Lake Eyre Basin Catchment Story
The catchment stories present a story using real maps that can be interrogated, zoomed in and moved to explore the area in more detail. They are used to take users through multiple maps, images, and videos to provide engaging, in-depth information.
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Understanding how water flows in the Diamantina catchment
This Map Journal is part of a series prepared for the catchments of Queensland.
We acknowledge the Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of this Country. We recognise and honour their ancient cultures, and their connection to land, sea, and community. We pay our respect to them, their cultures, and to their Elders, past, present, and emerging.
Main image - Diamantina River in flood, provided by Gary Cranitch, © Qld.Museum.
Diamantina Creek Catchment Story
This map journal demonstrates the key features which influence water flow, including geology, topography, rainfall and runoff, vegetation, human modifications, and land uses. Knowing how water moves in the landscape is fundamental to sustainably managing the catchment and the services it provides.
It is to be used in conjunction with the Queensland Reconstruction Authority's Central West Resilience Strategy. The strategy is provided in the first tab of this map series, and includes details on the following components of the Diamantina catchment:
The information was gathered using the ‘walking the landscape’* process, where experts systematically worked through a catchment landscape in a facilitated workshop, to incorporate diverse knowledge on the landscape components and processes, both natural and human. It is focussed on water flows and the key factors that affect water movement.
The map journal was prepared by the Queensland Wetlands Program in the Queensland Department of Environment and Science in collaboration with the Queensland Reconstruction Authority and local partners.
Main image - Diamantina River in flood, provided by Gary Cranitch, © Qld.Museum.
*Walking the Landscape—A Whole-of-system Framework for Understanding and Mapping Environmental Processes and Values (Department of Environment and Heritage Protection 2012) - see links at the end of this map journal for further information.
Table of contents
Main image - Catchment sign in the Lake Eyre Basin, provided by QLD Government
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Main image - channels in flood, provided by Gary Cranitch, © Qld.Museum.
The basins of Kati-Thanda Lake-Eyre have one of the most variable flow regimes in the world. Natural areas such as wetlands, channels and waterholes become vital areas of the landscapes for flora and fauna to persist, in both wet and dry periods. Despite long hot and dry conditions, the channels and waterholes in the Lake Eyre Basin provide habitat for a diverse array of flora and fauna.
The Diamantina catchment also contains wetlands recognised as having national importance (Directory of Important Wetlands). These wetlands are of high ecological significance and contain unique values.
Elizabeth Springs, a complex of mound springs is home to many endemic species. Due to its isolation the species dependant on this spring complex are unique, including freshwater snails and the threatened Elizabeth Springs goby (Chlamydogobius micropterus). These springs due to their unique values are managed as a Conservation Park.
The Diamantina River catchment* (click for animation) falls within the Lake Eyre basin, the largest internal drainage system in Australia. The Diamantina River starts in the north west of the catchment, where is it joined by the Western River and Wockingham Creek just west of Winton.
As the Diamantina River moves south, channel country develops. The Diamantina River is joined by several creek systems before Diamantina Lakes, where the channel briefly narrows before becoming wide and braided. The Diamantina River continues over the Queensland/South Australian border where it is joined by Eyre Creek (from the Georgina catchment) and becomes the Warburton River.
Nearing Lake Warrandirinna, the Wartburton River continues its journey to Kati-Thanda Lake-Eyre, just north of Kallakoopah Creek, which also continues to Kati-Thanda Lake-Eyre.
Out of the three catchments in the Lake Eyre Basin in Queensland, the Diamantina catchment is the most likely to contribute water to Kati-Thanda Lake-Eyre. This is partially due to the absence of major lakes at the end of the catchment.
*A 'catchment' is an area with a natural boundary (for example ridges, hills or mountains) where all surface water drains to a common channel to form rivers or creeks. Definition sourced from the City of Gold Coast website - see links at the end of this map journal.
Main image - Diamantina River floodplain, provided by R. Jaensch, Wetlands International
Geology and topography
Several different rock types combine to make up the geology of the Diamantina catchment.
