7 important SA river systems you may not have heard about
While the Murray may be South Australia’s most well-known river, there are other significant river systems in our state that are an integral part of our communities, culture and environment.
Find out more about each of these 7 lesser-known rivers, including how landscape boards are supporting communities to care for them.
Onkaparinga River (Hills and Fleurieu)
The Onkaparinga River flows in a south-westerly direction from the Mount Lofty Ranges to the river mouth at Port Noarlunga and is South Australia’s second largest permanent river.
It’s a major source of Adelaide's drinking water and, together with the other reservoir catchments across the Mount Lofty Ranges, supplies about 40% of Adelaide’s water needs.
It boasts a wide range of fish and aquatic plant diversity and conserves important fish breeding habitat, significant estuarine and freshwater habitats, and 32 plant and animal species of conservation significance at state and national levels.
The Onkaparinga River is linked to the ecological stability of the Port Noarlunga Reef, and the estuary provides habitat for migratory birds listed on international agreements.
The Kaurna people occupied the land along the Onkaparinga River. Translated from the Kaurna language, ‘Ngangki’ means women, ‘Pari’ means river, and ‘ngka’ means location. So, the correct translation for Onkaparinga is Ngangkiparingka, which means women only places along the river. The mouth of the river is a mythological site, and the area is highly significant to Kaurna Women.
SA Water is working with the Department for Environment and Water, Green Adelaide, and Landscapes Hills and Fleurieu to deliver environmental flows from the Clarendon weir to mirror natural seasonal flows in the Onkaparinga River. This helps to improve water quality, aquatic habitat, and stabilise populations of native fish species, while reducing encroachment of terrestrial plant species in the riverbed.
Parwur – Glenelg River (Lower Limestone Coast)
Originating in Victoria’s rugged Grampian Ranges, the Glenelg River only travels for a short distance through South Australia, specifically the Limestone Coast region between Dry Creek and Donovans, before emptying into the Southern Ocean below the small township of Nelson, just four or five kilometres from the South Australian border.
The Pawur (Glenelg River) catchment is an important part of the Boandik cultural landscape. The Boandik are the First Nations peoples of the Mount Gambier region. Their Country includes the coastal area from the south of Robe to the area around the mouth of the Glenelg River at Nelson.
In ancient times, water to and from the river spilled through Dry Creek, flooding the landscape back towards Parreen (Mt Schank).
In more recent times, pre colonisation, water from the karst springs of Piccaninnie Ponds, out west towards Ngaranga (Port MacDonnell), made its way through wetlands behind the coastal dunes to the mouth of Pawur.
Since 2019 the Limestone Coast Landscape Board has supported Burrandies Aboriginal Corporation and the Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority to take part in the Glenelg River Cultural Flows Project. Supporting this project has built stronger relationships with First Nations groups and agencies across state borders.
Marne River (Murraylands and Riverland)
The headwaters of the Marne River start on the crest of the Mount Lofty Ranges, flowing east and winding its way through fertile rich farmland and the cool climate wineries of Eden Valley before taking a spectacular pathway through gorge country and spilling out onto the plains below and joining the mighty River Murray at Wongulla.
The Marne River is known as a First Nations trading route, where Nganguraku make their way from the River Murray, following the Marne River through Peramangk Country in the Adelaide Hills before arriving in Ngadjuri Country in the Barossa Valley.
Developing the rich Barossa hills and plains has meant that there is less water to share – the river now rarely flows. People are coming together to find ways to keep vibrant communities but also conserve threatened fish that are now only found in the last of the few remaining springs left in the riverbed.
Murraylands and Riverland Landscape Board projects currently being delivered along the Marne River include:
- engaging the Marne Saunders community about the current declining watercourse and underground water status of the prescribed area to find a pathway going forward, for example, review of the Marne Saunders Water Allocation Plan
- First Nation engagement undertaking Aboriginal Waterways Assessments
- citizen science Waterwatch monitoring and annual Waterbug Bioblitz surveys
- annual fish surveys throughout the catchment. Read about the latest results.
Tod River (Eyre Peninsula)
The Tod River is a semi-permanent stream on Lower Eyre Peninsula with a brackish to freshwater flow, flowing into Lower Spencer Gulf to the north of Port Lincoln.
The nationally important Tod River Wetland system supports an array of coastal, inland and man-made wetland areas. These wetlands are rich in biodiversity and provide both an important habitat and a refuge for local flora and fauna.
The estuary area is home to a large population of black bream and many inland and marine fish species migrate inland for many kilometres both up and down the catchment.
The Tod River and other lower Eyre Peninsula water courses occur primarily on the lands of the Barngarla people.
These watercourses are unique within the Eyre Peninsula semi-arid landscape that is largely dominated by saline water resources. However, they are under threat from climate change and development pressures.
An important initiative by the Eyre Peninsula Landscape Board has been to improve fish passage along the Tod by addressing ‘fish-block’ areas such as degraded or poorly designed causeways and vehicle crossing points. This is being achieved through the Board’s water affecting activities program.
