Limits to Adaptation project: Macquarie marshes

View the project description and the final report or a two-page summary of key findings.

Lead organisation: University of New South Wales

Principal investigator: Professor Richard Kingsford

Project summary

Wetlands are  vulnerable to climate change through changes to climatic patterns and increased evaporation. The  Macquarie Marshes is one of Australia’s most significant wetlands; a protected area recognised as a  wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. It is also already threatened by water resource development; the Australian Government has officially acknowledged to the Ramsar Bureau that its ecological character is likely to have changed. This project will determine what opportunities and limits exist for adaptation to climate change in the Macquarie Marshes in ecological and socioeconomic dimensions.

We will examine the tradeoff between adaptation strategies (i.e. environmental flows or dam re-operation) and implications for other users (i.e. town supply, irrigators, graziers). First, there will be a desktop review of climate change and other risk factors that may affect adaptation options for the wetland, using the WISE (Water Information System for the Environment) database and available literature databases. This will be followed by compilation of potential responses and tradeoffs between environmental and socio-economic factors in the Marshes, developed as conceptual models to be tested during workshops. We will use our extensive network of experts and stakeholders, to identify and review impacts, risks and limits to adaptation.

We will identify potential ecological and socio-economic response thresholds to changes in temperature, water regime (flood frequency, duration, magnitude and extent, variability), connectivity and water quality. We will use available hydrological and climate models to investigate ecological and socio-economic responses to climate change and likely consequences for ecosystem dependent organisms and processes as well as socio-economic impacts. In our final report we will identify substituting or ameliorating policy measures, prioritise adaptation strategies and clearly identify tradeoffs to adaptation strategies for users of Macquarie water.


Our project will draw on a comprehensive literature review (using WISE), expert/stakeholder workshops, available hydrological and climate models, and ecological and socio-economic databases developed by the organisations collaborating for this proposal (UNSW, CSIRO and Sydney University). This would result in a significant report for Work Package 4: the Macquarie Marshes. Our objectives are to:

• Identify the likely risks, impacts of climate change, adaptation strategies and limits for the ecological and social communities of the Macquarie Marshes through a comprehensive literature review. The ecological community will include waterbirds, vegetation, fish, invertebrates, carbon cycling, woodland birds and frogs. The socio-economic dimension will identify wetland values (ecosystem goods and services), indigenous values, grazing, irrigation and recreation. Adaptation strategies include; migration, environmental flow allocations, water savings, restoration of deep pools, protection of core refugia, dam re-operation and options to store extra water for low flows. Adaptation limits include; ecological, physical, economic, technological and social dimensions which will be estimated based on the adaptation strategies.

• Analyse tradeoffs between adaptation strategies (e.g. dam re-operation) and the benefits-costs to other users (e.g. implications for crops of a shift in season of high flows).

• Develop a conceptual model of climate change risks, impacts, adaptation strategies and limits based on literature review and expert knowledge.

• Review and test the conceptual models and the climate risks that can be addressed via targeted workshops and interviews with experts and stakeholders. The focus will be on discussing tradeoffs to adaptation strategies among various stakeholder groups.

• Review the impacts of climate change using current models on flow and temperature generated by the CSIRO Sustainable Yields study for the Macquarie Marshes.

• Investigate potential impacts of altered inundation patterns due to climate change (2 and 4oC above pre-industrial levels, rainfall changes) on the ecology and socio-economic values of the Macquarie Marshes using UNSW’s Integrated Flow and Flooding Model.

• Use the framework provided by cost-benefit analysis to undertake an economic valuation of the impacts of climate change and adaptation strategies on the ecosystem goods and services comprising the ecological and socio-economic communities.

• Review effects of adaptation strategies (identified in early objectives) on the ecological and social aspects of the Macquarie Marshes.

• Synthesise findings on the impacts of climate change, the limits to adaptation and tradeoffs among users of water for the Macquarie Marshes and demonstrate potential relevance to other floodplain wetlands.

• Evaluate project outcomes via review of draft report, presentations and interviews with experts and stakeholders.

• Develop a final report that documents the approach and findings of this study.