Cracking the code: Decoding the Monitoring, Evaluation and Research space – how do they inform effective water management in the Murray–Darling Basin

By Xavier and Irene | Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder 

Caution, this article contains acronyms!

If you have stumbled across the terms MD-WERP, TLM, Flow-MER and others, you’d be forgiven if you thought you had come across a secret code. In fact, these acronyms describe various investments in ecological monitoring, evaluation, and research (MER), by State and Federal agencies in the Murray– Darling Basin (the Basin). In this article, we’ll explain what these are, what they mean and aim to do, and how they work together to help us, at the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH), understand how to best manage water for the environment.

MD WERP – Murray–Darling Water and Environment Research Program. A $20 million, 4-year research program started in 2021, designed to generate new knowledge and innovation across themes of: climate adaptation, hydrology, environmental outcomes, and social, economic, and cultural outcomes. This is a collaboratively governed project between the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), the CEWH, and the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment, and Water (DCCEEW) and is delivered by a consortium led by CSIRO and La Trobe University.

TLM – The Living Murray Program. A long-term ongoing project started in 2002, to improve the health of six environmentally, culturally, and internationally significant sites in the Basin with water for the environment, and investing in infrastructure such as regulators, fishways, and weirs.

Flow-MER – The CEWH’s Science Program ‘Flow Monitoring, Evaluation, and Research Program’ comprising Basin-scale and seven Selected Areas across the Basin. This is the primary means by which the CEWH monitors and evaluates the delivery of Commonwealth Environmental Water (CEW) in the Basin.

There are other important projects and programs underway including the Murray–Darling Basin Authority’s (MDBA) Ecosystem Functions Project and Basin Condition Monitoring Program (BCMP) that also help to do this. Reporting agencies (such as the Basin States, the MDBA and CEWH) use these programs and projects to better understand what is being achieved through the Basin Plan (2012).

Ecosystems Functions Project – A joint venture between MDBA, CEWH and DCCEEW to evaluate Basin-scale ecosystem functions and use the information to inform basin health indicators, and subsequently how water should be managed for the environment and sustainability. CSIRO was contracted by MDBA to undertake the work.

Basin Condition Monitoring Program – A program consisting of 15 projects developing and delivering new monitoring and reporting of economic, social, cultural, and environmental conditions in the Murray-Darling Basin. This will add to our knowledge base to support policy decisions, increase stakeholder trust, and inform effective decision making by water agencies and other organisations.

So why do we need these programs and projects?

The Water Act (2007) and Basin Plan outline legislated reporting requirements for each of the Basin States and Territory (QLD, NSW, VIC, SA, ACT), the CEWH and the MDBA. For example, the CEWH must report on progress towards achieving a range of environmental objectives outlined in Schedule 7 of the Basin Plan and Basin-Wide Environmental Watering Strategy (BEWS). These objectives centre around four basin health objectives:

1. Hydrology: Increasing connectivity between rives and floodplains and reinstating a more natural flow regime

2. Vegetation: Maintaining and improving the condition and extent of water-dependent vegetation

3. Waterbirds: Increasing abundance and maintaining diversity of waterbirds

4. Fish: Protecting native fish species by improving population structures, increasing movement, and expanding distributions.

So far, we have presented a lot of information about the different MER projects and programs, but what does this look like in the real world? How does the CEWH use science from the Flow-MER Program in making decisions about when, where, and how to deliver Commonwealth environmental water?

What does Flow-MER do? What does it tell us? How does it help us?

Flow-MER is the CEWH’s on ground Science Program that enables the CEWH to report how the management of the Commonwealth’s environmental water holdings are contributing to the achievement of the Basin Plan objectives.

This helps us make decisions about how best to use every single precious drop of water for the environment. Through collaboration with scientists, State and Territory partners, local community members and First Nations, we can decide when the time is right in particular to deliver Commonwealth environmental water (CEW). The Flow-MER Program helps us to: meet legislated reporting requirements; demonstrate outcomes from Commonwealth environmental water; and inform adaptive management (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Conceptual diagram MERI framework used by the CEWH to support adaptive management. Source: DCCEEW

Many people, organisations, and agencies from across the Basin are involved in Flow-MER activities – around 200 personnel from 30 different agencies and organisations. Here are a couple of case studies to demonstrate real-life application of the knowledge that is generated from Flow-MER in different parts of the Basin.

Case study #1: Using findings from our Lower Murray monitoring project to make decisions about environmental water flows to support golden perch

An example of how we use findings from the Flow-MER Program comes from the Lower Murray Selected Area project. By working with scientists from the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI, our service provider for this project), we have been able to make key decisions about environmental water management to achieve positive outcomes for fish.

