ILWS - Charles Sturt University
ILWS - Charles Sturt University

Sustainable Water

Led by Prof Robyn Watts

  • Report 2015-16 PDF
  • Report 2011-12 PODF
  • Information sheetpdf

    The information on these pages is accurate to the end of 2016 when reporting for SRA was completed for the 2015-16 Biennial Report.  All reporting for our projects is now found in relevant areas under the four research themes.

  • About
  • Issues
  • Members
  • Outcomes
  • Projects
  • Publications
  • Postgrad Research
  • Engagement
  • Linkages

VC AwardCongratulations to the members of the Institute's Sustainable Water Strategic Research Area who were awarded the 2015 CSU Vice-chancellor's  Award for Research Excellence. The team is led by Professor Robyn Watts and includes Mr James Abell, A/Prof Catherine Allan, Ms Carmen Amos, Dr Mariagrazia Bellio, Mr Bradley Clarke-Wood, Prof Max Finlayson, Ms Tamsin Greenwood, Dr Andrew Hall, Dr Julia Howitt, Dr Paul Humphries, Dr Kim Jenkins, Dr Richard Keller Kopf, Dr Nicole McCasker, Dr Wayne Robinson, Ms Nikki Scott, Dr Skye Wassens, Dr Benjamin Wolfenden and Dr Alek Zander.

In his letter to team members, CSU's Vice-Chancellor Professor Andrew Vann said the nomination presented an outstanding case for the award "which also recognises your significant contribution towards the achievement of the University's key objectives and priorities."


The aim of this SRA is to assist water managers balance the multiple benefits of water to achieve enhanced environmental and social outcomes.

Researchers in this SRA have:

  • Provided new information about, and improved understanding of, the relationships between water delivery (volume, timing, duration) and downstream water quality and ecology. Their aim is to provide contextualised insight into complex river systems to promote environmentally sound water policy development, and to guide river regulators and operators.
  • Improved the environmental and social outcomes downstream of water storages (dams and weirs). This includes working within existing frameworks, such as through collaborative development and implementation of new operational guidelines for selected storages, and by contributing to wider discussions on the use and allocation of water resources.
  • Improved the ability of water management organisations to incorporate new knowledge into planning and implementation of water delivery on an on-going basis through collaborative development and implementation of reflective and adaptive processes.

This large multi-disciplinary SRA exemplifies how the Institute is tackling some of challenges facing Australia, and in particular its rural and regional communities. By working collaboratively with community, regional and national partners, the SRA is able to integrate biophysical research with socio-economic adaptive management practices. Through its research and roles on committees its members are making significant contributions to water policy and decision making, and to the adaptive management of river operations and wetlands.

The team is made up of 22 researchers, senior to early-career researchers, and includes three post-doctoral research fellows. These researchers have expertise in:

  • Ecology of fish, amphibians, macroinvertebrates, zooplankton and biofilms
  • Aquatic chemistry of rivers, wetlands, lakes, estuaries and marine environments
  • Flow-ecology relationships
  • The role of flow and floodplains in dispersal, growth and recruitment of fish and amphibians
  • Species occupancy modelling
  • Ecological indicators
  • Ecosystem responses to environmental watering, in particular, wetland ecosystem responses to inundation and in-stream ecosystem responses to flow pulses
  • Wetland inventory and assessment
  • Incorporation of science in adaptive management
  • Development of computer-intensive spatial analysis algorithms
  • History of environmental change in the Murray-Darling Basin
  • River ecology, restoration and management
  • Water policy

As well there are 21 post-graduate students contributing to the extensive body of research undertaken by this SRA with completed PhD and Masters research on sustainable recreational fishery requirements, social justice in water reform, mortality during the early life-stages of Murray-Darling fishes, and age, growth and reproductive dynamics of striped marlin.

While the majority of its research projects are in the Murray-Darling Basin, its researchers are also involved in projects elsewhere in Australia and overseas including countries such as China, Austria, Italy and India.

