The Future of the Murray River: Amenity Re-Considered?



Most efforts to restore environmental flows to the Murray River assume that it means resolving a dilemma between two competing needs: those of the environment and those of agriculturalists. This paper provides evidence to show amenity is also important, it is not being adequately considered, and that this, in turn, is impeding efforts to restore environmental flows.

The paper contains a literature review of a number of studies which, when combined, show that the importance of amenity (tourism, recreation and lifestyle) is of similar scale (has significant economic value and community support) to productive values. Three case studies show that community concerns about loss of amenity values have impeded restoration programs despite evidence that existing practices are causing environmental damage. The debate about water use in the Murray is clearly not simply one between environment and production but also one involving lifestyles. The challenge is to better understand the nature and scale of amenity and its relationship to other natural resource management issues.


Australian Bureau of Statistics


 Boating Industry Association of Victoria


 Council of Australian Governments


Land and Water Management Plan


Murray Darling Basin Commission


New South Wales


The Murray River is part of Australia's identity, economy, history and folklore and currently there is much debate about its future. Historically, the focus was on developing its water resources for intensive agriculture. For example, not long after Federation a complex system of diversions, locks, dams and weirs was built to encourage irrigation and regional rural development (Kingsford, 2000; Lockie et al., 2005). Irrigation now diverts more than 95% of the water from the river and flow is influenced predominantly by seasonal irrigation demand (Crabb, 1997). The resultant change in flow regime and reduced natural flows has had a detrimental effect on the river. Indeed the Murray River has been so significantly altered that it is critical for current practices to change if it is to remain a healthy, functioning river (COAG, 2003).

Considerable effort is now being devoted to improve environmental flows in the Murray. Perhaps the best known efforts are the series of steps being taken under the National Water Initiative (COAG, 2003; MDBC, 2004). These include: the decision to recover 500 GL of water (or about 6% of usage) for environmental purposes under the Living Murray program; A$150 million for environmental works and measures; 70 GL to be recovered under the Snowy/Murray agreement; and the nationwide A$2 billion Australian Water Fund. In 2006 another A$500 million were allocated for a Murray River rescue package, and in 2007 the Murray became a significant part of the Prime Minister's A$10 billion ten point water plan. The effort has become Australia's most significant river rehabilitation program.

The Murray Darling Basin Commission (MDBC) is the national authority having oversight of most of the programs, including those attempting to partially restore environmental flows. The Commission manages and distributes the water resources of the River Murray based on policy and direction provided by a Council containing Ministers from the relevant State and Commonwealth governments (the Australian Commonwealth, New South Wales (NSW), Victoria, South Australia and Queensland). Most efforts to restore environmental flows in the Murray assume that it can only be achieved by resolving a dilemma between two competing needs: those of the environment and those of agriculturalists (for example Schofield et al., 2003; MDBC, 2004). Indeed, in the hope that both needs can be met, water recovery programs are attempting to save water by changing river operations before cutting back allocations.

This paper argues that restoring environmental flows for the Murray River is not simply a debate between environment and agriculture, but one that includes amenity. The infrastructure originally built to maintain high, constant water levels over the summer period and deliver irrigation water now provides perfect locations for boating, camping, swimming and riparian lifestyles. To support this argument the paper reviews a range of published reports, public documents and local studies to give an indication of the significance of amenity. Three case studies then show that local communities are resisting attempts to change river operations when proposals impact on amenity. The paper raises some pragmatic questions for resource managers about the future of one of Australia's major assets, while also raising a broader theoretical issue about nature, the way people value it, and ways of incorporating these values into management.

The Murray River and environmental flows

The Murray River stretches for over 2000 km from the Snowy Mountains in NSW to the Southern Ocean in South Australia (Figure 1). As with all rivers, various factors determine the health of its ecosystem including discharge regime, the physical structure of the channel and riparian zone, water quality, channel management, level of exploitation, the presence of physical barriers to connectivity, and alien species (Acreman and Dunbar, 2004).

Figure 1.

The Murray River and locations mentioned in the text.

