RiverForum: Rivers on Fire & Flood

Port Macquarie | 20-21 April 2021 | Hybrid


RiverForum: Rivers on Fire & Flood – The Journey to Resilience

Day 1:   20 April 2021 (Tuesday) 10am – 5pm followed by a networking function from 5pm.

Day 2:   21 April 2021 (Wednesday) 9am – 12pm.

Where: Charles Sturt University, Port Macquarie, NSW; or via Zoom

As Australia continues to recover and learn from the devastating nationwide bushfires of 2020, the Rivers on Fire event series is being run by the International RiverFoundation with the aim of understanding the impacts of, raising awareness to, and creating a call for action to address the effects of fire on waterways and surrounding communities. With so much happening in the world right now, Rivers on Fire will bring this critical topic back into focus.

We are all aware of the destructive floods that occurred throughout NSW and parts of Queensland in the last few weeks. The home of this RiverForum; Port Macquarie was one of the hardest hit regions. We have extended the theme of the forum from Rivers on Fire to Rivers on Fire & Flood. Many of our presenters will now extend their work to show delegates not only the impacts of fires on rivers but also floods.

A percentage of all registrations will go to the ongoing flood and fire recovery efforts in the Port Macquarie region.

Our speakers include Dr Rebecca Flitcroft from the United States Forest Service at the Pacific Northwest Research Station and Prof Stuart Khan from the University of New South Wales as two of our keynotes.  Rebecca will be sharing her experiences around the California wildfires, while Stuart’s has been leading to raise awareness around the impacts of the Australian bushfires on our drinking water supplies.  In addition, we have a wide range of speakers who will discuss topics such as indigenous knowledge, modelling, sanitation and health, water quality and the impacts on aquatic life.

Ticket prices:

  • Face to face: $189 inclusive of GST
  • Online only: $99 inclusive of GST

Travel and accommodation:

Port Macquarie is easily accessible by road or air. Flights are available with Qantaslink, Jetstar and Virgin from all capital cities.
There are many accommodation options to choose from. Some of our recommendations are; Rydges Hotel, Sails by Rydges, Mantra Quayside and Ibis Sytles. All of these properties have availability during the event.

RiverForum Speakers

Click on photos for speaker bio.

Dr Rebecca Flitcroft

Dr Rebecca Flitcroft

Co-chair of the Freshwater Specialist Group for the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Can we protect water quality from wildfire?

High severity fires are an important driver of forest dynamics. In western Oregon and Washington, USA, up until 2020, most of the region had not had major fires in over 100 years. These fires were a reminder to local water providers and forest management organizations that wildfire is an unavoidable natural process that will occur in this area that has the potential to renew our ecosystems while simultaneously threatening municipal water supplies. Our research seeks to better understand fire history in these regions, and to work closely with local municipal water providers to develop geospatial datasets that can help identify areas in their watersheds that are most vulnerable to wildfire effects that can affect water quality.

Stuart Khan

Professor Stuart Khan

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
University of New South Wales, Australia

Environmentally resilient drinking water management: Lessons from an Australian “Black Summer”.

Over much of 2019 and into 2020, Australia experienced its worst ever fire season, causing extensive damage to widespread forest and woodland regions. The fires started in Australia’s hottest and driest year on record, with much of the country that burnt already having been impacted by severe drought. More than 15,000 fires occurred across all states, resulting in a combined impact area of up to 19 million hectares. The area burnt in eastern Australia alone was almost 13 million hectares, roughly the size of England. Accordingly, the summer of 2019-2020 has come to be known as the Australian ‘Black Summer’. As the Black summer fires burned, they presented a range of highly challenging circumstances for drinking water providers. Among the most immediate threats were caused by loss of power and loss of access to important water supply infrastructure. In some cases, loss of communication capability also impeded effective responses. In a few cases, water supply infrastructure sustained direct damage from fires, cutting off safe drinking water supplies until repairs could be undertaken. Longer term water quality risk were incurred by severe damage to forested and woodland drinking water catchments. As forests were reduced to ash, they became vulnerable to erosion and mass-transport of sediment, organic carbon and nutrients to waterways. Drought-breaking rains in February 2020 came as welcome relief, but also delivered new challenges as water catchments received very large influxes of these contaminants. This led to some water supply systems being unable to produce safe drinking water following the rain. In others, ongoing careful water quality management has been required to prevent impacts to customer water quality. Information regarding the experiences of Australian drinking water managers during and following the black summer fires has been collected and analysed. From this, a series of recommendations have been developed for improving the environmental resilience of drinking water management in Australia. A summary of the experiences and the recommendations produced will be highlighted in this presentation.

