Environmental Watering In The Murray-Darling Basin

By Megan McLeod 19 August, 2019

McLeod from AWS explores the role of Renmark Irrigation Trust (RIT) in 'watering' the Murray-Darling Basin

Renmark Irrigation Trust (RIT) delivers environmental water to >600 irrigators at 98% efficiency - well above the Australian average ; plus it's going beyond own walls to provide benefits to the basin
Together with govt & Nature Foundation SA, RIT's extensive irrigation infrastructure have enhanced biodiversity at watering sites ; local tourism and food & beverage businesses have also improved
With collaborative & catchment level-engagement, RIT has achieved Gold-level certification with the Alliance for Water Stewardship & is working to show future progress using drone footage

Environmental flows describe the quantity, timing, and quality of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and the human livelihoods and well-being that depend on them.

Through implementation of environmental flows, water managers strive to achieve a flow regime, or pattern, that provides for human uses and maintains the essential processes required to support healthy river ecosystems, including connectivity of floodplains, riparian corridors and wetlands.

Rivers are important social & economic assets in the Murray-Darling Basin

Collectively these ecosystems provide a large suite of benefits. In the Murray–Darling Basin, the rivers and associated natural environments are also important social and economic assets to the communities in the Basin, supporting local economies and sense of well-being.

Many governments and river-management agencies around the world have developed environmental flow programmes to rehabilitate and protect river ecosystems, yet implementation is subject to resource and infrastructure constraints and potentially competing community and industry interests.

Through water stewardship, enterprises are engaging in collective action to protect the ecosystems

However, through water stewardship, enterprises are starting to understand the benefits of healthy ecosystems (also referred to as ‘ecosystem services’) and are engaging in collective action to protect and enhance these. Below we look at how the Renmark Irrigation Trust (RIT) is partnering with the (Australian) Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) to deliver environmental water to surrounding floodplains and wetlands, that are no longer receiving regular natural high flows since irrigation development in the catchment over the last century, and how this is benefitting the whole community.

Irrigation & the Environment – identifying opportunities for collaboration in the Murray-Darling Basin

Under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, water allocated for environmental flows (also called environmental watering) in the Murray-Darling Basin is managed by the CEWH.

Like any water-user in the Murray-Darling Basin, water allocated to the CEWH for environmental watering is limited, so its use is prioritised based on environmental outcomes and dependent upon river operating rules, flow constraints, and climatic conditions. In many places, infrastructure to deliver environmental flows is not available or is insufficient, and the costs for delivering environmental flows outweigh the environmental outcomes.

Renmark was Australia’s first irrigation settlement…

…the RIT services >600 irrigators & covers >4,900 hectares

Renmark was Australia’s first irrigation settlement, established in 1887, and remains highly dependent on irrigated horticulture, producing a wide range of food with the main crops being wine grapes, citrus, and almonds. The RIT was established in 1893 to continue servicing the water rights of the settlement and now services over 600 irrigators covering more than 4,900 hectares throughout the district through approximately 140km of pipelines. The RIT also manages drainage of the irrigation district.

In its core business – delivering water from the river to its member irrigators – the RIT has consistently been compliant with laws and regulations, and operates at 98 percent delivery efficiency – well above the Australian average. But by looking beyond their own walls (or pipes), the RIT is realising the opportunities in being a leading water resources manager, underpinning the economic, environmental and social sustainability of the Renmark community.

The RIT is looking beyond their own walls (or pipes)… from improving biodiversity to fostering tourism

During 2013-14, the RIT in partnership with the Nature Foundation SA – Water for Nature and the local government commenced a project to deliver environmental water to Johnson’s Waterhole, initially using pumps and then the RIT’s water supply network.

Within 3 years of receiving environmental water, Johnson’s waterhole transformed into a wetland with diverse plant species

Within three years of receiving yearly environmental water, Johnson’s Waterhole transformed from a site dominated by Samphire to a wetland with a diverse range of native semiaquatic and floodplain plant species. The site is now ringed by patches of young eucalyptus and acacia trees and Lignum bushes.

Based on the success of the Johnson’s Waterhole project, in 2016 the RIT signed a landmark Partnership Agreement with the CEWH to deliver Commonwealth environmental water to multiple floodplain and wetland sites in the Renmark area using the RIT’s extensive irrigation infrastructure.

For the CEWH, this programme is a unique opportunity to use existing infrastructure to efficiently deliver environmental water for the benefit of the environment. Water delivery occurs during the off-peak irrigation season, which coincides with the time when high rivers would have occurred naturally.

