River regulation and climate change have interrupted many of the natural river and wetland processes. These processes are needed by native plants and animals to survive and thrive. Water for the environment is released into some of these rivers and wetlands to improve their health. However, due to physical and operational barriers, known as “constraints”, there are some low-lying floodplains that cannot be watered.

Victoria aims to enhance environmental, recreational and cultural outcomes, by looking at how already-available water for the environment could be delivered to these areas. This includes exploring opportunities to enhance higher river flow to re-establish natural river and wetland processes that support healthy fish, bird, and vegetation populations. Under predicted climate change scenarios, these systems are less likely to receive enough water in the future.

Victoria is investigating restoring minor flooding in the Murray and Goulburn rivers. The investigations are focused below the minor flood level as moderate and major floods would require vast amounts of water. Major flooding would also impact industry, agricultural production, infrastructure and urban centres.

However, restoring flows to below minor flood levels does impact private land, agricultural production, stock, private access roads and other public infrastructure such as roads, bridges and culverts.

The Victorian Constraints Measures Program (CMP) will explore how enhanced natural river flows could be delivered while managing risks and impacts to public and private land, infrastructure, stock, crops, and people.

The Victorian CMP is part of a wider initiative that makes the best use of available water for the environment through projects that deliver water to where it’s needed. These projects, including the Victorian Murray Floodplain Restoration Project (VMFRP), help reduce the need for further water recovery by delivering water to currently inaccessible areas.

Overhead drone footage of the Goulburn Murray River area

What does this mean for Victoria?

There are six constraints projects across the Southern Connected Basin. These are:

  • Hume to Yarrawonga
  • Yarrawonga to Wakool Junction
  • Goulburn
  • Murrumbidgee
  • Lower Darling
  • Lower Murray (South Australia).

Victoria is the sole proponent for the Goulburn River and a joint proponent with New South Wales for the Hume to Yarrawonga project.

Overhead drone footage of the Goulburn-Murray area

The initial stage of this program considers the benefits and impacts of delivering higher river flows on stakeholders.

The Victorian Government is running a feasibility study, with input and advice from a Consultative Committee, to explore the many benefits and potential risks of reconnecting low-lying river landscapes in the Murray and Goulburn Rivers. It is important to note we will not flood private land without the landholder's consent or use compulsory powers to acquire land or easements. Victoria will actively engage with landholders to better understand the program’s benefits and impacts to the community if the program proceeds to a next stage in 2023.

Traditional Owners are a pivotal partner in water resource planning and management. In Stage 1A, Traditional Owners of northern Victoria have worked to identify the cultural, environmental, and social benefits and risks that may arise from enabling floodplain reconnection.

The Victorian CMP targets the larger environmental objectives of the Murray Darling Basin Plan. The Victorian Government will consider the findings from the study to determine whether the program should progress to further stages of investigation. The study is earmarked for completion early in 2023.

The Victorian CMP predominantly aims to deliver water from storages on the back of higher, natural flows to improve connectivity between river reaches and the surrounding floodplain throughout the Southern Connected Basin. Meanwhile the VMFRP delivers water to high value sites (including those higher up on the floodplain) by using works and infrastructure to hold it there for a longer duration that the environment needs. Both programs are complementary to each other and central to delivering environmental, recreational and cultural benefits to local communities.

A staged approach to the Victorian Constraints Measures Program

 Diagram showing initiatives related to Stages 1A, 1B, 1C and Stage 2 of the project.

The Victorian CMP aims to enhance the delivery of water for the environment already available to improve environmental outcomes in the Goulburn and Murray River systems. It will examine relaxing constraints in three key areas:

  • Goulburn River: from Lake Eildon to the confluence with the Murray River
  • Murray River: from Lake Hume to Yarrawonga Weir
  • Murray River: from Yarrawonga Weir to the confluence of the Wakool River.

The feasibility study is focused largely on Victoria’s project areas but will consider the benefits and risks along the entire length of the Goulburn and Murray rivers, including what might occur in South Australia.

