Abstract: Since 1857 new Australians have constructed many thousands of weirs (3600 in the Murray–Darling Basin alone) and floodplain levee banks, 446 large dams (>10 m crest height) and over 50 intra- and inter-basin water transfer schemes to secure water supplies for human use. Flow regulation has changed the hydrology of major rivers on three temporal sales–the flood pulse (days to weeks), flow history (weeks to years) and the long-term statistical pattern of flows, or flow regime (decades or longer). The regulation of river flows is widely acknowledged as a major cause of deteriorating conditions in many Australian river and floodplain ecosystems. In response to mounting environmental concerns, all states, territories and the Commonwealth Government have committed the nation to the principles of ecologically sustainable development and a process of national water reform. Rivers and wetlands are now recognized as legitimate ‘users’ of water, and jurisdictions must provide water allocations to sustain and where necessary restore ecological processes and the biodiversity of water-dependent ecosystems. Progress in the protection and restoration of river and wetland water regimes has been significant, with over half of mainland aquatic systems designated to receive water allocations of some sort. However, exactly how much water they will receive or retain is unclear from the data available. Moreover, the ecological outcomes and benefits of water allocations are not yet apparent in most aquatic ecosystems, with the exception of certain waterbird breeding events, the disruption of algal blooms in weirs and improved fish passage. After reviewing these issues, this paper addresses two vital questions: How much water does a river need? and How can this water be clawed back from other users? Studies conducted to date in Queensland rivers suggest that around 80–92% of natural mean annual flow (and other ecologically relevant hydrological indicators) may be needed to maintain a low risk of environmental degradation. In the Top End of the Northern Territory, some rivers are maintained at 80% of their natural flow, whereas two-thirds of various flow indicators has been proposed as the restoration target for the River Murray, and 28% of natural mean annual flow has been negotiated for the Snowy River in Victoria. To validate these estimates, ecologists are seeking opportunities to turn river restoration projects into long-term hypothesis-driven experiments in ecological restoration, and the funding, time and institutional support to do so. The paper ends with some suggestions to advance the water reforms and achieve higher levels of water allocation for the environment.
Notes: Special Issue: Environment flows for river systems. Selected papers from the Joint Meeting on Environmental Flows for River Systems and 4th International Ecohydraulics Symposium, Cape Town, March 2002.