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

Using river-scale experiments to inform variable releases from large dams: a case study of emergent adaptive management

R. J. Watts A , D. S. Ryder B , C. Allan A and S. Commens C
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, Albury, NSW 2640, Australia.

B School of Environmental and Rural Science, University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2351, Australia.

C River Murray Division, Murray–Darling Basin Authority, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia.

D Corresponding author. Email:

Marine and Freshwater Research 61(7) 786-797
Submitted: 24 July 2009  Accepted: 10 December 2009   Published: 23 July 2010


Case studies of successful adaptive management generally focus on examples that have frameworks for adaptive management embedded from project conception. In contrast, this paper outlines an example of emergent adaptive management. We describe an approach whereby targeted research and collaboration among stakeholders assisted learning, and ultimately the development of interim operational guidelines for increased within-channel flow variability in the highly regulated Mitta Mitta River, which is managed as part of the River Murray System in the Murray–Darling Basin, Australia. Environmental monitoring of four variable flow trials evaluated the response of water column microbial activity, benthic and water column metabolism, the structure and composition of algal biofilms, and benthic macroinvertebrates to increased flow variability created by varying the release from Dartmouth Reservoir. Each trial built upon lessons from previous trials, with collaboration among key stakeholders occurring before, during and after each trial. Institutional conditions encouraged a shift to adaptive management over time that helped to achieve environmental, social and economic objectives downstream of the dam. A key lesson is that adaptive management does not have to be specified a priori, but can emerge within a trusting relationship between stakeholders as long as they are willing and able to change their operational paradigm.

Keywords: dam re-operation, Dartmouth Dam, environment, flow restoration, flow variability, Mitta Mitta River, progressive learning, river regulation.


The research discussed in this paper was enabled by several people whose enthusiasm and skills have supported the trials since 2001 to the present. In particular, Trevor Jacobs, Bruce Campbell, Neville Garland and Damian Green (Murray–Darling Basin Authority) and Peter Liepkalns (Goulburn Murray Water, Dartmouth Dam) have been key personnel in operational planning and implementation, and Mac Paton, a local landholder has facilitated local information exchange. In addition, several staff and students of Charles Sturt University contributed to the monitoring of the flow trials. Thanks to the editor, two anonymous reviewers and Trevor Jacobs for their constructive comments on drafts of this manuscript.


Allan, C. , and Curtis, A. (2005). Nipped in the bud: why regional scale adaptive management is not blooming. Environmental Management 36, 414–425.
CrossRef | PubMed |

Allan C., and Stankey G. H. (2009). Synthesis of lessons. In ‘Adaptive Environmental Management: A Practitioner’s Guide’. (Eds C. Allan and G. Stankey.) pp. 341–346. (Springer: Dordrecht, Netherlands.)

Allan C., Watts R. J., Commens S., and Ryder D. S. (2009). Using adaptive management to meet multiple goals for flows along the Mitta Mitta River in south-eastern Australia. In ‘Adaptive Environmental Management: A Practitioner’s Guide’. (Eds C. Allan and G. Stankey.) pp. 59–72. (Springer: Dordrecht, Netherlands.)

Allison, S. D. , and Vitousek, P. M. (2004). Extracellular enzyme activities and carbon chemistry as drivers of tropical plant litter decomposition. Biotropica 36, 285–296.

Arnosti C. (2003). Microbial extracellular enzymes and their role in dissolved organic matter cycling. In ‘Aquatic Ecosystems: Interactivity of Dissolved Organic Matter’. (Eds S. E. G. Findlay and R. L. Sinsabaugh.) pp. 315–342. (Academic Press: Amsterdam.)

