MDBC Strategic Plan 2005–2010, Strategy 1.4: Monitor and report on the health of the Basin’s water and natural resources to inform better decision making

Monitoring Basin health

Sustainable Rivers Audit


The Sustainable Rivers Audit (SRA) provides a long-term assessment of the condition and health of the Basin’s 23 river valleys. Assessments are based on indicators from five environmental themes — fish, macroinvertebrates, hydrology, vegetation and physical form. Data collection is undertaken using scientific methods applied consistently across the Basin. An independent panel of scientists prepares the river health assessment every three years, with the next report due in 2011.

The data collected by the SRA is a key input to the Basin Plan and other programs of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA). SRA indicators are being used to evaluate the ecosystem stress for different hydrology scenarios. As well, the data and experience from the SRA are informing the development of the Basin Plan’s monitoring and evaluation framework.


  • The Sustainable Rivers Audit has completed five years of data collection across the Basin; in total, 82,060 fish and 294,308 macroinvertebrates have been sampled from more than 1,000 sites, and hydrological data from nearly 500 sites.
  • Expected species lists or reference conditions for all themes across the Basin have been modelled or constructed, with innovative approaches for macroinvertebrates and physical form developed in 2008–09.
  • Data from the first four years of monitoring is publicly available and data from the fifth year will become available in late 2009. Reports are available on the archived MDBC website (at <>).

The Sustainable Rivers Audit has generated the largest set of Basin-wide ecological data (see the highlights above), with substantial immediate and long-term value. It is designed and managed as a long-term data collection program, quite independent of its immediate value in reporting on river health across the Basin.

The SRA report 1 was the first Basin-wide assessment of river health, based on data collected from 2004 through 2007 on three environmental themes, namely fish, macroinvertebrates and hydrology. Since its launch in June 2008, SRA report 1 has been widely distributed through the Internet and in hard copy (over 1,000 hard copies have been distributed). It remains the definitive assessment of the health of the Basin’s rivers and is frequently referred to.

The data collected by the Sustainable Rivers Audit increases each year, and in 2008–09 it has been extensively used by MDBA programs, the National Water Commission, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), state agencies and university researchers, among others. For example, it has been used by the NSW State of the Catchments and State of the Environment reporting; in reporting for the Victorian Index of Stream Condition; and in testing of the National Water Commission’s Framework for Assessment of Rivers and Wetland Health. Both New South Wales and Victoria have expanded the audit methods to coastal regions.

River Murray Water Quality Monitoring Program


The River Murray Water Quality Monitoring Program addresses MDBA’s responsibilities under Part VII of the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement. The program samples and analyses water quality from 35 sites along the River Murray and the lower ends of its major tributaries. The results are used to assess overall water quality and the potential impact of floodplain development proposals on water quality.


  • Emergency assistance was provided in determining the extent of the autumn algal blooms along the Murray.
  • The Blue-green Algal Bloom Advisory Panel was convened and support provided.
  • In total 85 floodplain development proposals were assessed for their potential to affect the quality of the River Murray.


Algal bloom forming in Lake Mulwala at Yarrawonga.

Algal bloom forming in Lake Mulwala at Yarrawonga. The bloom is the lighter green area extending from the river bank in the centre of the photo.

During March 2009, algal blooms developed to red alert levels along the River Murray, initially between Hume Dam and Torrumbarry Weir (a distance of 587 km along the river). MDBA used aerial reconnaissance and survey to collect digital still and video footage along the Murray, confirming the extent and continuity of the bloom within 24 hours. This method added significantly to field sampling and supported rapid response.

MDBA assessed possible mitigation options using revised river operation procedures but, due to reduced water availability, there was no potential to increase flows to disperse the bloom without jeopardising water supply for essential needs in 2009–10. New South Wales and Victoria enacted treatment processes to protect water supplies pending the decline of the bloom with the onset of cooler weather.

During April 2009, further algal blooms developed along the Murray as far downstream as Tooleybuc in the Edward River and in the Murray around Euston. By this stage some 800 km of the Murray was under red alert. A second aerial survey was flown in April to trace the extent of the bloom and support accurate public safety alerts. Red alerts were progressively lifted as the bloom receded through April and May.

On 9 April 2009, the Minister for Climate Change and Water established a Blue-green Algal Bloom Advisory Panel to provide expert advice and ensure coordinated Basin-wide responses. The panel met in both April and May, recommending the harmonisation of state responses and consistent approaches to communication. The panel commented that the actions by New South Wales in managing the Murray bloom were exemplary.

MDBA continued to provide responses to a large number of proposed development applications along the Murray floodplain under clause 49 of the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement. Eighty-five proposals were assessed during the year. Assessments are based on the Ministerial Council’s stated policy of maintaining or improving water quality.

Northern Basin Program


The aim of the Northern Basin Program has been to improve understanding and management of the Darling River, its tributaries and their floodplains and wetlands, with a focus on socioeconomic, ecological and hydrological issues across the northern Murray–Darling Basin. Its role was to coordinate and communicate MDBA initiatives in the northern Murray–Darling Basin region.

When MDBA subsumed MDBC and its functions, the activities undertaken by the Northern Basin Program were absorbed into a number of new functional areas, including the Basin Plan (see page 3), stakeholder engagement (see page 17) and natural resource management programs (pages 19–50).

Evaluation of the Narran Lakes Environmental Water Purchase

As part of the agreement in March 2008 to purchase environmental water for the Narran Lakes, the former MDBC requested an evaluation of the purchase. The final report of this evaluation was completed by MDBA in June 2009 (see < The water purchase was found to be a success, supplying water to the area where waterbirds were breeding; by the end of the breeding event, close to 50,000 young birds had fledged.

Water trade in the northern Murray–Darling Basin

In the northern regions of the Murray–Darling Basin, water trading and water resource management generally are vastly different from those in the southern regions of the Basin. In collaboration with the Water Trade Program (see page 66), a project on water trade in the northern Basin scoped the key issues concerning water resource governance, management and trade to provide advice and direction for further research towards policy/program options and institutional design options.