Skip to content
Resources > Latest News > The living murray

The Living Murray: reflecting on one of Australia’s longest standing waterway restoration projects

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, The Living Murray (TLM) program is one of Australia’s most significant and long standing restoration projects, involving engineering works and environmental water recovery to return icon sites along the Murray River to better health.

The icon sites have been selected due to their high ecological and economic value, as well as their cultural and heritage significance to Traditional Owners. The icon sites are also regionally, nationally and internationally significant, and are recognised under international agreements.

To mark the anniversary of the program, community members and scientists gathered at the newly opened Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth Research Centre on 28 February to share TLM research and findings for the region.

Achievements of the program over the past 20 years include:

  • an investment of more than $1 billion by Commonwealth and state governments in establishing and running the program;
  • over 4000 GL of water delivered to support rivers, floodplains and the plants and animals that depend on them;
  • more than 1000 monitoring projects delivered to measure the outcomes of water for the environment on vegetation, waterbirds and fish; and
  • the establishment of the Indigenous Partnership Program to support First Nations involvement in environmental water management.

While there is still plenty of work to be done, SA Department of Environment and Water Environmental Water Manager Tony Herbert commended the program’s contribution to improving the health of icon sites along the River Murray.

“Through the dedicated work of the Department for Environment and Water’s team, combined with the ongoing support and advice from scientific experts and local communities, river operators and Traditional Owners, TLM has contributed significantly to the improved ecological health of the Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray Mouth,” he said.

“The program has taken large strides in improving the region's operation of river infrastructure, recovery and delivery of water for the environment, and river management but a significant amount of work is still needed to restore the southern Coorong.”

Looking back

TLM kicked off during the Millennium Drought, Hebert said, responding to an urgent need to find new ways of supporting the health of socially, culturally and ecologically significant sites along the waterway.

“At the start of the Millennium Drought, it was clear there was substantial pressure on the ecology of the river, the river channel, floodplains and wetlands, and the lakes and Coorong,” he said. 

“Based on strong scientific evidence, the TLM program was born out of a recognition that there was too much water being extracted. Things were starting to change in a way that might be irreparable and something needed to change.

“The problems were clearly evident. Red Gums, which are an important part of the floodplain and wetland architecture, were declining. A lot of trees were dying. It was this particularly visible indicator that things weren't good and something needed to be done.

“The river stopped flowing in the lakes, the water levels dropped to more than a metre below sea level levels, which is something that may not have happened for thousands of years. There were all sorts of massive interruptions to social, cultural and economic needs.”

Herbert said there was a lot of work going on at a political level, and at an inter-governmental level, to get support to address the issues.

“There was an assessment of a range of different recovery measures to address the over allocation issue, with different water volumes considered for recovery. It was decided that the program would consist of environmental works and measures, plus the recovery of 500 GL,” he said.

The ‘First Step’ decision was made to recover 500 GL per year of water for the environment to improve the health of icon sites, construct infrastructure works to better enable the delivery of the water to the icon sites, and involve First Nations people in planning and management of the icon sites.

“There was a lot of investigation and analysis to understand what was happening to the ecology of the icon sites along the river system, what changes were needed and what infrastructure could be used to help address some of those problems,” Herbert said.

“But there was support on both sides of politics in South Australia, support from federal and state jurisdictions, as well as a rigorous amount of science to underpin the program.”

Collaborating for change

Herbert said one of the most crucial parts of the program has been the strong commitment to collaboration from diverse stakeholders, which has underpinned the success of the initiative.

“One of the key reasons why the program has continued successfully is that there's strong community, scientific and Traditional Owner investment and support in the work that's being done,” he said. 

“The program has been a major exercise in collaboration at many levels. We have an enormous number of interests and stakeholders involved, including different landholders, operators, agencies and community groups.

“That collaboration also extends to upstream states, as well. We're all pushing to get the outcomes we want and a lot of effort goes into fitting the puzzle pieces together, which involves the MDBA in no small way.

“But it also involves the other jurisdictions and the Commonwealth Environment Water Holder, which has become increasingly important in the water management space. We work really closely with them in terms of making management decisions.”

Another important aspect of the program has been the commitment to bringing stakeholders along on the journey by creating accountability and ownership within community groups, Herbert said.

“From the start, a lot of work was put in to establish bodies of experts to inform and provide advice on what we were planning, as well as how best to achieve our ecological objectives. That has created a lot of ownership,” he said.

“There are a lot of very knowledgeable stakeholders. Working with them and tapping into their perspectives is very important. People understood that their input was valuable, and many people remain engaged.

“While the program hasn’t necessarily grown in 20 years, the amount of water that’s available for the environment has increased. We have invested a lot in assets built for environmental purpose and we’re going to continue to use them.”

Looking ahead

Herbert said that while the program has achieved a lot, there is still more work to do, which will involve the ongoing coordinated management of infrastructure, as well as managing water allocations under different circumstances.

“Despite the fact we've been operating things for a while now, there's still a lot of learning to be done. The solutions are great, but they're not the same as natural solutions. And we can't expect to achieve the same outcomes as we would from natural processes,” he said.

“The monitoring and the science around this is still in its early days. Making sure that we're not having impacts on things we don't fully understand is really important. There's also an ongoing need to demonstrate the benefits of what has been a major investment in infrastructure and water.

“Each icon site has ecological targets and objectives that we're striving to achieve. We need to continually assess whether we're meeting those targets, we need to use that information to help plan for water delivery on an ongoing basis.”

Herbert said the program will continue to be reviewed and refined, but will never stray from cooperative management: “We don't necessarily all agree about everything, but we are committed to a cooperative approach, including taking opportunities to share learnings”.

“The need for this program won't go away. If anything, it’s importance is only going to grow in a dryer climate. And, for us, the monitoring and evaluation is fundamental to the success of the project,” he said.

“A really important part of the Living Murray story is that it’s based on good science. We need to continue to learn from the program and monitor progress to make sure we are not taking unnecessary risks.”

Learn more about The Living Murray program here.