Generally, water flow is fast off hard geologies such as granitoids, sedimentaries (arenites), volcanics (mafites and felsites), particularly when the topography is steep. More porous geologies, such as alluvium and colluvium, allow some surface water to infiltrate and recharge groundwater systems. Metamorphic geologies can allow for some local recharge of groundwater systems through fracturing.
Conceptual models for several of the catchment's geology types and flow characteristics are provided at the end of this slide.
The terrain is largely flat, and there are few catchment divides except for the existence of 'jump-ups' or Cainozoic duricrusts. These are formed on a variety of rock types.
The headwaters to the east, including Wokingham Creek, Werna Creek and the Western River originate in the Mitchell Grass downs bioregion. The area is almost entirely underlain by hard geologies. These are fine-grained sedimentary rocks with little to no water infiltration. The alluvium in this area is thin, however builds as the waterways head south-west.
The Diamantina River headwaters originate further west over similar geologies as it flows north-east and then to the south in a large semi-circle. Areas of ferricrete and fine grained sedimentary rocks dominate. Ironstone jump-ups provide elevation in some areas. The watercourses in these elevated areas result in fast run-off of water with defined channels until they reach the Diamantina River where water flow slows.
Mid catchment, south of where Cadell Creek and Middletown Creek join the Diamantina River there is an increase in clay pans. The floodplain occasionally narrows associated with slight elevation changes in the banks. To the east, there is ferricrete associated with ironstone jump-ups and there are some elevated areas. Colluvium and poorly consolidated sediments increase to the east. Water flow can slow in the area where Cadell Creek joins the Diamantina River.
Dry gibber pond in Diamantina National Park, provided by R. Jaensch, Wetlands International
Further downstream, alluvium increases, along with the width of the channels. Vast areas of sand and gravel dominate the flat expansive landscape, together with deeply weathered sandstones and colluvium. The deep and wide channels can hold vast amounts of water.
The confluence of long sand dunes and floodplains are a key influence on the occurrence of lakes and swamps in the Lower Diamantina.
Exclusion zones - conceptual diagram by Queensland Government
Permeable rocks - conceptual diagram by Queensland Government
Fractured rock - conceptual diagram by Queensland Government
Alluvia - conceptual diagram by Queensland Government
Alluvial aquifers - conceptual diagram by Queensland Government
Channel shape - conceptual model by Queensland Government
*Land zone 3 (Alluvial river and creek flats). Defined as 'Recent Quaternary alluvial systems, including closed depressions, paleo-estuarine deposits currently under freshwater influence, inland lakes and associated wave-built lunettes. Excludes colluvial deposits such as talus slopes and pediments. Includes a diverse range of soils, predominantly Vertosols and Sodosols; also, with Dermosols, Kurosols, Chromosols, Kandosols, Tenosols, Rudosols and Hydrosols; and Organosols in high rainfall areas.' (Wilson et al. 2012) - see links at the end of this map journal for further information. Land zone mapping is available within the preclear vegetation mapping by clicking on the relevant polygon.
**Mostly land zone 5 (old loamy and sandy plains). Defined as 'Tertiary-early Quaternary extensive, uniform near level or gently undulating plains with sandy or loamy soils. Includes dissected remnants of these surfaces. Also includes plains with sandy or loamy soils of uncertain origin, and plateau remnants with moderate to deep soils usually overlying duricrust. Excludes recent Quaternary alluvial systems (land zone 3), exposed duricrust (land zone 7), and soils derived from underlying bedrock (land zones 8 to 12). Soils are usually Tenosols and Kandosols, also minor deep sandy surfaced Sodosols, and Chromosols. There may be a duricrust at depth.' (Wilson et al. 2012) - see links at the end of this map journal for further information. Land zone mapping is available within the preclear vegetation mapping by clicking on the relevant polygon.
***Most sedimentary rock types have low permeability. The Elliot Formation sedimentary rock consists of sandstone, siltstone with minor mudstone, conglomerate and shale, and have experienced periods of deep weathering. This has caused sediments to become mottled, iron-rich or bleached and developed a distinct duricrust appearance, and increased permeability (Marshall et al. 2015; Wilson et al. 1999) - see links at the end of this map journal for further information.