Compared to other major rivers around the world, the Murray River is unusual in that it experiences highly variable flows. The flow dynamics of the Murray River and its tributaries are influenced by climatic conditions in each sub-catchment and, because these conditions are quite diverse, the flows down the Murray are spatially and temporally complex (Crabb, 1997). The natural ecosystems associated with the Murray depend on this variability for their health (Bunn et al., 2006). For example the frequency and magnitude of flows from the river may trigger wildlife breeding events (Kingsford, 2000).

Since 1857, numerous dams, levee banks and weirs have been constructed along the Murray in order to manage its flow and secure water (Arthington and Pusey, 2003). Large storages now trap water flowing down from the upper catchments and ten locks and weirs control in-stream flows from Wentworth to the Murray Mouth. Efforts to regulate the river have been so successful that impoundments can store 103% of the mean annual runoff and allow 81% of the total divertible water to be extracted for human uses (Crabb, 1997). While this development has allowed a significant number of agricultural industries and rural towns to flourish, it has also significantly changed the natural flow of the river.

Given the natural environment's dependence on variable flows, Kingsford (2000) suggests that the delivery of water for human purposes is the antithesis of the provision of water for the environment. Kingsford (2000) and MDBC (2002) note that some of the key changes to the environment from regulating river flow include:

  • 1unseasonable high flows in the river channel. The storage of water and subsequent release for irrigation has, in effect, reversed the natural pattern of flow;
  • 2reduced inundation of wetlands. River regulation has reduced the volume, frequency and duration of small- to medium-sized floods that are critical to triggering wildlife breeding cycles in these areas;
  • 3change in vegetation patterns and decline of riparian forests;
  • 4reduced flow to the Murray Mouth. The reduced flows have the potential to close the Murray Mouth and cause the decline of habitat for migratory waders;
  • 5decline in the diversity, abundance and range of fish. Changes in flow regime, competition and thermo pollution have reduced the range of several species and six species are now considered threatened;
  • 6spread of alien fish and invertebrate species;
  • 7extinctions of several species, and
  • 8geomorphic change including channel migration, widening and armouring.

A highly dynamic Murray River and floodplain have been replaced with a simplified system, and this in turn, is degrading natural ecosystems (Cullen and Lake, 1995).

Widespread community concern about the decline of Murray River has led to changes in the way the river managed. The first key change was imposing a ‘Cap’– a limit on aggregate diversions of water – in the 1990s (MDBC, 2000). Later, in 2002 the Murray-Darling Ministerial Council launched ‘The Living Murray Initiative’, which moved beyond the Cap to actually recover water for the environment. The initial actions proposed as part of this initiative were called the ‘First Step’ decision and included investing A$500 million in water recovery over five years (MDBC, 2005). Since then, efforts to improve the health of the Murray have been given additional resources, including an additional A$500 million in the 2006 Commonwealth budget and making the Murray a significant part of the Prime Minister's A$10 billion water initiative in 2007. These progressive policy measures reflect how important the Murray River is to all Australians as well as an increasing appreciation of the scale and rate of environmental decline.

The Murray River is now the focus of Australia's largest river rehabilitation program. Most of this program is attempting to partially restore the characteristics of natural flow regimes (the quantity, frequency, timing and duration of flow events) in order to restore biophysical and ecological processes. Thus the restoration effort has two key components: one focused on a physical volume of water, and a second critical component focused on effective delivery of water for environmental purposes (Schofield et al., 2003). The first component is often contested and uncertain. This is because riverine environmental water is often not well specified and often subjectively activated and applied, so any unilateral allocation might be counterproductive to both agricultural and environmental needs where water resources are fully committed (Pigram, 2006). The second component consists of principles such as: restoring a portion of freshes (flushes of water) and high flows; protecting low flows; providing triggers for wildlife, and mimicking natural flow variability; and is achieved through rules such as dam translucency, end of system flows, and piggybacking on natural events (Jayasuriya, 2004). Changing water allocations and the way water is delivered also changes the mix of environmental, economic and social benefits and burdens associated with existing practices.

Some indications of the importance of Murray River amenity

Amenity is broadly defined as the qualities of a region that make it an attractive place in which to live, work and recreate (Argent et al., 2007). Clearly defining the economic value of non-market services such as amenity is difficult and requires indirect methods of assessment. The best economic assessment of some aspects of amenity for the Murray is Hassall and Associates’ (2004) desktop study of all river-dependent industries. The study suggested the components assessed are worth around A$2.7 billion (Table 1). However, there has been no comprehensive study that encompasses all the elements of amenity. I have drawn from a number of studies to give some overall indication of the importance of Murray River amenity.

