Coorong scientific research project crosses halfway mark

Five teams of researchers, brought together through the Goyder Institute, have been conducting extensive investigations about the Coorong ecosystem that are critical to efforts to restore this iconic wetland. The research project is due to be completed in June 2022.

The Healthy Coorong Healthy Basin (HCHB) program is a $77.78 million initiative of the Australian and South Australian governments. The HCHB aims to support the long-term health of the Coorong by providing evidence-based solutions to both immediate threats and future conditions anticipated under a changing climate. The Goyder Institute has a major role in delivering the Scientific Trials and Investigations Project which will provide the evidence-base for more efficient and effective use of water to protect the ecological character of the Coorong and will inform the development of long-term management solutions.

In collaboration with its research partners and the Department for Environment and Water (DEW), the Goyder Institute is delivering five components of the science program. The researchers are engaging with other components of the Scientific Trials and Investigations Project, such as science integration and citizen science – for example, a number of scientists participated in the DEW-led Coorong Bioblitz event on 22 May 2021. The research is also supporting other HCHB projects (such as On Ground Works and the Coorong Infrastructure Investigations Project). 

Initial project outputs are available here and some of the highlights of the work completed to-date are listed below:

Component 1: Understanding Coorong nutrient dynamics (DEW webpage) :
[Improving our knowledge on nutrient cycling, how to maximise nutrient turnover into productive elements such as plants, invertebrates, fish and birds and incorporating knowledge into a management response strategy]

  • Detailed water quality and nutrient source (e.g. sediments) and process measurements have been undertaken since February 2020 during four seasonal field trips involving over 14 researchers from 7 research organisations, and specialist laboratory analyses (e.g. strontium isotopes). It has found:
    • The bulk sediment is in poor health (high in organic carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and anoxic/sulfidic, no benthic macroinvertebrates) in the South Lagoon and southern region of the North Lagoon.
    • There are approximately 50 times more nutrients in the top 5 cm of sediment compared to the whole water column in the Coorong Lagoon.
    • There is evidence of improved sediment quality and nutrient cycling where the aquatic plant Ruppia is present in the South Lagoon, and where macroinvertebrates are present in the North Lagoon.
  • The findings are reducing key uncertainties on sources and transport so that the Coorong biogeochemical model being developed in the science integration component can be used to more confidently assess scenarios to achieve a “regime shift” back towards an aquatic plant dominated ecosystem, rather than the current algal dominated ecosystem.

Component 2: Restoring aquatic plants and removing algal blooms (DEW webpage):
[Undertaking research and trials to shift the system from being dominated by algae to being dominated by aquatic plants]

  • Two large-scale surveys (October 2020 and March 2021) at roughly 100 sites throughout the central and southern Coorong have been undertaken to evaluate the distribution and abundance of the Ruppia aquatic plant community.
  • More detailed sampling of six selected sites has been undertaken to generate a data set for use in modelling of a Ruppia Habitat Suitability Index (HSI) which will improve estimates of the suitability of habitat for the growth of the Ruppia community across the Coorong.
  • There was no significant algal bloom in the 2020-21 season in the Coorong as observed in previous years, likely due to La Niña conditions, higher-than-average water levels and a lower mean summer temperature. Therefore, investigations and experiments relating to the factors affecting growth of filamentous algae will be conducted in-situ in the coming season (approximately July 2021 -January 2022), in addition to ex-situ (laboratory) experiments associated with modelling and restoration.

Component 3: Restoring a functioning Coorong foodweb (DEW webpage):
[Developing an integrated, quantitative food web model for the Coorong that can assess food web responses to various conditions based on investigations of the food resources and conditions required to increase food resource availability and energy supply for key biota (waterbirds and fish)]

  • Field surveys to sample fish, macroinvertebrates, and zooplankton have been conducted throughout the Coorong in the South Lagoon, North Lagoon and Murray Estuary. Surveys commenced in February/March 2020, and were conducted once per season for fish and zooplankton, and monthly for macroinvertebrates to assess annual productivity. Samples were analysed for diversity, abundance, distribution and biomass, and energy content was measured with a calorimeter. The survey showed:
    • ­Salinity levels in the Coorong South Lagoon remain above the tolerance levels of most of the Coorong macroinvertebrate community, and this is reflected in the low number of macroinvertebrate species currently present in the South Lagoon.
    • Only one fish species, the smallmouth hardyhead, is currently present in the South Lagoon, and salinity levels are approaching its upper tolerance levels.
    • Data on the diet composition of key biota in the Coorong has been collated and identified data gaps filled through additional measurements. This information is being used to develop an integrated quantitative food web model for the Coorong ecosystem.