Main image - overlooking the Diamantina from a jump up near Winton, provided by QLD Government
The Diamantina Catchment experiences highly variable rainfall totals in any given year, with low to very low average rainfall (isohyet map).
This highly variable rainfall has resulted in sparse vegetation cover and intermittent river systems.
Generally, the northern area of the catchment is influenced by monsoonal events, and most of the rainfall occurs during summer and into autumn. Southern areas experience less rainfall. Winter rain events bring high biological productivity.
Rainfall, although variable, can supply large amounts of water which may flood larger areas downstream.
This means that rivers and creeks in the Diamantina catchment experience highly variable and unpredictable flows, with high transmission losses in drier periods, and over low gradients (flat landscapes).
Areas in the lower Diamantina experience what is sometimes called a ‘dry flood’. The local area experiences a flood with no local rain, as large volumes of floodwater move down the catchment from rainfall events upstream. Flooding is vital for the economy in these areas.
Often described as a 'boom and bust' system, flora and fauna have adapted to long periods of drying and times of intensive flooding. Refuge areas, such as waterholes are vital to the survival of species over time. The response of pasture to floods sustains a large grazing economy.
The mean rainfall graphs below are an indication of local rainfall only. There can be significant differences in topography and rainfall within a region. Locations were chosen from available sites that record rainfall data and from each end of the catchment where possible.
Mean annual rainfall (mm) for years 1917 to 2019 at Bladensburg - Provided by the Bureau of Meteorology
Mean monthly rainfall (mm) for years 2002 to 2019 at Winton Airport (Bladensburg statistics not available) - Provided by the Bureau of Meteorology
Mean annual rainfall (mm) for years 1892 to 2019 at Birdsville - Provided by the Bureau of Meteorology
Mean monthly rainfall (mm) for years 1892 to 2019 at Birdsville - Provided by the Bureau of Meteorology
Water that falls as rain, or moves over the land as runoff, overland flow or floods can be slowed by vegetation, which then allows it to filter down into the soil and sub-soil and recharge aquifers.
The Mitchell Grass Downs bioregion is largely treeless plains, with occasional ridges and vast areas of Mitchell grasslands.
The Channel Country bioregion contains vast braided floodplains, surrounded by gravel or gibber plains, dunefields, low ranges and jump-ups.
Vegetation cover and water flow - conceptual model by Queensland Government
Water moving slowly across the surface of the land also reduces the potential for erosion to occur and reduces the associated issues with water quality and sedimentation further downstream. Reducing the speed of runoff also plays a role in protecting banks and parts of the landscape prone to gully and rill erosion.
The wetlands, waterholes and creeks of the catchment provide habitat and refuge for many important aquatic species, including plants, fish, birds and macro invertebrates. There are groundwater dependent ecosystems (GDEs) in parts of the catchment.
The majority of land use in the Diamantina is grazing on native pastures.
Large areas of the original native (preclear) vegetation* remain with some areas cleared or partially cleared**.
Explore the swipe map showing vegetation mapping over time (preclearing and remnant), using either of the options below.^
Vegetation clearing and associated activities change the shape of the landscape and can modify surface and groundwater flow patterns. Vegetation type can also modify flood patterns. Dense grasses can capture silt, and gidgee has potential to create excess run-off.
*Broad Vegetation Groups (BVGs) are mapped for original native (preclear) vegetation and remnant vegetation. The BVGs are derived from Regional Ecosystems (REs), which are vegetation communities in a bioregion that are consistently associated with a particular combination of geology, landform and soil.
*The 2011 remnant vegetation mapping was undertaken at a map scale of 1:100,000 and 1:50,000 in part (including the Wet Tropics and Southeastern Queensland) and based on the Landsat imagery for 2011. It does not show all clearing, particularly relatively thin linear infrastructure.
***This dataset take time to load. Smaller areas of regrowth are not shown in this mapping. This dataset was prepared to support certain category C additions to the Regulated Vegetation Management Map under the Vegetation Management (Reinstatement) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016. This dataset is described as: The 2013 areas of non-remnant native woody vegetation that have not been cleared between 1988 and 2014 that are homogenous for at least 0.5 hectare and occur in clumps of at least 2 hectares in coastal regions and 5 hectares elsewhere.