The Victorian CMP will be delivered through the following stages, with key decision points at the end of each stage to ascertain if subsequent stages should be funded:

Stage 1A (the current stage)

Priorities include:

  • working with and responding to suggestions and ideas from the Consultative Committee to develop a robust feasibility study. This involves:
  • filling data gaps
  • updating modelling tools
  • assessing the cultural, recreational and environmental benefits and impacts of changed flows
  • considering policy aspects such as how landowners can be compensated for any impacts
  • looking at river operation requirements
  • outlining a range of options to introduce more natural river flows including periodic flows generally up to the minor flood levels.

The results of Stage 1A will determine if there are viable options that could sensibly deliver enhanced natural river flows. The Victorian Government will decide if the program should proceed to Stage 1B with advice provided by the Consultative Committee.

Stage 1B
This stage will further develop the options in Stage 1A. Where identified, further modelling may be completed and ground-truthing of inundation modelling will be undertaken with local communities. Areas and assets that are likely to be affected by revised river operating rules will be mapped in further detail and impacts and ways to address them will be identified in consultation with stakeholders.  These measures will be tested individually with impacted landholders and asset owners, to seek in-principle agreement on the impacts and compensation arrangements.

Stage 1C
This phase involves obtaining all necessary regulatory approvals and submitting a business case to implement the program.

Stage 2
This stage focuses on implementing the program, including construction activities where necessary.

Overhead drone footage of the Goulburn-Murray area

Stage 1A - the current stage

This stage is to investigate the feasibility of the program. Technical work and investigations being undertaken include:

  • Surveying of the river channel and key features
  • hydrological modelling to determine when, for how long and how often flows could occur
  • hydraulic modelling to determine the extent of land that will be watered
  • identifying  preliminary impacts on land and assets
  • considering policy aspects such as how landowners can be compensated for any impacts
  • cultural benefits and impact assessments
  • environmental benefits and impact assessments
  • social and recreational benefit assessments
  • construction of additional streamflow and rainfall monitoring sites in the Goulburn River to increase the data available to inform river operations
  • reviewing what changes may be required for river operations
  • reviewing legislative frameworks
  • planning for future community engagement  should the program proceed

Consultative Committee

To achieve the community-centred objectives of Stage 1A, a Consultative Committee has been established. Independently chaired by the Hon Patrick McNamara, the Committee is a forum for the members to provide comment and input on the design and feasibility of the program.

The Consultative Committee is comprised of members from Registered Aboriginal Parties, local landholders, irrigators, community members, river operators, Council representation, Catchment Management Authorities, land managers, agencies, representative bodies and impacted agencies. DELWP engaged with agencies to identify community members who had experience and knowledge across water-based issues.

General program information

The Victorian Constraints Measures Program (CMP) looks at ways to allow rivers to connect to their floodplains more often to make best use of the available water for the environment, while managing or mitigating effects on local communities and industries.

Many of Victoria's river systems have been modified as the state has prospered and population grown, to provide water important for towns, industry, and food production.

Instead of water flowing naturally through the landscape, water is now captured in dams and weirs, with releases of water from dams into rivers controlled by river operators for the ultimate delivery of water to end users via pipes and man-made channels. River operating rules are also in place to protect landholders downstream of dams and weirs from unexpected inundation.

This has meant that the low-lying floodplains have become increasingly disconnected from their rivers. By relaxing or removing constraints environmental water can be used to re-establish elements of the natural flow regimes to put water when and where it is needed, and where it cannot currently be delivered. These periodic higher flows play a key role in vegetation condition, and provide habitat, food, and the conditions to breed for native animals like fish, birds, frogs, and turtles. These flows will improve environmental outcomes on the floodplain as well as in the river channel.

The Victorian CMP aims to enhance the delivery of already available environmental water and introduce a more natural river flow in the Goulburn and Murray Rivers. It will examine relaxing constraints in three key areas:

  • Goulburn River: from Lake Eildon to the confluence with the Murray River (note: this project is focused on in-channel work only)
  • Murray River: from Lake Hume to Yarrawonga Weir

Murray River: from Yarrawonga Weir to the confluence of the Wakool River.