Since 2012 Sustainable Water SRA researchers have led two large projects in the Edward-Wakool and Murrumbidgee River systems monitoring the ecosystem responses to Commonwealth environmental water in collaboration with partner organisations.  Currently researchers are undertaking five year (watering years 2014/15 to 2018/19) Long Term Intervention Program (LTIM) projects for each of the river systems. The projects have been funded by the Commonwealth Environmental Office. Partners include local land services, state NRM agencies and departments and other universities. The researchers are developing a large data base of ecosystem responses under different flow conditions which will enable them to use statistical modelling to predict and evaluate the response to Commonwealth environmental water.  In both cases, researchers are contributing to the management and delivery of environmental water.

The SRA has four sub-groups, the Edward-Wakool LTIM led by Professor Robyn Watts, the Murrumbidgee LTIM led by Dr Skye Wassens, as well as the Fish Ecology Collaborative Research Unit, which is led by Dr Paul Humphries, and the Wetland Conservation and Management group led by Professor Max Finlayson.

Top of page


Within Australia, locally, nationally and internationally important rivers and wetlands provide essential ecosystem services, such as fresh water, food and fibre, nutrient cycling, flood mitigation, drought refuge, and wildlife habitat.

However, rivers and wetlands are amongst the most threatened ecosystems globally. Most major rivers in the world have been altered by the construction of dams and flow regulation resulting in undesirable impacts on river ecosystems and biota. Wetlands may be adversely impacted directly, through vegetation clearing, frequent cropping, over-grazing, draining or filling. Management and rectification of such problems can be difficult, especially when it is realised that a large proportion of Australia's river floodplains and wetlands occur on privately owned land.

The recent droughts and floods in Australia have heightened the challenge for water managers to balance water requirements of the environment, farmers and river communities. It also created opportunities for managers to re-assess and explore more flexible water policies and river operations that will have multiple benefits for the environment and catchment communities.

A key component of future wetland and agricultural sustainability will be efficient water management within the uncertainty and complexity of increased climate variability. Under modeled climate change scenarios, most rivers and wetlands face altered water availability and so will need informed and careful management if their key values are to be retained. For this to happen it is essential that scientific research be applied, problem-focused and closely linked to sustainable management and policy.

Changes to practice are more likely to occur if we integrate biophysical and socio-economic perspectives, and reflect on and understand context, and include operational considerations: i.e. a change from conventional to adaptive management. Successful adaptation requires a partnership between researchers, practitioners, managers, regulators and the public.

Top of page


Team Members as at the end of 2016



Prof Robyn Watts River ecology, restoration and management
Environmental responses to dam operations
A/Prof Catherine Allan Adaptive management
Social learning
Dr Lee Baumgartner Fishway design and construction, fish migration, recreational fisheries, human impacts on fisheries
Prof Max Finlayson Wetland ecology
Dr Andrew Hall Spatial science, vegetation remote sensing
Dr Julia Howitt Environmental chemistry, water quality
Dr Paul Humphries River and fish ecologist
Dr Kim JenkinsFlow ecology relationships, wetland ecology, food webs
Dr Keller Kopf Fish/Fisheries Ecology, Aquatic Resource Management
Dr Zhenquan (Jan) LiModelling and simulation, computational science
Dr Nicole McCasker Fish ecologist
Dr Wayne RobinsonWildlife ecologist
Dr Skye Wassens Wetland hydrology and frog conservation
Dr Ben WolfendenAquatic ecology
Adjunct MembersExpertise
Dr Mariagrazia Bellio  Wetland ecologist
Prof Kathleen Bowmer  Water policy and governance; water planning
A/Prof Mike Grace 
Ms Sascha Healy 
Dr Shelby Gull Laird  Human dimensions of natural resource management
Dr Anna Lukasiewicz  Social justice in water governance
Dr Suzanne McDonald Environmental chemistry, water quality, drinking water regulation
Dr Jason ThiemFish ecology
Dr Kevin Warbuton 
Dr Susanne Watkins  Wetland Ecology and Flow-Ecology relationships
Technical StaffExpertise
Mr James AbelTechnical Officer
Ms Tamsin GreenwoodTechnical Officer
Mr Jarrod McPhersonTechnical Officer
Ms Xiaoying (Sha Sha) LiuTechnical Officer


