NEWT: Northern Environmental Water Tools

NEWT: Northern Environmental Water Tools

Broadscale agriculture

NEWT is an indexing of TRaCK research outputs with respect to the ELOHA theoretical framework.

Welcome to NEWT, the information portal for environmental water management in northern Australia.

Environmental flows are the amount and timing of water flows required to maintain the species, functions, and resilience of freshwater ecosystems and the livelihoods of human communities that depend on those healthy ecosystems. The NEWT portal provides access to information (reports, articles etc) and data (databases etc) concerning environmental water management across the region.

We have organized the portal within a framework known as the Ecological Limits of Hydrological Alteration (ELOHA; Arthington et al 2006[1], Poff et al 2010[2]), which is, we believe, the most appropriate framework for considering environmental water management in a region as large as northern Australia and for which specific flow-ecology information is limited.

We draw heavily upon TRaCK related research but also provide access and links to other relevant information. Throughout this portal, we provide links to the Environmental Water Guidelines formulated from TRaCK related research.

NEWT Compendium
developed by
Professor Brad Pusey
Research Professor
Centre of Excellence in Natural Resource Management
University of Western Australia - Albany; and
Senior Research Fellow
Australian Rivers Institute
Griffith University, Nathan
Queensland Australia 4111
ph/fax: +61 897568634
mob: 0427081344

Website realisation
concept & development by
John Brisbin
BoaB interactive

Water sustains healthy ecosystems and communities in northern Australia

More than one million gigalitres of rain falls over northern Australia every year (Cresswell et al. 2009[3]) in a well-defined summer wet season that distinguishes northern Australia as so very different from much of the remainder of the continent. The arrival of the wet season may be sudden, dramatic and intense. It may also be short-lived. The annual dry season may last for as long as nine months and the annual water budget (rainfall minus evaporation and transpiration) may be in deficit by more than 1000 mm per year.

The availability of water is key to sustaining the rich diversity of organisms and biological processes present in the rivers, estuaries, swamps, floodplains, springs and lakes that comprise the aquatic environment of northern Australia. Such habitats include rivers conveying more water in a day than recorded anywhere else in Australia (Mitchell River at Koolatah >24,000, enormous floodplains, forested wetlands larger than anywhere else (Arafura Swamp) and the least impacted rivers in all of Australia. They are indeed the jewels in the crown that is the world’s largest intact savanna ecosystem and are of global significance (Woinarski et al. 2007[4]). That such an outstanding landscape should hold a rich and diverse biota is not surprising (Pusey and Kennard 2009[5], Pusey 2011[6]). However, the distinct contrast between the wet and dry seasons provides a formidable existential challenge for the region’s aquatic flora and fauna and for important ecosystem goods and service relied on by the people that inhabit the region.

Water is a key element in all aspects of human enterprise in northern Australia, including human settlement and urbanisation, agricultural production and other primary industries such as fishing and the extraction of minerals. The annual water deficit limits the types and scope of human activities possible in northern Australia though even with water resource developments (e.g. dams, weirs, irrigation schemes) designed to ensure reliable water supply throughout the year.

Water is a key element in the cultural, spiritual and economic lives of the region’s Indigenous population, who make up 40% of the region’s population of about 300,000 people. Importantly, about 30% of the region and many of its aquatic ecosystems of high conservation value are controlled by Indigenous people under land rights, native title legislation or other freehold title (Jackson et al. 2011[7]). Particular features of the aquatic environment (e.g. rivers, lakes, wetlands and springs)may be of immense cultural and spiritual significance (e.g. dreaming places) as well as providing important natural resources used in household incomes and economic development (e.g. livelihood activities such as the collection of natural fibres, bush tucker and medicines).

Clearly, water is an important for a range of reasons. Moreover, disparate uses hold the potential for conflicts to arise in the determination of how water is to be sustainably used and managed. The field of environmental water management concerns the processes by which these potential conflicts are assessed and managed, and the needs of the environment and the biodiversity it sustains is protected.

Daly River at Oolloo Crossing (Michael Douglas)



  1. Arthington, A.H., Bunn, S.E., Poff, N.L. &Naiman, R.J. The challenge of providing environmental flow rules to sustain river ecosystems. Ecological Applications 16, 1311-1318 (2006).
  2. Poff, N.L., et al. The ecological limits of hydrologic alteration (ELOHA): a new framework for developing regional environmental flow standards. Freshwater Biology 55, 147-170 (2010).
  3. Cresswell, R., et al. Water Resources in northern Australia. Northern Australia Land and Water Science Review, Report to the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce (2009).
  4. Woinarski, J., Mackey, B., Nix, H. & Traille, B. The Nature of Northern Australia: Natural Values, Ecological Processes and Future Prospects. (Canberra, 2007).
  5. Pusey, B.J. & Kennard, M.J. Aquatic Ecosystems in northern Australia. Northern Australia Land and Water Science Review, Report to the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce (2009).
  6. Pusey, B.J. Aquatic Biodiversity in Northern Australia: patterns, threats and future. (Darwin, 2011).
  7. Jackson, S., Stoeckl, N. & Larson, S. The social, cultural and economic significance of tropical aqautic ecosystems: a diversity of values. Aquatic Biodiversity in Northern Australia: patterns, threats and future 173-190 (2011).


