Environmental Management

, Volume 34, Issue 3, pp 383–396 | Cite as

Destruction of Wetlands and Waterbird Populations by Dams and Irrigation on the Murrumbidgee River in Arid Australia

  • R. T. KingsfordEmail author
  • R. F. Thomas


The Lowbidgee floodplain is the Murrumbidgee River’s major wetland in southeastern Australia. From more than 300,000 ha in the early 1900s, at least 76.5% was destroyed (58%) or degraded (18%) by dams (26 major storages), subsequent diversions and floodplain development. Diversions of about 2,144,000 ML year–1 from the Murrumbidgee River come from a natural median flow of about 3,380,000 ML year–1 providing water for Australia’s capital, hydroelectricity, and 273,000 ha of irrigation. Diversions have reduced the amount of water reaching the Lowbidgee floodplain by at least 60%, from 1888 to 1998. About 97,000 ha of Lowbidgee wetland was destroyed by development of the floodplain for an irrigation area (1975–1998), including building of 394 km of channels and 2,145 km of levee banks. Over 19 years (1983–2001), waterbird numbers estimated during annual aerial surveys collapsed by 90%, from an average of 139,939 (1983–1986) to 14,170 (1998–2001). Similar declines occurred across all functional groups: piscivores (82%), herbivores (87%), ducks and small grebe species (90%), large wading birds (91%), and small wading birds (95%), indicating a similar decline in the aquatic biota that formed their food base. Numbers of species also declined significantly by 21%. The Lowbidgee floodplain is an example of the ecological consequences of water resource development. Yanga Nature Reserve, within the Lowbidgee floodplain, conserved for its floodplain vegetation communities, will lose these communities because of insufficient water. Until conservation policies adequately protect river flows to important wetland areas, examples such as the Lowbidgee will continue to occur around the world.

Biodiversity loss River regulation Diversion Lowbidgee floodplain Satellite imagery Levees 



Funds for this project were supplied by grants from Environment Australia and Land and Water Research Development Corporation through their wetlands program. The Natural Heritage Trust also provided funding. Hydrological data were provided by the New South Wales Department of Land and Water Conservation and the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Authority. We thank those who assisted with aerial surveys. The New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service provided support for this project. Views expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of Environment Australia, the Land and Water Research Development Corporation, the Commonwealth Government, or the New South Wales Government.

