Since 2016, there have been several significant investments to improve understanding and management of inland waters.

National Environmental Science Program

The National Environmental Science Program (NESP) provides funding for environment and climate research, including research related to inland waters. Phase 1 of NESP ran from 2014–15 to 2020–21 and allocated $145 million for the establishment of 6 research hubs. The most relevant of these hubs to inland water was the Northern Australia Environmental Research Hub (NAERH), which received funding of $23.88 million. As of November 2020, the Australian Government had invested more than $5 million through NESP in research undertaken through the NAERH that would benefit the management of inland waters, including the following projects:

  • Refining Australia’s water futures
  • Water futures under climate change
  • Critical water needs to sustain freshwater ecosystems and aquatic biodiversity in the Mitchell River
  • Environmental water requirements for the Daly River, Northern Territory
  • Environmental water requirements for the Fitzroy River, Western Australia
  • Contribution of rivers to the productivity of floodplains and coastal areas of the southern Gulf of Carpentaria
  • Indigenous water requirements: methods for the determination of Indigenous water requirements and incorporation into water planning for the Fitzroy Catchment, Kimberley (Northern Australia Environmental Research Portal 2015)
  • Improved water quality outcomes from on-farm nitrogen management
  • Impacts of postfire ash and run-off sediment on Australian freshwater aquatic fauna (Franklin et al. 2020).

Regional Land Partnerships

To address threats to Ramsar wetlands, the Regional Land Partnerships are providing $450 million from July 2018 to June 2023 to 54 National Landcare Program Management Units (National Landcare Program 2021). The program is funding 215 projects that are designed to contribute to the following outcomes (National Landcare Program 2017):

  • Outcome 1 – The ecological character of Ramsar sites is maintained or improved.
  • Outcome 2 – The trajectory of species targeted under the Threatened Species Strategy and other priority species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) is improved.
  • Outcome 3 – The natural heritage Outstanding Universal Value of World Heritage properties is maintained or improved.
  • Outcome 4 – The condition of EPBC Act–listed threatened ecological communities is improved.
  • Outcome 5 – The conditions of soil, biodiversity and vegetation are improved.
  • Outcome 6 – Agriculture systems have adapted to significant changes in climate and market demands.

Outcome 1, which focuses on the maintenance or improvement of the ecological character of Ramsar wetland sites, is the most relevant to inland waters. Projects under this outcome include ‘Protecting the wonders of the Myall Lakes Wetlands in NSW through catchment-based partnerships’, ‘Collaboration to build the character of Ramsar wetlands in the Gwydir Wetlands: Gingham and Lower Gwydir (Big Leather) watercourses’, ‘Restoring the ecological character of the Ramsar wetlands of the SA Murray–Darling Basin’, and ‘Working with Traditional Owners to strengthen resilience of the Barmah Ramsar site’.

However, the focus on just Ramsar sites has resulted in many unique and important wetlands that would satisfy the criteria for Ramsar listing being overlooked. As a consequence, many wetlands in both the Top End and the Northern Territory arid zone receive little Australian Government support for their conservation and management.

Data and monitoring

Advances in technology, the enhancement of hydrometric monitoring and the use of citizen science are improving the collection of data for water management, but coordination of the publication of information remains a challenge.

Hydrologic Reference Stations

The Hydrologic Reference Stations database is a database of high-quality, long-term streamflow monitoring sites that was established by the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM 2015) with data provided to December 2012. It includes data from 222 sites that meet strict selection criteria, including being located upstream of development such as dams and irrigation, and having at least 30 years of high-quality streamflow records. The Hydrologic Reference Stations database is used to determine trends in Australian streamflows, and to assess long-term variability and change in response to climate change–induced changes in rainfall and evaporation.

In August 2020, a major update to the Hydrologic Reference Stations was undertaken that more than doubled the number of stations from 222 to 467 sites and extended the length of streamflow data to February 2019. In addition, sites with limited or no additional data from 2009 onwards were decommissioned. Other improvements that were made to the analytics included replacing the assessment of trends using regressions with Sen’s slope (Sen 1968) and incorporating an uncertainty measure of the streamflow. The greatly expanded number of sites, extended period of record and improved analytics will enable more accurate assessments of the impact of climate change on streamflow.

National Water Quality Dataset

In Australia, data on water quality and flow are collected separately by state-based agencies, which makes undertaking water quality assessments at a national scale extremely difficult. To overcome these difficulties, the University of Melbourne, in collaboration with government agencies from all states and territories, has developed a national water quality dataset (Lintern et al. 2021).

The dataset comprises:

  • 1,036 monitoring sites with paired water quality and run-off data
  • up to 30 years of monitoring data
  • data on parameters including turbidity, pH, conductivity, total phosphorus, total nitrogen, nitrogen species, phosphorus species, metals, total dissolved solids, total suspended solids and water temperature.

The national dataset is being used to identify historical trends in water quality in Australia at a national level, predict future water quality trends in Australia and understand key water quality processes at the national scale.

Water information webpages

A key finding of the 2016 state of the environment report was that states and territories should have increased access to water data online. Although access has improved since then, the limited coordination between national and state and territory agencies has resulted in too much information being provided, leading to confusion and, in some cases, distrust caused by multiple sources of similar information that can appear to be inconsistent.