Key outcomes or examples of how the work of this SRA has made a difference include:

  • A long-term partnership between researchers, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and Goulburn Murray Water to examine ecosystem responses to variable flow releases from Dartmouth Dam resulted in the development and application of new operational guidelines for the dam, the largest capacity dam in the Murray-Darling Basin, that provide enhanced environmental benefits.
  • The Edward-Wakool Long Term Intervention Monitoring Project is continuing to contribute to adaptive management by reporting on the outcomes of environmental water; contributing to the management and delivery of environmental water; and informing and engaging with the community.
  • The team working on the Murrumbidgee Long Term Intervention Monitoring Project communicate their findings regularly to the Environmental Water Allocation Reference Group (EWARG). They work closely with State and Commonwealth water and land managers to design, implement and assess water actions throughout the Murrumbidgee River system.
  • A Climate Change Adaptation Catchment Assessment Framework (CCA CAF) has been developed and tested as a planning tool aimed at catchment-level NRM managers. The tool has proved helpful to CMA project officers during a review of NSW Catchment Action Plans, allowing for the incorporation of climate change adaptation considerations into management activities within the CMAs' water programs. A CCA CAF User Guide has been developed.
  • A project on rain-filled wetlands on farms in the Murrumbidgee catchment has led to a better understanding of the ecological importance of rain-filled wetlands, how they are currently valued and managed, and what information and other assistance might help farmers manage these wetlands sustainably.
  • A Vulnerability Assessment of the Impacts of Climate Change and Sea Level Rise on Sydney Olympic Park Wetlands, (2011) has contributed to the wider assessment of wetlands in Australia through its national obligations under the Ramsar Convention. It will specifically benefit the Park in relation to the future management of its wetlands, especially in relation to Climate Change and Sea level Rise.
  • A PhD project studying Murray Crayfish has contributed to the development of new fishing regulations for the NSW Murray Crayfish recreational fishery.
  • Members of this SRA have been involved in a multi-disciplinary national research collaboration, the CSIRO Flagship Cluster Project - Ecological responses to altered flow regimes (2010-2013). By improving the knowledge and tools that underpin water resource planning for aquatic ecosystems, the Cluster has helped develop the science to underpin improved environmental monitoring and modelling tools for the Murray-Darling Basin and beyond.
  • Leader of this SRA A/Prof Robyn Watts co-convened and Dr Catherine Allan facilitated an international workshop "Challenges and Solutions for Planning and Operating Dams for Optimised Benefits" held at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris in 2010. One of the outcomes from this workshop was a UNESCO Statement on Sustainable Dam Planning and Operations calling for much greater investment in sustainability practices.
  • Institute researchers, primarily PhD students, are working with with Central West Local Land Services (LLS) to address information gaps on the mid-reaches of the Lachlan River, NSW. Their findings are helping inform the LLS's longer-term management objectives. The projects include social and ecological research with the aim of relating social and ecological research for management outcomes.



