and tolerant of a wide range of environmental conditions, but with their life histories known to be linked to flow conditions. Their trophic guild was dominated by collectors and predators. The AusRivAS modelled observed to expected values of macroinvertebrate composition indicated that there were differences in ecological condition between sites (e.g. different waterholes) and between times (e.g. seasons and years). Overall, 75% of sites were assessed to be good condition with the remainder being mildly impaired.
Water chemistry of the sites was characterised by high spatial and temporal variability with low conductivity and alkaline pH, relatively high turbidity, total nitrogen and total phosphorus, and wide-ranging dissolved oxygen. Given the high variability in water quality and ecological condition within a catchment, there was little evidence of any overall difference in these factors between the catchments. However, given that the hydrology of each river system is distinctly different, one might expect some differences in ecological structure and function at finer scale. Periods of hydrological isolation (eg. to allow natural dryouts) as well as the maintenance of natural connectivity (eg. instream, overbank and floodplain wetting) are both necessary for the maintenance of ecological integrity of these systems.