The largest ever survey of the health of Australia's vital wetlands is underway, with a team of UNSW environmental researchers conducting a special aerial survey of waterbirds across the entire continent.

In a marathon series of flights, in three aircraft over two months, the team will criss-cross Australia to visit every possible significant wetland, at a cost of more than $1.1 million.

It is the first time that all of the nation's wetlands have been assessed together in this way and is thought to be the largest and most ambitious continental-scale research project of its type ever attempted.

Led by the prominent environmental scientist and wetlands expert, Professor Richard Kingsford, of the UNSW School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, the survey team will fly at low altitude to count the number and species of waterbirds living in the wetlands to assess their relative health.

"This important project is a world first," says Professor Kingsford, Director of UNSW's Wetlands and Rivers Research laboratory. "No resource is more vital to Australia than its fresh water and no other country has used waterbirds as an indicator of the health of its wetlands.

"Wetlands with large numbers of waterbirds are in a healthy condition, supporting the fish breeding and the diverse aquatic life you find when these complex ecosystems are in good condition," says Professor Kingsford. "It is also a relatively quick and efficient indicator."

The massive survey is a component of a Raising National Water Standards Program project, funded by the National Water Commission.

"The project will make a significant contribution to the National Water Initiative (NWI), Australia's blueprint for water reform, by helping environmental water managers, state and territory governments, and scientists to better monitor and manage environmental water delivery."

Funding for the project was provided by the National Water Commission, with further in-kind funding from the States and Territories and $180,000 from UNSW.

The survey results will be publicly available through the Australian Wetlands and Rivers website.

Media Contact: Bob Beale | 0411 705 435