Table 1.    Various estimates of the economic value of amenity and agriculture in the Murray River (Sources: Agricultural data from Australian Bureau of Statistics for Agriculture 2006; Tourism data from State Tourism Authorities for Tourism 2005; Hassall and Associates (2004) for other measures).
ABS Region Murraylands SAMurray NSWMalleeGoulburn- BrokenOvens MurrayTotal
  • Yet SA Fisheries estimate the value of fisheries in that State to be $6 million while NSW Fisheries estimate the value of fisheries in NSW to be over $100 m.

AgricultureCrops ($m)985.6810.21095.7551.986.73530.1
Livestock slaughtering ($m)114.7290.4161333113.61012.7
Livestock products ($m)102.7184.7144604.478.51114.3
Total ($m)1203.11285.31400.81489278.75656.9
Tourism Murraylands*Riverlands*Murray NSW Victorian Murray Region 
Domestic Overnight visits359 000352 000992 000 2 269 000 
Domestic visitor nights847 0001 224 0002 847 000 6 259 000 
Domestic Day trips653 000235 000867 000 2 480 000 
International Overnight visits3000695320 300 47 000 
Total ($m)66104434 975.91560.9
Other areas of amenity SA border to CoorongEuston-SA border Goulburn-BrokenDartmouth-Euston 
Boating($m)109.434.8 1.020.2165.4
Camping ($m)92.326.5 42.1299.2460.1
Marina ($m)10   1.612.6
Bird watching ($m)0.3     
Riverside restaurants ($m)      
Fishing ($m)27.6*18.4* 9.159.2114.3
Swimming ($m)      
Special events ($m)10.4   2.212.6
Waterskiing ($m)    3.23.2
General Amenity ($m)27.866.8 37.5251.7383.8
Total ($m)277.8146.5 89.7637.31152


Amenity attracts people to places. These people may then choose to take residence in that location by making amenity purchases that can include statement housing sites, hobby farms, rural residential properties, weekenders or bush retreats. Competition for land from amenity purchasers raises land prices. In some areas this can become higher than can be afforded by farm businesses (Green et al., 2005). Thus the population growth of towns and the prices of houses have been used as indicators of amenity values (Barr, 2005).

The growth of towns along the Murray (Figure 2) is in stark contrast to much of rural Australia which is generally believed to be in a state of overall decline, with services becoming concentrated in larger rural centres (Kenyon and Black, 2001). For example, Murray Shire centred on the NSW side of Moama is the fastest growing local government area in NSW (ABS, 2007). In Berrigan Shire the population has declined by 5.8% overall, largely driven by falls from inland towns such as Finley. However, riverside towns such as Tocumwal and Barooga (near Cobram) are growing at 4.4% (Berrigan Council, 2005). In Wentworth Shire towns along the river are becoming a cluster extending from Buronga (Mildura) through River Bend Estate towards Trentham Cliffs.

Figure 2.

Population change in the Murray townships 1996–2006 (Source: ABS census data).

Towns on the banks of Murray not only have higher growth rates but also higher median house prices than nearby inland towns. The difference may be on average over A$200 000 between inland and riverside towns (author's unpublished data). But there are extremes. For example, houses with water views on Lake Mulwala have sold for over A$2 million and waterfront house blocks for over A$1.5 million. By contrast, prices of properties in the similar-sized nearby, but inland, town of Numurkah do not exceed A$400 000.

The towns along the Murray River are also undergoing significant demographic, economic and socio-cultural transformations associated with amenity migration (National Economics, 2005). The traditional economic base of towns such as Echuca-Moama, Mulwala, Mildura and Tocumwal has moved away from primary production to amenity services such as retirement homes, tourism, and recreation (National Economics, 2005; ABS, 2007). While the phenomenon of migration to small rural holdings is broadly called tree change (Costello, 2007), in this particular situation it might be better described as an ‘inland sea change’ as the migration is largely to towns located near weir pools rather than to rural holdings.