Literature Cited

  1. 1.
    Arthington, A. H., Pusey, B. J. 2003Flow restoration and protection in Australian riversRiver Research and Applications19377395CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Barendregt, A., Wassen, M. J., Schot, P. P. 1995Hydrological systems beyond a nature reserve, the major problem in wetland conservation of Naardermeer (the Netherlands)Biological Conservation72393405CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Barker, R. D., Vestjens, W. J. M. 1989The food of Australian birds. I, non-passerines. CSIRO Division of Wildlife and EcologyParchment PressMelbourne738Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Boulton, A. J., Lloyd, L. N. 1992Flooding frequency and invertebrate emergence from dry floodplain sediments of the River Murray, AustraliaRegulated Rivers7137151Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Briggs, S. V., Thornton, S. A., Lawler, W. G. 1997Relationships between hydrological control of river red gum wetlands and waterbird breedingEmu973142Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Brown, P. 1992The Murrumbidgee River fishery—a historical perspectiveRoberts, J.Oliver, R. eds. The Murrumbidgee, past and present. A forum on past and present research on the lower Murrumbidgee River held at CSIRO Division of Water Resources, Griffith, New South WalesCSIRO Division of Water ResourcesGriffith2026Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Bunn, S. E., Arthington, A. H. 2002Basic principles and ecological consequences of altered flow regimes for aquatic biodiversityEnvironmental Management30492507CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Butler, R. W. 1994Population regulation of wading Ciconiiform birdsColonial Birds17189199Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Butler, B. E., G. Blackburn, J. M. Bowler, C. R. Lawrence, J. N. Newell, and S. Pels. 1973. A geomorphic map of the riverine plain of south-eastern Australia. Australian National University Press, Canberra. pp 39Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Crabb, P. 1997Murray-Darling Basin ResourcesMurray-Darling Basin CommissionCanberra300Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Cross, H. C., Wettin, P. D., Keenan, F. M. 1991Corridors for wetland conservation and management? Room for conjectureSaunders, D. A.Mobbs, R. J. eds. Nature conservation 2: the role of corridorsSurrey Beatty and SonsSydney159165Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Davies, B. R., Thoms, M., Meador, M. 1992An assessment of the ecological impacts of inter-basin water transfers, and their threats to river basin integrity and conservationAquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems2325349Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    DLWC (NSW Department of Land and Water Conservation) 1996. Murrumbidgee Catchment, 1994–1995. State of the rivers report. Vols 1 and 2. NSW Department of Land and Water Conservation, Parramatta.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    DLWC 1997. Draft Land and Water Management Plan for Nimmie/Caira system. Vegetation management. NSW Department of Land and Water Conservation, Murrumbidgee Region, Leeton.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    DWR (Department of Water Resources) 1989. Lowbidgee management plan: stage one: Protected lands and floodway scheme. NSW Department of Water Resources, Sydney.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    DWR (Department of Water Resources) 1993. Water resources of the Murrumbidgee Valley. NSW Department of Water Resources, Sydney.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    DWR (Department of Water Resources) 1994. Lowbidgee management plan: Stage two: land and water management 1991–96. NSW Department of Water Resources, Sydney.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Dynesius, M., Nilsson, C 1994Fragmentation and flow regulation of river systems in the northern third of the worldScience266753762Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Ebsary, R. 1992Regulation of the Murrumbidgee RiverRoberts, J.Oliver, R. eds. The Murrumbidgee, past and present. A forum on past and present research on the lower Murrumbidgee River held at CSIRO Division of Water Resources, Griffith, New South WalesCSIRO Division of Water ResourcesGriffith4959Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Eddy, V. 1992The Lowbidgee experience: Simulated natural flooding and river red gumCatchments of green—a national conference on vegetation and water management. Vol. BGreening AustraliaAdelaide149156Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    EPA (Environment Protection Authority) 1997. Proposed interim environmental objectives for NSW Waters. Environment Protection Authority, Chatswood, Sydney.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Gehrke, P. C., Brown, P., Schiller, C. B., Moffatt, D. B., Bruce, A. M. 1995River regulation and fish communites in the Murray-Darling River system, AustraliaRegulated Rivers11363375Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Graf, W. L. 1999Dam nation: A geographic census of American dams and their large-scale hydrologic impactsWater Resources Research3513051311CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Harris, J. H., and P. E. Gehrke. 1997. Fish and rivers in stress: The NSW River Survey. NSW Fisheries Office of Conservation and the Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology, Cronulla, Sydney.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Hobbs, J. 1961Birds of south-western New South WalesEmu612155Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Johnston, R. M., Barson, M. M. 1993Remote sensing of Australian wetlands—an evaluation of Landsat TM data for inventory and classificationAustralian Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research44235252Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Jolly, I. D., Walker, G. R., Thorburn, P. J. 1993Salt accumulation in semi-arid floodplain soils with implications for forest healthJournal of Hydrology150589614CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 28.
    Kingsford, R. T. 2000aProtecting or pumping rivers in arid regions of the worldHydrobiologia427111CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 29.
    Kingsford, R. T. 2000bReview: Ecological impacts of dams, water diversions and river management on floodplain wetlands in AustraliaAustral Ecology25109127CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    Kingsford, R. T. 2003Ecological impacts and institutional and economic drivers for water resource development—a case study of the Murrumbidgee River, AustraliaAquatic Ecosystem Health and Management6(1)6979CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 31.