Component 4: Improving habitat for waterbirds (DEW webpage):
[Protecting and increasing waterbird populations by creating nurseries for aquatic plants within the South Lagoon and increasing habitat and food resources in the broader landscape]

  • In order to make quantitative predictions of the response of key waterbird species under different management scenarios in the Coorong South Lagoon, the project has been developing habitat suitability models based on the hydrological variables (water level and salinity) and these that will be made available for the main HCHB Coorong Infrastructure Investigations Project.
  • The research team are looking to extend this modelling approach to four priority wetlands (Tolderol, Teringie, Waltowa, Lake Hawdon North) that form part of the broader landscape that supports the waterbird populations of the Coorong.
  • Detailed information is being collected on habitat quality of the Coorong for the waterbird assemblage it supports. A global review of waterbird habitat quality metrics has been completed and two field trips have been undertaken at 8 sites (waterbird surveys, camera traps, benthic sampling, behavioural observations, body condition scoring) followed by processing and interpretation of information collected.
  • An extensive bird-tracking program has been initiated using GPS tracking to collect information about the spatial ecology of key migratory and non-migratory waterbird species including sharp-tailed sandpipers, red-necked avocets, and pelicans.

Component 6: Climate change adaptation (DEW webpage):
[Undertaking a climate change vulnerability assessment of the Coorong and implementing climate adaptation activities for the region]

  • There are four project phases taking place over a two-year period which are designed to build the understanding and capacity of decision makers and other stakeholders, and the first of these phases, context setting, is now complete.
  • This phase has synthesised the long history of environmental and social changes in the Coorong, reviewed anticipated long-term environmental and ecological impacts of climate change, clarified the range of current management and research activities, and how they can be expected to lead to behavioural and physical changes that contribute to the current objectives for the Coorong (using ‘Theory of Change’), and explored the sensitivity of current activities and objectives to climate change.

For more information, contact the Goyder HCHB Research Program Manager, Dr Alec Rolston.

This project is part of the South Australian Government’s Healthy Coorong, Healthy Basin Program, which is jointly funded by the Australian and South Australian governments.

Tags: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Coorong Lower Lakes & Murray Mouth SA Department for Environment and Water (DEW) Environmental Water Fleurieu Peninsula SA Flinders University Goyder Institute News Healthy Ecosystems Murray River Murray-Darling Basin Ramsar Convention South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) University of Adelaide University of South Australia Wetlands

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Chris Wright

Manager Water Science, DEW

Chris Wright holds significant experience in public sector senior leadership, having led policy, scientific and operational business units over the last twelve years in both State and Commonwealth government agencies. Chris has excellent experiences in leading policy and strategy formulation. He is skilled in building and maintaining networks across the public and private sectors to facilitate business delivery; leading and negotiating with others to achieve outcomes; and in bridging the science-policy gap, drawing on earlier roles in geospatial information systems (GIS) consulting. Chris’s formal qualifications include a Bachelor of Social Science, a Masters of Spatial Information Science and graduation from the AICD Company Directors course in 2019.

Dr Ilka Wallis

Senior Lecturer, Flinders University

Dr Ilka Wallis is a hydrogeologist with areas of expertise in quantitative hydrogeology and geochemistry. Ilka focuses on the development of reactive geochemical transport models which integrate fundamental processes that are normally studied in isolation (hydrogeological, mineralogical, geochemical and biochemical).

Ilka is also an Adjunct Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Manitoba, Canada since 2017.

