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Keywords:

  • Barmah-Millewa Forest;
  • Chowilla;
  • Gwydir;
  • irrigation;
  • Macquarie Marshes;
  • Murray-Darling Basin;
  • pumping;
  • regulation;
  • storage

Abstract

Australian floodplain wetlands are sites of high biodiversity that depend on flows from rivers. Dams, diversions and river management have reduced flooding to these wetlands, altering their ecology, and causing the death or poor health of aquatic biota. Four floodplain wetlands (Barmah-Millewa Forest and Moira Marshes, Chowilla floodplain, Macquarie Marshes, Gwydir wetlands) illustrate these effects with successional changes in aquatic vegetation, reduced vegetation health, declining numbers of water-birds and nesting, and declining native fish and invertebrate populations. These effects are likely to be widespread as Australia has at least 446 large dams (>10 m crest height) storing 8.8 × 107 ML (106 L) of water, much of which is diverted upstream of floodplain wetlands. More than 50% of floodplain wetlands on developed rivers may no longer flood. Of all of the river basins in Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin is most affected with dams which can store 103% of annual runoff and 87% of divertible water extracted (1983–84 data). Some floodplain wetlands are now permanent storages. This has changed their biota from one tolerant of a variable flooding regime, to one that withstands permanent flooding. Plans exist to build dams to divert water from many rivers, mainly for irrigation. These plans seldom adequately model subsequent ecological and hydrological impacts to floodplain wetlands. To avoid further loss of wetlands, an improved understanding of the interaction between river flows and floodplain ecology, and investigations into ecological impacts of management practices, is essential.