Basin Theme: Ecosystem Diversity

Water is the lifeblood of the Murray-Darling Basin, supporting a vast array of biologically rich rivers, lakes, wetlands and floodplain ecosystems – from the headwaters in southern Queensland and the eastern highlands, to the estuary and river mouth in South Australia. The Ecosystem Diversity Theme will evaluate the contribution of Commonwealth environmental water to protecting and restoring these ecosystems.

Image: Reed beds at Millewa Forest. Photo credit: Heather McGinness

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Why focus on ecosystem diversity?

The Murray-Darling Basin contains a rich tapestry of water-dependent ecosystems. Lakes, wetlands, and waterholes provide sources of permanent water to sustain diverse communities of invertebrates, frogs, turtles, fish and waterbirds through summer heat and years of drought. There are many ephemeral creeks, clay-pans, dry lake beds and vast areas of floodplain that remain dry much of the time but spring to life when filled by rain or flooding rivers. Our focus on protecting and restoring ecosystem diversity also aims to preserve the biodiversity of species and life-forms that live, feed, breed and raise their progeny within them, and all the underlying physical and chemical processes that are required for biodiversity to thrive.

The Ecosystem Diversity Theme will evaluate the contribution of Commonwealth environmental water to maintaining ecosystem diversity in the MDB. We will identify the ecosystem types that are supported by Commonwealth environmental water in any single year, and investigate the pattern of watering which varies from year to year. The data we gather will inform other themes within the Flow-MER project that focus on species groups, such as the fish, waterbirds, frogs and plants that occur within the many different ecosystems of the Basin.

Aerial imagery of Hattah Lakes. Photo credit: Esri World Imagery
Refuge wetland site for small bodied fish at Tahbilk. Photo credit: Scott Raymond

Our approach

The Ecosystem Diversity evaluation builds on the Long-Term Intervention Monitoring  (LTIM) project by using similar methods to extend the long-term data set and knowledge of watering history from five to eight years. The evaluation intersects mapping of surface water inundation and river flows containing Commonwealth environmental water, with the Australian National Aquatic Ecosystem map of the Murray-Darling Basin. Following the Environmental Water Knowledge and Research (EWKR) project, research will also be undertaken to improve understanding of ecosystem condition and distribution in the landscape to inform our interpretation of how Commonwealth environmental water supports Basin ecosystems.

Over time, we are developing an understanding of the history of water for the environment for all lakes, wetlands, rivers and floodplains in the Basin. During the Flow-MER project we will use this knowledge to report on the role of Commonwealth environmental water in maintaining the range of ecosystem diversity of the Basin. Our evaluation includes those ephemeral systems that may only require water intermittently, as well as more permanent aquatic habitats that support iconic fish, frog and waterbird species.

Current activities

Ecosystem Diversity annual evaluation

An annual investigation to identify ecosystems that have been supported by Commonwealth environmental water during each water year. Flow-MER results will be added to LTIM data beginning in 2014. The Annual Report attempts to answer the evaluation question: What did Commonwealth environmental water contribute to ecosystem diversity?

Image: Flock of Ibis over Gingham Wetland. Photo credit: Darren Ryder

Research project: Understanding the influence of ecosystem condition on resilience

This project will link species outcomes that have been observed in LTIM and Flow-MER to the ecosystems that support them. We want to understand how the starting condition of those ecosystems can influence the outcome when water is delivered. For example, do species in drought stressed ecosystems respond differently to those in similar ecosystems that have been managed differently, or where natural environmental conditions are more predictable?

Image: Aquatic vegetation providing sheltering habitat for small bodied fish. Photo credit: Scott Raymond

Research project: Scaling the evaluation of Ecosystem Diversity

This project will use ecosystem diversity to explore approaches for scaling up the evaluation of watering outcomes from individual habitat patches to the whole Basin. We will develop a multi-scale approach to evaluate diversity at spatial scales aligned to the scale at which Commonwealth environmental water is delivered to the environment. For example, local scales at individual wetlands, up to large landscape scales where the entire river system benefits from large volumes of water being used to flush rivers and fill adjacent wetlands. This work will enable us to refine our evaluation of Basin-scale Ecosystem Diversity to better match the different scales and spatial arrangements of management actions in the Basin. This is intended to help researchers improve the suitability and relevance of advice to water managers.

Image: Endangered river snails in the Murray Darling Basin. Photo Matthew Miles, DPE Environment and Heritage Group.

Gunbower forest in flood.
Photo credit: Peter Rose

Our team

Dr Shane Brooks

Shane is an aquatic ecologist with over 30 years of experience, and a passion for robust science, sustainable management and restoration. He seeks to ensure environmental water management is underpinned by the best available science, while simultaneously creating new knowledge.

Dr Joanne Bennett

Joanne is a community ecologist. Her primary research goal is to discover the general principles that are essential to effectively manage biodiversity under global changes particularly land-use and climate change. She has worked on a wide range of taxa including mammals, reptiles, invertebrates, birds and vegetation in a wide of ecosystems.

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