Peter Goonan

Environmental Science Branch, EPA

Peter Goonan is the Principal Aquatic Biologist in the Environmental Science Branch of the EPA. He has over 30 years’ experience monitoring the condition of aquatic ecosystems in SA and assessing the environmental effects caused by discharges, deposits and contaminants entering inland and coastal waters. He specialises in aquatic invertebrate identification and their responses to contaminants and water quality stressors. He also provides expert professional advice relating to water quality risks, regulation, policy, and strategic directions, and represents the EPA as an expert witness in court.

Dr Paul Monis

Manager, Research Stakeholders and Planning, SA Water

Dr Paul Monis is a technical expert within SA Water’s Business Services group, which provides scientific expertise to support the delivery of water and wastewater services to SA Water’s customers. He has specialist expertise in the areas of biotechnology and microbiology, with almost 20 years’ experience applying DNA-based and other technologies to address water quality challenges posed by microorganisms, especially enteric pathogens. Dr Monis also holds title of Adjunct Associate Professor at Flinders University, the University of Adelaide and UniSA.

Jennie Fluin

Principal Advisor Research Partnerships, DEW

Jennie’s role in the Department for Environment and Water (DEW) allows her to foster and strengthen opportunities for researchers to better connect with government to enable evidence-based decision making. Jennie has extensive experience working in both universities and government, allowing her to bridge the divide between the two sectors. She is focused on connecting natural resource researchers with natural resource decision makers, and facilitating fit for purpose partnerships.

Dr Tanya Doody

Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO

Dr Tanya Doody is a Principal Research Scientist working on high impact spatial eco-hydrological projects within CSIRO’s Land and Water Business Unit. Dr Doody leads the Managing Water Ecosystems Group, based in Adelaide, Albury and Canberra and has significant experience in quantifying the water requirements of vegetation and at times, their impact on water resources. This involves ecophysiological field-based research to underpin remote sensing tools to scale regionally to improve our understanding of the effect of flood regimes on the health of water-dependent ecosystems on the Murray-Darling Basin floodplains. Additional research includes investigating the ecological response of vegetation to water availability and environmental water to inform integrated basin water planning and management.

Professor Lin Crase

Dean of Programs (Accounting & Finance), UniSA

Professor Lin Crase is Professor of Economics and Dean of Programs (Accounting & Finance) at UniSA. He joined UniSA in February 2016 as Head of School of Commerce. Prior to commencing at UniSA, Lin was Professor and Director of the Centre for Water Policy and Management at La Trobe University.

Lin’s research has focused on applied economics in the context of water. He has analysed water markets and the property rights that attend them, water pricing and numerous applications of water policy. Whilst his expertise includes the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia, he has also worked on projects in south Asia, Japan and Europe. Lin has published over 100 journal articles, numerous book chapters, four books and a range of other papers and opinion pieces.

Professor Justin Brookes

Director, Water Research Centre, University of Adelaide

Justin has broad research interests in limnology and water treatment with a primary focus on coupling between hydrodynamics, biology and water quality contaminants such as cyanobacteria and pathogens. He is a founding member of the management committee of the IWA Specialist Group on Lake and Reservoir Management and member of the Steering Committee for the Global Lakes Ecological Observatory Network.

Justin has a PhD and a Bachelor of Science degree with Honours from the University of Adelaide.

Daniel Flaherty


Daniel Flaherty is the Accountant for the Goyder Institute for Water Research.

Daniel has extensive experience in higher education having worked in senior financial management roles at the University of South Australia, Flinders University and the University of Adelaide over the past 26 years. Daniel has also been a Board Director on a number of university related entities. Prior to that, Daniel has worked in a range of agencies in the Commonwealth and State Governments.

Daniel is a Fellow of CPA Australia and has a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Adelaide.

Dr Alec Rolston

Interim Director

Alec Rolston joined the Institute in 2021 as Research Program Manager of the Goyder Institute’s research projects in the Healthy Coorong, Healthy Basin program. He has extensive experience in integrated water resource management, integrated catchment management, drinking water source protection and wetland ecology, conservation and management across Europe and Australia.

Alec holds a PhD from the National University of Ireland Maynooth and has worked with An Fóram Uisce|The Water Forum and the Dundalk Institute of Technology in Ireland as well as the MANTEL Innovative Training Network across Europe.

