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Murray–Darling Basin drought update

13 August 2019

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The Murray─Darling Basin has been in drought for some time. Drought is a significant issue for the Basin and continues to impact on its environment, industries and communities.

This update provides high-level information on the status of the Basin, with links through to more detailed reports and external websites. This update does not replace any state government alerts and updates.

The Bureau of Meteorology climate outlook for August indicates that conditions are likely to be drier and warmer than average. Similarly, the outlook up to October suggests that drier and warmer than average conditions are anticipated. If these conditions eventuate, lower than average runoff into storages can be expected.

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics’ (ABARES) latest Water Market Outlook states that water allocation prices in the southern Murray–Darling Basin are likely to remain high in 2019–20 as a result of drought and the growth in water demand in recent years.

Rainfall and river flows

Rainfall was recorded in the very north, the eastern slopes and the lower half of the Basin during the last fortnight, however, the far west and the north-west missed out once again.

Substantial falls were received across Victoria and south-east NSW as a result of the cold fronts that moved up from the Southern Ocean late last week. The mountains in southern NSW and north east Victoria had rain exceeding 50 mm, some of this falling as snow.

The Bureau of Meteorology July rainfall summary shows mixed results across the Basin (see the rainfall decile map below). Average rainfall was 59% below the July long-term average, with the northern Basin receiving mostly below average to very much below average falls, while the southern Basin experienced below average to average rainfall.

Murray River system inflows for July remained low – around 580GL compared to the long term median inflow of 850GL. While low, this is the highest monthly inflow for 2019.

As a result of the widespread drought conditions, many water restrictions are likely to remain in place.

BoM Rainfall totals August 2019

Murray–Darling Basin rainfall maps for the weeks ending 4 and 11 August 2019. Source: Bureau of Meteorology

Bureau of Meteorology rainfall decile map for July 2019

Bureau of Meteorology rainfall decile map for July 2019


The cold fronts that moved into southern states last week brought very cold conditions and widespread rain in the south, with snow in many locations.

The Bureau of Meteorology reports that the July 2019 average temperature for Australia was 1.62 °C above average. Across the Murray─Darling Basin, maximum July temperatures ranged from above average to the highest on record, while minimum temperatures were average to very much above average.

Maximum and minimum temperature maps July 2019.  Source: Bureau of Meteorology

Maximum and minimum temperature maps July 2019.  Source: Bureau of Meteorology

More information

Water quality

Continuing low rainfall across the Basin is affecting water quality. Water quality is continuously monitored, and some areas are on high alert level for blue-green algae.

New South Wales sites on red alert for blue-green algae include:

  •  Macintyre River at Boggabilla
  • Lake Wetherill.

Victorian sites with blue-green algae warnings include:

  • Nagambie Lakes
  • Tullaroop Reservoir.

As part of drought contingency measures, WaterNSW has installed four temporary block banks across the Lower Darling below Pooncarie near Jamesville, below Burtundy near Ashvale, and upstream of Pooncarie at Court Nareen and Karoola. Water held in these pools will assist in maintaining supply to domestic, stock and permanent plantings along the Lower Darling. The MDBA continues to work with state authorities to manage risks. These measures are expected to remain during the drought.

More information


Salinity refers to the concentration of salts in water or soil. High salinity can reduce crop yields, affect aquatic ecosystems and vegetation, and damage infrastructure.

Salinity is measured in EC (electrical conductivity) – the unit of measure used across the Basin is generally microSiemens per centimetre (μS/cm). A salinity level below 800 μS/cm is considered low salinity, however, plant and animal tolerances can range significantly with plant levels generally up to an extreme of 5,800 μS/cm (some plants and animals can cope with higher levels of salinity). By comparison, the salinity of seawater varies although 54,000 μS/cm is an approximate value.

Salinity levels are affected by droughts and floods – high flows help to flush salt from the rivers.

The following map shows the average salinity level (measured in μS/cm) for the week ending 12 August 2019 and the change compared to the previous report.

