Water for the environment

Australia has come a long way in the past 25 years in our attitudes to water management, and especially in realising that the environment needs water.

The case for restoring degraded river ecosystems was built by environmental scientists during the 1980s and 1990s.  Evidence grew in detail and force as research quantified causal links between flow alteration, habitat destruction and biodiversity loss.

Ultimately, however, it was two seminal ‘natural’ events that led bureaucratic and public opinion to recognise that our rivers must have ‘environmental flows’.

The first was a 1000-kilometre long bloom of poisonous blue-green algae along the Darling River in the summer of 1990-1991.  The second was the closure of the River Murray mouth to the ocean, early in the 2000s.

Both events were red hot media issues for weeks and months, and get everyone’s attention from the city to the outback.

Two high-profile environmental flow decisions came as a consequence.  The first, in 2000, was to provide $375 million to recover a total of 282 GL* by 2012 for the Snowy (and Murray) Rivers.

The second, in 2003, was the $500 million Living Murray ‘first step’ decision to recover 500 GL of water for the River Murray.

Today, I believe Australia’s approach to ‘environmental water’ is at, or very near, international best practice.  Environmental flows provisions are a fundamental policy requirement in all States and Territories.

And there’s a pile of government money on the table – $5-6 billion (depending how you tally it) – to buy-back water, from farmers, for the environment.

But, Australia still has work to do.  In particular, we need to improve how we get the best ecological results from our new environmental water.  This is no easy task.

If you are interested to read more on this topic, please have a look at a recent paper of mine in the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) magazine Focus at:  http://www.atse.org.au/news/latest-news/196-focus-163-august-2010

As ever, please feel free to post a comment.

* Around the world, we all unfortunately use different units to measure water volume.  1 GL (gigalitre) = 1000 megalitres = 1 million cubic metres (Europe/Asia/Africa) = approx. 900 acre feet (USA)

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