1. Current approaches for determining river ‘health’ rely on the establishment of a ‘reference’ condition. This is often difficult to achieve for lowland floodplain river systems because of the lack of pristine or pre-impacted sites and process models capable of predicting the effect of natural and human disturbances.
2. Using examples from the River Murray, Australia, this paper highlights the benefits of using palaeo-ecological studies in deciding on benchmark or pre-European settlement conditions for lowland floodplain river systems.
3. Physical, chemical and biological analyses of sediment obtained from shallow cores (< 2 m) extracted from a variety of floodplain sites on the River Murray and its tributaries reveal the extent and timing of catchment disturbances on this lowland river. Rates of sedimentation have increased by an order of magnitude since settlement; sediments now being deposited are finer, having implications for the nutrient status of the floodplain and the accumulation of heavy metals associated with these sediments. There has also been a sustained drop in the macrophyte cover of billabongs in the area, as inferred by chydorid cladoceran assemblages. The pre-European settlement diatom assemblages do not resemble those presently accumulating in billabongs in the region.
4. Whilst initially developed for lentic studies, palaeo-ecological studies are relevant to the establishment of benchmark conditions for lowland floodplain rivers. They are relatively straightforward, incorporate both historical and contemporary ecological information and can be applied to any lowland system.