The puzzle of blue-green algae

The current blue green algae bloom affecting hundreds of kilometres of the Murray River system has scientists, including Institute researchers, and water managers searching for answers.



Blue green algae bloom in the Upper Wakool River, March 7. Pic R. Watts

The massive bloom has been caused by excessive growth of chrysosporum ovalisporum, a species of naturally occurring cyanobacteria.

“This is the first time, that we know of, that this particular species has been the dominant species in an algal bloom in the Murray River system,” says Professor Robyn Watts. “As it is a species that responds to high water temperatures, in the light of climate change, is it a sign of things to come? What environmental factors have influenced this bloom?”

To better answer these questions, and understand the environmental factors that have led to and have maintained the bloom, Robyn and the team of Institute scientists are undertaking weekly sampling in addition to the current 5 year project examining ecosystem responses to Commonwealth watering in the Edward-Wakool River System.

“The Commonwealth Environment Water Office (CEWO) has seen the opportunity to learn from this event,” says Robyn. “The information we are getting will increase knowledge about this species of cyanobacteria and inform decisions about water delivery in the future”.

As well as being useful for future water management decisions, the information the team is collecting is also contributing to the day-to-day decisions currently being made by water managers.


Red Scum from the blue green algae bloom. Upper Wakool River, March 14. Pic R. Watts

The information has been shared with the Murray Regional Algal Coordinating Committee, the Murray Dissolved Oxygen Group (of which Robyn is a member), Murray Irrigation Limited, the Murray Darling Basin Authority and other agencies involved in water delivery.

The bloom was first reported upstream of the Edward-Wakool River System in late January/early February around Lake Hume and Lake Mulwala with Red Alerts issued by the Murray Regional Algal Coordinating Committee in mid-February. The researchers began their weekly monitoring on March 1 and will continue until the bloom subsides. The blue-green algae first appeared in the upper part of the system and within a few weeks it was throughout the whole system.

“We have data loggers that are in the water that continuously record water temperature and dissolved oxygen concentrations and we increased sampling for nutrients and carbon from monthly to weekly sampling at 14 sites in Yallakool and Colligen Creeks, and the Niemur and Wakool River,” explains Robyn. “We will examine the relationships between temperature, nutrients, carbon, chlorophyll and blue-green algae counts. Team member Dr Julia Howitt, an environmental chemist, is analysing the effect of the bloom on the carbon signature of the water.


Water samples of blue green algae. Pic R.Watts

“This is the first time this kind of study has been done in the Edward-Wakool River system.”

Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) can produce toxins that affect the liver, nerves and skin.

“There is limited information on this species of cyanobacteria” says Robyn. “It is not known what temperatures this species will start to break up at; what is linked to its onset; its breakdown …they are the kind of questions we are looking for answers to.

“One of the concerns (other than the risks to human and stock health) is what will happen to the river ecosystem when the bloom breaks up. If the bloom were to break up very quickly there is the potential for a rapid reduction in dissolved oxygen which could lead to fish and other organism deaths. The bloom has impacted on the oxygen levels in the system but we haven’t seen any fish kills at this stage.
“The warm weather we had earlier in the year facilitated its growth. The water temperature at some sites in the Edward-Wakool system was very high, between 28 and 30 °C, in early March.”


PhD Student Xioying (Sha Sha) Lui in the mid-Wakool River testing water quality. Pic R. Watts

Robyn and her team are producing weekly updates for CEWO and Robyn made a presentation to the Wakool River Association on March 14.

“The Edward-Wakool River System is a fantastic natural laboratory where we can answer a range of questions about ecosystem responses to flows,” says Robyn.

“The system has multiple rivers running parallel to each other but have the same source water (from Stevens Weir on the Edward River) but different discharges, so we are able to get a better understanding of how flow and other parameters influence the development and break-up of the bloom. It makes for very interesting science.”

Livestock Researchers learn Social Research in Timor

By Dr Joanne Millar

Livestock researchers and veterinary workers get to grips with social research in West Timor

Course participants, facilitators and farmers in West Timor.

Course participants, facilitators and farmers in West Timor.

‘Learning by doing’ is the catch cry term often applied to farmer learning- but it also the best way for research and extension staff to learn social research methods so they can improve their work with farmers. An enthusiastic group of 28 livestock researchers and veterinary practitioners from West Timor in Indonesia participated in a four day ‘learning by doing’ training course from 12-15 October 2015 in Kupan.  The course was facilitated by social scientists, Dr Joanne Millar from Charles Sturt University, NSW and Dr Muktasam Abdurrahman from Mataram University, Indonesia.

