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The wetlands throughout the forest provide a constant source of nutritional foods and significant fibers for the Yorta Yorta People. Resources in the landscape were also used to manufacture canoes, shields, and carrying devices.

Flooding in the Barmah-Millewa Forest depends on the flow in the Murray River. A natural narrowing of the river (commonly referred to as the Barmah Choke) restricts the flow and causes overbank flooding when the flow below Yarrawonga Weir exceeds the channel’s capacity. This restriction influences both the operation of Yarrawonga Weir and the magnitude of environmental flows that can be delivered to the forests. The Yorta Yorta People see this narrow part of Dhungulla (Murray River) as a culturally significant creation story, and it provides ecosystem services both from a culturally and environmentally significant viewpoint. The name ‘Barmah Choke’ is culturally inappropriate for the Yorta Yorta, and it is seen as a negative way to view their traditional lands and waters. Yorta Yorta People refer to this as the ‘Pama Narrows’, or more simply ‘The Narrows’.

Before the river was regulated, Barmah-Millewa Forest was regularly flooded with high flows from rainfall and snowmelt in winter and spring. These regular floods shaped a rich, productive forest environment. The construction and operation of Hume Dam and Dartmouth Dam have greatly reduced the size and frequency of natural winter/spring floods in Barmah-Millewa Forest.

Operational deliveries that supply water to users downstream of The Narrows can cause unseasonal, low-level floods, which can damage the forest and banks of the river, depending on the timing and volume of the flow. Country for the Yorta Yorta People continues to change, but the changes have been rapid post-settlement due to the installation of infrastructure and river regulation. This has changed Country culturally and environmentally for the Yorta Yorta People.

The delivery of irrigation water during summer/autumn is now managed to minimise the unseasonal flooding of the forest. Regulators along the banks of the Murray River that control flow between the river and the forest remain closed during summer and autumn to restrict flow through low-lying flood runners to simulate natural conditions. The delivery of water to Barmah-Millewa Forest is also limited by a flow constraint below Yarrawonga Weir that aims to minimise impacts to adjacent farming operations in NSW. The current constraint limits the regulated flow to a maximum river level of 3.3 m at the Tocumwal gauge (about 18,000 ML per day downstream of Yarrawonga Weir), subject to various conditions. A regulated flow up to a river level of 3.0 m on the Tocumwal gauge (about 15,000 ML per day downstream of Yarrawonga Weir) can be delivered at any time during the year and is not subject to conditions. To overcome this constraint, most environmental flows are shared between Barmah and Millewa forests to deliver water to low-lying wetlands in each forest at least every second year. It is currently not possible to achieve the desired flood depth and duration for floodplain marsh vegetation in both forests at the same time without larger natural flooding.

Water management at Barmah-Millewa Forest seeks to build on natural flow and the delivery of consumptive and operational water en route to optimise environmental outcomes when possible. As Barmah-Millewa Forest is located towards the upper reaches of the regulated portion of the Murray River, water for the environment that passes through the forest and returns to the river can often be used at sites further downstream as part of multi-site watering events.

Traditional Owners

System map

Environmental watering objectives in Barmah Forest

Enable carbon and nutrient cycling between the floodplain and river through connectivity
Enable carbon and nutrient cycling between the floodplain and river through connectivity
Increase habitat for native fish and increase their populations
Maintain frog populations
Landscape icon
Protect forest waterways from increased erosion
Maintain turtle populations, including the broad-shelled turtle
Plant icon
Enhance the health of river red gum communities and aquatic vegetation in the wetlands and watercourses and on the floodplain

Promote the growth of floodplain marsh vegetation communities, with a particular focus on increasing the extent of Moira grass
Provide feeding and nesting habitat for the successful recruitment of colonial nesting waterbirds
Reduce the risk of low-oxygen events in summer

Environmental values

The Barmah-Millewa Forest is the largest river red gum forest in Australia and the most intact freshwater floodplain system along the Murray River. The forest supports important floodplain vegetation communities, including the threatened Moira grass plains, and is a significant feeding and breeding site for waterbirds, including bitterns, ibis, egrets, spoonbills, and night herons. Significant populations of native fish, frogs, and turtles also live in the forest’s waterways. Barmah Forest is known to support 74 plant and animal species protected under state and national legislation.

Traditional Owner cultural values and uses

“We are the First People of this place. We were here even before the Murray River flowed through Barmah.” – Uncle Des Morgan, Yorta Yorta Elder, Joint Management Plan for Barmah National Park

The Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation manages Barmah National Park with Parks Victoria under a Traditional Owner Land Management Agreement with the State of Victoria. The Joint Management Plan for Barmah National Park and the Yorta Yorta Whole-Of-Country Plan 2021-2030 inform environmental water management in Barmah National Park. Ongoing interaction on land and water management at Barmah also occurs with Yorta Yorta through the Living Murray Indigenous Partnerships Program.

The Goulburn Broken CMA met with the Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation in early 2023 to discuss Barmah Forest and have a general discussion about environmental water planning. Due to capacity constraints, Yorta Yorta did not provide specific feedback on planned watering for Barmah Forest in 2023-24.

The Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation continues to pursue the Yorta Yorta People’s inherent rights to water for Country. Rights to water will address their spiritual, cultural, environmental, social, and economic needs, in line with the Yorta Yorta Whole-Of-Country Plan 2021-2030.

