The Water Act 2007 requires annual reports on the operation of specific parts of the Act. Section 114 of the Act requires the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to provide an annual report to the Minister on its operations during that year. This section meets this reporting requirement for 2015–6.
The Department is responsible for administering Part 6 of the Act, which establishes the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. The Act sets out the national legal framework for management of the Murray–Darling Basin’s water resources and for other matters of national interest in relation to water and water information. The Act, which commenced on 3 March 2008, implemented important reforms for water management in Australia. It:
establishes the Murray–Darling Basin Authority and gives it the functions and powers, including enforcement powers, needed to ensure that Basin water resources are managed in an integrated and sustainable way
requires the Murray–Darling Basin Authority to prepare the Murray–Darling Basin Plan—a strategic plan for the integrated and sustainable management of water resources in the Basin
establishes the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to manage the Commonwealth environmental water holdings to protect and restore the environmental assets of the Basin, and outside the Basin where the Commonwealth holds water
provides the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission with an important role in developing and enforcing the water charge and water market rules
gives the Bureau of Meteorology additional water information functions.
Performance against Basin annual environmental watering priorities
Under Section 114(2)(a) of the Act, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder must provide particulars of achievements against the objectives of the environmental watering plan. This requirement is met through reporting on volumes of Commonwealth environmental water delivered against the Basin annual environmental watering priorities (outlined in Table 5.30). The total volume of Commonwealth environmental water delivered against the Basin annual environmental watering priorities in 2015–16 was 1049 GL.
Wherever possible, Commonwealth environmental water holdings are used to achieve multiple outcomes through contributing water to many environmental assets during each watering action. Because of this, the volume of Commonwealth environmental water delivered against the Basin annual environmental watering priorities appears greater in Table 5.30 than the total volume of 1049 GL that was released from water storages or allocated through supplementary announcements and unregulated flows.
Table 5.30: Decisions made by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder on the use of Commonwealth environmental water in 2015–16
Basin-wide flow variability and longitudinal connectivity: Provide flow variability and longitudinal connectivity within rivers to support refuge habitats
Over 1000 GL of Commonwealth environmental water was delivered through the Murray–Darling Basin, providing flow variability and longitudinal connectivity within rivers to support refuge habitats. The 2015–16 watering events provided extensive connectivity within rivers, in particular through delivery of environmental flows in the River Murray, Edward-Wakool system, Lower Balonne, Lower Goulburn River, Lachlan River systems and Murrumbidgee anabranches such as the Yanco Creek system.
River Murray weir pool variation: Ensure a variable flow pattern and lateral connectivity through coordinated weir pool management in the River Murray from Euston to Blanchetown
13 GL of Commonwealth environmental water was delivered for weir pool variation in the River Murray from Euston to Blanchetown, allowing for a variable flow pattern with a wetting and drying period. This helped reinstate natural ecological conditions to improve and maintain diverse vegetation and habitat to support fish and waterbird species.
5.2 GL of Commonwealth environmental water was contributed to weir pool manipulation at locks 8, 9 and 15, with flows into wetlands such as the Euston Lakes (Lock 15) and Wingillie Station (Lock 8). An additional 2.7 GL was contributed at Lock 7, including flows to Lindsay River and Mullaroo Creek. A further 5.1 GL was used to support weir pool raising at Locks 2 and 5 in South Australia, which benefited a large area of low-lying floodplain.
Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth: Improve water quality, fringing vegetation and native fish movement by varying the water levels in Lake Alexandrina and Albert to maintain flows into the Coorong and Murray Mouth
Over 700 GL of Commonwealth environmental water was delivered to contribute to improving water quality and native fish movement in the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth.
Commonwealth environmental water delivered to the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth contributed to this priority by maintaining flows through the Coorong and Murray Mouth, preventing water quality decline by encroaching seawater and rising salinity levels.