Top of page

Postgraduate Research

Postgraduate students working on topics relevant to the Water SRA


Research Topic

Inam AhmedHow scale of investigation influences reporting of in-stream river hydraulics Supervisors Prof Robyn Watts, Dr Andrew Hall, Dr Geoff Vietz (The University of Melbourne)
Carmen Amos Response of frogs to environmental factors on a range of scales in the Lachlan Catchment of NSW
Supervisors Dr Skye Wassens (Principal) and Prof Gary Luck
(Thesis submitted 2017) 
Dale CampbellReconstruction of Reconstructing past floodplain environments
Supervisors Dr Paul Humphries, Dr Nicole McCasker and Dr Michael Reid (UNE)
Adrian Clements Ecological responses of aquatic vegetation to the environmental water regime developed for Lake Brewster (This project has received funding from NSW State Water and the Lachlan Catchment Management Authority) Supervisors Prof Max Finlayson, Dr Daryl Nielsen MDFRC
(Thesis submitted 2017) 
Kendal Krause Zooplankton in the Murrumbidgee: the effects of native and exotic fish species, density and behaviour on zooplankton community structure
Supervisors Dr Skye Wassens (Principal), Dr Benjamin Wolfenden and Dr Kim Jenkins
Matt O'Connell Trophy Murray Cod: taxidermied Murray Cod and environmental change in the Murray-Darling Basin 
Supervisors Dr Paul Humphries, Dr Keller Kopf, and Dr Nicole McCasker
ILWS Scholarship
Jess Schoeman Optimising water management in the Anthropocene? A case study of adaptive management in the Lachlan Catchment, inland New South Wales, Australia  Supervisors A/Prof Catherine Allan and Prof Max Finlayson
(Thesis submitted 2017) 
Kylie Singh Freshwater turtle communities in regulated river systems of the lower Murray-Darling Basin: Habitat use, demography and spatial ecology
Supervisors Prof Robyn Watts, Dr Carmel Polino (CSIRO)
(Thesis submitted 2017) 
Abbie Spiers An exploration of community perceptions about wetland health in New Zealand
Supervisors Prof Max Finlayson, A/Prof Rosemary Black
(Thesis submitted 2016) 
Daniel SvozilThe importance of intraspecific variation in biological and life history characteristics to the recovery of threatened fish species
Principal Supervisor  Prof Robyn Watts 
Michael VanderzeeSocio-ecological impacts of water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin
Supervisors Prof Max Finlayson, Dr Jennifer Bond, and Dr Jamie Pittock (ANU)
ILWS Scholarship
Amelia Walcott Frog community responses to environmental change: a case study in the mid Lachlan 
Supervisors Dr Andrew Hall, Prof Max Finlayson and Dr Skye Wassens
(Thesis submitted 2017) 
PhD and Masters student completions
Dr Paul AmoatengThe changing spatial extent of water bodies and the implications for urban flooding. The case of Kumasi, Ghana. Supervisor Prof Max Finlayson
Dr James Dyer The role of movement in explaining the distribution of riverine shrimp
Supervisors Dr Paul Paul Humphries, Prof Robyn Watts
Dr Jamin Forbes Population dynamics and implications for management of a Murray cod and golden perch fishery in south-eastern Australia.
Supervisors Prof Robyn Watts, Dr Wayne Robinson, Dr Lee Baumgartner 
Dr Alexandra Knight The case for Sloane's Froglet: Generating ecological knowledge with the intent to benefit biodiversity
Supervisors Prof Robyn Watts, Dr Catherine Allen, David Hunter (OEH)
Dr Stacey Kopf Swimming performance and dispersal potential of larval Australian freshwater fish in a regulated riverscape.  Supervisors Prof Robyn Watts, Dr Paul Humphries
Dr Saideepa KumarEstablishing more acceptable and achievable environmental watering targets in a complex changing world. (This project has received funding fro m the National Centre for Groundwater Research & Training)
Supervisors: Professor Allan Curtis (Principal), Dr Emily Mendham and Dr Wendy Merritt, (ANU)
Mr Luke Pearce
Conservation management of southern pygmy perch (Nannoperca australis) in NSW, in the context of climatic extremes and alien species.  Supervisors Dr Paul Humphries, Prof Robyn Watts (2015)
Dr Luisa Perez-Mujica A system dynamics approach to assessing sustainability of tourism in wetlands
Supervisors Prof Max Finlayson & A/Prof Jonathon Howard

Dr Sylvia Zukowski

What information is required for sustainable recreational freshwater fishery regulations in Australia? Supervisor Prof Robyn Watts
Dr Anna LukasiewiczLost in translation: where is the social justice in Australian water reform? Supervisor Dr Penny Davidson
Dr Nicole McCaskerOf life and death in lowland rivers: Investigating mortality during the early life stages of Murray-Darling fishes. Supervisor Dr Paul Humphries
Dr R. Keller KopfAge, growth, and reproductive dynamics of striped marlin, Kajikia audax in the southwest Pacific Ocean. Principal supervisor Professor Peter Davie

Dr Lei Yinru (Ruby)

Human migration decision-making in response to climate change- A case study in Shangnan County, China. Supervisor Prof Max Finlayson and Dr Rik Thwaites
Dr Xiaoying Liu (Sha Sha) Ecological Characterisation and Scenario Setting for Lake Cowal (This project is funded by the Lake Cowal Foundation.)
Supervisors Prof Max Finlayson, Dr Daryl Nielsen & Dr Darren Baldwin MDFRC

Top of page


Members of the SRA have been involved in various community engagement activities including presentations to the public and landcare groups; production of fact sheets for the community; attendance at information booths at field days; and membership of stakeholder committees related to environmental watering and wetland management.

