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The Ovens River rises in the steep, forested mountains of the Great Dividing Range near Mount Hotham and flows about 150 km to join the River Murray in the backwaters of Lake Mulwala. The system contains two small water storages: Lake Buffalo on the Buffalo River and Lake William Hovell on the King River. The regulated reaches of the Ovens system include the Buffalo and King rivers downstream of these storages and the Ovens River from its confluence with the Buffalo River to the River Murray.

The Ovens River and its floodplain continue to be places of significance for Traditional Owners and their Nations including the Yorta Yorta, Bangarang, Taungurung and Dhudhuroa peoples. The Registered Aboriginal Parties in the Ovens system are the Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation in the Lower Ovens and the Taungurung Clans Aboriginal Corporation in the upper King area.

System map

Grey river reaches have been included for context. The numbered reaches indicate where relevant environmental flow studies have been undertaken. Coloured reaches can receive environmental water.

Environmental watering objectives in the Ovens system

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Provide flows for native fish to move between pools and over rocky or shallow parts of the river
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Provide habitat for a wide range of waterbugs which break down organic matter and support the river’s food chain
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Maintain the form of the riverbank and channel plus a range of different river bed surfaces to support all stream life
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Maintain water quality for all river life

Environmental values

The diverse aquatic habitat and abundant food resources associated with the Ovens system support a wide range of native fish species including the Murray cod, trout cod, golden perch and fly-specked hardyhead. The Buffalo River provides valuable habitat for large fish species during part of their breeding cycle, while trout cod have a large range within the system and are found as far up the King River as Whitfield. The Ovens system has seen a successful recovery project for trout cod, and efforts to reintroduce Macquarie perch are continuing.

Frogs (such as the giant bullfrog and growling grass frog) are abundant in the lower reaches of the Ovens River and associated wetlands and in the King River upstream of Cheshunt. The lower Ovens wetland complex containing over 1,800 wetlands is listed as nationally significant and is home to a variety of waterbirds including egrets, herons, cormorants and bitterns. The riparian vegetation along the rivers consist mainly of river red gum forest and woodland, which are among the healthiest in Victoria.

Social and economic values

The Ovens River supports various recreational activities including fishing, boating, kayaking, swimming and bushwalking. Irrigation supports the food and wine industries that attract tourists to the region. The lower Ovens–River Murray weir pool associated with Lake Mulwala is another tourist drawcard.

Conditions 2018

High rainfall and large-scale flooding in the Ovens River catchment in winter/spring 2016 filled Lake Buffalo and Lake Hume Hovell. Since then, the winter/spring and summer of 2017–18 was warmer than average, with belowaverage rainfall resulting in lower-than-average inflows to Lake Buffalo and Lake William Hovell in most months. Despite the drier conditions, the storages filled and spilled, resulting in natural flow patterns downstream and in the lower Ovens River. Lake William Hovell was full for most of winter/spring, while Lake Buffalo filled and spilled following a large rainfall event in December 2017. In autumn 2018, 73 ML of water for the environment was released from Lake Buffalo to maintain flow variability and water quality in the Buffalo River, and 50 ML was released from Lake William Hovell to meet similar objectives in the King River.

Scope of environmental watering

Table 1 Potential environmental watering actions and objectives for the Ovens system

Potential environmental watering

Environmental objectives

Summer/autumn lowflow fresh in reaches 1, 4 and 5 (1 fresh of 430 ML/day for 3 days in reaches 1 and 4, 130–260 ML/day in reach 5 in December– May)

Provide flow cues to stimulate movement of native fish Maintain connectivity between pools for fish movement and water quality
Provide small variations in river levels to move sediment and maintain waterbug habitat
Scour biofilm from the river bed

Provide low-flow variability1 in reaches 1, 2 and 3

Maintain connectivity between pools for fish movement and water quality
Provide small variations in river levels to move sediment and maintain waterbug habitat

1 Operational releases from storage can vary, with environmental water used to provide some variability over one or two days.

Risk management

In preparing its seasonal watering proposal, North East CMA considered and assessed the risks of environmental watering and identified mitigation strategies. Program partners continually reassess risks and mitigation actions throughout the water year.


Table 2 shows the partners with which North East CMA engaged when preparing the Ovens system seasonal watering proposal.

Seasonal watering proposals are informed by longer-term regional catchment strategies, regional waterway strategies, environmental flow studies, water management plans and other studies. These incorporate a range of environmental, cultural, social and economic perspectives and longerterm integrated catchment and waterway management objectives. For further details, refer to the North East Regional Catchment Strategy and North East Waterway Strategy.

Table 2 Partners engaged in developing the Ovens system seasonal watering proposal

Partner engagement
  • Commonwealth Environmental Water Office 
  • Goulburn-Murray Water 
  • Victorian Environmental Water Holder