DELWP is working closely with technical specialists, a Consultative Committee, and relevant agencies to undertake the feasibility study.

The scope of the work currently funded is referred to as Stage 1A. This involves appointing a Consultative Committee, undertaking preliminary technical investigations, providing a forum for the exchange and testing of views, and developing a feasibility study. No further funding is committed beyond Stage 1A. The Victorian Minister for Water will review the study and decide if the program should proceed to subsequent stages.

The Commonwealth Government is funding this feasibility study through the Water for the Environment Special Account (WESA).

In this instance, a ‘constraint’ is a technical term for anything that reduces the ability to deliver water for the environment. Constraints can include physical restrictions such as low-lying bridges, crossings, or private land. Constraints can also include operational aspects such as river rules or operating practices.

This program aims to enhance natural river flows generally up to minor flood levels only.

Before river regulation, overbank flows were common and delivered a range of benefits including:

  • improving water quality and supplies, by
    • flushing out the salt along riverbanks and floodplains
    • helping recharge groundwater supplies
  • improving soil quality and reducing erosion, by
    • moving carbon and nutrients between rivers and floodplains
    • stabilising riverbanks through better plant growth, thus reducing erosion into the river
  • supporting native species, by
    • triggering plants to seed or germinate – for example, river red gums need flooding for their seeds to germinate
    • supporting habitat and breeding of aquatic bugs and insects (the primary source of the river food chain)
    • providing the cues and breeding habitat for frogs, such as the threatened growling grass frog, which requires the seasonal inundation of wetlands for breeding in the drier Murray regions
    • stimulating animals like native fish to feed and breed – for example, golden perch need high river flows to spawn, and floodplains make great nursery habitats to rear young fish, providing increased connectivity to allow plants and animals to move throughout river systems and colonise new areas.

Relaxing constraints will also provide cultural and recreational benefits including tourism activities along and, on our rivers, such as fishing and bird watching.

Constraints are a key part of implementing the health of our rivers via the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Changing the way dams and rivers are managed can help Basin States (South Australia, New South Wales, and Victoria) achieve better environmental outcomes with water that’s available.

Previous business cases have been prepared investigating options to address constraints on the Goulburn River. The original business case was based on limited information and data. It made assumptions about the potential impacts and is considered pre-feasibility at best. Victoria and NSW commissioned a review of the modelling and it found that existing modelling was not fit-for-purpose for a project like constraints relaxation. Community members also raised concerns that Victoria has listened to in developing this current program.

We are now addressing those gaps and community concerns through this feasibility study so that we can determine if the program will progress and can have meaningful conversations with landholders in the future.

The initial project proposals used technical information that was available at the time but was not fit-for-purpose for a project like this. In 2019, the Victorian and NSW Ministers for Water commissioned an independent review of existing modelling. The feasibility study is being done to action some of those recommendations and to incorporate new and updated fit-for-purpose information (aerial photography, new models, data, river surveys and Geographic Information System tools) and enhanced modelling capabilities. This is to reduce the uncertainties around flow rates and provide better information to landholders should the project proceed to later stages.

Improving the health of floodplains and diversity of plants and animals is good for local communities through cultural and recreational benefits, tourism, as well as support for the local economy throughout any stages where works may be implemented.

Enhancing river flows may result in additional inundation of low-lying floodplain adjacent to the rivers. Generally, this is not where there are buildings, however this inundation may further impact existing landholder assets such as pumps, culverts, and access tracks. Access to some parts of properties may be limited when the river is operating at higher levels, generally up to minor flood levels.

Stage 1A is producing inundation modelling under changed river operations that will allow an initial assessment to be made about further impacts on landholders along the river. This modelling will be an integral part of any future consultation process with private landholders as it will show what parts of a property may be inundated at different flows from time to time, and what assets and land aspects may be impacted. If the program progresses to the next stage, these specific impacts will be discussed with landholders as part of one-on-one engagement to further refine the impacts and discuss mitigation options. These mitigations may also provide increased flood resilience against higher flows under natural conditions.