2015/16 included:

  • a Citizen Science project 'Stuffed Murray Cods in Pubs' which to a 2016 ILWS PhD scholarship with top-up funding from MDBA
  • the official "launch" of the two major environmental water monitoring project at the Albury-Wodonga campus. Forty-four people attended the launch including research team members, CSU's Vice Chancellor Professor Andrew Vann, representatives from the projects' funding body, CEWO, and partner agencies
  • attendance and presentations at various symposiums, conferences, forums and workshops including:
  • the 18th International River Symposium in Brisbane
  • the Winton Wetlands Restoration Science Forums
  • SEGRA (Sustainable Economic Growth for Regional Australia) conferences, Bathurst, NSW in 2015, and Albany, WA, in 2016
  • the Joint Conference for the New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society and the Australian Society for Limnology conference in New Zealand
  • a Wise Water Ways Water Management Workshop in Beechworth, Victoria
  • the Australian Society for Limnology Conference in Ballarat
  • Prediction of Harmful Algal Blooms workshop in Canberra
  • various community engagement activities  including presentations to the public, landcare and special interest groups on topics such as the proposed introduction of the carp virus; production of fact sheets for the community; attendance at information booths at field days including the Deniliquin Fishing Classic; and membership of stakeholder  committees (such as the Lake Cowal Foundation, the River Red Gum Scientific Advisory Committee, the Murray Dissolved Oxygen Group and the Winton Wetlands Environmental Strategic Advisory Panel) related to environmental watering and wetland management
  • involvement in special interest groups such as groups focussed on the health of mangroves in Northern Australia and in Kakadu
  • participation in a strategic meeting on the carp virus in Canberra attended by NSW DPI, CEWO and the Threatened Species commissioner
  • working with the Barkindji Maraura Elders Environment Team who are undertaking environmental research in the lower Darling region
  • publication of  the newsletter Freshwater Research News
  • media engagement activities included
  • electronic (on-line, radio, TV) and print media coverage of the launch of the two LTIM projects, the inaugural Winton Wetlands Research Forum
  • a story "Environmental water safeguards threatened frog" on the Institute's collaborative research with the NSW OEH on the southern bell frogs in the Australian Government's Wetlands Australia: National wetlands update August 15 – Issue No 27. 2015, and other stories/interviews of the discovery of Southern Bell Frogs in the lower Murrumbidgee wetlands
  • a story about PhD student Jamin Forbe's  research on Murray Cod and Golden Perch in the American Fisheries Society News
  • articles published in The Conversation, an important social media outlet for scientific views and opinions on topics such as what changes must happen for restoration and conservation to be successful in the Anthropocene, and floods play a vital role in ecosystems – it's time to get out of their way
  • a radio interview on how the  management of natural resources on Channel Africa Radio's Midday Show
  • stories and TV interviews on the research findings for toxic algal blooms along the Murray
  • radio interviews around of the effects of the floods including the impacts of blackwater on native fish
  • various CSU Media Releases on water research

Visit to Chilika Lagoon
Professor Finlayson was in India March 1-6, 2015, to run a workshop at the Chilika Lagoon, to develop an ecological character description in response to Ramsar requirements. A report contributed to the triennial  Ramsar conference in Uruguay, South America.

Ramsar Workshop: Detecting Change in Ecological Character, was held in Queenscliff, Victoria, November 5 to 8 2013, involving the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the Institute and the Self-Sustaining Regions Research & Innovation CRN, based at Ballarat University. It brought key palaeoecological researchers together with limnologists and ecologists to explore means of better understanding the nature of change and variability in key Ramsar wetlands across the globe.

