• critical flood intervals;
  • environmental flows;
  • flood requirements;
  • floodplains;
  • threatened species

Summary  Large overbank flood events play an important role in maintaining large-scale ecological processes and connectivity along and across the floodplains and between the rivers and their floodplains in the southern Murray-Darling Basin. However, the regulation of rivers means that extensive overbank flooding can only occur in the rare circumstance of extreme flood events. Recent environmental water allocations have focussed on the largest floodplain blocks (‘icon’ sites) and a small set of specific values (e.g. colonial nesting waterbirds), as well as on trialling fine-scale manipulation of infrastructure (e.g. pumping) to water relatively small areas. There has been no comprehensive systematic assessment of the entire floodplain and its wider set of flood-dependent natural assets (such as ecosystems and species; herein referred to as ‘natural values’) to maximise the effectiveness of environmental water use and to catalogue values likely to be lost. This paper describes an assessment of some 220 000 ha found to support flood-dependent natural values in Victoria. We mapped the geographic distribution and estimated components of the flooding requirements (natural flooding frequency, and maximum period without flooding and minimum duration of each flooding event before significant deterioration) for each natural value. Using an example of one stretch of the River Murray, we show how the resultant spatial data can be used with floodplain inundation modelling to compare the outcomes of real or planned environmental watering events; potentially providing tools for management agencies to conserve a wider range of floodplain values than is currently the case. That is, water managers and the public can see what ecosystems and threatened species are intended to be maintained by environmental watering and what values are intended to be abandoned across the whole floodplain, rather than just seeing the small subset of values and ‘icon’ sites that are intended to be maintained. Examples are provided to illustrate how information about the location, water requirements and extent covered by potential floods for specific values can be used to build adaptive watering strategies for areas as large as the whole floodplain.