Environmental benefits

Though water for the environment can mean any water in a river or wetland that benefits the environment, when we talk about 'water for the environment' (or 'environmental water') we are referring to water that's set aside in storages such as reservoirs and dams. This water is used to support particular ecological processes and enhance the health of rivers, floodplains and wetlands.

We are doing a lot of work to understand what a more natural watering regime looks like within our rivers. We are working out which species of plants and animals to target, how much water these species need, what time of year the water is needed, and how long the water needs to stay on the floodplain. These decisions will be informed by environmental studies and surveys, as well as the development of environmental water plans. Victoria’s Catchment Management Authorities play a key role in working with community and supporting their environmental water needs. The  Victorian Environmental Water Holder (VEWH) is responsible for holding and managing Victoria's environmental water entitlements.

Instead of flowing naturally (high flows in winter and low flows in the hotter months of summer), rivers now run higher in summer to meet consumptive (including farming) and urban use, and lower in winter when water is captured in storage. These changes have interrupted many of the natural river and wetland processes needed by native plants and animals to survive, feed and breed.

Water for the environment is released into some of these rivers and wetlands to improve their health and protect environmental values.

Managers of water for the environment generally focus on returning some of the small and medium-sized river flows important in the life cycles of native plants and animals. By relaxing constraints, areas of the floodplain that receive water from overbank flow could be enhanced, reconnecting floodplains to the river.

During Stage 1A the program will assess environmental benefits and impact, including changes to vegetation, connecting fish to temporary floodplain habitats, creation and access to different food resources (quality and quantity), waterbird responses and food webs. The assessment will be informed by existing information and studies, as well as reporting and updated modelling. A panel of experts will also review the modelling outcomes and investigations to provide further insights into the environmental benefits and impacts that may result from changed river operations.

No , the program does not seek to cause erosion. River operators must meet the demands of agriculture, urban water and the environment when delivering water. As such, the river will function within operating rules at a level to meet all these demands and impacts. Flows being investigated by the CMP include higher overbank flows on the back of naturally high-water levels following rainfall to deliver water to the low-lying floodplain. Enabling overbank flows will improve the bank condition by dissipating the water energy across the floodplain. It will also provide the conditions for seed dispersal and riparian vegetation growth, which is expected to improve bank stability.

Yes. Medium and high climate change scenarios have been incorporated in the modelling. It is important that climate change implications are investigated to assess what environmental benefits may be achieved in the future under these changing conditions and whether there is sufficient water to meet environmental objectives. It also reduces the risk of investing in assets, also known as stranded assets. Under a drier climate future, the floodplain is less likely to be reconnected. This helps provide critical flows to protect ecological processes.

Traditional Owners have an enduring connection to Country and an essential role in water resource planning and management. Stage 1A involves working with Traditional Owners to identify and articulate the cultural, environmental, and social benefits and risks that may arise from changes associated with the program. If the program is approved, it will be subject to Regulatory Approvals which will incorporate Cultural Heritage Assessments and reporting requirements.

Feasibility study

The feasibility study will assess a range of options to relax constraints. The environmental, social and economic benefits, and impacts on landowners and assets of these options will be evaluated and compared with continuing current operating arrangements.

Based on the technical analysis and the Consultative Committee’s insights, the feasibility study will provide advice to the government about the social, cultural, environmental, and economic benefits, impacts and costs of the options considered.

The Consultative Committee has been established to ensure local insights are considered, and to provide advice about the benefits and impacts of options presented in the feasibility study as well as key aspects that should be considered if the program is to progress. Any future stages will include engagement with the broader community and all potentially affected landholders.

The feasibility study will be provided to the Victorian Government by the end of 2022. The government will then decide whether to proceed to the next stage.

The Victorian Government will consider the findings of the feasibility study, to help decide whether to seek Commonwealth funding for the next stage (Stage 1B).