There are more than 40 webpages about Murray–Darling Basin hosted by various Australian Government and Basin state organisations. This led the Northern Basin Commissioner to note in the first year report (Keelty 2019) that ‘manoeuvring through the plethora of websites for stakeholders is slavish and not conducive to achieving high levels of compliance’ and to recommend the adoption of ‘a single site for relevant and accurate information regarding water entitlements and availability for all stakeholders’.

The public portal, being developed as Project 2 of the Enhanced Water Monitoring and Information projects (see Enhanced water monitoring and information in the Murray–Darling Basin), has as its objective the development of a central source of water information to overcome this problem.

Enhanced water monitoring and information in the Murray–Darling Basin

In December 2020, the Australian Government, in collaboration with the New South Wales and Queensland governments and key agencies, announced funding of $35 million for Enhanced Water Monitoring and Information (EWMI) projects to improve the transparency, consistency and accessibility of water information in the northern Murray–Darling Basin. There are 4 projects under the EWMI:

  • Project 1 – Development of a water accounting and reporting tool for entitlement holders and compliance officers
  • Project 2 – Development of a northern Basin water information portal and supporting systems
  • Project 3 – Improved cross-border measurement and monitoring
  • Project 4 – Operationalising remote-sensed and spatial compliance.

In September 2019, the then Minister for Water Resources announced $5 million of funding for the Bureau of Meteorology to develop a tool that would provide water users in the Murray–Darling Basin with improved access to information on water availability. This funding is now being combined with the funding for EWMI Project 2 to develop a water information portal for the whole Basin.

Citizen science

Citizen science water quality monitoring groups began in Australia in the early 1990s with the creation of Streamwatch in the Greater Sydney Region by Sydney Water. This was followed by the formation of the National Waterwatch program in 1993, with local programs established in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), New South Wales and Victoria.

For example, in the ACT, Waterwatch is focused on the 98 catchment areas in the upper Murrumbidgee River catchment, where its volunteers undertake water quality surveys, water bug surveys and riverbank vegetation assessment. Since 2013–14, the data have been used to prepare the annual Catchment Health Indicator Program (CHIP) report; the most recent report was published in 2021 (O’Reilly et al. 2021). The ACT Commissioner for Sustainability and Environment uses the CHIP reports when preparing the ACT state of the environment reports (Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment 2019).

The CSIRO EyeOnWater Australia uses citizen scientists to help monitor the occurrence of algal blooms, sedimentation and other water quality changes. This is done by volunteers taking a photo of a water body and uploading it to a mobile app. By comparing the colour of the water with a colour chart, the ecological state of the water can be assessed.

Very successful citizen science projects on the iconic platypus have been undertaken in Victoria. These include the long-running Australian Platypus Monitoring Network and the more recent PlatypusSPOT. Both these projects overcome the lack of long-term studies on platypus populations by using observations of platypus by locals, bushwalkers and other outdoor recreationalists.

New technologies

Even before the travel restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic made the collection of hydrometric data difficult, organisations were adopting remote methods for collecting streamflow data because they reduced the risk to hydrographers during high-flow measurements; enabled measurements to be taken at remote locations; and were better suited to high-flow and high-debris flood environments, which were unsuitable for more conventional instrumentation such as acoustic doppler current profilers.

Some of the more widely used remote techniques include:

  • image velocimetry, which uses a video recording to calculate surface velocities from water surface tracers (Tauro et al. 2017)
  • surface velocity radar, which uses permanent fixed, multipoint or handheld radars to calculate streamflow velocity using doppler frequency shift methods (Fulton & Ostrowski 2008)
  • unmanned aerial vehicles (‘drones’), which enable image velocimetry measurements to be taken quickly and safely in high-flow conditions (Randall 2018).

In recent years, there has also been rapid development of the application of environmental DNA (eDNA) to biomonitoring, bioassessment, and detection of rare and invasive species. Research undertaken at the Northern Australia Environmental Research Hub, the University of Melbourne and the University of Canberra has developed sensitive and cost-effective methods to confirm whether a species is present in an area without the need for labour-intensive species monitoring (Furlan et al. 2020).

Assessment Water management 
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is stable.
Adequate confidence

Sustainable water management is being challenged by increasing climate change. Environmental and cultural water uses are losing the competition with consumptive use.
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 6.b, 6.1, 6.4, 6.5

Assessment Water management plans
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is stable.
Adequate confidence

Although water management plans in various states and territories have been in place for some time, complying with new requirements has been a challenge for some states. The water resource management plans to be developed by Murray–Darling Basin states and territories as an integral part of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan have had limited success, with only 13 of the 33 plans having been accredited.

Assessment Competition between consumptive and environmental water users
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is stable.
Adequate confidence

In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to reduce the imbalance between consumptive and environmental water users. This has been attempted through the development and implementation of water resource management plans. There have also been active efforts to recover water for the environment from consumptive users. However, the past 3 years of drought have meant that the focus has been on meeting critical human needs; with a few exceptions, the environment has received little water.

Assessment Environmental water for cultural purposes
2021 Assessment graphic showing that management is partially effective, meaning that management measures have limited impact on maintaining or improving the state of the environment. The situation is deteriorating.
Somewhat adequate confidence

In recent years, research has been undertaken to identify cultural flow needs. These are currently very reliant on rain events, resulting in little to no water delivered for cultural values, especially during drought conditions. The outcomes of this work have informed a few cultural waterings; however, the recent drought years have adversely impacted the provision of water for cultural purposes.