Yorta Yorta values are more than ‘stones and bones’. They encompass an inherent and living connection to land (woka), water (wala), and caring for Country.

Examples of Yorta Yorta cultural values and uses in Barmah Forest that are supported through deliveries of water for the environment include:

  • maintaining refuges that protect turtles, an important totemic species for the Yorta Yorta People
  • watering to support floodplain marsh vegetation, which includes important food, fibre, and medicinal plants (such as sneezeweed and weaving sedge)
  • improving the health of river red gums, which has benefits for important Yorta Yorta sites and significant markings (such as a scarred tree) and furthers connections to Country
  • broader restoration to achieving healthy Country

Social, recreational and economic values and uses

In planning the potential environmental watering actions in Table 5.2.3, the Goulburn Broken CMA considered how environmental flows could support values and uses, including:

  • water-based recreation (such as boating, fishing, kayaking, and canoeing)
  • riverside recreation and amenity (such as birdwatching, picnicking, photography, camping, and the general physical, mental, and social benefits of communing with nature)
  • community events and tourism (such as boat tours)
  • socioeconomic benefits (such as for apiarists and irrigation diverters)

Scope of environmental watering

The term ‘environmental watering’ refers to the active delivery of held environmental water to support particular environmental objectives by altering the flow in a river or the water level in a wetland. While other terms are sometimes used to describe the delivery of environmental water, ‘environmental watering’ is deliberately used here and in seasonal watering statements to ensure consistency in the legal instruments that authorise the use of water for the environment in Victoria.

Table 5.2.3 describes the potential environmental watering actions in 2023-24, their expected watering effect (that is, the intended physical or biological effects of the watering action), and the longer-term environmental objectives they support. Each environmental objective relies on one or more potential environmental watering actions and their associated physical or biological effects.

Table 5.2.3 Potential environmental watering actions, expected watering effects, and associated environmental objectives for the Barmah Forest

Potential environmental watering action

Expected watering effects

Environmental objective

Winter/spring forest low flow to various waterways in Barmah Forest (variable flow rates and duration during July to December and June)

  • Provide a gradual connection of waterways with the Murray River to minimise erosion within those waterways
  • Provide flow in forest waterways to ensure adequate refuge pools persist for native fish and turtles
  • Provide adequate depth and connection between floodplain waterways and the river to facilitate the movement of native fish
  • Remove accumulated organic matter from waterways to cycle carbon to the river system and minimise the risk of hypoxic blackwater by ensuring throughflow

Fish iconMountain iconsTurtle iconJigsaw iconWater drop icon

Winter/spring/summer low flow (greater than 8,500 ML/day below Yarrawonga Weir during August to December)
  • Maintain a sufficient water level in the Murray River main channel to prevent Murray cod from abandoning their nests, increase juvenile survival and improve dispersal opportunities

Fish icon

Spring/summer fresh(es) in the Murray River channel (one to three freshes that increase flow by at least 500 ML/ day and maintain it for two to eight days during November to December)

  • Provide variable water levels once water temperatures exceed 22°C to trigger the spawning of native fish species, primarily silver perch

Fish icon

Spring/summer/autumn freshes to Gulf and Boals creeks (100 ML/ day for three to five days as required during November to April)

  • Maintain critical refuge pools to provide habitat for native fish and turtles
  • Flush refuge pools to maintain water quality

Fish iconTurtle iconWater drop icon

Spring/summer/autumn low flow to floodplain waterways, including Sandspit, Gulf, Big Woodcutter, Boals and Island creeks and Punt Paddock Lagoon (200 ML/day for 30 to 60 days during November to April)

  • Replenish refuge pools in permanent waterways to maintain water quality, fish, and turtle populations
  • Maintain connectivity between the forest and the river
  • Remove accumulated organic matter, cycle carbon to the river system, and minimise the risk of hypoxic blackwater

Fish iconTurtle iconWater drop iconJigsaw icon

Fill or top-up of Boals Deadwood, Harbours Lake, Reedy Lagoon and Top Island wetlands (200-400 ML/day for four and a half months during September to February)

  • Provide a cue to initiate waterbird breeding and maintain a depth of at least 0.5 m beneath reed bed nesting breeding colonies
  • Maintain wetting duration and depth to grow the wetland vegetation

Plant iconHeron icon

Spring wetting of floodplain marshes (variable flow rates of greater than 9,500- 18,0001 ML/day below Yarrawonga Weir for three months during September to December)

  • Inundate open plains to a sufficient depth and for a sufficient duration to allow the growth of floodplain marsh vegetation
  • Inundate forest wetlands and low-lying floodplain areas to create foraging opportunities for waterbirds and increase available habitat for turtles, frogs, and small-bodied native fish

Fish iconFrog iconTurtle iconPlant iconHeron icon

Autumn/winter low flow in the Murray River (4,000-5,000 ML/ day downstream of Yarrawonga during May to June)
  • Increase water depth in the Murray River channel to provide habitat for large-bodied native fish in the Murray River and unregulated anabranches in Barmah-Millewa Forest

Fish icon

1 The maximum flow constraint is a level of 3.3 m at the Tocumwal gauge in the Murray River, estimated at 18,000 ML/day downstream of Yarrawonga Weir. The maximum flow rate actually delivered may vary for these actions

Page last updated: 01/12/22