Biggs, B. J. F. , and Thomson, H. A. (1995). Disturbance of stream periphyton by perturbations in shear stress: time to community failure and differences in community resistance. Journal of Phycology 31, 233–241.
CrossRef |

Biggs, B. J. F. , Goring, D. G. , and Nikora, V. I. (1998). Subsidy and stress responses of stream periphyton to gradients in water velocity as a function of community growth form. Journal of Phycology 34, 598–607.
CrossRef |

Biggs, B. J. F. , Smith, R. A. , and Duncan, M. J. (1999). Velocity and sediment disturbance of periphyton in headwater streams: biomass and metabolism. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 18, 222–241.
CrossRef |

Bormann B. T., and Stankey G. (2009). Crisis as a positive role in implementing adaptive management after the Biscuit fire, Pacific Northwest, U.S.A. In ‘Adaptive Environmental Management: A Practitioner’s Guide’. (Eds C. Allan and G. Stankey.) pp. 143–167. (Springer: Dordrecht, Netherlands.)

Broderick, K. (2008). Adaptive management for water quality improvement in the Great Barrier Reef catchments: Learning on the edge. Geographical Research 46, 303–313.
CrossRef |

Bryan, B. A. , Kandulu, J. , Deere, D. A. , White, M. , and Frizenschaf, J. , et al. (2009). Adaptive management for mitigating Cryptosporidium risk in source water: A case study in an agricultural catchment in South Australia. Journal of Environmental Management 90, 3122–3134.
CrossRef | PubMed |

Burns, A. , and Ryder, D. S. (2001a). The emergence of biofilms as a monitoring tool in Australian riverine systems. Ecological Restoration and Management 2, 63–64.
CrossRef |

Burns, A. , and Ryder, D. S. (2001b). Response of extracellular enzymes to artificial inundation of floodplain sediments from a regulated lowland river. Freshwater Biology 46, 1299–1307.
CrossRef | CAS |

Burns, A. , and Walker, K. F. (2000). Effects of water level regulation on algal biofilms in the River Murray, South Australia. Regulated Rivers: Research and Management 16, 433–444.
CrossRef |

Chapman, M. G. , and Underwood, A. J. (2000). The need for a practical scientific protocol to measure successful restoration. Wetlands (Australia) 19, 28–49.

Chessman, B. C. (1995). Rapid assessment of rivers using macroinvertebrates: A procedure based on habitat-specific sampling, family level identification and a biotic index. Australian Journal of Ecology 20, 122–129.
CrossRef |

Chessman, B. C. (2003). New sensitivity grades for Australian river macroinvertebrates. Marine and Freshwater Research 54, 95–103.
CrossRef |

Chester, H. , and Norris, R. (2006). Dams and flow in the Cotter River, Australia: effects on instream trophic structure and benthic metabolism. Hydrobiologia 572, 275–286.
CrossRef |

Connell, J. H. (1978). Diversity in tropical rain forests and coral reefs. Science 199, 1302–1310.
CrossRef | CAS | PubMed |

Coysh J., Nichols S., Ransom G., Simpson J., Norris R., et al. (2000). ‘Macroinvertebrates Bioassessment Predictive Modelling Manual’. (Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology: Canberra, Australia.)

Doeg, T. J. (1984). Response of the macroinvertebrate fauna of the Mitta Mitta River, Victoria, to the construction and operation of Dartmouth Dam. 2. Irrigation release. Occasional Papers from the Museum of Victoria 1, 101–127.

Downes B. J., Barmuta L. A., Fairweather P. G., Faith D. P., Keough M. J., et al. (2002). ‘Monitoring Ecological Impacts: Concepts and Practice in Flowing Water.’ (Cambridge University Press: New York.)

Eberhard, R. , Robinson, C. J. , Waterhouse, J. , Parslow, J. , and Hart, B. , et al. (2009). Adaptive management for water quality planning – from theory to practice. Marine and Freshwater Research 60, 1189–1195.
CrossRef | CAS |

Fellows, C. S. , Clapcott, J. E. , Udy, J. W. , Bunn, S. E. , and Harch, B. D. , et al. (2006). Benthic metabolism as an indicator of stream ecosystem health. Hydrobiologia 572, 71–87.
CrossRef |

Gilmour A., Walkerden G., and Scandol J. (1999). Adaptive management of the water cycle on the urban fringe: three Australian case studies. Conservation Ecology 3, 11 [online]. Available at:

Growns, I. O. , and Growns, J. E. (2001). Ecological effects of flow regulation on macroinvertebrate and periphytic diatom assemblages in the Hawkesbury-Nepean River, Australia. River Research and Applications 17, 275–293.

