Over the past decade, there intense consideration of managing flows in the River Murray to provide environmental benefits. In 1990 the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council adopted a water quality policy: To maintain and, where necessary, improve existing water quality in the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin for all beneficial uses - agricultural, environmental, urban, industrial and recreational, and in 1994 a flow policy: To maintain and where necessary improve existing flow regimes in the waterways of the Murray-Darling Basin to protect and enhance the riverine environment. The Audit of Water Use followed in 1995, culminating in the decision of the Ministerial Council to implement an interim cap on new diversions for consumptive use (the “Cap”) in a bid to halt declining river health. In March 1999 the Environmental Flows and Water Quality Objectives for the River Murray Project (the Project) was set up, primarily to establish water quality and environmental flow objectives for the River Murray system. A Flow Management Plan will be developed that aims to achieve a sustainable river environment and water quality, in accordance with community needs, and including an adaptive approach to management and operation of the River. It will lead to objectives for water quality and environmental flows that are feasible, appropriate, have the support of the scientific, management and stakeholder communities, and carry acceptable levels of risk. This paper describes four key aspects of the process being undertaken to determine the objectives, and design the flow options that will meet those objectives: establishment of an appropriate technical, advisory and administrative framework; establishing clear evidence for regulation impacts; undergoing assessment of environmental flow needs; and filling knowledge gaps.
A review of the impacts of flow regulation on the health of the River Murray revealed evidence for decline, but the case for flow regulation as the main cause is circumstantial or uncertain. This is to be expected, because the decline of the River Murray results from many factors acting over a long period. Also, the health of the river varies along its length, from highly degraded to reasonably healthy, so it is clear that different approaches will be needed in the various river zones, with some problems requiring reach or even point scale solutions.
Environmental flow needs have been determined through two major Expert Panel reports that identified the ecological priorities for the river. The next step is to translate these needs into feasible flow management actions that will provide the necessary hydrological conditions. Several investigations are underway to recommend options for flow management. Two important investigations are described in this paper: how to enhance flows to wetlands of national and international significance, and how to physically alter or change the operation of structures (including a dam, weir, lock, regulator, barrage or causeway), to provide significant environmental benefits. Early modelling suggests that the only option which has a positive environmental effect in all zones of the River is a reduction in overall water consumption.