For the RIT, the programme facilitates the flushing of pipes, contributing to the maintenance of irrigation infrastructure and providing dual use of the water. Seven sites already have permanent infrastructure connecting to the floodplains and by 2022, fifteen sites will be receiving Commonwealth environmental water for both rehabilitation and maintaining the health of the floodplains.

The programme fosters tourism benefits by providing healthy public spaces…

…the growth in tourism has then supported local food & beverage businesses

For the community, the programme fosters recreational and tourism benefits by providing healthy and vibrant public places. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority reports that tourism in the region has grown year-on-year since 2011 and the tourism industry has become a major employer in the region. The growth in tourism has supported food and beverage businesses, including wineries and a brewery that are adding value to the locally produced food and wine. Tourism operators have reported that environmental watering is underpinning this development by providing confidence to invest in tourism businesses that depend on the health of the Riverland and its wetlands.

The RIT has achieved Gold-level Certification against the AWS International Water Stewardship Standard

Through its collaborative and catchment-level engagement, the RIT was the first irrigation scheme in the world to achieve Gold-level Certification against the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) International Water Stewardship Standard and has gained recognition from the Australian Government as a leading water resource manager.

A team of representatives from different stakeholders (CEWH, RIT, Natural Resource Management group, Local Government, and community) monitor the environmental watering sites and are currently working on a website to show progress using drone footage.


Further Reading

  • 8 Asia Water Risks: Here Today & Here To Stay In Asia – Damaging typhoons, life & business disrupting water outages and threatening sea level rise… China Water Risk review’s 8 water threats too great to miss in Asia from just the past 3 years
  • Hot, Thirsty, Sweaty & Wet: HK’s Future Down The Drain? – China Water Risk’s Woody Chan & Debra Tan look beyond current tensions and see very real threats to Hong Kong’s future from climate change. Get ready for a hot, thirsty, sweaty & wet future
  • Climate Change, Groundwater & Agriculture In India – The hidden risks of groundwater are clear in India as it is key for the country’s food security and already is largely over extracted. What can India do? Dr Aditi Mukherji from the ICIMOD, shares ways forward
  • 3 Takeaways From CEWP’s 2019 Groundwater Policy Dialogue – With China and Europe joining forces to tackle groundwater over-exploitation, China Water Risk’s Yuanchao Xu was on hand to bring us the latest policy and tech ideas from the Jinan forum
  • Going Dutch! Smart Drinking Water Networks – Gondwana, an optimisation tool equipped with evolutionary algorithms, adds a nervous system to make drinking water networks ‘smart’. See how from Ina Vertommen, Dr Karen van Laarhoven, Dr Mirjam Blokker & Dr Peter van Thienen from KWR
  • Organic Agriculture Can Fight Climate Change – Organic agriculture is so much more than no pesticides as CEO of Go Organics, Spencer Leung, shows with lower GHG emissions, reduce energy & mitigating climate risks to farmer
  • Recycled Organics: Protecting Water In Sydney’s Food Bowl – CORE is protecting Sydney’s foodbowl with its Sustainable Amendments for Agriculture (SAFA) Program based on using recycled organics, which benefit the land & farmers. CORE’s Chief Executive, Christopher Rochfort, expands
  • Water Stewardship In Industrial Parks: TEDA Pilot – Industrial parks generate 22.5% of China’s GDP but can this last given water security and pollution concerns? An Chen, from the TEDA Eco Center & Zhenzhen Xu from the Alliance for Water Stewardship show how the Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area leads in mitigating these risks
  • Connecting A New Generation Of Businesses To Water Stewardship – The CEO Water Mandate updated its Water Stewardship Toolbox. Their Peter Schulte shares how it now better connects companies to useful water stewardship resources, including tailored filters based on individual risks & needs
  • Water Stewardship: The Bright Dairy & Food Case – Chinese dairy mega company, Bright Dairy & Food, successfully used water footprint assessments to better water stewardship. Tongji University’s Hongtao Wang and Jin Xu along with WWF China’s Aihui Yang guide us through the case stud

Megan McLeod
Author: Megan McLeod
A hydrogeologist by training, Megan is the Chief Operating Officer and Technical Manager of the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) Asia-Pacific, based in Australia. Megan has been involved in water stewardship since before the AWS International Water Stewardship Standard v1 was launched in 2014 and developed and advised on world-leading water stewardship projects, including the Renmark Irrigation Trust Water Stewardship Program.
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