Note: Previous MDBA Drought Updates have compared the salinity average for that reporting period against the long-term average since 1 August 2018. As the long term average was reset on 1 August 2019, the fortnightly average in this Drought Update has been compared with the previously reported fortnightly average for this edition only – future comparisons will be against the long term average since 1 August 2019.

The apparent substantial reduction of the salinity level at the Goolwa Barrage corrects an increase experienced at the last update. The increases shown in the map below are not concerning. Several locations experienced minor falls in salinity levels.

Salinity measurement locations in River Murray system

Salinity measurement locations in River Murray system
* The +/- percentage values in the above map represents the % difference between the most recent ‘average weekly reading’ and a previous average reading. 

More information

Water in major Basin storages

Northern Basin water storages remain at the same level as reported in the 30 July Drought update – storage levels although very low, have been stable for the last month.

In the southern Basin, water continued to be transferred from Dartmouth Dam to Lake Hume, with Hume’s storage increasing to 38% and Dartmouth’s inflows slightly lower than outflows. Lake Victoria in western NSW increased its volume by 12% to 66% as a result of inflows from the Murray system - the lake’s water level is expected to gradually increase in coming months.

The volume of bulk water transfers will be regularly re-assessed in light of the Bureau of Meteorology’s rainfall outlooks, Lake Victoria water levels and other factors.

Murray-Darling Basin storage levels

Water levels in MDBA major storages as reported at 12 August 2019.

More information

Spotlight – Groundwater

In the Murray–Darling Basin, groundwater is used for drinking and domestic use, agriculture, industries and for the environment. The sustainable use of groundwater is vital to the health of the Basin.

Groundwater supports the environment in many ways. Some plants are completely dependent on groundwater for their needs. River red gums are an iconic species with deep roots that access groundwater.

Groundwater and surface water are connected and must be jointly managed for river health and the health of the Basin. When groundwater is very connected to surface water, it can provide permanent pools for fish and other aquatic animals. This is very important when there are shortages in surface water.

Recharging groundwater takes time. In some systems groundwater may flow quickly over days or weeks - in other systems, the flow may be very slow, taking decades or longer to move through.

Under the Basin Plan, limits have been set for how much groundwater (and surface water) can be used. Basin state and territory governments manage both surface water and groundwater resources through water resource plans. Basin states consider individual aquifer properties and manage areas differently to suit.

Groundwater resource monitoring looks at changes in the water level or pressure in a groundwater resource. This tells water managers the amount of water that:

  • can be sustainably taken from groundwater systems
  • is flowing into (recharging) groundwater systems.

Some communities in the Basin rely on groundwater for drinking water. Some rivers and ecosystems in the Basin rely on groundwater to survive. This dependence can be expected to increase under climate change.

Groundwater is often used to maintain water supply and keep fish and aquatic animals alive in times of drought.

More information on groundwater.


Support services for farmers and communities

Rural Financial Counselling Service

The Rural Financial Counselling Service (1800 686 175) provides financial counselling services to farmers, including assistance with financial and business options, developing a financial action plan, accessing government assistance schemes, and referring to other service providers.

Australian Government assistance

The Australian Government provides a number of assistance measures to support farm families, farm businesses and rural communities to prepare for, manage through and recover from drought and other hardship.

The Regional Investment Corporation is offering drought loans for farmers to help them prepare for, manage through or recover from drought.​

Assistance in Queensland

The Queensland Government is offering programs to help farm families, farm businesses and farm communities affected by drought.

Assistance in New South Wales

NSW DroughtHub provides a one-stop online destination for information on a vast range of services and support available to primary producers, their families and communities to prepare for and manage drought.

Assistance in Victoria

The Victorian Government supports farmers throughout Victoria to prepare and respond to drought through technical, financial and personal support.

Assistance in South Australia

The South Australian Government provides a number of services and avenues for assistance to support farm families, farm businesses and rural communities prepare for and manage the drought conditions.