The unprecedented Baaka/Darling River fish kill which claimed more than one million fish earlier this month – including countless giant Murray Cod estimated to be decades old – was caused by mismanagement of the Menindee Lakes system, with drought playing only a minor part, according to one of the nation’s top research think-tanks.
On January 7, the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) confirmed more than a million fish had died in a small stretch of the Lower Darling region, around the Menindee Lakes system. DPI blamed the ongoing drought, and a cold snap which killed toxic blue-green algae. DPI says a massive bacterial bloom feeding on the algae caused oxygen levels in the water to drop, leading to the fish kill.
But according to a report produced by The Australian Institute – a Canberra-based research organisation – the fish kill simply came down to poor water management by the NSW Government, with the lakes system drained twice in recent years, while inflows to the system were inadequate.
Key findings of the report
Maryanne Slattery, a Senior Water Researcher at The Australia Institute (TAI) argues that the Menindee Lakes were drained in 2016-17 at a time when downstream areas did not need water.
“South Australia was experiencing flooding and all Murray irrigation demand was met,” The TAI writes.
“The Lakes were drained by the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), which is directed by the state governments.
“The water level in the Lakes is not being replenished by regular smaller flows. While large floods still reach Menindee, regular small-medium flows have decreased dramatically.”
A graph included in the report reveals that the Menindee Lakes system has only been emptied twice in recent decades – once in 2003, at the height of the ‘Millennium drought’, and then again in 2013-14, after the formation of the Murray Darling Basin Authority, which was formed to better manage water flows.
Ms Slattery said that her research revealed “irrigation development” in the north of the Murray Darling basin – which stretches as far as central Queensland – played a “key role in reducing these smaller, regular flows, along with drought and climate change.
“It is clear what has caused the Darling River fish kill – mismanagement and repeated policy failure,” Ms Slattery said in a written statement.
“To blame the fish kill on the drought is a cop-out, it is because water releases were made from the Lakes when this simply shouldn’t have happened.
“It’s time to stop passing the buck. The Prime Minister blames the drought, the NSW Water Minister blames the Commonwealth, upstream blames downstream, and downstream blames upstream.
“While the MDBA has joined the drought blame band-wagon, their own research shows that water is just not getting to the Lakes outside of major floods. This can’t be explained by climate and is most likely to be extractions for irrigation.
“What’s worse is that on top of the impact on the Menindee and the Lower Darling itself, the mismanagement of the Menindee lakes system impacts the water availability for growers in the NSW Murray, left with no water to grow this year’s crop,” said Ms Slattery.
You can access the report here, or read it below.
The Darling River is the third longest river in Australia. It begins in northern NSW between Bourke and Brewarrina, and ends at Wentworth in the state’s south west, where it joins the Murray River.
The Darling’s catchment area – known as the Murray-Darling basin – stretches as far north as Central Queensland, and takes in most of NSW and the ACT, half of Victoria and parts of South Australia.
The river is heavily used by irrigators in its northern regions, with cotton in Queensland and northern NSW widely blamed by farmers, environmental and Aboriginal groups downstream for causing low river flows in the Baaka/Darling.
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