    Kingsford, R. T., Boulton, A. J., Puckridge, J. T. 1998Challenges in managing dryland rivers crossing political boundaries: Lessons from Cooper Creek and the Paroo River, central AustraliaAquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems8361378CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 32.
    Kingsford, R. T., Johnson, W. J. 1999The impact of water diversions on colonially nesting waterbirds in the Macquarie Marshes in arid AustraliaColonial Waterbirds21159170Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Kingsford, R. T., Porter, J. L. 1994Waterbirds on an adjacent freshwater lake and salt lake in arid AustraliaBiological Conservation69219228CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. 34.
    Kingsford, R. T., Thomas, R. F. 2002Use of satellite image analysis to track wetland loss on the Murrumbidgee River floodplain in arid Australia, 1975–1998Water Science and Technology454553Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Kingsford, R. T., Wong, P. S., Braithwaite, L. W., Maher, M. T. 1999Waterbird abundance in eastern Australia, 1983–1992Wildlife Research26351366Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Lemly, A. D., Kingsford, R. T., Thompson, J. R. 2000Irrigated agriculture and wildlife conservation: conflict on a global scaleEnvironmental Management25485512CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. 37.
    Leslie, D. J. 2001Effect of river management on colonially-nesting waterbirds in the Barmah-Millewa forest, south-eastern AustraliaRegulated Rivers: Research and Management172136CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. 38.
    Lowe, K. W. 1983Egg size, clutch size and breeding success of the glossy ibisPlegadis falcinellus. Emu833134Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Magrath, M. J. L. 1992. Waterbird study of the lower Lachlan and Murrumbidgee valley wetlands in 1990/01. Prepared for the NSW Department of Water Resources. Unpublished.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Maher, P. N. 1990. Bird survey of the Lachlan/Murrumbidgee confluence wetlands. Report to NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    Marchant, S., Higgins, P. J. 1990Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Volume 1 Ratites to ducksOxford University PressMelbourne1400Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Margules, C. R., Pressey, R. L. 2000Systematic conservation planningNature405243253CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. 43.
    MDBMC (Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council). 1995. An audit of water use in the Murray-Darling Basin. Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council, Canberra.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    MDBMC (Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council). 1996. Setting the cap. Report of the Independent Audit Group. Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council, Canberra.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    MDBMC (Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council). 1999. Review of cap implementation 1998/99. Report of the Independent Audit Group. Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council, Canberra.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Micklin, P. P. 1988Desiccation of the Aral Sea: a water management disaster in the Soviet UnionScience24111701176Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    National Land and Water Resources Audit. 2001. Australian Water Resources Assessment 2000. Commonwealth of Australia, CanberraGoogle Scholar
  48. 48.
    Parmenter, M. 1996. Lowbidgee Land and Water Management Plan Agricultural Zone. District Summary. Department of Land and Water Conservation, Hay.Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    Postel, S. L. 2000Entering an era of water scarcity: the challenges aheadEcological Applications10941948Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    Porteners, M. F. 1993The natural vegetation of the Hay Plain: Booligal-Hay and Deniliquin-Bendigo 1:250 000 mapsCunninghamia31121Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    Pressey, R. L., F. C. Bell, J. Barker, A. S. Rundle, and C. A. Belcher. 1984. Bio-physical features of the Lachlan-Murrumbidgee confluence, south-western New South Wales. NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, SydneyGoogle Scholar
  52. 52.
    SA (South Australian) Government. 1902. Report of the Inter-State Royal Commission on the River Murray. Government Printer, Adelaide.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    Scott, J. A. 1992The natural vegetation of the Balranald-Swan Hill areaCunninghamia2597652Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    Sheldon, F., Thoms, M. C., Berry, O., Puckridge, J. T. 2000Using disaster to prevent catastrophe: Referencing the impacts of flow changes in large dryland riversRegulated Rivers: Research and Management16403420CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. 55.
    Stanley, D. J., Warne, A. G. 1998Nile Delta in its destruction phaseJournal of Coastal Research14794825Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    SPSS. 1999. Systat 9. Statistics I and II. SPSS Inc., Chicago.Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    Taylor, P. J., Walker, G. R., Hodgson, G., Hatton, T. J., Correll, R. L. 1996Testing of a GIS Model of Eucalyptus largiflorens health on a semiarid, saline floodplainEnvironmental Management20553564PubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. 58.
    Vörösmarty, C. J., Sharma, K. P., Fekete, B. M., Copeland, A. H., Holden, J., Marble, J., Lough, J.A. 1997The storage and aging of continental runoff in large reservoir systems of the worldAmbio26210219Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    Ward, J. V. 1998Riverine landscapes: biodiversity patterns, disturbance regimes and aquatic conservationBiological Conservation83267278CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. 60.
    WCIC (Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission) 1972. Water Resources of the Murrumbidgee Valley. Survey of thirty two N.S.W. river valleys, report no. 24. Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission, Sydney, New South Wales.Google Scholar
  61. 61.
    Wiens, J. A., Patten, D. T., Botkin, D. B. 1993Assessing ecological impact assessment: Lessons from Mono Lake, CaliforniaEcological Applications3595609Google Scholar
  62. 62.
    Zar, J. H. 1984Biostatistical analysis. 2nd editionPrentice-Hall IncEnglewood Cliffs, NJ718Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag New York, Inc. 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.NSW Department of Environment and ConservationHurstville, NSWAustralia

Personalised recommendations