Adaptation policy for the conservation and management of nationally and internationally important wetlands Workshop.  A two day workshop in Melbourne, April 16-17 2013, hosted by the Institute in association with the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility and the Society of Wetland Scientists (Oceanic chapter) that discussed what information Australia needs to meet its international obligations for its inland and coastal wetlands covered by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

Top of page

International Linkages

Members of the Sustainable Water SRA have a number of linkages and partnerships with international organisations.

Institute Director Prof Finlayson has been a member of the Scientific and Technical Review Panel (STRP) of Ramsar since the early 1990s and is an Invited Expert on climate change and wetlands. As the current Ramsar Chair for the Wise Use of Wetlands, UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, The Netherlands, he is often called upon by international and national governments for his expertise in wetland management. He also regularly attends and presents at international conferences, including, during 2015 and 2016:

  • a keynote talk on the impact of agriculture on wetlands at the Wetlands in Agricultural Landscapes: Present State and Perspectives in Europe in the Czech Republic
  • the Society for Wetland Scientists annual Meeting 2016 in Texas, U.S.
  • a presentation on developments under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands at the Brazilian National Wetland Conference in Brazil. (Professor Finlayson is a member of the international expert advisory panel for the conference organisers, Brazilian National Wetland Program)
  • the 10th International Wetland Conference (INTECOL) in China where he gave a plenary talk on the role of wetlands in meeting the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, and contributed to two workshops
  • a Science Policy Dialogue on Emergency Preparedness and Management of Health Impacts of Extreme Weather Events in the Asia Pacific Region. The dialogue was run by the International Institute for Global Health, part of the United Nations University in Kuala Lumpur, and is part of a project funded by the Asia Pacific Network for Global Change Research (APN

Continuing his long-term association with the University of Vienna, Dr Paul Humphries was one of the organisers of the 39th Annual Larval Fish Conference held at the university in July 2015.  While in Austria, he also ran a Masters Field Course and class. Dr Humphries also co-supervised a PhD student from the University of Vienna, who has now completed.

Dr Lee Baumgartner, Dr Wayne Robinson and Jarrod McPherson helped facilitate the installation of the first-ever fish-friendly irrigation gate in the Lower Mekong Basin as part of a project being led by Dr Craig Boys from Fisheries NSW looking to improve the design of irrigation infrastructure to increase fisheries production in floodplain wetlands of the Lower Mekong and Murray-Darling Basins.

Dr Wayne Robinson spent five weeks on secondment in Environment Canada's Bioassessment office in Vancouver, Canada. While there he was involved in reviewing and refining some of the multivariate statistical procedures used in the Canadian Aquatic Biomonitoring Network. He also presented at a Society for Freshwater Science Annual Meeting in the U.S.

Dr Angus Webb (University of Melbourne) and Prof Robyn Watts were co-chairs of a special session on "Implementation and adaptive management of environmental flows" at the ISE2016 International Symposium on Ecohydraulics, held in Melbourne in February 2016. Dr Webb, Prof Watts along with A/Prof Allan and Dr John Conallin (UNESCO-IHE) are guest editors of a special issue of the journal Environmental Management (to be published in 2017) based on papers presented at this conference.

Prof Watts also presented a paper on "Responses of aquatic and riverbank vegetation to in-channel environmental flows" at the 14th international conference on Aquatic Plants at Edinburgh University, Scotland, 2015.

The University has a MOU with Hohai University in China, which was first signed in 2009 and has been renewed until August 2019. Under this agreement, PhD graduate Dr Yinru (Ruby) Lei was studying in Australia through a joint CSU/Hohai University PhD scholarship.

International visitors in 2015/16 were:

  • Professor Victor Marin and Professor Luisa Delgado, from the University of Chile, South America who worked with Prof Finlayson on a paper looking at the complexities and uncertainties in socio-ecological systems based on the example of the Rio Cruces wetland in Chile
  • Former Deputy Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and Institute Adjunct Professor Nick Davidson who was in in Australia to work with Prof Finlayson on a number of papers, a review of the global extent and distribution of wetlands and an analysis for Ramsar. Both Prof Davidson and Prof Finlayson are members of the Society of Wetland Scientists' Ramsar section.