Basin-wide in-stream and riparian vegetation: Maintain and where possible improve the condition of in-stream riparian vegetation, through in-channel freshes
Over 1000 GL of Commonwealth environmental water was delivered into the Murray–Darling Basin to contribute to Basin-wide in-stream and riparian vegetation. Commonwealth environmental water was delivered into the major river channels of the Murray–Darling Basin to maintain and where possible improve the condition of in-stream riparian vegetation in coordination with the Living Murray Initiative, state environmental water, river operators, non-government organisations and local catchment management authorities.
Smaller scale watering actions targeting vegetation outcomes included Commonwealth environmental water delivered to Hobblers Lake; Talpee Creek; and Carrs, Capitts and Bunberoo creeks; and for weir pool level manipulation in the lower reaches of the River Murray. These watering actions contributed to improving the condition of both aquatic and riparian vegetation.
Significant vegetation responses were observed throughout the Murray–Darling Basin, including improved growth and health of in-stream aquatic vegetation (such as pondweed and milfoil) in the Yallakool-Wakool system, growth of Moira grass, water ribbons and water milfoil in Millewa Forest and general riparian vegetation health in the major river channels.
Mid-Murrumbidgee Wetlands: Improve the condition of wetland vegetation communities in the mid-Murrumbidgee wetlands
Up to 190 GL of Commonwealth environmental water was made available for a mid-Murrumbidgee reconnection event. This event did not proceed, due to continuing operational constraints.
1.4 GL of Commonwealth environmental water was delivered to Yarradda Lagoon using infrastructure to improve the condition of wetland vegetation communities in the mid-Murrumbidgee. Monitoring has indicated excellent vegetation responses including increased growth of species such as tall spike rush, wavy marshwort and swamp lily.
Macquarie Marshes: Maintain semi-permanent wetland vegetation in core refuge areas in the Macquarie Marshes
14.2 GL of Commonwealth environmental water was delivered together with NSW environmental water to the Macquarie Marshes, targeting beneficial flows to native marsh vegetation such as water couch, typha, spike rush and some fringing river red gums.
Spring monitoring conducted in September and October observed over 100 bird species using wetland habitat in the Macquarie Marshes. This included important species such as the Australasian painted snipe in the Ramsar-listed Mole Marsh and the Australasian bittern in the South Marsh. Several frog species were also observed.
Moira grass: Maintain the condition and range of Moira grass in Barmah-Millewa Forest by supplementing a natural event and extending the duration of inundation
351.3 GL was delivered in the mid-Murray as part of the 2015–16 ‘whole of system’ watering event, in response to natural hydrological cues and coordinated with deliveries by other environmental water holders and operational deliveries for consumptive demands. A significant proportion of the flows were delivered above channel capacity downstream of Yarrawonga Weir, with Barmah-Millewa Forest regulators operated to direct most of the flows into Millewa Forest.
Monitoring within Barmah-Millewa Forest detected growth (with some flowering and seed set) of Moira grass. While that was a promising result, continuing constraints restricted the delivery of the large-scale Commonwealth environmental water volumes required to achieve extensive Moira grass outcomes and reverse the long-term trend of decline. Only around 20 per cent of forest could be inundated in 2015–16.
Basin-wide waterbird habitat and future population recovery: Improve the complexity and health of priority waterbird habitat to maintain species richness and aid future population recovery
Following delivery of 343.3 GL in the mid-Murray in response to natural hydrological cues, in conjunction with The Living Murray and operational deliveries, a colonial waterbird breeding event began in Reed Beds Swamp in Millewa Forest. The Commonwealth contributed a further 8 GL (along with contributions from The Living Murray and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage) to support this breeding event.
Monitoring observed successful breeding of over 1000 pairs of birds, including Australian white and straw-necked ibis, royal spoonbills, eastern great egrets, Australian darters and little pied cormorants. A significant proportion (up to about 20 per cent) of the entire population of Australasian bitterns (EPBC Act endangered) and little bitterns were found to be inhabiting and breeding in Barmah-Millewa Forest during and after the flow event.
