Ecology and Society

Macquarie Marshes – Ecology & Society

Celine Steinfeld
Research Supervisors: Prof.Richard Kingsford, Dr Shawn Laffan, Bill Johnson

Human activity has transformed global systems on such a scale that sociologists coined the term ‘anthropocene’ to describe the current era of human impact on climate and ecosystems. In dryland rivers of the world, humans have modified landscapes and adapted biophysical processes for food, fibre, energy and transport to such an extent that dams and floodplain agriculture are now visible from space. Intensive anthropogenic activity and resource use in the Murray-Darling Basin for the past 50 years, coupled with climate change, has placed significant pressures on ecological functioning of wetlands. There are fewer waterbird breeding events, declining wetland size, introduced species and dwindling water supplies due to drought, with cascading economic consequences and social implications. Understanding the past social and biophysical changes in dryland rivers is crucial for understanding present development and protecting precious freshwater ecosystems.

My research aims to investigate social and ecological factors that have driven land and water use practices on dryland floodplains during the past 50 years. I compare land use change and water governance in two internationally recognised dryland floodplains of the Murray-Darling Basin: the Gwydir wetlands and the Macquarie Marshes. I evaluate how social-ecological factors promote or reduce the sustainability and resilience of dryland river ecosystems and rural communities.

There are four main research objectives:

  • To identify the extent, configuration and function of floodplain development, including levees, channels, off-river storages in a dryland floodplain of the Murray-Darling Basin, using semi-automated image analysis techniques with 2D and 3D spatial imagery.
  • To examine the social-ecological implications of different flow allocation formulas in the Gwydir and Macquarie systems and to test the resilience of current flow allocation formulas to deal with an increasingly variable climate.
  • To evaluate how agricultural communities respond to prolonged drought and modified flow regime by documenting land use change in relation to flooding patterns during the 20th century and whether this is indicative of resilience and adaptation.
  • To build on and contextualise the key principles of social-ecological systems for sustainability in dryland regions, by contrasting governance and water resource development in the Macquarie Marshes with the Gwydir wetlands. I will extend theoretical and empirical principles to other dryland rivers of Australia and comment on their overall progress towards sustainability.

Contact Information

Celine Steinfeld
Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre
School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science
The University of New South Wales

p: +61 2 9385 8276


Brandis, K., Nairn, L., Kingsford, R. T., Steinfeld, C. M. M., Ren, S., and  Rayner, T. (2010) Draft Final Report: A case study of risks to flows and floodplain ecosystems posed by structures on the Macquarie Floodplain. Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre. University of New South Wales.

Nairn, L., Steinfeld, C. M. M., Ren, S., Brandis, K., Kingsford, R. T. (2010) Floodplain Structure Report: A case study of risks to flows and floodplain ecosystems posed by strucures on the Macquarie Floodplain. Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre. University of New South Wales.

Steinfeld, C. M. M. and Kingsford, R. T. (2009) Methodology for comparitive study of detection techniques for floodplain structures: Report to the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water, Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre, University of New South Wales

Steinfeld, C. M. M. and Kingsford, R. T. (2009) Methodology for detecting floodplain structures within the Gwydir floodplain: Report to the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water for the Healthy Floodplains Project, Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre, UNSW

Oral presentations

Steinfeld, C. M. M. (2009) Disconnecting the floodplain: Earthworks and their effects on vegetation health in an Australian dryland floodplain. 7th International Conference on Geomorphology, 6 – 11 July 2009, Melbourne, Australia.

Steinfeld, C. M. M. (2010) Mapping water resource development in floodplain landscapes, Peter Cullen Postgraduate Scholarship Presentation to the NSW Government, 31 March 2010, Sydney

Scholarships and Awards

Postgraduate Research Forum Ecosystem Conservation Prize, 2010

NSW Government Peter Cullen Postgraduate Scholarship, 2009

UNSW Research Excellence Scholarship, 2008

UNSW University Medal, 2008

Research Program: 
River Management
Research Themes: 
Rivers and Wetlands

Publications for this project

Author Date Title Description PDF
Kingsford 2015 From barriers to limits to climate change adaptation: path dependency and the speed of change

This review examines the broad-ranging effects of climate change with respect to six case studies: the Australian Alps, the Coorong and Lower Lakes, the Great Barrier Reef, the Macquarie Marshes, small inland communities affected by drought and the Torres Strait Islands.

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