^Depending on your internet browser, you may experience issues with one or the other. Please note this application takes time to load.
Main image - Cane grass on sand dunes in the Diamantina, provided by R. Jaensch, Wetlands International
Important infrastructure such as roads and creek crossings can create barriers and impermeable surfaces that redirect water through single points or culverts, leading to channelling of water in some parts of the catchment. Channelling, and modifications to natural channels such as straightening and diversions, can increase flow rates and erosion.
Roads and water flow - conceptual model by Queensland Government
The catchment contains almost no significant modifications to flow with no major dams or weirs. The Diamantina Catchment is a free-flowing catchment.
There are also groundwater bores*, which extract water groundwater and can influence these systems.
During the late 1880s, many stone weirs, known locally as 'overshots' were built by Chinese and Pacific Islander labourers** and still remain, although no longer fully operational.
Infrastructure can also affect fish passage through the catchment, although during periods of flood many of the smaller barriers are “drowned out” by water flowing over the top of them.
*Taken from database storing registered water bore data from private water bores and Queensland Government groundwater investigation and monitoring bores.
**Referred to as Kanakas at the time, which literally means 'A native or inhabitant of Hawaii', but is historically defined as 'A Pacific Islander employed as an indentured labourer in Australia, especially in the sugar and cotton plantations of Queensland' (Oxford Dictionary).
Main image - Landsborough Highway, provided by QLD Government
Water flows across the landscape into the waterways of the catchment (click for animation)*.
The remaining water either sinks into the ground, where it supports a variety of terrestrial and groundwater dependent ecosystems, or is retained in waterholes, evaporates or is used for other purposes.
The smaller channels and gullies join the larger channels to form large floodplains that flow through lower lying land. They pass through unconsolidated areas which store and release water, prolonging the time streams flow.
The Diamantina catchment consists of several distinct areas which have similar characteristics:
*Please note this application takes time to load.
Main image - floodplains in the Diamantina catchment, Gary Cranitch, © Qld.Museum
Western River and Upper Diamantina River
The Western River and Wokingham Creek converge west of Winton to join the Diamantina River. The Western River and Wockingham Creek flow over hard geologies made of fine-grained sedimentary rocks. Water flow is fast with little infiltration. The geology changes as alluvium begins to build closer to the Diamantina River to the west.
Ironstone jump ups (ferricrete or duricrust) provide areas of elevation.
The channel can be deep in places along the Diamantina River.
When the Diamantina River is in flood it can hold up water coming from the eastern watercourses, which can cause flooding towards the east.
The climate in this area is highly variable. Some rain events can move quickly over larger areas and result in minimal wetting of the watercourses, whereas a slow-moving system can saturate specific areas and not others.
Much of the water supply for humans in this area depends on artesian bores. While some sandstone aquifers can deliver good quality water there is a high degree of variability, and sometimes the water can be quite alkaline (pH of 8.5-9). As the artesian water is usually very hot, settling ponds are used to cool the water before it is delivered for water supply.
Some permanent rockholes are located in the upper catchment areas. These are important for terrestrial wildlife and are culturally significant.
In the Upper Diamantina, vegetation is predominantly Mitchell grass, gidgee and spinifex. Prickly acacia can be an issue for land holders.
Once the channel country truly starts, with the convergence of Mackunda Creek and the Diamantina River, the landscape is characterised by vast braided floodplains, surrounded by gravel or gibber plains, dunefields, low ranges and jump-ups.
Land use is predominantly grazing on native pasture. Major towns in the area include Winton, Middleton, Collingwood, and Kynuna.
Sign for town of Winton, provided by QLD Government
Bladensburg National Park, just south of Winton, features a rocky landscape of jump-ups in grassland plains and river flats with river gums.
Main image - Vegetation on a jump up near Winton, provided by QLD Government
South of the convergence of Cadell Creek and Middletown Creek water movement can be fast, especially when the clay is saturated. The floodplain occasionally narrows which is associated with slight elevation changes.
