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OF DROUGHTS AND FLOODING RAINS: INNOVATIVE RESPONSES TO WATER SCARCITY IN TEMPERATE AUSTRALIA The Millennium Drought (1997-2009) across much of temperate Australia caused major hardships in rural communities and long-lasting (perhaps permanent) damage to river systems of the Murray-Darling Basin and beyond. However, with every crisis comes opportunity, and the latter years of the Millennium drought were characterized by rapid advances in water resource and environmental management research, policy and practice in Australia.
Rare bipartisanship in the nation’s capital saw a new Federal Water Act established, greatly increasing the standing of ‘the environment’ as a legitimate user of water. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which became law in November 2012, will see around 2,750 GL/year of water recovered from consumptive water uses (mainly irrigation) for the environment. This equates to a recovery of around 21% of average annual discharge across the Basin. This make it one of the largest (in terms of relative volumes) environmental flows program ever implemented, and positive ecological responses of this major investment in the environment are already being observed. However, water reform has been far from painless, with affected rural communities understandably concerned about effects upon their livelihoods, and indeed the long-term viability of the fabric of rural Australia.
During the drought, technological and behavioural innovations greatly reduced water consumption in urban and rural Australia; and local river managers developed ecological triage approaches to maintain critical ecological functions of rivers on very small volumes of water. Water markets have also created the opportunity for efficient use of water for both consumptive and environmental purposes; and collaborations between researchers and river managers are developing methods to achieve best ecological outcome from the environmental water available.
The drought broke with a bang, with record flooding in south-eastern Australian in spring 2010, and rainfall patterns have been approximately average since then. Encouragingly, the majority of water reform policies and practices have endured, suggesting that Australia is better placed to face the next major drought. An opportunity to test this hypothesis may come sooner than expected, with 2015 inflows to the Murray River through to the end of September among the lowest on record, and climatic conditions in the Pacific and Indian oceans pointing to the high likelihood of a dry 2016.
Angus Webb (Primary Presenter), The University of Melbourne, email@example.com;
Dr Angus Webb is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Hydrology and Water Resources at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He originally trained as a marine ecologist before moving into the study and restoration of large-scale environmental problems in freshwater systems. Much of his research centers on improving the use of the existing knowledge and data for such problems. To this end he has developed innovative approaches to synthesizing information from the literature, eliciting knowledge from experts, and analyzing large-scale data sets. He is heavily involved in the monitoring and evaluation of ecological outcomes from the Murray-Darling Basin Plan environmental watering, leading the program for the Goulburn River, Victoria, and advising on data analysis at the basin scale. Angus is currently a co-editing a major new text book on environmental flows science and management. He was awarded the 2013 prize for Building Knowledge in Waterway Management by the River Basin Management Society, and the 2012 Australian Society for Limnology Early Career Achievement Award.