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

A Ramsar wetland in crisis – the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth, Australia

Richard T. Kingsford A E , Keith F. Walker B , Rebecca E. Lester C , William J. Young D , Peter G. Fairweather C , Jesmond Sammut A and Michael C. Geddes B
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science, University of New South Wales, NSW 2052, Australia.

B School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, SA 5005, Australia.

C School of Biological Sciences, Flinders University, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide, SA 5001, Australia.

D CSIRO Land and Water, Clunies Ross Street, Black Mountain, ACT 2601, Australia.

E Corresponding author. Email: richard.kingsford@unsw.edu.au

Marine and Freshwater Research 62(3) 255-265 https://doi.org/10.1071/MF09315
Submitted: 23 December 2009  Accepted: 16 June 2010   Published: 18 March 2011

Abstract

The state of global freshwater ecosystems is increasingly parlous with water resource development degrading high-conservation wetlands. Rehabilitation is challenging because necessary increases in environmental flows have concomitant social impacts, complicated because many rivers flow between jurisdictions or countries. Australia’s Murray–Darling Basin is a large river basin with such problems encapsulated in the crisis of its Ramsar-listed terminal wetland, the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth. Prolonged drought and upstream diversion of water dropped water levels in the Lakes below sea level (2009–2010), exposing hazardous acid sulfate soils. Salinities increased dramatically (e.g. South Lagoon of Coorong >200 g L–1, cf. modelled natural 80 g L–1), reducing populations of waterbirds, fish, macroinvertebrates and littoral plants. Calcareous masses of estuarine tubeworms (Ficopomatus enigmaticus) killed freshwater turtles (Chelidae) and other fauna. Management primarily focussed on treating symptoms (e.g. acidification), rather than reduced flows, at considerable expense (>AU$2 billion). We modelled a scenario that increased annual flows during low-flow periods from current levels up to one-third of what the natural flow would have been, potentially delivering substantial environmental benefits and avoiding future crises. Realisation of this outcome depends on increasing environmental flows and implementing sophisticated river management during dry periods, both highly contentious options.

Additional keywords: acid sulfate soils, bioremediation, decision-making, drought, ecosystem states, environmental flows, Murray–Darling Basin, over-allocation, rehabilitation, water resource development, weirs.


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