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In May 2003 the Native Fish Strategy for the Murray-Darling Basin was adopted. At the time it was estimated that native fish populations across the Basin had declined to just 10% of the level they were at when Europeans arrived in Australia. The Native Fish Strategy indicated that this decline in native fish populations had come about due to a range of threats including (but not limited to) declining water quality, lack of flows, introduced plants and animals and the impacts of weirs, dams and other structures. It prescribed a ‘cocktail’ of actions needed to see native fish populations returned to 60% of their pre-European number over the following 50 years.

The Native Fish Strategy places great emphasis on promoting community education, awareness raising and engagement so that the threats to river health can be addressed by a broader community effort; not simply by government agencies and departments.

One of the concepts encouraged through the Native Fish Strategy is that of ‘demonstration reaches’; stretches of river where actions taken in a coordinated way show the ecosystem progressively rehabilitated to support the return of native fish and with them the range of other wildlife and community assets.

Sustaining River Life came about through collaboration between three Murray-Darling Basin river reach projects: the Namoi and Upper Murrumbidgee Demonstration Reach projects and the Macquarie RiverSmart initiative involving RiverSmart Australia and the Central West Catchment Management Authority. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority, through its Native Fish Strategy, then supported the initiative to make it Basin-wide.

Sustaining River Life is not a course of study, but aimed at developing a collection of good learning activities that can be used in both outdoor and classroom settings and tie into various content areas.

Sustaining River Life is concerned first and foremost with providing information as well as helping students evaluate choices and make responsible decisions. In short, Sustaining River Life is aimed at students learning how to think rather than what to think.

The publication of this guide is not the end of the process. It has been made available in hard copy, on CD and via the Internet and we hope that as more becomes known about river management so will this curriculum and activity guide continue to evolve. We are very keen to get feedback from those who apply the lesson ideas included in Sustaining River Life so we can fine tune them or if necessary rewrite or add to them to give better results.

Conceptual diagram of a typical Demonstration Reach
Conceptual diagram of a typical Demonstration Reach

What is a Demonstration Reach?
The purpose of a Demonstration Reach is to show, by example, how the rehabilitation of a stretch of river, and associated floodplain, can be achieved by a suite of well-integrated actions.

The successful rehabilitation of a river reach under this concept is also designed to enhance community awareness and through this to build support and involvement in management, thereby providing models which can be used by communities elsewhere across the Murray-Darling Basin. A conceptual diagram of a Demonstration Reach is shown above.

A fundamental premise of a Demonstration Reach is therefore enhancing community awareness and support. A wide range of individuals and community groups are expected to be involved. Engagement of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members is considered vital to success. These individuals or groups who get involved may have an interest in a Demonstration Reach (for example, fishing, educational, environmental) or a right (for example, property or custodial) linked to the river.

A Demonstration Reach needs a considered approach to engaging with this variety of individuals and groups and needs to take account of the different ways in which individuals and groups receive, respond to and can contribute to planning and management processes.

In summary, a Demonstration Reach is a river rehabilitation project aimed at integrating as many available techniques and tools to improve a stretch of degraded waterway in a way that:

1. makes it a better place for native fish and other plants and animals to live;
2. involves and works with the local community; and,
3. uses scientific and community-based monitoring to measure and showcase just how effective integrated river rehabilitation can be.
A detailed long-term plan for the Demonstration Reach is developed along with on-ground activities and these are refined as experiences (and monitoring) show successes and new challenges.

A Demonstration Reach provides a coordinated attempt to concurrently address the major fish community and environmental degradation issues of an individual stretch of river. Among the actions commonly taken are the following:

>Improvements to environmental flows;
>Revegetation of river bank and floodplain areas;
>Construction of fishways and the removal of other barriers to fish migration;
>Alleviation of cold-water pollution below large dams;
>Diversions and control of saline water;
>Re-snagging; and
>Control of introduced species such as carp.

Current river rehabilitation programs are spread thinly and often only address one or a few of the problems. Studies have shown that the full range of factors preventing native fish community recovery in an area must be addressed for substantial rehabilitation to succeed. For example, there is little value in providing environmental flows if cold-water pollution prevents native fish from breeding, growing and migrating. Carp control will be of limited value if dams and weirs continue to prevent native fish from recolonising habitats. Furthermore, the scale of the interventions must be appropriate. Fish communities respond over large geographical and time scales.

What it comes down to is Sustaining River Life, in all its forms.

How to use the Sustaining River Life Curriculum and Activities Guide
Sustaining River Life has been designed to be an instructional resource for educators who care about natural resources and the environment - beginning with the recognition that healthy waterways are vital to both people and wildlife.

Supporting academic concepts required in the classroom
The activities found in Sustaining River Life are intended for use in field settings however, classroom adaptations have been included for most lesson outlines.

The instructional materials are designed to support the academic standards appropriate for years K-12 in the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia. Each activity is cross-referenced to the Essential Learning Achievements, Key Learning Areas or whatever similar terminologies are used in the respective States or the ACT.

The activities are easily adaptable to meet the learning requirements for academic disciplines ranging from science, social studies, technology, the arts, english and mathematics, as well as having a strong focus on interdisciplinary achievements.

Educators may choose one or numerous Sustaining River Life activities to teach a concept or a skill. The activities may be integrated into existing courses of study, or the entire set of activities may serve as the basis for a specific course.

Lesson plan structures
Each lesson provides both a primary and secondary pathway. While the lessons are designed to be held in a field setting at the educator’s local river, stream or wetland, in-classroom adaptations have also been provided. The package contains re-enforcing activities appropriate for seatwork or homework.

Enjoying river life. Photograph: Bill Phillips