On 22 January 2019, the Australian Government established an independent expert panel, led by University of Melbourne Professor Robert Vertessy, in response to a series of fish deaths in the lower Darling River in December 2018 and January 2019. On 10 April 2019, then Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud released the panel’s final report, the Independent Assessment of the 2018-19 Fish Deaths in the lower Darling.
The independent expert panel expressed its strong support for the continuation of the Basin Plan, while recognising that reform effort must be re-energised and accelerated.
The panel determined that the predominant factor in the fish deaths was local hydrological and climatic conditions, both at the time of the events and as shaped by broader climatic, hydrological and basin management matters.
The panel made 27 “practical recommendations addressed to Basin policy makers and Basin managers separately that, if adopted, would enhance the ability of State and Australian Government agencies to discharge their responsibilities more effectively within the policy settings of the Basin Plan and the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement.”
Many of these recommendations are directed at the States, and will require a collective response by Governments.
Response to recommendations
The Australian Government has announced a range of actions to address a number of key aspects of the findings and recommendations in the report. The implementation of many of these initiatives will involve close engagement with communities in the relevant regions, including Aboriginal people.
The March 2021 status of the Government responses to the 2018-19 fish deaths has been provided under each of the measures.
Fish management and recovery
- Up to $10 million being provided over three years to help restock rivers and lakes with native fish species across the basin and establish new hatcheries in St George, Queensland, and Menindee, New South Wales (NSW), to kick start fish recovery.
- Status: Scoping studies are underway for both hatcheries and due to be completed in the first half of 2021.
- An additional $5.24 million for the Toorale Water Infrastructure Project to better connect the Warrego and Darling Rivers. This funding will improve flows and build fishways.
- Status: The Australian Government is providing funding to the NSW Government to modify key dams on the Toorale property. One of the dams, Peebles Dam, was removed in November 2019 benefitting flows in the Warrego River and fish passage
- $15 million for fencing northern Basin riverbanks. This will help to improve water quality and outcomes for native fish.
- Status: The Australian Government is negotiating with the NSW and Queensland governments on the arrangements for the roll out of the program through the first half of 2021.
These are in addition to previously announced initiatives (on 14 January 2019 and 21 February 2019):
- Working with NSW to allow better fish movement through the system by installing fishways, fish ladders and removing obstacles between Menindee and the Murray, after the interim report found allowing fish to move between both systems will help recovery. These include:
- Construction of a fishway at the Menindee Main Weir;
- Removal of the Old Menindee Town Weir to allow fish to pass through;
- Upgrading two existing fishways and creating a new fishway on the Lower Darling below Menindee Lake; and
- Construction of a fishway around the inlet regulator between Frenchman’s Creek and Lake Victoria which is a major barrier to fish passage along the Murray River.
- Status: The Australian Government is funding the NSW Government to undertake community and stakeholder consultation, technical investigations and design work for the fish passages. The NSW Government has removed 90 per cent of the Menindee old town weir and is consulting with the local community to progress this measure further.
- Investing $5 million for a Native Fish Management and Recovery Strategy – a Basin-wide strategy to enhance the management of native fish populations.
- Status: The Native Fish Recovery Strategy was issued on 23 June 2020. The MDBA is currently implementation the priority actions within the strategy.
- Creating an early warning system—a Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) risk assessment matching where fish deaths have previously occurred with current factors such as water quality, weather and flow.
- Status: This measure is complete. The Native Fish Emergency Response Plan which forms part of the Native Fish Recovery Strategy, was released on 14 October 2019. The MDBA undertakes engagement and monitoring across the Basin to ensure water quality risks to native fish are identified as early as possible.
- Funding the local community for aerators that the report found created refuge zones for fish.
- Status: This measure is complete. Following the initial fish kill events at Menindee, aerators were deployed in the lower Darling River by the lead agency, NSW Department of Primary Industries-Fisheries and local community members from January to April, 2019. The installation of aerators now form part of the toolkit available to state and Commonwealth agencies when managing poor water quality and risks to native fish.
- Extending the Native Fish Demonstration Reach program to the Lower Darling; directly involving local and Indigenous communities and fisherman in habitat restoration and re-stocking.
- Status: The Lower Darling Recovery Reach was established in 2019-20 including on-ground works and monitoring.. The Lower Darling Recovery Reach will continue for the next 2 years as per the Recovery Reach program implemented under the Native Fish Recovery Strategy. The project will include a full-time Recovery Coordinator; habitat works (restocking, screening trials, community carp removal events); engagement and communications activities.
- Committing an extra $3 million into fish research and Basin research.
- Status: The MDBA and CSIRO are delivering a collaborative research project to better understand how Basin ecosystem functions respond to flow and other factors. This project will help improve management of water for the environment to ensure ecosystems are healthy and support the Murray-Darling Basin's environmental, community, economic and cultural values. The project is expected to be completed by mid 2022.
Improving water connectivity between the north and south of the Basin
- The Government will, in consultation with community and NSW Government, seek to secure A class licences to protect low flows in the Barwon Darling into the future as recommended by the report.
- Status: The Australian Government is working with the NSW Government to progress the development of a suite of water management rules that will improve low flows in the Barwon-Darling through the Barwon–Darling Water Sharing Plan and commensurate Water Resource Plan.
- The Government will also work with NSW to allocate some water for indigenous communities fulfilling a commitment from the Government’s 7 May 2018 agreement with Opposition.
- Status: The Australian Government is working to progress this with NSW.
Improving river management and compliance
- Up to $25 million into metering in the northern basin, in the form of a 25% subsidy for AS4747 compliant meters. This will be backdated 12 months and states will be asked to contribute additional funding.
- Status: The Australian Government is negotiating with NSW and Queensland arrangements for the roll out of the program in the first half of 2021.
- $20 million to expand research on the Murray-Darling Basin for better water and environmental management and to address gaps in our knowledge as recommended by Prof Vertessy and the panel.
- Status: The program has been established and two research consortia led by CSIRO and La Trobe University, have been selected to deliver the strategic research component of the program. The program will focus on four key areas of climate adaptation hydrology, environmental outcomes and social, economic and cultural outcomes. More information can be found on the MDBA website.
- $5 million to enhance real time monitoring (satellite and live-stream river flows to the internet) at key sites in the northern Basin.
- Status: The MDBA is developing the arrangements for the delivery of this project. As part of the project planning the MDBA has conducted an assessment of the different types of cameras which could be used for both streaming content as well as data analysis. This project will pilot the use fixed cameras and semi-automated drones which are capable of flying a set flight path and capturing data.
- $5 million to improve real- time information on water accounting and water availability in the Murray–Darling Basin by the Bureau of Meteorology announced 2 September 2019.
- Status: The first phase of this measure is underway involving fortnightly summaries of water availability in major catchments on the Bureau of Meteorology website. The second phase will be rolled out over 2022 and 2023 and involves the development of a new website, the Murray-Darling Basin Water Information Portal. Version one will be launched in June 2021 and will provide the same information as the fortnightly summaries in a digital format. More advanced iterations of the Portal will then be released over the following two years based on user feedback.