Gunderson, L. , and Light, S. S. (2006). Adaptive management and adaptive governance in the Everglades ecosystem. Policy Sciences 39, 323–334.
CrossRef |

Gunderson L. H., Holling C. S., and Light S. S. (1995). ‘Barriers and Bridges to the Renewal of Ecosystems and Institutions.’ (Columbia University Press: New York.)

Hancock, P. J. , and Boulton, A. J. (2005). The effects of an environmental flow release on water quality in the hyporheic zone of the Hunter River, Australia. Hydrobiologia 552, 75–85.
CrossRef | CAS |

Henson, S. S. , Ahearn, D. S. , Dahlgren, R. A. , van Nieuwenhuyse, E. , and Tate, K. W. , et al. (2007). Water quality response to a pulsed-flow event on the Mokelumne River, California. River Research and Applications 23, 185–200.
CrossRef |

Holling C. S. (1978). ‘Adaptive Environmental Management and Assessment.’ (Wiley: Chichester, U.K.)

Hondzo, M. , and Wang, H. (2002). Effects of turbulence on growth and metabolism of periphyton in a laboratory flume. Water Resources Research 38, 1277–1286.
CrossRef |

Hume and Dartmouth Dams Operations Review Reference Panel (1998). Hume and Dartmouth Dams Operations Review Options Paper. Murray-Darling Basin Commission, Canberra, Australia.

Hume and Dartmouth Dams Operations Review Reference Panel (1999). Hume and Dartmouth Dams Operations Review Final Report. MDBC, Canberra, Australia.

Ison, R. , Rölling, N. , and Watson, D. (2007). Challenges to science and society in the sustainable management and use of water: investigating the role of social learning. Environmental Science & Policy 10, 499–511.
CrossRef |

Jacobs, J. W. , and Wescoat, J. L. (2002). Managing river resources: lessons from Glen Canyon Dam. Environment 44, 8–19.
CrossRef |

Jacobson, C. , Hughey, K. F. D. , Allen, W. J. , Rixecker, S. , and Carter, R. W. (2009). Toward more reflexive use of adaptive management. Society & Natural Resources 22, 484–495.
CrossRef |

Jansson, R. , Backx, H. , Boulton, A. J. , Dixon, M. , and Dudgeon, D. , et al. (2005). Stating mechanisms and refining criteria for ecologically successful river restoration: a comment on Palmer et al. (2005). Journal of Applied Ecology 42, 218–222.
CrossRef |

Jowett, I. G. , and Biggs, B. J. F. (1997). Flood and velocity effects on periphyton and silt accumulation in two New Zealand rivers. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 31, 287–300.
CrossRef |

Koehn J. D., Doeg T. J., Harrington D. J., and Milledge G. A. (1995). The effects of Dartmouth Dam on the aquatic fauna of the Mitta Mitta River. Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, Melbourne, Victoria.

Ladson, A. R. , White, L. J. , Doolan, J. A. , Finlayson, B. L. , and Hart, B. T. , et al. (1999). Development and testing of an Index of Stream Condition for waterway management in Australia. Freshwater Biology 41, 453–468.
CrossRef |

Lee K. N. (1993). ‘Compass and Gyroscope: Integrating Science and Politics for the Environment.’ (Island Press: Washington, D.C.)

Lee K. N. (1999). Appraising adaptive management. Conservation Ecology 3, 3 [online]. URL:

McLain, R. J. , and Lee, R. G. (1996). Adaptive management: promises and pitfalls. Environmental Management 20, 437–448.
CrossRef | PubMed |

MDBC (1997). ‘Backgrounder 4: Lake Dartmouth – Overview of operation.’ Available at backgrounder_4:_lake_dartmouth:_overview_of_operation [accessed 4 May 2009].

