The Campaspe River starts in the Dividing Range near Trentham, is dammed to form Lake Eppalock and flows through Elmore and Rochester before joining the Murray at Echuca. It’s also the closest river to Bendigo.
Things aren’t looking great for the Campaspe. Its condition is rated as ‘very poor’, among the worst of the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin.1 The main cause of this poor condition is our water use – on average we take out about half of the water which would naturally be flowing down the river, and in dry years less than 10% of its water flows into the Murray.2 The river is highly regulated with Lake Eppalock built in the 1960s to supply water for irrigation, and the frequency of flooding has been greatly reduced. Recent rain has been a big help, but not enough to restore the system to health. A long term plan is needed for that.
The Campaspe is home to the Growling Grass Frog, the Royal Spoonbill, the Brush-tailed Phascogale, the iconic Murray Cod and Trout Cod, and 174 different vegetation communities, only 7 of which are not endangered.
The draft Basin Plan is calling for 18 billion litres (GL)3 of water to be returned to the Goulburn, from the baseline 153 GL we currently take out on average every year. The volume to be returned could increase slightly after 2015 when a decision is made on how the downstream needs of the Murray Mouth will be met.
The MDBA has not set its own environmental objectives for the Campaspe, relying instead on targets set through the Victorian government’s Northern Region Sustainable Water Strategy.4 This strategy only set out to recover enough water to improve environmental conditions in the river channel, not on the floodplain, so this is what the Basin Plan will do too.
Conditions will improve for fish, and there should be increased opportunity for large bodied species like the Murray Cod to spawn. But away from the river it’s not looking so rosy and vegetation will only be watered during natural floods, as it is now.5 So it looks like we can kiss good bye to some of those endangered plant communities in the Campaspe. Overall, the river’s health will improve only from a rating of ‘poor’ to a rating of ‘poor to moderate’.6
The federal government has set aside billions of dollars to meet the water requirements of the Basin Plan. They have recently announced an investment of over $1 billion in modernising irrigation infrastructure in northern Victoria. In the Campaspe region, irrigators have already agreed to close down the Campaspe Irrigation District and are in the process of selling their water entitlements to the federal government.7Once this process is complete the full 18 GL should be recovered.
Bendigo is the largest town in the area and it already has a diverse economy with a range of industries. Smaller towns like Elmore and Rochester are much more reliant on irrigation, particularly for dairy and tomatoes, and food processing like the large Murray Goulburn milk factory in Rochester. These communities are affected by the closure of the Campaspe Irrigation District, but farmers who wish to stay in irrigation are able to access water from the Goulburn via the Western Waranga Channel. Exit packages are available through NVIRP for those leaving irrigation permanently.
1 Sustainable Rivers Audit (MDBA, 2008)
2 See successive Victorian Water Accounts
3 Proposed Basin Plan – a draft for consultation (MDBA, 2011) Schedule 2.
4 Northern region Sustainable Water Strategy (DSE, 2008).
5 The proposed ‘environmentally sustainable level of take’ for surface water of the Murray-Darling Basin (MDBA, 2011)
6 Guide to the proposed Basin Plan (MDBA, 2010). The draft Basin Plan uses a different hydrological model form the Guide so this assessment is indicative
7 Campaspe irrigation shutdown looms
8 For example Jones et al (2002) Independent Report on the Expert Reference Panel on Environmental Flows and water quality requirements for the River Murray system