Water for Rivers


Water is being diverted from Australian river systems for economic uses, especially irrigation. This is putting strain on ecosystems dependent on river water, including many wetlands.


The Murray River

Earthbeat, 12 June 2004

There is now widespread agreement that something needs to be done to save the Murray River in South Australia. We hear a range of views on this issue from stakeholders on the river.

Going with the Flow (A National Rivers and Water Plan)

ACF, October 2000

Most river systems across southern and eastern Australia are seriously degraded. Their persity and abundance of native fish, invertebrates (crustacea, insects, molluscs) and waterbirds are in serious decline. Wetlands, flood plains, billabongs, and aquatic and riparian vegetation are similarly affected. Riverine and wetland habitats are seriously degraded, and water quality is increasingly affected by pollution from agricultural and other sources, and in many cases from the effects of rapidly increasing salinity problems on the land.

Water was allocated to irrigators without regard for either environmental constraints or economic good sense, hence the water resources of the Murray-Darling are seriously over-allocated. When ACF surveyed freshwater ecologists in 1995, an overwhelming majority identified the need for ‘environmental flows’ as the top environmental priority for the Murray-Darling.

Weirs prevent fish migration, and this, combined with the lack of flooding, has devastated fish breeding. In many river reaches, cold water released from deep in the dams has wiped out most native fish species. Bank erosion, the draining of wetlands, the decline of riverine vegetation and snag removal has devastated fish habitat. Many rivers have silted up due to clearance of highly erodable soil types. And some have experienced high pollution loads, ranging from nutrients from agricultural, industrial and urban sources, salt from rising salinity levels, acidity from acid run-off or leachate.

Cooperative Research Centre for Catchment Hydrology

Issues addressed include:

These issues are of concern to a water industry with revenues of $5000 million per year.

Murray-Darling Basin Water Resources Fact Sheet

Murray-Darling Basin Commission

Some of the water that would have been consumed by wetlands and the floodplain under natural conditions is now consumed by irrigation or is evaporated from reservoirs.

Using computer models, it has been estimated that, under natural conditions, almost 11,000 GL/year was consumed in wetlands, on the floodplains or by evaporation from the river surface and that only 12,890 GL/year or 54% of the runoff reached the sea.

Average Annual Water Balance for Murray-Darling Basin Rivers


Natural Conditions (GL/year)

Current Conditions (GL/year)




Inter-Basin Transfers






Evaporated from Reservoirs



Consumed by wetlands, floodplains, etc



Outflows to Sea



Outflow to Sea as a % of runoff



Water Recycling in Australia

Australian Academy of Technical Sciences and Engineering, May 2004

Australia is a large continent with only a small population to husband its land and water resources. Most of its rainfall soaks into the ground. Only 12% of its rainfall runs off and is collected in rivers. Much of this is in tropical monsoon areas with sparse communities and little development.