Lake Eyre Basin River Systems (SA Arid Lands)
Lake Eyre Basin is one of the world’s largest free-flowing river systems, covering almost one sixth of Australia. It is largely unmodified (its flow regimes are unregulated), with no significant water storages or other impediments.
One of the world’s largest free-flowing river systems, the Lake Eyre Basin covers almost one sixth of Australia.
The basin is among the world’s largest internally draining river systems, with Kati-Thanda Lake Eyre itself the fifth largest terminal lake in the world. Largely unmodified, the basin has no significant water storages or other impediments.
Aboriginal life, culture and identity are closely linked to water and the river systems. The formation of Lake Eyre itself is connected to the Dreamtime travels of a kangaroo in Tjupurpa. The Dreaming path taken by the kangaroo across the desert is considered very important by the Arabana tribe. Most songs relating the exploits of the kangaroo are sacred, secret, 'men's business', not to be told to the uninitiated or women.
The vegetation of the Basin reflects the patterns of arid and semi-arid regions that rely on variable water flows. It is home to many rare and endangered species of plants and animals, including endemic aquatic species Lake Eyre golden perch, desert goby and desert rainbowfish, crustacean Phreatomerus latipes, and snails Fonsochlea and Trochidrobia.
It is also home to many protected and unprotected mound springs, natural discharge points of the Great Artesian Basin as water under pressure is forced to the surface. They are home to a unique composition of flora and fauna.
Through the SA Lake Eyre Basin Priority Riparian Vegetation and Great Artesian Basin Springs Project, the SA Arid Lands Landscape Board is monitoring and protecting watercourses, wetlands and springs, through local partnerships, education and pest management work.
Consultation with both Dieri and Adnyamathanha people is helping to understand the cultural significance of other high priority springs.
Working with Arabana Rangers, Friends of Mound Springs and pastoral land managers, work is underway to fence unprotected springs that are at risk of damage by feral donkeys, pigs and other large feral herbivores.
For more than a decade the SA Arid Lands Landscape Board, through Australian Government funding, has invested in extensive investigations of the South Australian part of the Lake Eyre Basin. The multidisciplinary research has contributed significantly to our knowledge of catchment function including the natural features and human influences on key waterholes and wetlands, something that has previously been poorly understood.
SA Lake Eyre Basin Priority Riparian Vegetation and Great Artesian Basin Springs Project is an initiative of the Lake Eyre Basin program that is delivered by the SA Arid Lands Landscape Board through funding from the Australian, South Australia Queensland and Northern Territory governments and BHP.
Broughton, Wakefield, Light and Gawler rivers (Northern and Yorke)
There are 4 catchments within the Northern and Yorke landscape region: the Broughton River, Wakefield River, Light River and Gawler River. All four rivers flow from rangeland areas through to the sea into either Spencer Gulf or Gulf of St Vincent.
Broughton River spans Nukunu and Ngadjuri Country; Wakefield, Light and Gawler Rivers span Ngadjuri and Kaurna Country. All supply good quality water for agricultural, urban, domestic, recreational and industrial uses, leading to significant social and economic benefits.
Many towns in the region were specifically established along the rivers including – Melrose, Wirrabara, Laura, Gladstone, Crystal Brook, Marrabel, Kapunda, Hamley Bridge, Mallala, Auburn, Balaklava, Pt Wakefield, Nuriootpa, Tanunda, and Gawler.
Broughton River catchment has two reservoirs – Beetaloo and Bundaleer – now used for recreational fishing and other activities, and the mouth of Gawler River is found within the Adelaide International Bird Sanctuary.
Areas within each of the river catchments that are still in relatively natural condition and have tremendous cultural, recreational, community and ecological value including springs, permanent pools, wetlands, swamplands and mangroves.
Northern and Yorke Landscape Board's river-related projects focus rehabilitation efforts on returning the native vegetation, structure, hydrology and water quality to a ‘natural’ state through targeted on-ground works including revegetation, weed management and fencing. This work is currently being done as part of the Regenerating Catchments in the Mid North Farmscape project.
Other projects restoring environmental and cultural flows in ephemeral waterways are supporting the health and condition of centuries old river red gums and associated water-dependent plants and animals and helped First Nations people to meet cultural obligations to care for the spiritual health of Country.
Karrawirra Pari River Torrens (Green Adelaide)
Admittedly you’d be unlikely to find a South Australian who hasn’t heard of this one. The River Torrens / Karrawirra Pari is 85 kilometres long and is the main river in Adelaide, flowing down from the Mount Lofty Ranges near Mount Pleasant to the sea at West Beach.
In Kaurna language, the River Torrens is called Karrawirra Pari, meaning Red Gum Forest River. It is an incredibly important part of the culture and history of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains
The Torrens is home to thousands of plants and animals from birds, koalas, echidnas and lizards to rakali (a native water rat), which is one of only two amphibious mammals in Australia (platypus is the other).
In 1836, when Europeans arrived, Adelaide was selected as the site for settlement because of the fresh water available from the river. Over time, the river gradually became polluted and neglected.
Over the last 20 years though, the river has been transformed into a healthier system. It’s now a top spot for locals and visitors to connect with nature.
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This is an updated version of the story first published in November 2022.