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.


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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.

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