Claypan wetlands not fed by the rivers have different biota, adapted to different desiccation cycles e.g. fairy shrimp. For the majority of the time these claypans are dry and can be susceptible to cattle damage.
The Diamantina Gates are located at a dramatic narrowing of the floodplain, between the Hamilton and Goyder ranges. The gap between the ranges gets as small as one kilometre across. The Diamantina Gates act as a major constriction in the catchment which causes major scouring of the river, resulting in deep waterholes which act as important refugia during periods of drought.
Grazing on native pasture is the major land use, along with large areas for nature conservation
Diamantina National Park is a large National Park which includes important wetlands that support breeding populations of resident and migratory birds, particularly in Lake Constance.
Main image - Waterhole in the Diamantina floodplain - R. Jaensch, Wetlands International
Past the Diamantina Gates the area experiences floods but little rain, and the grazing economy is dependent on this flooding.
Floods can be variable in extent and persistence of water is dependent on many factors, including the weather (heat and evaporation) and the length and timing of flooding events.
The floodplain is mostly sandy. Roads, fences, and other infrastructure in this area are susceptible to damage from flooding and many areas can be cut off for extended periods after floods. Land use is almost completely native pasture grazing in the floodplain.
Farrers Creek Waterhole - photo provided by Water Planning Ecology, QLD Government
Wetlands associated with the floodplains are dominated by arid/semi arid lignum swamps and areas of saltbush.
Arid to semi-arid lignum swamp - WetlandInfo, Department of Environment and Science, Queensland, viewed 13 March 2020
Normally shallow, these areas trap organic matter brought in by flooding/overland flows, which provides for micro-algae, bacteria and fungi to proliferate. Blooms in algae, bacteria, and fungi in turn provide diverse and abundant food resources for invertebrates, frogs, and fish. Waterbirds also use these areas for feeding and lignum is important for breeding for some species.
Seed and egg banks within the floodplain sustain communities of fauna through dry periods.
Water quality in this region is fresh when in flood, however some areas can become hypersaline during extended dry periods.
In large flooding events, the Diamantina River can flow into the Bilpa Morea claypan.
The Diamantina River, when not in flood, narrows to a single channel and continues past Birdsville, over the border with South Australia, where it is joined by Eyre Creek (from the Georgina catchment) and becomes the Warburton River, before finally reaching Kati-Thanda Lake-Eyre.
In this area, where Eyre Creek converges with the Diamantina River, the Goyder Lagoon contains large numbers of breeding colonies of waterbirds when in flood, making it an ecologically significant area.
The largest known breeding colony of mixed species of waterbirds (such as ibises, herons, egrets, spoonbills, cormorants) in the Channel Country is in the Lower Diamantina section, where long sand dunes run on to the floodplain and trap floodwater. The birds nest in lignum and belalie swamps there, during major floods.
Main image - Diamantina catchment in flood, Gary Cranitch, © Qld.Museum.
The Diamantina catchment shows how natural and modified features within the landscape impact on how water flows. It demonstrates that even in highly variable climate and rainfall, environmental processes continue, and flora and fauna adapt to their current environment.
This variability, and the processes that stem from it, need to be managed to ensure that the significant natural (and social) values of the catchment are protected. It is vital to minimise impacts on the multitude of values within the catchment and the significant ecological refuges it provides, while supporting residential, water supply, farming and other important land uses of the catchment.
Knowing how the catchment functions is also important for future planning, including climate resilience. With this knowledge, we can make better decisions about how we manage this vital area.
Main image - the green after the flood, Diamantina catchment, Gary Cranitch, © Qld.Museum
Last updated: 24 September 2020
This page should be cited as:
Department of Environment and Science, Queensland (2020) Lake Eyre Basin Catchment Story – Diamantina catchment, WetlandInfo website, accessed 24 September 2020. Available at: https://wetlandinfo.des.qld.gov.au/wetlands/ecology/processes-systems/water/catchment-stories/transcript-lake-eyre-basin/transcript-diamantina.html