Griffith University researchers at the Australian Rivers Institute commence new and innovative environmental research in Northern Australia with the recent announcement of more than 50 new projects under the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program (NESP).

The Northern Australia Environmental Resources Hub has allocated $1.125 million of their existing NESP funding for three projects that draw on the expertise of Griffith University researchers, working collaboratively with other institutions to help build a sustainable future for Australia’s Northern ecosystems and communities.

A major challenge that the Griffith teams will tackle is how much water can be extracted without negative impacts on the unique ecological, social and cultural values around the Gulf of Carpentaria. If water extraction does impact downstream values, it would be helpful for planning to know how large the impacts will be.

Dr Jim Smart will lead a project to develop a way to keep the books balanced on the values ecosystems provide. His team will work on ‘environmental-economic accounting’ for natural ecosystems.

“Environmental-economic accounting is very much like normal accounting, but the accountant is keeping track of the condition of natural ecosystems and the value of the services they provide to people,” Dr Smart said.

“An important challenge will be finding ways to account for interconnections between natural assets in the landscape.

“For example, water can provide multiple benefits as it flows through the landscape, like stimulating fish migrations and carrying food from the land to the estuaries. The value of all of these benefits should be recognised in environmental-economic accounts.”

Professor Sue Jackson will also consider how cultural values of local communities, which are typically not measured in dollars, can be included in the accounting.

­­Professor Michele Burford will lead a project on the importance of freshwater flows for critically endangered migratory shorebirds.

“The Gulf of Carpentaria has one of the most important sites for migratory shorebirds in Australia,” Professor Burford said. “Unfortunately, numbers of these birds are declining because of habitat loss in Asia.

“A number of species visiting the coastal mudflats of the Gulf are now endangered or critically endangered.

“Birds rely on the food growing in estuaries and coastal mudflats to fatten up before they migrate. However, this food supply, which is small animals living in the mud, rely on nutrients brought into the estuaries via the wet season flows.

“It may be that reducing that wet season flow by water extraction will reduce the amount of food available for these animals, meaning that they will be under even more pressure to survive.

“So our research aims to determine how changes in flow may impact on how productive the estuaries are with flow-on effects for shorebirds.

Professor Stuart Bunn received funding to continue a project that is examining how inundation of floodplains during the wet season can be a critical period of foraging for wildlife such as native fish.

Dr Mark Kennard will lead a project to synthesise existing environmental flow research in northern Australia to better inform water planning in the region.

“Much research has been conducted on ecological responses to changes in river flows but it is often limited to particular catchments and over relevantly short time scales,” Dr Kennard said.

“This project will identify constraints and opportunities for transferring this flow-ecology knowledge to new areas and different time scales.

“This will help decision-makers make the best use of available knowledge and is critical for robust, defensible and sustainable water planning in northern Australia.”