Investing in ecosystem functions knowledge to improve adaptive management of water for the environment in the Murray-Darling Basin

November 17th, 2020

The Challenge

The focus of water resource management in the Murray-Darling Basin over recent decades has been to achieve a healthy working Basin. The Commonwealth Government has made significant investments in research, monitoring and evaluation of the Basin’s water resources to achieve continual improvement in environmental, economic and social outcomes. However, the focus remains on selected species and key sites rather than a more holistic approach to managing water-dependent ecosystems. In particular, a limited understanding of the underlying processes and interactions, or ecosystem functions, and the essential role they play in healthy water-dependent ecosystems, inhibits the ability to improve Basin environmental outcomes.

The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment has invested $3 million in a collaborative research project under the CSIRO and MDBA partnership, which aims to apply novel approaches to improve understanding of ecosystem functions responses to flow and other stressors, and the connection to the health and condition of water-dependent ecosystems. Outputs will inform improved management of environmental water towards ecosystem functions and a healthy working Basin. It will further guide management decisions and ensure investments in future monitoring and evaluation are well-targeted.

Our Response

Research in this project is being conducted across four broad ecosystem function themes:

Function Category



Broad Ecosystem Function
Hydrological connectivityTransport of nutrients, salt and sediment that will improve water quality, and provide conditions needed for organisms to complete their lifecycle such as fish spawning and migration
ProductivityProtect and restore ecological communities, species interaction and food webs that will sustain water-dependent ecosystems, by supporting the transfer of energy, carbon and nutrient dynamics within systems, and the primary production and respiration on which they depend
Habitat creation and maintenanceSupport the creation and maintenance of habitat for species at a Basin-scale. Protect habitat refugia in order to support the long-term survival and resilience of water-dependent populations of native flora and fauna
Biological movement and connectivitySupport life cycles of biota and maintain populations through recruitment, regeneration, dispersal and movement


Each research theme addresses key knowledge gaps, but they are also interlinked to provide a deeper and Basin-wide understanding of the importance of ecosystem functions.

The target outcomes of this work are:

  • Improved capacity to understand ecosystem functions of water-dependent ecosystems
  • Improved science and tools that will inform decision-making, river planning and management of ecosystem functions across the Basin
  • Improved ability to communicate to the Australian public, the importance of ecosystem functions and their management.

The Basin-wide Environmental Watering Strategy (BWS) has identified ecosystem functions as a specific theme where improved coverage of expected environmental outcomes are to be included in the 2022 updates. Two specific management use-cases were identified by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and Commonwealth Environmental Water Office that will harness the outcomes of this research:

  • Inform the establishment of long-term Expected Environmental Outcomes EEO(s) for ecosystem functions: define interim measures of success for evaluating progress against the long-term EEO enabling their monitoring and evaluation

Inform Basin-wide medium- to long-term e-watering strategies: Guidance that supports decision making by environmental water managers under different water resource availability scenarios in the medium to long term.

Ecosystems Functions Workshop 2021

Day 1

Day 2

Workshop Wordle

Workshop presentation slides:

MSIRO Ecosystem Functions Research Project  – introduction


Productivity Literature Review

Longitudinal Connectivity

Floodwater depth estimation models

Habitat Modelling_UserWorkshop_

Waterbird Connectivity Modelling

MDB EF user workshop

Contact Person

Ashmita Sengupta