The Murray Darling, Australia’s biggest river system, has been used as a political football for more than a century, and the game looks set to continue with yesterday’s release of a draft management plan by the Murray Darling Basin Authority.
The basin’s ongoing mismanagement reflects Australia’s inability to reconcile the needs of the environment and of rural communities. Debates about its future pit the city against the bush, upstream against downstream users, and graziers against irrigators.
The latest round in this never-ending stoush will play out over the next few months following the release of the draft plan for public comment. The plan recommends just 2750 gigalitres be returned to the ailing river system — less than the 3000 to 7600 gigalitres the authority said was necessary to rescue river last year. That announcement was met with an angry response from farmers which led to public burnings of the draft plan guide.
While not on par with last year’s antics, yesterday’s release triggered the expected frenzy of comment. But once the outrage has died down and once Barnaby Joyce has moved on to his next sound bite, the critical question will be whether this plan will do anything to restore the ecological health of the ailing river.
One thing that everyone — including Joyce — agrees on is that the river is sick and has been for years.
The headwaters of the Murray, fed by the snow melt of the Snowy Mountains, have been tamed and diverted by the monumental Snowy Mountain Scheme. The headwaters of the Darling, which fall westward from the Great Diving Range, have been degraded by huge, thirsty cotton farms — the most infamous being Cubbie Station.
The original forests, woodlands and native grasslands of the floodplains of the Darling have been cleared and wildlife has disappeared.
The problems that confront the basin are widespread and systemic, not localised to one or two trouble spots. According to the 2008 Sustainable Rivers Audit, commissioned for the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council, the ecological health of 20 out of 23 river valleys within the basin were rated poor or very poor. This is mismanagement at an epic scale.
Irrigated agriculture is responsible for 95 per cent of the water extracted from the basin. Decades of over allocation have seen the loss of 90 per cent of floodplain wetlands, 80 per cent of waterbird populations, 80 per cent of river red gum forests and 90 per cent of native fish populations. The system is in crisis.
In the place of native fish, the river is now choked with carp.
In short, the river is stuffed — and its ability to sustain biodiversity is now in extreme doubt. Our most famous river has become, in many sections, a lifeless drain. The last drought, the longest recorded in the basin since European colonisation, dealt the system another series of ecological blows with extensive documented "black-water" events killing off adolescent Murray Cod.
For too long, too many have taken too much out of the river — helped by governments that dished out allocations based on years when there was plenty of rainfall and ignored the fact that Australia faces increasingly long periods of drought between the good years.
As a result, the environment, the wetlands and the river red gums, the lower lakes and the native fish have suffered. The soils have become ruined with salinity, with 80 per cent of NSW’s irrigated farmland suffering from rising water tables. The mouth has closed, only opening in the extreme seasons of flooding.
So the river needs help, urgently and dramatically. But will we as a nation fail again, as we have done many times before?
The jury is still out but the prospects don’t look great in light of the low figure the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has set for water to be returned to the river. Even the basin’s own scientific review by CSIRO said the 2750 gigalitres would not save the ailing river system.
A pessimist would ask whether the embattled and unstable national government is capable of decisive action and whether the policy gulf that exists between the polarised position of the Nationals and the Greens will kill the plan before it makes it through Parliament.
Many fear that Water Minister Tony Burke, already rattled by the angry backlash of irrigators 12 month ago, has already lost the will to fight for the river and instead will pursue a path of least political resistance — a path taken by his predecessors from both sides of politics on every previous occasion.
A pessimist would also suspect that the states, particularly the conservative governments of Victoria and New South Wales, will ultimately put political expediency first and sell out the river by falling into line with Tony Abbott’s relentless campaign to undermine and wreck every major policy initiative for his own political benefit.
On this prognosis, the people of South Australia will once again be sold down the river.
So the river and its communities need inspired political leadership. The river needs an end to point scoring and humbug. It needs our political class to at last put the national interest front and centre and demonstrate they can lead and can be trusted. Without this leadership, the river will die and with the river will die the communities that have grown along its banks. A dead river will make food production untenable and we will, in a little over a century, have delivered a lose-lose outcome on a monumental scale.
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