Save the Murray: Remove the Barrages

The release of a new Murray Darling Basin plan on October 8, 2010, is likely to reignite debate over how best to solve the problems of the Murray River. It will further pit some environmentalists and some South Australians against upstream irrigators as a debate over how to fix the two very large freshwater lakes at the very bottom of the Murray River rages. Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert are situated behind the narrow expanse of water known as the Coorong, beyond the Coorong is the Southern Ocean and upstream of the lakes is the River proper. 

Few understand how different ecologically this region was before European settlement and the impacts of agriculture and the construction of barrages designed to keep salt water out. Oral histories from local families and the diaries of the first European explorers paint a different picture of the Lakes than that shaping the debate today. If we look back to what the river was like before the barrages then there is a much different solution than that currently being proposed. A solution that may not be as palatable to the South Australian Government or those communities who have grown used to life behind the barrages but a much cheaper and more environmentally sustainable solution in the longer term.  

Many academics and bureaucrats deny that the lakes were ever estuarine. But families that have lived in the region for generations explain, for example, that in 1915, before the barrages and during a period of prolonged drought, sea water penetrated beyond Lake Alexandrina up the River Murray as far as Mannum with the sightings of a shark at Tailem Bend and a dolphin at Murray Bridge.

Since 1941 and the completion of the barrages blocking 90 percent of flows between the lakes and the South Ocean a new history and geography of the Lower Lakes, Coorong and Murray mouth has been created…

Read more here at Quadrant Online.

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31 Responses to Save the Murray: Remove the Barrages

  1. spangled drongo September 19, 2010 at 3:37 pm #


    Very appropriate post at this point of the “big drought”.

    One would think that a concentrated effort at the mouth would have a much better cost/benefit than ruining the localities throughout the bulk of the huge MDB.

  2. Neville September 20, 2010 at 8:39 am #

    When Sturt reached the Murray mouth he could not sail or row through into the sea but found the mouth of the Murray a maze of lagoons and sandbars impassable to shipping.
    See mid point of this article for above description, so much for the pristine Murray mouth in 1830.

  3. Paul Williams September 20, 2010 at 10:34 am #

    As far as I know, there is a lot of local opposition to the building of a weir at Wellington. Similarly not many of the locals want the barrages opened.

    I have heard people express the opinion that such measures would be making the lower lakes residents pay so that big corporations can grow rice in the desert. Referring, of course, to the waters taken out upstream.

    So maybe political inertia will prevent any action.

    I remember Rudd and Wong posing in front of lake Alexandrina a couple of years ago, and declaring that “if you want to see the effects of climate change, just look behind us”.

    Well now the lakes are looking pretty healthy, all the doom and gloom scenarios have not come to pass, but apparently we still need a “price on carbon”.

  4. spangled drongo September 20, 2010 at 10:40 am #

    With the Menindie Lakes about full and all the other dams and weirs on the way up and more to come, it’s going to be a bonanza time for pretty much the whole of the MDB.
    So with all the other problems state and federal, this will be the non-squeaking door so don’t expect much action.
    With stupid, unnecessary action being called for on non-problems such as climate change, you would wish that the focus was on the real problems such as this.
    Bob Brown, here’s your big test!

  5. el gordo September 20, 2010 at 2:22 pm #

    With a cool PDO and more La Nina we can expect plenty of precipitation over the next decade. Now is the time, politically speaking, to get some commonsense on this issue. There’s money to be saved and environments regenerated.

    Wonder where the Greens stand in all this?

  6. Paul Williams September 21, 2010 at 1:42 pm #

    Nice to see you posting again, Jennifer!

    Are you planning on re-activating the blog? Not that it has ever really died 🙂

  7. dave shorter September 22, 2010 at 9:08 am #

    Hi Jennifer, glad to see you posting again. Why not build the weir,dismantle the barrage and channel the fresh water around the edge of the lakes to the users? That would save 90% of the fresh water evaporation without losing the local productivity!Dave.