A short history of environmental water management

The science of environmental water management originated in North America, principally in response to the recognised needs of recreationally important fish species such as trout and salmon. As such, it was primarily concerned with how the maintenance of habitat quantity and quality related to instream flows. For many years, environmental water management was referred to as instream flow management (see Terminology).

The early American approaches were based around rules-of-thumb in which certain proportions of mean annual flow (MAF) were required to meet in-stream flow needs (i.e. 5% of MAF was needed as a maintenance flow). Sophisticated modelling approaches in which changes in discharge were related to fish habitat availability became prominent in the late 1970s (e.g. Instream Flow Incremental Methodology).

This approach was widely used but also widely criticised, especially in Australia where it was thought that the variability of stream flows reduced the strong relationship between habitat availability and fish abundance (Pusey 1998[1]). Moreover, the method requires solid information on the relationship between habitat quality and fish use (e.g. preference or utilization), information that was largely lacking for Australia; a situation that still applies for many northern Australian species.

None-the-less, this type of modelling approach, although in itself not providing a definitive and final solution for how much water is required in a river for it to remain healthy, does provide a very useful tool, among many others, that can aid in determining the impacts of changes in flow regime. Arthington et al. (2003[2])used a similar approach within the DRIFT methodology to examine the impacts of flow regulation in Lesotho and Chan et al. (2010[3])used a similar approach as one input in a Bayesian Belief Network predicting the risk of altered flow regime for barramundi and sooty grunter for example. Application of this approach in these examples was as one part of more holistic considerations of environmental water needs.

Recognition of the need for water both within and outside of the channel (i.e. floodplains) and in estuarine and near-shore marine receiving environments resulted in a broadening of the focus of environmental water management with a greater emphasis on a more holistic approach (see Arthington et al. 1992[4]). A range of holistic methodologies have been proposed to meet the needs of this expanded perspective and Arthington et al. (1998[5])provide a review. Holistic methodologies emphasize that changes in flow result in a wider range of impacts than just a simple change in habitat availability (although this may be important). Arthington (2012[6])provides a thorough analysis of the history of environmental water management in Australia and globally.

More recently, environmental water management has further expanded its focus to include the role that environmental water plays in the lives of people, recognising that these needs are an essential component of the environment (King & Brown 2010[7]). Aquatic ecosystems provide important ecological goods and services for human populations. The provision of food and fibre, places for recreation, tourism and other cultural activities may all be impacted by water use and regulation. Non- extractive industries such as commercial fishing are directly linked to the quantity and timing of riverine flows for example. [see references]. In northern Australia, the spiritual and cultural well-being of Indigenous people is intimately connected to the nature of water in the environment. [see references]

Assessing the nature, extent and severity of flow changes due to human activities regulation and the ameliorative outcomes of environmental water management remains a challenge, especially in regions for which flow-ecology relationships are poorly understood. The ELOHA approach (Ecological Limits of Hydrological Alteration) (Arthington et al 2006[8], Poff et al. 2010[9]) provides a conceptual framework to assist scientists and water managers in defining impacts associated with flow regulation and management strategies to ameliorate those impacts.


  1. Pusey, B.J. Methods addressing the flow requirements of fish. Comparative evaluation of environmental flow assessment techniques: review of methods. pp.64-103 (1998).
  2. Poff, N.L., et al. River flows and water wars: emerging science for environmental decision-making. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 1, 298-306 (2003).
  3. Chan, T.U., et al. Bayesian network models for environmental flow decision making in the Daly River, Northern Territory, Australia . River Research and Applications doi: 10.1002/rra.1456, (2010).
  4. Arthington, A.H., et al. Development of an holistic approach for assessing environmental flow requirements of riverine ecosystems. Water allocation for the Environment. Proceedings of an international Seminar and Workshop, pp 69-76, (1992).
  5. Arthington, A.H., Brizga, S.O. & Kennard, M.J. Comparative Evaluation of Environmental Flow Assessment Techniques: Best Practice Framework. LWRRDC Occasional Paper 25/98 (Canberra, 1998).
  6. Arthington, A.H. Environmental Flows: Saving Rivers in the Third Millennium. (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. , 2012).
  7. King, J.M. & Brown, C. Integrated basin flow assessments: concepts and method development in Africa and South-east Asia. Freshwater Biology 55, 127-146 (2010).
  8. Arthington, A.H., Bunn, S.E., Poff, N.L. & Naiman, R.J. The challenge of providing environmental flow rules to sustain river ecosystems. Ecological Applications 16, 1311-1318 (2006).
  9. Poff, N.L., et al. The ecological limits of hydrologic alteration (ELOHA): a new framework for developing regional environmental flow standards. Freshwater Biology 55, 147-170 (2010).


ELOHA process navigator

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