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Good things take time: Murray's wetlands coming back to life.

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In nature, good things often take time. Wildflowers fill the desert with colour after a flood, but it can be years in between their amazing floral displays. A majestic mountain ash may take centuries to reach its full height.

So it is with the environmental gains of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. ACF's community has worked hard for many years to secure more water for the stressed rivers of the Murray-Darling, which have suffered from having far too much water taken out of them for far too long.

We've done the official stuff--submissions, appearing at inquiries, lobbying all sides of politics at federal and state levels--and we've done the unofficial stuff: town hall meetings, colourful protests on the steps of state parliaments, billboards, media stunts, even crowdfunding to buy water for a thirsty wetland (remember Just Add Water?).

So it is with the environmental gains of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. ACF's community has worked hard for many years to secure more water for the stressed rivers of the Murray-Darling, which have suffered from having far too much water taken out of them for far too long.

We've done the official stuff--submissions, appearing at inquiries, lobbying all sides of politics at federal and state levels--and we've done the unofficial stuff: town hall meetings, colourful protests on the steps of state parliaments, billboards, media stunts, even crowdfunding to buy water for a thirsty wetland (remember Just Add Water?).

And we got a result. Imperfect though it may be, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan contains $10 billion to recover 3,200 billion litres--six times more water than is in Sydney harbour--every year for the rivers and wetlands of the Basin. It was signed into law, with bi-partisan support, towards the end of 2012.

That was the political result. But what about nature's result?

Two-and-a-half years later, it's time to look at some of the benefits that are flowing--literally!--from those years of hard work. The good news is water bought back by Commonwealth and state governments is making a difference to the health of red gums, wetlands, fish, birds and other wildlife across the basin.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has confirmed 2,000 billion litres of water was delivered last year via 'environmental watering events' to important sites in the basin. Most of these sites are places that miss out on natural flows because the rivers of the basin have so many dams, weirs and other diversions that natural 'over bank' floods no longer reach the wetlands.

Environmental watering is a way to give these wetlands the drink they are missing out on. The government buys water from willing sellers--for example, irrigators that might be getting out of the industry and wish to sell their water allocation to the environment--and the water is delivered from the main watercourse to the wetland through a channel or pipe.

This water has encouraged birds and fish to breed and has given a new lease of life to red gums and other trees that rely for their survival on periodic flooding.

Terry Fleming, who has lived all her life in the vicinity of the Goddard's Lease wetlands on the Ramsar-listed Lower Gwydir system in northern NSW, says environmental water plays an important part in keeping the wetlands in "pretty good condition".

When there is enough water, egrets, herons, ibises and swans all breed in the wetlands, as do rarer waterbirds like brolgas, jacanas and magpie geese.

In October and November last year the Gwydir Wetlands State Conservation Area, normally closed to the public, was opened to visitors while environmental water flowed through the habitat. Terry and her husband Phillip hosted 11 groups of birdwatchers and other visitors keen to experience the wetlands at their best.

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"We're lucky to have had environmental watering in the last few years," she says.

Howard Jones is a farmer at Dareton, between Mildura in Victoria and Wentworth in NSW, and Chair of the Murray-Darling Wetlands Working Group.

He describes seeing "millions upon millions of golden perch fingerlings" after a release of environmental water reached the Darling Anabranch, an often-dry riverbed that is an ancient path of the Darling River.

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"Not only were the fingerlings passing down the river and on into the Murray, the mature fish were moving up the Anabranch (perhaps to spawn) ... the vegetation--mainly box with red gum at either end of it, at various pools out of the Darling and out of the Murray--it all got a drink as well and was rejuvenated."

Other areas throughout the basin have also benefitted.

Environmental flows to the Gunbower Creek and the Goulburn River system created perfect conditions for native fish to spawn.

Environmental watering in the Macquarie Marshes has shored up refuges for a range of native species. A 'temperature control curtain' installed at Burrendong Dam allows warm water to be released from near the surface of the dam, instead of cold water from lower down, improving habitat just downstream of the dam for native fish and other species.

In the Lowbidgee wetlands, environmental water prompted the endangered southern bell frog to breed at Nimmie-Caira. It was a good year for birds too, with great egrets breeding at Tarwillie Swamp.

The Fivebough and Tuckerbil swamps in the mid-Murrumbidgee, both Ramsar-listed wetlands that host brolgas and the very rare Australasian bittern, also benefitted.

Water delivered to the Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray Mouth kept salinity levels down and allowed vegetation to flower and fruit, providing food and habitat for birds, fish and invertebrates.

Good things are happening. But the job of the Basin Plan is not finished--and there are new threats to its full implementation. ACF's Healthy Ecosystems Program Manager Jonathan La Nauze warns the Federal Government's decision to cap buybacks at 1,500 billion litres puts at risk the Basin Plan's gains.

"The Federal Government's preference to recover water by subsidising irrigation upgrades makes the task of returning the promised 3,200 billion litres difficult, but if we don't get this volume of water back in the rivers, environmental jewels like the Coorong will be in trouble," Jonathan says.

"Capping the amount that can be bought from willing sellers leaves too much to be found through expensive subsidies and the government has no plan for how or where it will find this water.

"Governments must keep to the task of implementing the Basin Plan to safeguard the river system--which is the lifeblood of the nation, sustaining and supporting millions of Australians--before the next big drought hits," Jonathan says.

Howard Jones is optimistic: "I'm very buoyant about where it's going. If it's done as a quick fix, the fish and the river will be the losers. But if it's done right, there won't be any losers."

Donate to the ACF and support long-term projects like bringing the Murray back to life: acfonline.org.au/donate

Josh Meadows is ACF's media adviser. He is also a bushwalker, a broadcaster on Main FM (a community radio station in Castlemaine in central Victoria), a musician with pop band The Steinbecks and a keen North Melbourne supporter. @joshmeadows3
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Author:Meadows, Josh
Publication:Habitat Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jul 1, 2015
Words:1176
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