Alec spent his early career in Adelaide working with Flinders University through the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth (CLLAMM) Ecology Research Cluster and within the Department for Environment and Water.

Daniel Pierce

Research and Development Officer

Daniel Pierce has managed research projects at the Goyder Institute for Water Research since November 2017 under both the second and third terms of the Institute.

Daniel brings experience in project management and knowledge transfer and application from 4 years working as a Senior Hydrogeologist in the Department for Environment and Water (DEW) in South Australia and from 13 years of private sector work in environmental management, science and engineering in Australia and the South Pacific. His work with DEW has included providing technical advice to the development and revision of Water Allocation Plans around South Australia in collaboration with researchers and policy makers, and managing a team of groundwater modellers and hydrogeologists involved in an assortment of water resource management issues.

Daniel has a Bachelor of Engineering (Hons, Environmental) and a Bachelor of Science (Geography) from the University of Western Australia.

Professor Enzo Lombi

Dean of Research, UniSA STEM

Professor Lombi’s main contributions to environmental research cover various aspects of contaminant risk assessment, biogeochemistry, ecotoxicology and waste management. Furthermore, the methodological development he has pursued in his research has provided the basis for collaborative efforts in a variety of research areas ranging from soil fertility and plant physiology to human health issues related to contaminant uptake via occupational exposure and diet. In the last few years he has been increasingly focusing on the transformation and toxicity of manufactured nanomaterials in the environment.

Dr Carmel Pollino

Research Director Land and Water, CSIRO

Dr Carmel Pollino is a Research Director for Land and Water at CSIRO. She has 20 years of experience working on water issues in Australia and throughout Asia. Carmel has degrees in science and environmental law and works across the science and policy interface. Significant areas of research in Environmental Flows, Hydrology, Ecology and Integrated River Basin Planning. Carmel is the lead and also a contributor to global working groups on water and has published widely in this domain.

Professor Bronwyn Gillanders

Head of School of Biological Sciences, The University of Adelaide

Professor Bronwyn Gillanders is interim Head of School of Biological Sciences at the University of Adelaide. Prof Gillanders completed her BSc at the University of Canterbury, MSc at the University of Otago and her PhD at the University of Sydney. She has a research background in environmental science focused predominantly on freshwater and marine ecology.

Her research interests include integrated marine management; coastal carbon opportunities; multiple use activities and cumulative impact assessment; biology, ecology and fisheries of cephalopods; stocking and provenance of fish; plastics in the marine environment including in seafood; use of fish bones (and other calcified structures) for assessing ecological and environmental change. She has trained and mentored ~70 Honours and Higher Degree Research students and shaped the future of 1000s of students through her undergraduate teaching. She is passionate about encouraging capable women to enter and remain in science careers.

Dan Jordan

Director, Water Security, Policy and Planning, Department for Environment and Water (DEW)

Dan Jordan is the Director, Water Security, Policy and Planning, Department for Environment and Water (DEW). Dan is also the Basin Officials Committee Alternate Member for South Australia.

Professor Okke Batelaan

Dean, School of the Environment, Flinders University

Professor Okke Batelaan is a graduate of the Free University of Amsterdam, Netherlands (MSc – Hydrogeology) and of the Free University Brussels, Belgium (PhD – Engineering). He worked for more than 20 years at the Free University Brussels and also led the hydrogeology group at the KU Leuven, Belgium since 2006. He was chairman of the Interuniversity Programme in Water Resources Engineering.

Since 2012 Okke Batelaan is Strategic Professor in Hydrogeology and currently Dean of the School of the Environment, Flinders University. Okke has broad experience in teaching groundwater hydrology, groundwater modelling, GIS and remote sensing for hydrological applications. He was supervisor of more than 140 MSc and 25 PhD students. He has extensive research experience and a publication record in shallow groundwater hydrology and modeling, recharge-discharge estimation and modeling, urban hydrology and distributed modelling, ecohydrology and impacts of land use and climate change on groundwater systems. He coordinated and participated in a large number of projects in Europe, Africa, South America, Asia and Australia. He is editor-in-chief of Journal of Hydrology: Regional Studies and of MDPI-Hydrology.