Watering of the North Redbank system (25 GL) resulted in a positive waterbird response, including observations of state-listed blue billed duck at the site.
Watering of Hobblers Lake (5 GL) also resulted in a positive waterbird response, with blue billed and freckled duck observed at the site after watering. Hobblers Lake had previously dried completely in December 2015.
Watering of the Yanga National Park (10 GL) aimed at a waterbird breeding event was successful: fledgling and nesting of little pied cormorant, Australian darter and eastern great egret were observed at the Tarwillie Swamp site after the watering event. This watering action builds on a similar successful waterbird breeding event triggered in 2014–15 by Commonwealth and NSW environmental water.
Watering of the Nimmie-Caira floodways (15 GL) supported potential breeding of Australasian bitterns, which are listed as endangered under the EPBC Act.
9.6 GL was delivered to Nap Nap Swamp an important known waterbird wetland and rookery site adjacent to the Nimmie-Caira project area, which has been dry for a year.
Other in-channel and wetland Commonwealth environmental water deliveries supported waterbird outcomes across the Murray–Darling Basin by improving the complexity and health of riparian and wetland waterbird habitat and maintaining waterbird lifecycles.
Basin-wide native fish habitat and movement: Maintain native fish populations by protecting and improving the condition of fish habitat and providing opportunities for movement
Over 1000 GL of Commonwealth environmental water was delivered to support Basin-wide native fish habitat and movement. Commonwealth environmental water delivered through the Murray–Darling Basin contributed to hydrological connectivity benefits for native fish species, including through providing opportunities for dispersal and facilitating the transfer of important nutrient and organic matter for fish lifecycles. Commonwealth environmental water made an important contribution to the filling and reconnection of refuge waterholes throughout the system.
There were demonstrated benefits from Commonwealth environmental water providing opportunities for fish movement. In the Lower Murray, pouched lampreys have been detected moving through the Murray Mouth as far upstream as Lock 11. The pouched lamprey has previously experienced increased restrictions to movement due to reduced flows through the Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray Mouth.
Extensive fish movements, including species such as Murray cod and golden perch, were also detected in the Mullaroo Creek, where weir raising was used to push flows from the River Murray through Lindsay River and Mullaroo Creek, providing habitat for flow-dependent fish species.
Northern Basin fish refuges: Protect native fish populations and in-stream habitats, particularly drought refuges, in the Northern Basin
Over 60 GL of Commonwealth environmental water was delivered to contribute to the Northern Basin fish refuges at locations identified in the 2015–16 Basin annual environmental watering priorities. These locations include the Lachlan River system, Macquarie Marshes, the Lower Balonne floodplain system, the Gwydir River valley and wetlands and the Border Rivers.
8.7 GL of Commonwealth environmental water was delivered to support Northern Basin fish refuges outside the listed locations (though still ecologically significant), including in the Barwon–Darling River system and the QLD Lower Warrego and Moonie rivers.
In particular, flows through the Mehi River and Carole Creek addressed critical conditions of ‘very low’ and ‘cease to flow’ in these streams, reconnecting pools and improving water quality conditions in refuge habitats for native fish and other aquatic fauna.
In the Lower Balonne, in-stream Commonwealth environmental water helped a small flow pulse reach the end of the Narran, Culgoa and Birrie rivers, refilling waterholes throughout those channels after 12 months with no flow.
Silver perch: Contribute to the long-term recovery of silver perch by maintaining key populations, supporting recruitment and facilitating movement and dispersal
Over 900 GL of Commonwealth environmental water was delivered in channel, contributing to the long-term recovery of silver perch through supporting recruitment and facilitating movement throughout the Murray–Darling Basin.