As a result of river regulation, golden perch spawning in the Lower Murray has been limited. Golden perch are flow-cued spawners. This means that river flow has to reach a certain height and flow speed, before they get a message to spawn. In 2021–22, high natural flows were reaching the River Murray in South Australia and because the river had reached the right height and speed, we were confident that golden perch would spawn. Under the Flow-MER program, scientists from SARDI were able to monitor the response of golden perch to the river conditions. They found high numbers of golden perch eggs and larvae. Once we knew what the fish were doing, we were able to put in place plans to prevent adverse events such as a drop in river level such as adding to flows with Commonwealth environmental water released from Tar-Ru / Lake Victoria. Monitoring later revealed that young fish from this time comprised 25 percent of the golden perch population in the monitored area and the strongest since the 2010–14 high flow period.

You can read more about the outcomes from the Lower Murray in 2021–22 here: 2021-22 Lower Murray MER Annual Reports – DCCEEW. Our knowledge and understanding of how best to support golden perch spawning and survival has only been able to be confirmed through monitoring over a long period of time. However, now that we have a better understanding, environmental water managers and river operators can work better together to coordinate flows in the river that will help golden perch in the future. This is a great example of how continuous and coordinated monitoring create what is known as the adaptive management cycle (Figure 1). This cycle allows us at the CEWH to make the most informed decisions for water use at critical times and increases our capacity to adapt to recognisable problems and identify novel solutions to minimise the impact of events like this.

Case study #2: Making Basin Scale findings easily accessible so they can be incorporated into environmental water management

One of the most important things that the Flow-MER Program has been working on recently, is ensuring that the Basin-scale findings are more easily accessible, so that they can be incorporated into the adaptive management of environmental flow. This is where communicating the outcomes of this important work is central to the success of adaptive management. Without it, information is like runoff on a dry, compacted paddock – it does not infiltrate, and positive effects are minimal. We think we’re cracking the surface by improving the way we are presenting information for others to use. Our new Basin-scale Fish webpage helps water managers find accurate information that can be quickly incorporated into water delivery plans.

It does this by summarising the latest fishy findings from across the Basin-scale evaluation. The use of maps and interactive diagrams illustrate how, where, and why CEW has been used to achieve outcomes for fish across the Basin. Videos, icons, and illustrations make what can be complex, intricate scientific information, more easily digestible for audiences like water managers and other interested stakeholders such as recreational fishers, while not compromising on important information. While we still have large technical reports that underpin the findings, the new format enables us (and other water managers and interested people) to quickly access information that helps to inform the adaptive management of environmental flows.

Through Flow-MER, were hoping that our long-term monitoring will help tell us more about what the different fish species of the Murray–Darling Basin need to increase and sustain their numbers. Websites such as this one are important places that gather and share findings, and also provides opportunities for innovation and ensures transparency about what we are finding and how it helps us to make decisions about the use of water for the environment.

With large scale government MER investments such as Flow-MER, it is critical their findings have a large, positive impacts. The two case studies presented here illustrate how the coordinated efforts of MER teams and water managers ensure this crucial science is communicated effectively to inform adaptive CEW delivery. Long-term MER is critical to better understanding how we can provide water for the environment to best help support and maintain the Basin rivers and its flora and fauna.

Acronym cheat sheet:

· CEWH – Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder

  • A body established by the Water Act (2007) to buy, sell, monitor, and deliver CEW in collaboration with State and private contracted providers.

· CEW – Commonwealth environmental water

  • Water allocated to improve and maintain the health of rivers including fishes, vegetation, flow, etc. All CEW is managed by the CEWH.

· MDBA – Murray–Darling Basin Authority

  • An authority established by the Water Act (2007) to develop and deliver the Basin Plan, including to measure, monitor and record the quantity and quality of Basin water resources. Their functions also include deciding on annual water allocations for entitlement holders based on available water resources.

· BEWS – Basin-wide Environmental Watering Strategy

  • A strategy designed to support basin water holders to plan and manage environmental water over the long-term to achieve to achieve set environmental objectives.

Our work in the Murrumbidgee

The Murrumbidgee is a lowland river system with large meandering channels, wetlands, lakes, swamps and creek lines. Our work here focuses on understanding how native fish, waterbirds, reptiles and amphibians, as well as wetland vegetation communities, benefit from these targeted environmental watering actions.

Learn More

The Murrumbidgee River


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