Measuring environmental benefits of the Murray Darling Basin Plan

Dr Angus Webb, from the Department of Infrastructure Engineering at the University of Melbourne, is leading a multi-disciplinary consortium that is undertaking monitoring and evaluation of the effects of environmental water delivered under the Basin Plan to the Goulburn River in northern Victoria.

The Federal Government’s Murray Darling Basin Plan represents an unprecedented $15B investment to return ‘environmental flows’ to Australia’s iconic Murray Darling Basin. Amid claim and counter-claim of the likely environmental benefits of this program, robust monitoring and evaluation of the outcomes is essential.

The Goulburn River is one of seven ‘selected areas’ being assessed under the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office’s long-term intervention monitoring (LTIM) project, recently announced by Parliamentary Secretary, Simon Birmingham. Monitoring within selected areas is partly driven by local priorities, for example, monitoring of bank erosion in the Goulburn.

However this must be coordinated with monitoring at other selected areas in the Murray-Darling Basin to allow analyses of major environmental outcomes, for example, native fish responses.

Lessons learned from the Victorian Environmental Flows Monitoring and Assessment Program (VEFMAP), in which myself and Assoc Prof Michael Stewardson, also of the Department of Infrastructure Engineering, have played major roles, have helped inform the overall approach to long-term monitoring and large-scale evaluation of the Basin Plan. VEFMAP introduced a new partnership-based approach to monitoring and evaluation of environmental flows, and included technical innovations, such as the use of Bayesian statistical modelling approaches, both of which have greatly improved our ability to detect and predict the effects of environmental flows.

The Goulburn LTIM consortium includes University of Melbourne staff members from the Department of Infrastructure Engineering, the Department of Resource Management and Geography, and the Centre for Aquatic Pollution Identification and Monitoring, and others. The project is being managed through University of Melbourne Commercial.

We are examining environmental responses to Commonwealth environmental water including physical habitat, ecosystem metabolism, macroinvertebrates, bankside vegetation, and fish assemblages. Monitoring began in July 2014, and will run for 5 years. While we are in the very early stages of monitoring, we have already seen some positive environmental responses. In particular, golden perch, a particular focus of environmental flows in the Goulburn River, spawned in response to the spring flow event delivered in November 2014, and at levels never previously observed in this river.

The LTIM project is a science-management partnership, with much of the monitoring being done by university and other researchers, but feeding directly into the management of Commonwealth environmental water. The literature is replete with failures in science-management collaboration, where academics have failed to deliver results needed by managers, and the questions have not been of sufficient research interest to maintain engagement by academics. However, the LTIM project has embraced a new approach.

The Commonwealth revised its procurement processes to allow 5-year contracts for monitoring providers, and also encouraged the formation of consortia to maximise expertise in monitoring and evaluation. In addition, the program is well funded, with upwards of $30M available for monitoring and associated research into the environmental effects of flow restoration. The resulting surety of funding for the high-quality teams that have been assembled maximises the chances of detecting environmental benefits of the Basin Plan.

We will be able to assess whether the environmental flows delivered under the basin plan are adequate for improving environmental function, whether more environmental water is needed, or whether we have already provided more than is required. Beyond this, the LTIM project will provide accountability for the major expenditure of taxpayer funds in the Basin Plan, and will improve management of environmental water into the future.