Commonwealth environmental water deliveries focused on the main locations for silver perch outcomes as outlined in the 2015–16 Basin annual environmental watering priorities, including the Edward-Wakool system, lower River Murray, mid-Murray, Goulburn River, Broken River, Ovens River and Lower Border Rivers.
Commonwealth environmental water delivery resulted in positive ecological responses for silver perch throughout the Murray–Darling Basin, contributing to the facilitation of movement. Monitoring of tag data showed that silver perch traversed through almost all locks of the River Murray. Monitoring in the Edward-Wakool system indicated a tenfold increase in silver perch recruitment compared to 2014–15.
During delivery of 343.3 GL in the mid-Murray in response to natural hydrological cues, in conjunction with The Living Murray and operational deliveries, silver perch were detected spawning in late October following several months of water delivery, including over-bank flows into Barmah-Millewa Forest. Following completion of environmental water delivery, silver perch continued to spawn in early November as operational flows were delivered at a variable rate close to channel capacity.
Amendments to Part 6 of the Water Act 2007
The Act was amended on 2 May 2016, implementing recommendations of the 2014 Independent Review of the Act. Changes to Part 6 of the Act, which is administered by the Environment portfolio, relate to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder’s trade and reporting provisions.
The amendments increase the flexibility of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to sell Commonwealth environmental water allocations and use the proceeds for environmental activities that will improve the capacity of the water holdings to meet the objectives of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan’s environmental watering plan. The amendments also require the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to report annually on disposals of Commonwealth environmental water holdings and the use of disposal proceeds during the year.
In October 2015, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder disposed of (sold) water allocations in the Goulburn catchment in Victoria. The tender for the sale was announced on 23 October and was open from 26–28 October 2015.
As a result of the tender, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder completed 44 trades, resulting in the sale of 22,864 ML of Commonwealth environmental water allocation for a return of $6,457,669.
The proceeds of past disposals of water by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder must only be used in accordance with section 106 of the Act. No proceeds of disposals of water or Commonwealth environmental water holdings were used during the 2015–16 financial year.
Management of the Environmental Water Holdings Special Account
The Environmental Water Holdings Special Account was established under the Actfor the payment of costs, expenses and other obligations incurred in managing Commonwealth environmental water holdings.
At the start of 2015–16, the special account balance was $58.6 million. Funding of $25.9 million was credited to the account in September 2015. During 2015–16, $16.5 million was spent on annual water entitlement fees and allocation delivery costs (including use fees and pumping). This accounted for about 76 per cent of total expenditure for the year.
As at 30 June 2016, the special account balance was $69.4 million. Of this, $18.1 million is committed for long-term intervention monitoring and evaluation activities, environmental watering actions and other projects. The uncommitted balance of $51.2 million includes
$9.7 million in proceeds from the disposal (sale) of water allocations through the Goulburn trade ($6,457,669) in 2015–16 and the Gwydir and Peel trades ($3,249,930) in 2013–14. A portion of these uncommitted funds will be used for the payment of costs, expenses and other obligations incurred in managing Commonwealth environmental water holdings during 2016–17, with the proceeds of trade set aside to be used in accordance with section 106 of the Act.
The main categories of expenditure in 2015–16 are shown in Table 5.31.
Table 5.31: Environmental Water Holdings Special Account expenditure, 2015–16
Category of expense
Total costs ($ million)
Fees and charges for entitlement holdings and allocation deliverya
Monitoring and evaluation
Development and maintenance of environmental registers and water accounting systems
Hydrological modelling services
Water market analysis
Development of environmental water delivery strategies
a Fees and charges include $12.9 million for annual water entitlement fees and $2.6 million for allocation use fees paid to state water authorities for the operation, maintenance and replacement of rural water infrastructure and $0.9 million for allocation pumping costs.
b Total may be ± 0.001 due to rounding.
Directions given to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder
No directions were given to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder in 2015–16 by the Minister, the Parliamentary Secretary or the Secretary of the Department.