The road to recovery: Birds are returning to Menindee Lakes

By Peter Tuskan 1 April 2020
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It’s a welcome sight after years of drought and several natural disasters.

As water begins to flow at Menindee Lakes in far western NSW, birds are slowly returning to the haven they have migrated to for thousands of years.

Increased numbers of waterbirds have recently been spotted in the area, pointing to the lake’s gradual ecological recovery after three years of merciless drought and a number of disastrous fish kills. 

Richard Kingsford, Director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales, says the sight of birds at Menindee is just the start of a long road to recovery.

“We need a lot more flooding of Menindee Lakes, which means more water for it to really take off ecologically, including for the waterbirds,” Richard says.   

“It really needs to flood for a long time for the waterbirds to go into the next phase, which is breeding. Only with breeding and recruitment do you really get a bounce back in numbers.”

In 2018/19, more than a million fish including Murray cod, bony bream and golden perch died in three Menindee fish kills. The events ravaged the region and prompted the announcement of a $5 million hatchery to replenish native fish populations, however the overall health of the system remains dire. 

“The fish kills had a devastating impact,” Richard says in relation to the Lakes’ dwindling bird numbers. “All of that living mass of animals was removed in one fell swoop.

“Those fish are no longer there to capitalise on the flows and floods in the river. It also means they aren’t there to recolonise the rest of the river, which has dried up”.

What’s required to further boost the recovery, and the population of migratory birds, in the Murray-Darling Basin is what locals have been long praying for: “Water and lots of it!” 

“Without enough flow coming down the Darling, there is really not much hope for waterbirds and the wider environment of Menindee Lakes,” Richard says.    

“The lakes and the Darling River floodplain need to flood and there is no indication that there is anything like enough water coming down the river to do this. The flow in the river is very welcome for everyone and the environment but it will not be nearly enough for this system to recover.” 

Richard insists that other actions and interventions must be taken to ensure environmental and economic sustainability in the region moving forward.  

“Further, it needs some major changes to the Government plans to decommission Lake Cawndilla if we are going to really contemplate a true recovery.

“There is much too much water taken out of this river upstream and it continues to have devastating consequences on the environment, fish and the people who depend on it.”