Many local government authorities are attempting to realise amenity values. This is reflected in local government by-lines that promote their area as ‘an inland aquatic paradise’ or ‘the inland sea change’. Such an emphasis on amenity-based development is appealing to local government because it helps address broader community trends of: increasing leisure demand; changing economic patterns; perceptions of tourism as a clean industry, and relatively low capital requirements for business (Nichols and Crompton, 2005).


Tourism can be defined as short-term leisure and business travel activities away from the normal place of residence and work (Hall and Page, 1991). Areas of high amenity often have high levels of tourism. Based on 1993–1994 data compiled by the Bureau of Tourism, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission calculated the entire basin received A$3 billion from domestic tourism and A$300 million from international tourism (Crabb, 1997). The 2005 data from various State Tourism Departments shows tourism associated with the Murray River is estimated to have a total value of A$1.6 billion (Table 1). Visitation figures for the Murray region in Victoria for 2006 show the tourism industry is strong: visitors spent A$972 million, a 23% increase from 1999 (Media release, Victorian Minister for Tourism, 2007).

Not all areas along the Murray receive high levels of tourism, because visitation is purposeful and targeted towards the particular features of amenity. The lower lakes of the Murray attract over 80 000 nature-based tourists each year (South Australian Tourism Commission, 2007). In areas such as Renmark, Waikerie, Kingston-on-Murray, Mannum, Murray Bridge and Lower Lakes (Goolwa and Hindmarsh Island), paddle steamer adventures and cruising are popular. Further upstream, heritage, boating, fishing, nearby wineries and relaxation contribute to Echuca-Moama and Mildura's tourism industry. This means tourism is a major sector of the economy in some but not all areas of the Murray. Tourism tends to be more important to those towns located on the banks of large weir pools.

There is considerable effort directed at ensuring tourism to these key places grows. For example, Tourism Victoria's Murray Regional Tourism Development Plan (2004) identifies the region as one of the top priorities for infrastructure development and aims to make the Murray Region one of Australia's premier tourism and recreational destinations. Its focus is on implementing two major projects: the Port of Echuca Master Plan and the Mildura Riverfront Development. Another example is that an overseeing body called the Murray Campaign Committee oversees branding and marketing along the entire Murray River and aims to make the region rival Australia's other great icons ( 2008).


Recreation in this context refers to leisure activities undertaken largely by residents of the region (Hall and Page, 1991). In a primarily dry inland environment, water-based recreation is particularly important. The Murray has become a highly sought after destination for fishing, water skiing, paddle steamers, houseboats, river cruises, swimming, wakeboarding and camping. Given the nature and variety of recreational activities along the Murray it is only possible to give some overall indication of its importance by reviewing a number of key activities.

There are about 300 000 people who regularly fish the Murray River (Tourism Victoria, 2004). Fishing is supported by the release of almost 100 000 trout and 1 000 000 native fish to Victorian tributaries of the Murray each year (Victorian DPI, 2005). Similar amounts are put in the river by the NSW Fisheries (Westaway, personal communication, 2007: refer Acknowledgments). Several key events, such as the Cod Opening Classic, attract people to the region specifically for fishing (Table 2).

Table 2.  Key fishing and boating events on the Murray (Sources: data from NSW Fisheries and author's research).
EventEstimates of ParticipationOccurrence
Murray Marathon6000December
Tocumwal Angling Club Inc500–1000January
Extreme Sports100 BoatsJanuary
Murray Bridge Rowing RegataUnknownFebruary
Merbein Lions Club50–200February
Cod Opening Classic INC.1000 plusFebruary
Native Fish Australia50–200February
Southern 80400 000 spectators and 300–600 boatsFebruary
Kyabram Anglers Club200–500February
Torrumbarry Community Club Fishing event20–50March
Echuca Moama RSL Fishing Club500–1000March
Oar Gee Lures20–50March
Mildura 100100–200 boatsMarch
Robinvale – Euston Ski race100–400 boatsMarch
Mathoura – Picnic Point Fishing Classic Committee500–1000March
SA State Wakeboarding TitlesUnknownMarch
River Ramble200 boatsApril
Lake Mulwala Angling Club Inc200–500May
Torrumbarry Hotel Fishing Club20–50Monthly
Barham District Services Memorial Angling Club20–50Monthly
Holbrook RSL Boating & Angling Club0–20November
Barrie Beehag Ski race Classic100–200 boatsNovember
Murray Bridge 110100–200 boatsNovember
Picola Football Club Committee Fishing Event200–500December
Various State and Commonwealth titles100–600 boatsVarious & periodic

