Marine and Freshwater Research Marine and Freshwater Research Society
Advances in the aquatic sciences

The Sustainable Rivers Audit: assessing river ecosystem health in the Murray–Darling Basin, Australia

P. E. Davies A , J. H. Harris B E , T. J. Hillman C and K. F. Walker D
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Freshwater Systems, 82 Waimea Avenue, Sandy Bay, Tas. 7005, Australia.

B Harris Research, 568 Bootawa Road, Tinonee, NSW 2430, Australia.

C 567 Brown Place, Lavington, NSW 2640, Australia.

D School of Earth & Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, SA 5005, Australia. Present address: PO Box 331, Yankalilla, SA 5203, Australia.

E Corresponding author. Email:

Marine and Freshwater Research 61(7) 764-777
Submitted: 2 March 2009  Accepted: 26 January 2010   Published: 23 July 2010


The Sustainable Rivers Audit (SRA) is a systematic assessment of the health of river ecosystems in the Murray–Darling Basin (MDB), Australia. It has similarities to the United States’ Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program, the European Water Framework Directive and the South African River Health Program, but is designed expressly to represent functional and structural links between ecosystem components, biophysical condition and human interventions in the MDB. Environmental metrics derived from field samples and/or modelling are combined as indicators of condition in five themes (Hydrology, Fish, Macroinvertebrates, Vegetation and Physical Form). Condition indicator ratings are combined using expert-system rules to indicate ecosystem health, underpinned by conceptual models. Reference condition, an estimate of condition had there been no significant human intervention in the landscape, provides a benchmark for comparisons. To illustrate, a synopsis is included of health assessments in 2004–2007. This first audit completed assessments of condition and ecosystem health at the valley scale and in altitudinal zones, and future reports will include trend assessments. SRA river-health assessments are expected to play a key role in future water and catchment management through integration in a Basin Plan being developed by the Murray–Darling Basin Authority for implementation after 2011. For example, there could be links to facilitate monitoring against environmental targets.

Additional keywords: environmental monitoring, fish, floodplain, fluvial geomorphology, hydrology, macroinvertebrate, physical form, vegetation.


We dedicate this paper to Peter Wray Cullen AO, a visionary scientist who conceived and established the SRA, with support from Don Blackmore, then Chief Executive of the MDBC. The SRA Team at the MDBC provided executive support and administration and contributed to discussions. Jody Swirepik and Scott Keyworth guided the program’s key formative stages, a role later assumed by Dianne Flett and Michael Wilson. We thank Wayne Robinson for contributions in design and analysis, Steve Carter in expert rules analyses and Mark Lintermans in fish biology. Other contributions came from Chris Gippel, Chris Walsh, Rory Nathan and Mike Reid. State jurisdictional members of the SRA Implementation Working Group, especially Bruce Chessman and Jean Chesson, played vital roles in developing and implementing the program. The MDBC Community Advisory Committee strongly supported the SRA, and members of the Hydrology, Fish, Macroinvertebrates and Quality Assurance Task Forces provided expert advice. Wendy Craik, Chief Executive of the MDBC, and Les Roberts, General Manager Natural Resources, provided continual support.


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