1. Droughts are not easily defined other than by culturally driven judgements about the extent and nature of impact. Natural ecosystems are adapted to the magnitude and frequency of dry periods and these are instrumental in controlling the long term functioning of these systems.
2. In unregulated rivers, low flows are derived from water in long-term storage in the catchment, commonly as shallow groundwater. Four types of low flow sequences are evident for representative rivers from each of the seven flow regime zones in Australia and an arid zone stream: perennial streams with low annual flow variability that have seasonal low flows but do not cease to flow; perennial streams with high annual variability that cease to flow in extreme years; ephemeral streams that regularly cease to flow in the dry season; and arid zone streams with long and erratic periods of no flow.
3. Although Australian rivers record runs of consecutive years of low flows longer than would be expected theoretically, the departures from the expected are not statistically significant. Trends and quasi-cycles in sequences of low-flow years are observed over decadal time scales.
4. Examples of the effects of river regulation on low flows in southern Australia indicate that, while in detail the impacts of regulation vary, in general regulation mitigates the severity of low flows.
5. It is our contention that the indigenous biota of Australian rivers are adapted to the naturally occurring low flow conditions and that, while there is considerable scientific interest in the effects of climate change on stream ecology, such studies have little practical relevance for the management of indigenous biota in unregulated rivers.
6. The changes brought about by the regulation of rivers are much more rapid and dramatic than those which might occur as a result of climate change and it is possible to develop management procedures to mitigate them. In regulated rivers, the real problem may be ‘anti-droughts’– the removal of significant natural low-flow events from the flow pattern.