The estimates for the economic value of boating in the Murray vary from A$6.5 billion (Boating Industry Association of South Australia, 2002) to A$820 million (MDBC, 2006). It consists of a number of components, but the main ones include:

  • 1House boating. There are about 2000 houseboats operating on the Murray (Hassall and Associates, 2004), with the Murray-Darling Association recognising that the existing number of houseboats in the Echuca-Moama area has reached capacity levels and no more new moorings should be created. Further downstream Mannum is home to the largest houseboat fleet in Australia.
  • 2Marinas. There are key bases such as Echuca-Moama, Mildura, Renmark, Loxton, Berri, Waikerie and Goolwa capable of handling a variety of vessels (MDBC, 2005). There are also several other existing and proposed marinas along the Murray. The existing ones include large residential marinas near Murray Bridge (River Glen and Long Island) and on the Lower Lakes (Hindmarsh Island and Marina Wellington), as well as smaller marinas used primarily for berthing (Kia Marina near Mannum). A residential canal estate with moorings for private boats is located at Renmark (Jane Eliza Estate).
  • 3Paddlesteamers. About twenty boats still operate along the river with Echuca-Moama having the largest fleet of authentic cruising paddle steamers in the world.
  • 4Water skiing/wake boarding. The Murray River is home to many State, national and international water skiing and wake boarding events (Table 2). Indeed at certain times of the year, River levels are maintained to accommodate these events – even during times of extreme drought. Key sites include: Lake Mulwala; Echuca-Moama; Torrumbarry weir pool; Lake Boga near Swan Hill; the wider stretches of river at Mildura, and the lower Lakes.
  • 5Numerous private owners. Thousands of people experience the Murray using a range of boats, including: sailing; open runabouts; cabin runabouts; ski boats, canoes and kayaks. An estimated 20 000 visitors camp and boat in the Torrumbarry weir pool area each year (Haw, 2007). The Boating Industry of South Australia estimates that approximately 6000 trailer-able watercraft and 800 non-trailer boats regularly use the lower lakes and Coorong region (MDBC, 2006).

In addition to fishing and boating, a range of other recreation activities such as camping and swimming also occurs along the Murray. Numerous sandy beaches and parks provide a safe place for swimming and relaxing. For example, according to Haw (2007) there are 76 beaches and around 2000 camps sites between Bundalong and Tocumwal (75 km downstream). Noreil Park, the main beach/park in Albury, receives in excess of 500 000 visitors a year (Jenkins, personal communication, 2006; refer Acknowledgments). A survey of residents in Mildura gave riverside improvements the highest priority and showed that the most popular recreational facilities were the river/water trail areas and the riverside open space (SGL Consulting Group, 2003). The relative popularity of these parks to both locals and visitors is repeated along the river and includes areas such as Thompsons Beach (Cobram), Town Beach (Tocumwal), and Christies Beach (Echuca). Other areas such as the lower Murray and Barmah Forest are popular areas for camping. It is estimated there are about 25 000 adult trips to Victoria's Barmah Forest and 112 500 trips to the Coorong each year (Dyack et al., 2007). During the holiday breaks evidence suggests some sections of the River become overcrowded with various recreational activities associated with camping (Haw, 2007).

This review of data on the importance of lifestyle, tourism and recreation in the Murray shows our existing knowledge is at best patchy. Data tend to be accurate for regulated activities, such as house boating, and for those activities, like tourism, where revenue can be accurately assessed. Information on held values, such as lifestyle, and on disperse activities, such as swimming, tends to be vague. This highlights the need for a comprehensive study along the whole of river, and the need for institutions to engage with local communities to better understand amenity values.

Case studies where amenity impedes restoration efforts

Lake Mulwala

Lake Mulwala covers about 4390 hectares and stores about 118 gigalitres of water. It was created in 1939 to divert water from the Murray River to the Murray Irrigation Limited area and Goulburn-Murray Water Murray Valley Irrigation area. A total of 1.68 million megalitres was diverted in 2000–2001, with a production value of A$538 million (Goulburn Murray Water, 2004). The water levels of the Lake are maintained near constant, fluctuating by only 0.5 metres, in order to make gravity diversion to the Irrigation Areas possible (Goulburn Murray Water, 2004).

