Riparian and wetland ecosystems in Victoria and the southern Murray-Darling Basin

Ashley Sparrow & Kay Morris (Arthur Rylah Institute, Melbourne)

The Millennium Drought (c.1997-2009) demonstrated unequivocally to Victorians, like all Australians, just how precious water is for the environment and for human economic, social and cultural values. Governments were forced to respond to the challenges of that drought. The Victorian Government revised the Water Act to require more comprehensive and detailed planning, management and monitoring of the state’s aquatic ecosystems and developed the Victorian Waterway Management Strategy to guide implementation of the Act’s requirements. In parallel, the Commonwealth Government led the development of the Basin Plan to guide outcomes in the Murray-Darling river system, with significant management consequences for northern Victoria. Research has taken on an increasingly important role within this deepening focus on more holistic management of waterways. 

Research to support policy development, planning, on-ground action, and monitoring and evaluation for the waterways of Victoria and the southern Murray-Darling Basin is a key focus at the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research (ARI for short). ARI is the environmental research institute of the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), with a staff of around 100, including about 35 aquatic ecologists. We, the authors, are both members of a seven-person Riparian and Wetland Ecology program within ARI, with expertise in vegetation, macroinvertebrates, geomorphology and soils. 

ARI’s mandate is for applied ecological research in all its domains, including riparian and wetland ecology. This mandate has several important implications for the practice of research at ARI. Firstly, project scope and broad objectives are usually set by our end-users, most often policy-makers, land managers and landholders within government (e.g., DELWP, the Victorian Environmental Water Holder, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Melbourne Water and Victoria’s nine regional catchment management authorities), who in turn consult with their stakeholders across the community. ARI scientists then frame end-user management objectives, evaluation needs and knowledge gaps in terms of testable ecological hypotheses. 

Secondly, we seek to clarify the “pathway to impact” of our projects – this includes identifying stakeholders, what they need to know and in what form, to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their actions for environmental outcomes. Thirdly, ARI’s projects often involve collaboration with end-users and participatory approaches to maximise outcomes and impact. Collaborations occur directly in the field or lab, as well as indirectly through project steering committees and independent scientific review panels. 






A site monitored by the Riparian Intervention Monitoring Program: (a) before management intervention and (b) three years after tree planting and grazing exclusion. Credit: Arthur Rylah Institute.

Fourthly, much of ARI’s waterway science occurs within an adaptive management framework which benefits from careful integration of (1) monitoring and evaluation to quantify the magnitude of environmental outcomes and to assess current management effectiveness, and (2) addressing and filling knowledge gaps to reduce uncertainty in future planning and decision-making. We aim to deliver our findings quickly to stakeholders to enable management adaptation within a single season or year, as well as synthesise results over many years to inform long-term planning. We use a wide range of communication tools: from social media, field days and “dashboards” of change for private landholders to workshops, technical reports and journal articles as well as online content. Lastly, building a focus on holistic waterway health outcomes leads ARI increasingly into interdisciplinary research, including more collaborations with university researchers across south-eastern Australia and overseas. It is also driving our wish to partner with Traditional Owner groups. 

ARI’s current and recent riparian and wetland projects involve both surveillance monitoring and intervention monitoring (see the table for further information). The surveillance monitoring supports DELWP’s responsibilities to understand and report on the condition of aquatic ecosystems across the whole of Victoria. This work supports important long-term cycles of policy, planning and investment for environmental outcomes by the Victorian Government. 

The intervention monitoring projects support adaptive management in short and medium terms. Environmental flows, grazing management, weed control and restoration plantings – and a subset of their interactions – are current subjects of intervention monitoring (see the image for an example of this). In each case, evaluation and knowledge-gap needs are being addressed simultaneously through the testing of hypotheses using constructed or natural experimental designs. For example, the Wetland Intervention Monitoring Program (WIMP) is testing and quantifying the intermediate disturbance response of plant species richness to livestock grazing in wetlands on privately held farms. In the Victorian Environmental Flows Monitoring and Assessment Program (VEFMAP), livestock exclosures are used to explore the extent to which the benefits of environmental flows to riparian vegetation may depend upon grazing management. These research and evaluation programs typically cover much of the state, so we can learn if responses to management actions vary due to differences in climate, soils, vegetation communities or other environmental factors. 

Ultimately these programs contribute to the growing body of evidence that improves confidence in the effectiveness of management actions undertaken to protect and enhance the health of Victoria’s aquatic systems. 

For further information contact Ashley Sparrow and Kay Morris: 



Selection of current and recent projects in riparian and wetland ecosystem management at the Arthur Rylah Institute:

Surveillance monitoring (What is the condition of our aquatic systems?)

DELWPs Surveillance Monitoring Programs

  • Index of Wetland Condition (IWC)
  • Index of Estuarine Condition (IEC)

Victoria’s Long-Term Water Resources Assessment

  • Technical Assessment of Waterway Health

Intervention monitoring (How effective is our management?)

Wetland Intervention Monitoring Program

Riparian Intervention Monitoring Program

Victorian Environmental Flows Monitoring and Assess-ment Program

Wetland Monitoring and Assessment Program for environmental water

Flow Monitoring, Evaluation and Research Plan – Goulburn River



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