Tucked away in the north-west of New South Wales lies the Toorale National Park and State Conservation Area, a culturally and ecologically significant site. At the confluence of two ecologically significant rivers for the Murray Darling Basin, the Warrego and the Darling Rivers, the Toorale National Park and State Conservation Area were jointly purchased by the Commonwealth and the NSW governments in 2008 to improve environmental outcomes for water, wildlife and plants in the region.

The region is home to a range of diverse native species such as threatened fishes – Silver perch, Murray cod, Olive perchlet and Purple spotted-gudgeon – and other species, including the Golden Perch, Spangled Perch, Australian Rainbowfish and Bony Herring. The region is also culturally significant for the Kurnu-Baakandji nations who have lived in the area for tens of thousands of years. Cultural surveys on Toorale have found artefacts dating back to over 52,000 years, and older artefacts where carbon dating techniques couldn’t be used to accurately age them.

Despite this, for the last 130 years, the riverine and floodplain ecosystems on Toorale have been altered by agricultural and water infrastructure, such as the Boera and Homestead Dams. These historical dams provided refuge for fish when the Warrego stopped flowing, but have impeded fish migration.

Panorama of the western floodplains. Source: Michael van Ewijk, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.

The Toorale Water Infrastructure Project, led by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment (DPE) and funded by the Commonwealth government, has been working for the last five years to repurpose the water infrastructure to support environmental flows and fish migration. Recently, the project’s team has worked to implement two fishways in the Warrego River at the Homestead and Boera Dams to improve native fish migration upstream and downstream into the Darling River. The Homestead Dam sits near the confluence of the Warrego and Darling Rivers and is an important ecological site for migrating fish.

Water flowing over the Homestead Dam fishway. Source: Matthew Gordos, NSW DPI, Fisheries.

The fishway at Homestead Dam is unique, incorporating important considerations of the local culture and aesthetics of the landscape, as well as the needs of the species that will be using the fishway. The design purposefully uses natural rock colouring to blend into the natural landscape over time. It will support fish migration of the range of fish species expected to occur. The outer layers of the rock formations, or ‘baffles’, will support fish that require calmer, slower waters, like the Olive perchlet, whilst the deep middle channel will help larger fish migrate, such as the iconic Murray cod.

DPE Environment and Heritage worked collaboratively on the design of the fishway with the Toorale Aboriginal Joint Management Committee. The input and collaboration around the design was important for both the project and the Traditional Owners due to the cultural significance of Toorale and particularly Homestead Dam. Homestead Dam is an important site for the Kurnu-Baakandji, and it was important for everyone involved to ensure the fishway design reflected these values and views.

All the baffles finally installed at the Homestead fishway after five years of work. Source: Kelvyn Tan, NSW Public Works Advisory.

With construction of the Homestead dam fishway completed in March this year, it’s exciting to see native juvenile fish are already using the fishway, following significant rainfall in the area. Formal monitoring is yet to start, however, the image below was taken by the construction team during the first flow event since the fishway was put in.

Juvenile fish travelling upstream through the Homestead fishway shortly after flow passed through the fishway for the first time. Source: Pensar Construction.

The Boera Fishway is scheduled to be completed in late May this year, and we are hopeful to see what kind of benefits both fishways will bring to fish migration for the Warrego-Darling rivers.

With World Fish Migration Day approaching this month (May 21st), it’s exciting to see native fish and their migration at the forefront of environmental projects, as well as long-term considerations of the water and fishway infrastructure’s local ecological, cultural and aesthetic impact.

For more information on the project:

Main photo: Toorale National Park in north-west NSW in February 2022. Source: Derek Rutherford, Department of Planning and Environment, Water for the Environment.

Subscribe now for quarterly updates on Finterest articles