Immediately downstream from Lake Mulwala is the 70 000 ha Barmah-Millewa Forest, which is the largest river red gum forest in the world. The health of the forest is bound by the natural flood patterns which provide critical nutrient cycling and trigger wildlife breeding events (Leslie and Harris, 1996). Before regulation, floodwaters regularly spread over the floodplain during winter/spring and rarely in summer. Now, small summer floods covering 10% of the forest occur at least eight times more frequently than before regulation. These small floods are far more damaging than the impact of long-term drought (Leslie and Harris, 1996).

Increased summer flooding is a consequence of the way the river is operated. Water is released from upstream storages (Hume Dam) four days in advance of irrigation orders downstream. If there is heavy summer rain in the irrigation area after the water is released, irrigators ‘reject’ the water they have ordered and so it remains in the river. As the capacity of the river channel through Barmah-Millewa Forest is quite low, this excess water cannot be contained and it spills out into the forest inundating low lying areas.

One way of addressing the impact of rain rejection flows on the Barmah-Millewa Forest is to increase the ability of Lake Mulwala to store rain rejection floods. This means creating airspace in the dam and fluctuating lake levels. Indeed, implementing this along with a number of technical options could reduce summer flooding and save on average 44 GL per year of water (Goulburn Murray Water, 2004).

However Lake Mulwala has become an ideal place for a range of water based recreational activities and now supports a thriving tourism industry. Over 10 000 people come to Yarrawonga, the town on the banks of Lake Mulwala, for the water-ski festival in January, and it is home to the world water skiing championships and a range of other key events. Yarrawonga also has the largest and most popular golf course on the Murray. The population of the township triples during the Christmas summer peak, and real estate along the shoreline has become valued at many millions of dollars as people invest in an inland sea change (Boating Industry Association of Victoria, 2004).

When a proposal to partially reinstate variability in lake levels by just over 600 mm became part of the draft Lake Mulwala Land On-Water Management plan, considerable protest occurred. Over 5000 people marched across the bridge (ABC News, 16/09/2003) and a petition of 7000 signatures was presented to the State and Federal politicians who subsequently came out strongly against the proposal. The Boating Industry Association of Victoria (BIAV), which represents 147 000 boat owners and the associated A$3 billion marine industry, also came out strongly against the proposal (BIAV, 2004). This strong community and political pressure resulted in the initial proposal being rejected and led to management to re-consider options other than fluctuating lake levels to achieve environmental objectives.

Mildura Marina

Mildura, located in Northwest Victoria, has a population of 23 000 and an average growth rate of 1.3%, which is well above the State's regional average (National Economics, 2005). Outside Melbourne, Mildura is Victoria's third most preferred destination, attracting over 400 000 people annually. A conservative estimate of the value of the industry is A$1100 million each year (Mildura City Council, 2005).

In order to formalise uncontrolled traffic access, boating, and a lack of facilities, a marina was proposed for the Town over twenty years ago. It is now being realised as part of a broader plan which divides the riverfront into six precincts (Mildura City Council, 2005). The riverfront precinct from the proposed Marina to Rio Vista Park will provide a mix of recreational, tourist and community-related facilities and will be the key focus for open space in Mildura. The marina, known as the Dockside Marina, features a 125 berth marina, an international standard hotel, and waterfront homes and apartments. Mayor Peter Bryne has said this precinct will set the scene for the redevelopment of the riverfront for the next 50 years and that there is a need to have more marinas along the Murray (Sunraysia Daily, 23/11/05).

Evidence suggests that Mildura weir pool should fluctuate to prevent the gradual salinisation of nearby wetlands and the decline of black box (Eucalyptus largiflorens) and lignum (Muehlenbeckia spp.) communities in the region (Murray Wetlands Working Group, 2002). While the system of weirs and locks around Mildura was originally designed to provide stable pools for irrigation diversions and enable navigation of the river by trading boats, they now support a range of amenity-based activities. There is a constant flow of recreational boats, with between 3000 and 3500 vessels passing through the lock each year. The downstream side of the weir also provides locals and tourists with ample fishing opportunities. Because of this amenity value and shoreline development, the management objective is to keep the weir pool levels constant – varying by only 5 cm (Couroupis, personal communication, 2007: refer Acknowledgments). The new marina will significantly increase the amenity value of the weir pool and make it more difficult to restore variations in flow.