Dr Stuart Blanch

Dr Stuart Blanch

Senior Manager, Forest Policy

From catastrophic bushfires come catalysing actions and innovation

WWF is supporting diverse partner organisations engaged in landscape restoration following the 2019/20 bushfires through its 5-year $300M Regenerate Australia program. Projects being scoped or undertaken by partners covering conservation science, Indigenous cultural fire management, platypus conservation, koala habitat restoration, policy advocacy to protect unburnt forests, and drone seeding and surveys.

Dr Tapas Biswas

Dr Tapas Biswas

Senior Research Scientist
CSIRO Land and Water

Fire, rain, flood and mud in the mighty Murray

2019–2020 Australian bushfire burned large areas (~ 47%) of agricultural and forested land in the upper Murray River catchment. Storm activity and rainfall following the fires generated huge volume of sediment loads within rivers, resulting in localised fish kills and widespread water quality deterioration. This talk will cover the development and implementation of a method for modelling post-fire sediment transport through river reaches downstream of burned headwater catchments, and detecting change in water quality in response to the first period of intense rainfall following bushfires.

Luke Pearce

Luke Pearce

Fisheries Manager for the Greater Murray region with the Aquatic Ecosystems Unit within NSW DPI Fisheries based at Albury

Macca’s on Fire (Bushfire impacts on Macquarie Perch in Mannus Creek)

Mannus Creek a tributary of the upper Murray river holds one of only 4 remaining population of Macquarie perch in NSW and the only remaining population within the NSW Murray. The entire range of this population was fiercely burnt, closely followed by severe storms that turned the Mannus Creek and the Murray River into a flowing river of black porridge, with subsequent fish kills following. A small number of Macquarie were rescued, what is the fate of these fish, the fate of the population and the species more generally.

Professor Ross Thompson

Professor Ross Thompson

Director, Centre for Applied Water Science
University of Canberra, Australia


The recent major fires across south eastern Australia have been exceptional in their scale and intensity, burning more than 46 million acres, an area a third the size of France. It is difficult to comprehend the scale of these fires and their impacts on water catchments. Warragamba Dam, which supplies 80% of Sydney’s water, had more than a third of its 905,000 hectare catchment burnt. Across the south east of Australia fires have led to millions of tonnes of burnt debris, ash and sediment entering waterways. The 2003 fires in and around Canberra provide a degree of insight into the impacts of fire on water catchments over decadal time scales. The Cotter catchment, Canberra’s main water supply was extensively burned during those fires. Heavy rainfall shortly afterwards resulted in large scale erosion of the catchment due to the loss of ground cover by plants and destabilisation of banks by fallen trees. Downstream in the Murrumbidgee River some pools were filled by over 5m of newly deposited sediment, with substantive loss of habitat for numerous species including the endangered Macquarie Perch. In the time since the 2019/2020 fires there has been active interventions across multiple parts of the fireground to manage erosion risks and prevent sediment entering water supplies.

The reality that emerges from the most recent fires is that the climate in south eastern Australia is changing. There is profound evidence for warmer average temperatures, but also more frequent, intense and prolonged heat waves. Rainfall has dramatically reduced, but timing of rainfall has also shifted, with repeated failure of spring and autumn rains, and increases in extreme summer rainstorms. These conditions generate high fuel loads and reduce the opportunity to manage these through hazard reduction burning. Even with fuel management fires are impacting more regularly and to a greater extent on water catchments. There is no doubt that with respect to water supplies we will need to diversify sources, both through the use of desalinisation and the inevitable shift to stormwater and wastewater harvesting and treatment for potable use. From a biodiversity perspective, there will need to be urgent efforts to manage non-fire stressors such as weeds and invasive animals to take pressure off recovering catchments and increase their resilience to future fire.

