Aboriginal Waterways Assessments informing water use at Chowilla Floodplain

First Nations have a deep connection to Country and a profound understanding of South Australia’s water resources, particularly as freshwater systems are fundamental to their culture and identity. This experience and knowledge form the basis of partnerships between First Nations and South Australian Government agencies and aid in restoring climate resilient and healthy waterways along the River Murray.

The Chowilla Floodplain is the traditional homeland of the First Peoples of the River Murray and Mallee and contains the culturally and environmentally significant Coombool Swamp, which sits high in the floodplain and requires high natural flows to fill.

Prior to river regulation, Chowilla Floodplain and Coombool Swamp would fill every 2 to 3 years but now these natural flows are occurring far less frequently. While water has previously been pumped into these wetlands as required to maintain their health, predicted drier and hotter conditions will further exacerbate drying in the Southern Murray-Darling Basin as the climate continues to change.

The River Murray and Mallee Aboriginal Corporation (RMMAC), in partnership with the Department for Environment and Water, and the Murraylands and Riverland Landscape Board, undertook an Aboriginal Waterways Assessment in 2020 to evaluate the cultural health of the waterways in the Chowilla Floodplain. This included identifying cultural objectives to inform delivery of water for the environment.

The Aboriginal Waterways Assessment of Coombool Swamp identified many water birds (including Black Swans and 13 swan nests) using the lake. This was significant as in recent years, they had noticed that black swan nests and eggs had become more difficult to find, perhaps indicating a decline in numbers of Black Swans at this location.

Following the Assessment, RMMAC were supportive of additional environmental water being supplied to the site to ensure the Black Swan breeding season could be achieved. This resulted in an additional 2 gigalitres of water being pumped into Coombool Swamp to maintain water levels, which also provided benefits for a range of other water birds, including migratory species.

This additional water aided a successful breeding season for the Black Swan, and cygnets were observed in nests and across the wetland in the following months.

The Aboriginal Waterways Assessment of Coombool Swamp is an example of how valuable it is to enlist the knowledge and cultural connection of First Nations, particularly when seeking to improve the health of waterways throughout South Australia. The collaborative relationships that were formed from the AWA resulted in processes that prioritised river and wetland health and enabled First Peoples of the River Murray and Mallee to effectively participate in water planning and management in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Black swans and cygnets on the floodplain at Chowilla. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Monk)
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