Mosisch, T. D. , and Bunn, S. E. (1997). Temporal patterns of rainforest stream epilithic algae in relation to flow-mediated disturbance. Aquatic Botany 58, 181–193.
CrossRef |

Nilsson, C. , Reidy, C. A. , Dynesius, M. , and Revenga, C. (2005). Fragmentation and flow regulation of the world’s large river systems. Science 308, 405–408.
CrossRef | CAS | PubMed |

Pahl-Wostl C. (2007a). Requirements for adaptive water management. In ‘Adaptive and Integrated Water Management: Coping with Complexity and Uncertainty’. (Eds C. Pahl-Wostl, P. Kabat and J. Moltgen.) pp. 1–22. (Springer: Berlin.)

Pahl-Wostl, C. (2007b). Transitions towards adaptive management of water facing climate and global change. Water Resources Management 21, 49–62.
CrossRef |

Peat M. S., and Norris R. H. (2007). Adaptive management for determining environmental flows in the Australian Capital Territory. In ‘Proceedings of the 5th Australian Stream Management Conference. Australian Rivers: Making a Difference’. (Eds A. L. Wilson, R. L. Dehaan, R. J. Watts, K. J. Page, K. H. Bowmer and A. Curtis.) pp. 312–317. (Charles Sturt University: Thurgoona, New South Wales.)

Poff, N. L. , Allan, J. D. , Bain, M. B. , Karr, J. R. , and Prestegaard, K. L. , et al. (1997). The natural flow regime: a paradigm for river conservation and restoration. BioScience 47, 769–784.
CrossRef |

Postel S., and Richter B. (2003). ‘Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature.’ (Island Press: Washington, D.C.)

Raadgever, G. T. , Mostert, E. , Kranz, N. , Interwies, E. , and Timmerman, J. G. (2008). Assessing management regimes in transboundary river basins: do they support adaptive management? Ecology and Society 13, 1–21.

Richter B. D., and Thomas G. A. (2007). Restoring environmental flows by modifying dam operations. Ecology and Society 12, 12. Available at [accessed 3 June 2009].

Rivers-Moore, N. A. , and Jewitt, G. P. W. (2007). Adaptive management and water temperature variability within a South African river system: What are the management options? Journal of Environmental Management 82, 39–50.
CrossRef | CAS | PubMed |

Ryder, D. S. (2004). Response of biofilm metabolism to water level variability in a regulated floodplain river. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 23, 214–223.
CrossRef |

Ryder, D. S. , and Mascarenhas, E. (2007). Algal biofilms: Developing biological indicators to assess river restoration. African Journal of Aquatic Sciences 32, 56–60.

Ryder D. S., and Vink S. (2007). Managing regulated flows and contaminant cycles in floodplain rivers. In ‘Salt, Nutrient, Sediment and Interactions’. (Ed. B. Edgar.) pp. 109–126. (Land and Water Australia: Canberra, Australia.)

Ryder, D. S. , Watts, R. J. , Nye, E. , and Burns, A. (2006). Can flow velocity regulate biofilm structure in a regulated lowland river? Marine and Freshwater Research 57, 29–35.
CrossRef |

Ryder D., Brierley G., Hobbs R., Lieshman M., and Kyle G. (2008). Vision Generation: What do we seek to achieve in integrative river restoration? In ‘River Futures’. (Eds G. J. Brierley and K. A. Fryirs.) pp. 16–24. (Island Press: Washington D.C.)

Sinsabaugh, R. L. , Findlay, S. , Franchini, P. , and Fischer, D. (1997). Enzymatic analysis of riverine bacterioplankton production. Limnology and Oceanography 42, 29–38.
CrossRef | CAS |

Stoddard, J. L. , Larsen, D. P. , Hawkins, C. P. , Johnson, R. K. , and Norris, R. H. (2006). Setting expectations for the ecological condition of streams: the concept of reference condition. Ecological Applications 16, 1267–1276.
CrossRef | PubMed |

Stringer, L. C. , Dougill, A. J. , Fraser, E. , Hubacek, K. , and Prell, C. , et al. (2006). Unpacking “participation” in the adaptive management of social–ecological systems: a critical review. Ecology and Society 11, 719–740.