Cassie Price

Cassie Price

OzFish’s national Director of Habitat Programs

Fisher Driven Bushfire Recovery for Threatened Fish

After receiving a number of calls from distressed fishers after the 2019/2020 fire season alerting us to the devastation of the impact on waterways throughout Victoria, NSW and Queensland, OzFish teamed up with Landcare Australia to help the community reverse some of the worst damage. With funding support from the Australian Government through their Wildlife and Habitat Bushfire Recovery Program, and OzFish’s major partner, BCF – Boating, Camping, Fishing, we set out in late 2020 to support the recovery of waterways where fishers wanted to make a difference and where some of our most important threatened fish lived. Fishers, Landcare groups and Landholders have been working tirelessly ever since to beat the weed re-growth, re-establish the native riparian zone, prevent any further erosion and remove any blockage debris. The work is ongoing, but the work so far, with a little bit of help from the recent rain, has been transformative for rivers that were literally on fire just over a year ago. We are quickly reviving habitat for Eastern Freshwater Cod, Oxleyan Pygmy Perch, Purple Spotted Gudgeon, Macquarie Perch, Trout Cod, a few rare crayfish species, and a Turtle too!! The partnership and the achievements so far are a testament to the scale of success that can be achieved when the community takes a lead role, we hope to expand our work and boost recovery in more of Australia’s precious waterways.

More information and latest news on the project here: Landcare Australia Aquatic Wildlife Habitat Bushfire Program – OzFish Unlimited

Professor Scott Johnston

Professor Scott Johnston

Faculty of Science and Engineering
Southern Cross University

River sediment, nutrient and trace element dynamics following catastrophic bushfires on Australia’s east coast

The Macleay River catchment on the east coast of Australia was burnt extensively during the 2019/202 bushfire season. Here, we present water quality data collected over 3.5 y before, and 6 months after the fires, capturing the onset of major rainfall and the critical first-flush period. Concentrations, loads and flux are reported for a wide range of trace elements (TE), suspended sediments, dissolved organic carbon and key nutrients (NO3 and PO4-2). Many parameters had significantly elevated concentrations during the post-fire period, in some cases orders of magnitude greater than pre-fire background levels. Extreme suspended sediment (>5000 mg L-1), during the first-flush period reflects extensive erosion and run-off from fire impacted forests on steep-escarpment topography. Discharge (Q) and concentration (C) relationships for TE and nutrients displayed greatest distortion during the first flush periods, with gradual restoration of background concentrations during subsequent hydrograph peaks. However, varying degrees of element-specific behaviour was evident. For example, significantly elevated concentrations (100x) of the redox-sensitive metal Mn occurred during the initial first-flush, which is consistent with coincident observations of widespread hypoxia and extensive fish-kills due to low dissolved oxygen. This significant load of suspended sediments, nutrients and trace elements due to bushfire impacts in the catchment had substantial short-term impacts on water quality, and may impart medium to longer-term effects that are yet to reveal themselves.

  • Dr. Flitcroft is co-chair of the Freshwater Specialist Group for the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). She holds a Courtesy Faculty Appointment at Oregon State University in College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. She received her PhD in Fisheries and MS in Natural Resource Geography from Oregon State University. 

    Rebecca’s research explores holistic approaches to catchment analysis and management. She uses both statistical and physical representations of stream networks in analysis and monitoring to more realistically represent stream complexity and connectivity for aquatic species. She is particularly interested in the relationships between disturbance processes and aquatic habitat. 

  • Stuart Khan is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of New South Wales. The research program he leads is focused on water quality and treatment and includes particular attention to water quality impacts of extreme weather events. Stuart has previously been involved in documenting and assessing impacts from events including bushfires, droughts, heatwaves, cyclones and heavy rainfall. These types of events have been shown to detrimentally impact water quality is surface water systems, as well as impede the ability of water utilities to effectively treat and manage municipal drinking water supplies.

  • Dr Stuart Blanch is from a farming family on the NSW mid north coast. He trained in river ecology and environmental law. He has worked mainly in the Australian community environment sector for the past 22 years, focusing on the rivers and landscapes of the Murray-Darling Basin, Northern Australia and eucalypt forests of Eastern Australia. He currently works with WWF-Australia advocating for a national transition from deforestation to reforestation, with a strong focus on koalas and forest carbon.