Read more of this post

What makes a very busy researcher decide to add more to their already full plate and write a book?


From Left: Bruce Pennay, Rosemary Black, Bill Anscombe, Manohar Pawar, Max Finlayson

At the recent ILWS book launch held at the Albury-Wodonga campus on October 29th,  we celebrated the publication of 7 books by our researchers in the last year.  We hosted a panel discussion with five of the authors and posed this question to them: “What makes a very busy researcher decide to add more to their already full plate and write a book?”

Each researcher had different motivations and different challenges but perhaps you will find inspiration in their stories to write the book you have inside you.

Read more of this post

Advocating for the natural world

Professor Kath Bowmer

Professor Kath Bowmer

by Institute Advisory Board member Prof Kathleen Bowmer

Now I’ve finally retired from the academic and scientific rat-race I have the luxury of reflecting on a career of over forty years in natural resource management. It’s been a roller-coaster ride to maintain the energy and credibility needed to support my region and its communities in water science and policy. Fortunately several colleagues, particularly Geoff Syme and Blair Nancarrow, provided early grounding in socio-economic disciplines to add to my background in biophysical sciences; and chairing a river management committee over five years ensured some close encounters with a diversity of stakeholders. Read more of this post

Healthy Rivers – healthy economies

Report back from the 18th International RiverSymposium: Healthy Rivers – healthy economies

Jess Schoeman, ILWS PhD Candidate

Jess Schoeman, ILWS PhD Candidate

Author : Jess Schoeman

Charles Vorosmarty succinctly expressed the essence of river management during his keynote address: “connectivity is the name of the game”. This year, the RiverSymposium sought to explore the connection between healthy rivers and healthy economies as an overarching theme.

The central role of rivers in the rise of human civilisations is deeply etched in our history books, yet we’ve generally followed a pattern of ‘wreck and repair’ in river management. Economic development has occurred at the expense of the environment, and restoring degraded rivers has been costly and difficult.

Many speakers at the Conference highlighted how ecosystem functions and services provided by rivers are often taken for granted and unvalued or undervalued in our economic systems. Only when environmental degradation reaches a crisis point, are we forced to invest in river restoration. Read more of this post

Developing an Australian Vision for Water?

ARDC-Max FinlaysonProfessor Max Finlayson was a keynote speaker at the Australian Regional Development Conference held at the Albury Commercial Club on 26 – 28 August 2015.  Here is a short summary of his presentation.

Developing a vision for water entails the establishment of a common view about the future of our landscape, communities and economic activities, and the role that water plays in our lives. Water is critical for human wellbeing and forms important ecosystems that support a diverse array of life. I am confident that most of us believe in having a healthy riverine environment, but do we mean the same thing when we say this? I am pretty sure that we do not – once we get to the details and these entail change or threaten our very livelihood and worldview I am sure we will see very large differences of opinion.

Read more of this post

PhD course of Systems Thinking

Cybersystemic Possibilities for Governing the Anthropocene within the 59th Meeting of the International Society for System Sciences (ISSS) in Berlin, 2015

Author Luisa Perez-Mujica, ILWS PhD Candidate

Workshop in Hanover at the Herrenhausen Castle

Workshop in Hanover at the Herrenhausen Castle

I was very fortunate to be accepted in the PhD course on Systems Thinking and Practice in PhD Research “Cybersystemic Possibilities for Governing the Anthropocene”. This course was organized within the 59th Meeting of the International Society for System Sciences (ISSS) in Germany for which a series of events have been organized. The ISSS is devoted to interdisciplinary inquiry into the nature of complex systems and this year, during its 59th Meeting the topic of discussion was “Governing the Anthropocene: the greatest challenge of systems thinking in practice?” The overarching idea is to discuss in a transdisciplinary manner the issues, opportunities and approaches to address the influences of humans in the environment as well as other social issues and systems within this new epoch in planetary history, the Anthropocene.

Read more of this post

Sturt's Notebook

Research, opinion and news from graduate students at the School of Environmental Science, Charles Sturt University

River Ecology and Research

Understanding how rivers function

Ian Lunt Ecology

Science and Nature Writing