Euston Lakes

Halfway between Balranald and Mildura on the Sturt Highway, are the Murray River towns of Euston and Robinvale. Large areas of protected parks and reserves flank the Murray River either side of Robinvale and Euston and the region thus provides a recreational playground for anglers and other people interested in water-based recreation.

Downstream from Euston, a weir raises the water level in the Murray River so that it permanently inundates the Euston lakes; Dry Lake and Lake Benanee. These lakes have become important recreation and amenity features. For example, Lake Benanee provides an idyllic setting for motor homes and caravans, which park on the foreshore reserve year round. The weir pool is also popular for water-based recreational pursuits, with the Robinvale water ski race held on the weir pool on an annual basis.

One option to obtain environmental water in the Murray is to reinstate the natural variability in Euston lakes (including Lake Benanee, Dry Lake, and Washpen Creek). This would save about 25 GL, which is about half of the annual water requirements of all NSW and Victorian towns supplied from the Murray and Edward Rivers. However, there is significant community opposition to the proposal (Murray CMA, 2007). Indeed the community has become very resistant to any change, and it mobilises readily when the topic is discussed (Brown, personal communication, 2007: refer Acknowledgments). Concerns include water access, amenities and recreational opportunities, and loss of cultural and social values. As a result progress on implementing the proposed change is at best slow as emotive issues tend to dominate attempts at community engagement.

Discussion and conclusion

The debate about the future of the Murray is about how to best manage water to meet society's needs. In attempting to meet community expectations, the question has been narrowly interpreted by river managers as finding an appropriate balance between environmental and extractive uses. However, water in the Murray supports a range of uses, including domestic supply, transport, irrigation, tourism, conservation, power generation, flood control and health. Data provided in this paper suggest amenity is a significant and growing part of the way people use the River. As standards of living improved and the river became highly regulated, local communities along the river evolved new and more complex connections with the local environment.

Why might the water debate be defined narrowly? For iconic rivers, such as the Murray, debates about change are fought out not just locally, but regionally and nationally at high social cost. Davenport et al. (2007) suggest that the national public tend to have symbolic interests, and identify with national lobby groups such as the Farmers’ Federation or the Australian Conservation Foundation. By contrast local communities have dispersed and complex interests, are more dependent on the resource, and are more vulnerable to change. So perhaps it is difficult for federal natural resource institutions, such as the Murray Darling Basin Commission, to balance national mandates and pressures with the needs of local communities.

Amenity is also much more difficult to assess than agricultural production or environmental degradation. Typically, the flow of amenity to individuals does not pass through markets so assessment requires making a number of assumptions and indirect measurements. These assumptions are critical. For example, estimates for the economic value of boating in the Murray vary from billions to millions depending on whether they come from an industry group attempting to change government priorities (for example, Boating Industry Association of South Australia, 2007) or a government agency (for example, MDBC, 2001). In another study, the impacts on amenity by changing river operations have been dismissed because the analysis showed no net economic impact, and it was assumed that industries would move elsewhere (MDBC, 2004). Yet research shows amenity values are not necessarily movable and to suggest so ignores its importance to some local communities (Green et al., 2005; Argent et al., 2007). An inability to understand amenity accurately may be another reason why institutions have difficulty considering amenity in river planning. This highlights the need for interdisciplinary research on amenity in the Murray so that sound judgements can be made about the impacts that arise from changes to river management.

If values cannot be obtained accurately through economic or social assessment, then planning processes need to be more participatory in order to ensure all voices in the community are heard (Schofield et al., 2003). Participatory methods in this sense could be used as a means of capturing information about social-environmental systems (Stringer et al., 2006). However, avenues for participation in the Murray appear to draw primarily on theories of deliberative democracy, or attempt to garner ownership of decisions already made (for example, Crase et al., 2005; MBDC, 2005). The case studies in this paper show these approaches are problematic because tensions potentially exist between broader and local community values. These tensions become realised when, first, the nature of the broader community's values (an environmental flow) remains vague to the affected community; and second, management does not have the capacity to appreciate the value of local communities (amenity).