Sutherland L., Ryder D. S., and Watts R. J. (2002). Ecological assessment of cyclic release patterns from Dartmouth Dam to the Mitta Mitta River, Victoria. Johnstone Centre Environmental Consultancy Report No. 27, Wagga Wagga. Available at [accessed 3 June 2009].

Tank, J. L. , Webster, J. R. , Benfield, E. F. , and Sinsabaugh, R. L. (1998). Effect of leaf litter exclusion on microbial enzyme activity associated with wood biofilms in streams. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 17, 95–103.
CrossRef |

Tharme, R. E. (2003). A global perspective on environmental flow assessment: emerging trends in the development and application of environmental flow methodologies for rivers. River Research and Applications 19, 397–441.
CrossRef |

Thoms M., Suter P., Roberts J., Koehn J., Jones G., et al. (2000). Report of the River Murray Scientific Panel on environmental flows. River Murray – Dartmouth to Wellington and the lower Darling River. MDBC, Canberra, Australia.

Uehlinger, U. (2000). Resistance and resilience of ecosystem metabolism in a flood-prone river system. Freshwater Biology 45, 319–332.
CrossRef |

Uehlinger, U. , Kawecka, B. , and Robinson, C. T. (2003). Effects of experimental floods on periphyton and stream metabolism below a high dam in the Swiss Alps (River Spöl). Aquatic Sciences 65, 199–209.
CrossRef |

Walters C. (1986). ‘Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources.’ (Macmillan: New York.)

Watts R. J., Nye E. R., Thompson L. A., Ryder D. S., Burns A., et al. (2005). Environmental monitoring of the Mitta Mitta River associated with the major transfer of water resources from Dartmouth Reservoir to Hume Reservoir 2004/2005. Johnstone Centre Environmental Consultancy report No. 97. Charles Sturt University, Albury, Australia. Available at [accessed 3 June 2009].

Watts R. J., Ryder D. S., Burns A., Wilson A. L., Nye E. R., et al. (2006). Responses of biofilms to cyclic releases during a low flow period in the Mitta Mitta River, Victoria, Australia. Institute for Land Water and Society Report No. 24. Available at [accessed 3 June 2009].

Watts R. J., Ryder D. S., Burns A., Zander A., Wilson A. L., et al. (2008). Monitoring of a pulsed release in the Mitta Mitta River, Victoria, during the bulk water transfer from Dartmouth Dam to Hume Dam 2007–08. Institute for Land Water and Society Report No. 45. Available at [accessed 3 June 2009].

Watts R. J., Allan C., Bowmer K. H., Page K. J., Ryder D. S., et al. (2009a). Pulsed flows: A review of environmental costs and benefits and best practice. National Water Commission, Canberra. Available at—no-16.asp?intSiteID=1 [accessed 3 June 2009].

Watts R. J., Ryder D. S., and Allan C. (2009b). Environmental monitoring of variable flow trials conducted at Dartmouth Dam, 2001/02–07/08 – Synthesis of key findings and operational recommendations. Institute for Land Water and Society Report No. 50. Charles Sturt University, Albury, NSW. Available from [accessed 13 July 2010].

Zander, A. , Bishop, A. G. , Prenzler, P. D. , and Ryder, D. S. (2007). Allochthonous DOC in floodplain rivers: identifying sources using solid phase microextraction with gas chromatography. Aquatic Sciences: Research Across Boundaries 69, 472–483.

1 Prior to 15 December 2008 this organisation was the ‘Murray–Darling Basin Commission’ (MDBC). Reference to the organisation ‘MDBA’ throughout this paper may mean MDBC or MDBA.

Rent Article (via Deepdyve) Export Citation Cited By (15)