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
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.
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