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Government’s $70 million response to Darling River fish deaths

Live streaming river flows, improving metering and restocking waterways with native fish are among the initiatives the Federal Government will fund to help improve conditions in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Water Minister David Littleproud announced the measures this week after the panel charged with investigating fish kills in the Darling River released its final report.

It is estimated hundreds of thousands to more than 1 million fish died during three events between December 2018 and January this year, sparking debate over the management of the Murray-Darling and the future of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

"I think all Australians who saw footage of these fish deaths were deeply saddened," Littleproud said.

“This is a $70 million-plus response, which goes to research, connectivity and compliance.”

The measures came out of recommendations provided by the panel, which was chaired by Professor Rob Vertessy from the University of Melbourne. Other members included hydrologist Darren Barma, Associate Professor Lee Baumgartner, Associate Professor Simon Mitrovic, Professor Fran Sheldon and Professor Nick Bond.

The panel was tasked with:

  • assessing the water management, events and conditions leading up to the fish deaths to identify likely causes;
  • assessing the effectiveness of existing fish management responses to manage fish-death risks; and
  • providing recommendations to prevent similar events in the future.

They found there were three main immediate causes of the fish deaths: low flows, poor water quality, and a sudden change in temperature.

However, the panel said the fish deaths were “shaped by a broader climatic, hydrologic and Basin management context that placed the lower Darling River at risk of such fish deaths”.

“Through our investigations, it became evident to us that, over the long term, the extant water access arrangements in the northern Basin, as well as limitations in the river models used to plan water sharing, place the lower Darling River at a higher risk of conditions that can lead to fish deaths during droughts than has previously been anticipated,” they wrote.

“ … Whilst we would not assert that excessive water extractions caused the lower Darling fish deaths in 2018-19 per se, it is clear that historic patterns of extractions in the northern Basin over the last two decades (and particularly since 2012) have reduced the resilience of riverine ecosystems in the lower Darling.”

To address this, the panel said water access and water sharing arrangements in the Barwon-Daring should be reviewed and modified.

Community engagement

As part of the review, the panel spoke to local communities, traditional owners, water users, representatives from state and federal government agencies, and technical experts.

They highlighted the importance of the Barka (the Darling River) to the Barkandji people, the traditional owners of the land, who told the panel the Barka helps provide them with healthy food and medicine, as well as a physical connection to their history and culture.  

The panel said Indigenous Australians should have a greater voice in river and fisheries management in the Basin.

Although national water policy has a set standard for improving Indigenous engagement in water planning and access to water, the panel said there is a gap in how this works in practice.

“While there are requirements under the Basin Plan for water managers to consult with Indigenous communities when they prepare water resource plans (they must describe Indigenous water uses, and have regard to Indigenous objectives for water), there are no mandatory requirements for stronger participation in water management,” they wrote.

Recommendations

The panel highlighted that, although severe, the fish deaths were not unprecedented and will probably happen again unless significant changes are made.

They provided 27 recommendations for policy makers and water managers to consider, including:

  • Basin governments (New South Wales, Victoria, the ACT, Queensland and South Australia) committing to protecting low flows in drier conditions, and developing flow management strategies and removing barriers to fish movement.
  • Better monitoring of fish populations in the lower Darling by New South Wales to fully understand the impact of the recent fish deaths.
  • More collaboration between Basin governments and water scientists, academics and consultants, local communities and Aboriginal stakeholders to develop an authentic native fish management and recovery strategy.
  • An assessment by environmental water holders and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority of how best to manage water for the environment during prolonged dry spells.
  • More research into how climate change will impact water availability and aquatic ecosystems in the Basin.
  • Basin governments continuing to use emergency responses (such as aerators) to reduce the chance of further fish death events and establish early warning systems.

Don’t pause the Plan

In the report, the panel said although the fish deaths have eroded public confidence in the Basin water reform process, they did not support calls to pause the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

“We support continuation of the Basin Plan, its adaptive management ethos, and the intent to undertake a comprehensive review of it in 2026,” the panel wrote.

“But we also believe that the reform effort must be re-energised and accelerated.”  

Read the full report and recommendations here.

For more on the Murray-Darling Basin, don’t miss the special feature in the April edition of Current magazine.