The Goulburn River starts in the mountains above Woods Point, is dammed to form Lake Eildon and flows by Alexandra, Seymour and Shepparton before joining the Murray at Echuca.
Things aren’t looking great for the Goulburn. Its condition is rated as ‘extremely poor’, among the worst of the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin. 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. The river is highly regulated with the massive Lake Eildon built to supply water for irrigation, and the frequency of flooding has been much 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 Goulburn is home to the Crimson-spotted Rainbowfish, the Great Egret, the Brush-tailed Phascogale, the iconic Murray Cod and endangered plant communities such as Riverine Grassy Woodland. A new national park was recently declared to protect the river red gum forests on the lower Goulburn floodplain between Shepparton and Echuca.
The draft Basin Plan is calling for 344 billion litres (GL) of water to be returned to the Goulburn, from the baseline 1689 GL we currently take out on average every year. The volume to be returned could increase after 2015 when a decision is made on how the downstream needs of the Murray Mouth will be met.
The MDBA says the environmental water will benefit the river channel and the lower levels of the floodplain. They intend to restore flows to individual wetlands like Gemmills and Reedy Swamps. So conditions will definitely improve for native fish and wetlands close to the river channel.
But further away from the river it is a different story. A combination of not enough water and obstacles to delivering it (such as rules about the way the river is operated and flooding private land) means that the red gum and black box woodlands further up the floodplain will not get any more water than they do now. And that includes some sections of the new national parks! Overall, the river’s health will improve only from a rating of ‘poor’ to a rating of ‘poor to moderate’.
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 fact, the government is due to recover all the water proposed to be returned to the Goulburn by a combination of voluntary buyback from irrigators and improving the efficiency of the irrigation system. So no further action to recover water is required at present.
The Goulburn valley is home to about 150,000 people and total agricultural production is over $1 billion/year. While water recovery for the environment will have an impact on some communities heavily dependent on irrigation, overall the area’s economy is growing strongly and Shepparton is one of the fastest growing towns in Victoria. Government investment in irrigation infrastructure means that the industry is becoming more efficient and sustainable.
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. The Draft Basin Plan: Catchment by Catchment (MDBA, 2011).
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. The Draft Basin Plan – Catchment by Catchment (MDBA, 2011)
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