  • Dr Tapas Biswas is a Senior Research Scientist in CSIRO Land and Water, leading the water quality research. He has 33 years of experience in research, teaching and consultancy on soil and water resources management in Australia, Asia and America. Tapas has managed numerous large-scale research programs involving multi-jurisdictions within the Murray-Darling Basin and overseas. The recent focus of his work includes river productivity responses to environmental watering; freshwater quality responses to anthropogenic changes; bushfire impacts on catchment water quality; and continuous forecast of harmful algal growth in freshwater bodies. Tapas is actively using in-situ sensors to accurately estimate key water quality indicators in real-time and short-term forecasting to inform sustainable water management decisions. His work with on-ground sensors aims to calibrate AquaWatch, Australia’s first satellite mission, to monitor water quality from space. Tapas has over 120 publications and serves as a guest editor of an Australian journal and is on the editorial board of two international journals. He also serves as vice president of the Hydrological society of Canberra, Australia and is a working group member of the International Commission on Irrigation & Drainage (ICID).

  • I have been employed by DPI Fisheries since 2005 and been in my current or similar role since 2006, I have been employed in various natural resource management roles since 1999.    

    I am currently an Adjunct Research Fellow with Institute of Land Water and Society at Charles Sturt, I have a Masters of Philosophy completed at Charles Sturt University in 2014, studying the conservation management of southern pygmy perch in, NSW in the context of climatic extremes and alien species, and undertook my undergraduate degree in Environmental Science completed at the University of Canberra in 1999  . 

    I grew up on a family farm in the Tumut region, I have a love for the outdoors, mountain biking, fishing and particularly hiking and fishing in remote areas.  

    I have a deep passion for our threatened native fish and their recovery, particularly the smaller species of less notoriety. 

  • Professor Ross Thompson is Director of the Centre for Applied Water Science and the institute for Applied Ecology at the University of Canberra. Ross’ research interests are biodiversity and restoration of landscapes, mainly in freshwater ecosystems. The fundamental part of his research program is in food-web ecology; seeking the rules that determine how natural communities assemble and persist. Ross’ applied research addresses the ways in which food webs can be influenced by anthropogenic factors including urbanisation, land clearance, pharmaceutical contamination, invasion and river flow management. He has an active research program on aquatic biodiversity and ecosystem function in urban and rural landscapes. Over his 15y academic career to date he has published >100 papers, 11 book chapters and >150 scientific reports. Ross sat on the Australian Research Council College of Experts and is immediate past President of the Australian Freshwater Sciences Society (formerly Australian Society for Limnology). His work has strong links to government and industry, and Ross sits on advisory panels for local, state and federal research programs. 

  • Cassie is OzFish’s national Director of Habitat Programs, she heads up OzFish’s Habitat Project Team across Australia who are busy guiding recreational fisher effort in a broad range of fish habitat restoration and citizen science activities.

    Cassie is driven by a passion for sustainable resources, a love of fishing and her farming background. Her career spans 20 years in aquatic habitat restoration and sustainable agriculture projects, predominantly in NSW and Queensland. She has a wealth of knowledge in community-driven conservation from her experience working with WetlandCare Australia and more recently with Landcare NSW. Based in Ballina, Northern NSW, Cass is a keen recreational fisher, nature lover, mother of two and (retired) football player.

  • Dr Scott Johnston is a Professor with Southern Cross GeoScience. Dr Johnston is an environmental geochemist and hydrologist whose research has a strong focus on understanding processes that control water quality in natural landscapes. During his career he has attracted >$4.5 million of external grant funding and been awarded a prestigious ARC Future Fellowship and ARC APDI post-doctoral fellowship. He has established a reputation for successfully implementing large-scale, multi-disciplinary projects (ARC / CRC) in collaboration with industry, state and local governments. Many of these projects have had an applied focus on developing, assessing and refining practical techniques for improving estuarine water quality and remediating acid sulfate soil landscapes and degraded estuarine and freshwater wetlands.