The primary purpose of undertaking the constraints program is to seek environmental benefits from increased river flows. The program is not being undertaken to enable more inter-valley trade. Operating and trade rules are in place to ensure trade is enabled where there are no unacceptable third party or environmental impacts.

Victoria is working with NSW on their Reconnecting River Country Program (the NSW Constraints Measures Program) to ensure a consistent approach across both states, and that the interests of Victorian communities are protected. We are sharing data and information across states, which supports Victoria in the preparation of its own feasibility study.

The Victorian Government, after evaluating the findings of the feasibility study, will decide whether the program has merit to progress to the next stage. Stage 2 (Implementation phase) cannot occur without the consent of Victorian landowners, alignment with New South Wales and appropriate funding from the Commonwealth government.

Yes. Funding for the feasibility study has been provided by the Australian Government. The CMP team is working closely with the MDBA who is undertaking the Murray River modelling for this study.

The program is focused only on changing how we deliver environmental water to the lowest parts of the floodplains. Most impacts are related to the inundation of farmland generally up to minor flood levels where there are generally no buildings. This means that assets such as pumps and pump sheds, culverts and access tracks may be impacted, or higher water levels may restrict access to some parts of properties. The program is looking at what measures will also be required to mitigate impacts on landholders.

Modelling forms the basis of the CMP. As part of the feasibility study, technical data and information will be updated to further inform hydrologic and hydraulic modelling to provide information as to what land can be watered, to what depth, how frequently and for how long. It will also provide information around the extent and depth of inundation across an individual property. If the program proceeds, this modelling will be subject to "ground-truthing" with stakeholders and be a key factor in further engagement with individual landholders on potential impacts.

If the program proceeds to Stage 1B, the project will commence one-on-one engagement with all potentially impacted landowners. It is important to note that land will not be inundated without prior consent from landholders and there will be no compulsory acquisition of land or easements for the purposes of this program. Any compensation considerations will be communicated directly with landowners as the program progresses.

All current releases from dams are managed according to established operating guidelines and planning. Under any changes, the release of water would continue to be managed according to an agreed plan. In Stage 1A, aspects that need to be considered with river operations are being investigated. If the program is to proceed, environmental water deliveries would be made through an adaptive and trial-based approach, starting with smaller flows, to ensure any risks in operations are adequately assessed and mitigated.

Community consultation

The Consultative Committee is chaired by the Hon. Patrick McNamara, with members comprising of Registered Aboriginal Parties, local landowners, irrigators, community members, river operators, Council representation, Catchment Management Authorities, land managers, agencies, and others. DELWP engaged with agencies to identify community members who had experience and knowledge across water-based issues.

Stage 1A's focus is working with the Consultative Committee to investigate whether the program is feasible to move onto the next stage where further engagement, including with individual landowners, would occur. As part of Stage 1A, a community consultation and stakeholder engagement plan will be developed in conjunction with the Consultative Committee. This plan will guide a program of extensive, further engagement if the program proceeds to subsequent stages.

DELWP and Catchment Management Authorities have been working directly with Traditional Owners in northern Victoria to create forums for discussion about the impacts of higher flows on the landscape. As part of Stage 1A, we are working with Traditional Owner groups to discuss technical results and to hold meaningful conversations about the cultural benefits and risks of different river flows. Engagement will be guided by the Traditional Owner groups. The Consultative Committee also includes members from Registered Aboriginal Parties.

During Stage 1A, consultation is being undertaken with the Consultative Committee and focus group sessions with targeted stakeholders.

If the program proceeds to Stage 1B, comprehensive in-person community consultation will be carried out with individual impacted landowners, the wider community and relevant agencies and stakeholders. Currently, the Consultative Committee will provide their insights and advice during the development of what engagement in Stage 1B may look like.

Community feedback will be considered at all stages of program development and co-design. In Stage 1A, the Consultative Committee comprises of community members from across the three key river reaches being investigated. If the program is deemed feasible to move into the next stage, significant community engagement will be undertaken in subsequent stages to inform the program planning and delivery.

Page last updated: 05/10/22