Restoration is a social construct that depends on a person's knowledge and life experiences (Wagner and Gobster, 2007). Local communities that have grown around changed landscapes often have very sophisticated views about the direction of restoration activities (Wagner and Gobster, 2007). A local community's perception of an environmental flow will be based on a range of personal, historical, social, cultural and economic factors, as well as on characteristics of the proposed change. The nature of its participation should therefore not be interpreted simply as apathy or misguided views, or requiring a process of education. Their views may be substantially different to a scientific perspective about an environmental flow, and for good reason. This highlights the difficulty and complexity of negotiating a shared vision of nature when the desired attributes and memory of it vary significantly across the community. This needs to be acknowledged by river managers and participatory processes adjusted accordingly.

A lack of understanding about the nature of amenity also seems to be translated to a policy level at times. For example, Objective 3 of the South Australian Strategic plan for sustainability identifies the most critical environmental issue for the State as the Murray River, and that a priority action is to increase environmental flows by 500 GL. Yet its strategic development plan, Growing Prosperity, proposes a significant increase in both the number of people living on the Murray (in houseboats) and tourism to the area. The two objectives combined imply that any increase in water will not be used as an environmental flow but to maintain water levels. For another example at a more local level, Mildura Council is focusing on a large-scale marina development, while at the same time it is so concerned about water conservation that it is implementing a range of water saving initiatives to reduce water usage on its ovals (Mildura City Council, 2005). This dissonance demonstrates the challenge of implementing integrated natural resource management across various sectors of society.

These issues need to be addressed urgently because the window of opportunity to restore environmental flows for the Murray River may narrow in the future. According to Van Dijk et al. (2006), water flows are likely to decline due to a combination of: climate change (1100 GL yr−1); increased number of farm dams (250 GL yr−1); bushfires (859 GL yr−1); reduced returned irrigation flows (500 GL yr−1); increased groundwater extraction (275 GL yr−1), and afforestation (65 GL yr−1). Amenity contributes to the impact of these activities by: a) maintaining high in-stream water levels which mean high evaporative losses; and b) increasing the number of dams, and groundwater, stock and domestic licences, as new people are attracted to the region. Yet amenity is also impeding current rehabilitation efforts because it is a key contested factor in restoration proposals to save water (for example, Lake Mokoan and Euston Lakes), and proposals to change river operations (for example, Mildura and Lake Yarrawonga). Unless the dissonance between national, regional and local planning and development priorities is resolved, amenity values will not only continue to undermine the outcomes sought in existing programs but will contribute to reduced water flows in the long term.

Over 30 years ago, Pigram (1986) noted the growing importance of amenity to Australia's river systems and lamented the lack of information and attention in water resource decision making. This paper has shown that this same lack of attention and information is creating dissonance between national, regional and local planning and development initiatives concerning the Murray. Indeed, there may be lessons from this example more broadly in terms of the ways people value nature, and how to incorporate those ways appropriately into management decisions. Key challenges for national authorities in the Murray, given the operating environment, include engaging at an appropriate scale, ensuring consistency across sectors, and having good information about the benefits and burdens. Meeting these challenges requires an integrated approach that reconciles three, not two, key needs: an environment (that needs high variability with peaks in winter/spring); agriculture (that needs a guarantee of supply and a peak flow in summer), and amenity (that needs high, constant water levels).

Amenity was important long ago when the Jolly Swagman camped by a billabong – and today it is very important to the people who live close to the Murray. Given the increasing pressure on Australia's water resources it is time that institutions improved their capacity to appreciate, understand and incorporate these values when making water resource management decisions.


Personal comments were provided by Adam Westaway, DPI Senior Fisheries Manager (Inland); Anthony Couroupis, CEO Murray Irrigation Limited; Warwick Brown, Water Recovery Manager, NSW Department of Natural Resources; and James Jenkins, Manager Community and Recreation, Albury City Council. Thanks to two anonymous reviewers and Kathleen Broderick for their encouragement and comments on this paper.