  8. Jennifer September 22, 2010 at 2:11 pm #

    Hi Paul, Yes, the plan is to start posting again, but may be only once a week or so.

  9. Ron Pike September 22, 2010 at 4:20 pm #

    Hi Jennifer,
    Good to see you back and appreciated the article in Quadrant.
    With the Murray Darling Basin Authority about to release its report there is finally a great deal happening to correct several years of misinformation on this issue.
    We need all the help we can get or some very serious mistakes will be made.
    “Our democratic decission making process is less at risk from what people do not know, than it is from what people do know that is false.”
    All the best.

  10. Susan September 22, 2010 at 11:04 pm #

    Instead of a ‘Fresh Perspective’ how about a ‘Salty Perspective’…

    The description of how the ‘community understanding’ has developed over time is important to understanding why some locals are so rabidly indignant at the proposal of removing the barrages. Add to that the half-truths by a state government intent on re-election, and academics and scientists on the grant gravy train, and it’s no wonder there is so much confusion in the local community.

    There is a group in SA that advocates for restoring the lakes to an estuary. On this website you can find a list of media articles, local opinion, and links to various reports all in one place.

    Glad to see the blog is back Jennifer!

  11. Trevor Harden September 23, 2010 at 8:45 am #

    I have no doubt that some readjustment needs to be made to the extraction regime upstream if the River Murray is to be sustainably ecologically healthy but these adjustments will only be significant in those years of catchment inflow somewhere near the long term average. In this arid river system, inflows do not group around the median but are statistically just as likely to be very high or very low – floods and droughts. In a flood year of ‘unregulated flows’ the amount of water diverted upstream is insignificant, and in a drought year – the water is just not there to divert with allocations to irrigators reduced to zero in extreme conditions. So, by all means keep some water aside for the environment in those middle years and keep the river healthy, but in severe drought there must be better management strategies for the Lower Lakes than letting them ‘dry down’ behind the barrages, exposing acidic soils which would naturally have remained covered by over a metre of estuarine water as the sea moved in to mix with remaining river flows and a healthy estuarine environment ebbed and flowed throughout the lakes system.
    There will always be a ‘freshwater solution’ for the Lower lakes when the drought inevitably ends – the question is – what should be done in the meantime?
    My answer is to open the barrages to maintain natural connectivity with the sea and let an estuary form at sea level.
    With water levels rising perhaps we can now look back on what has happened, without the distortions of the ‘freshwater only’ scare campaigners ringing in our ears, and plan more effectively for the next inevitable drought, (which with global warming might be closer than we think).

  12. Ian Mott September 24, 2010 at 1:49 am #

    There is no need to buy out the SA irrigators. The technology for delivering fresh water to farms adjacent to estuaries has been around for more than two millenia. It is called “the pipeline”. If only someone could explain that to the SA bimboscenti. Indeed, the volume of fresh water that is currently evaporated from the Lakes over a normal flow cycle would, if replaced by tidal flows, enable local irrigators to more than treble their annual allocation. It is not just the upstream irrigators who are being ripped off by the eco-scum and the estuary molesters.

  13. Sean Murphy September 24, 2010 at 12:48 pm #

    Dave Porter they have already built 2 pipelines around the Lower Lakes. 1. New irrigation pipeline from Jervois to Currency Creek $96 million (State&Fed Govts.) and $13 million from the irrigators. 2.Potable water pipelines ( Govt. funded )around the Lower Lakes from Tailem Bend, Murray Bridge ( extention of Strathalbyn ) back upstream therefore no need for the channel. Professor Tim Flannery in July 2008 was quoted in The Australian suggesting that a weir be built further upstream than Wellington ( Swanport )and let in the sea water. They have got used to the good life over the last 70 years with their artificial lakes and to maintain that you would have to achieve a fairly stable water level around 500mm ASL. This would require pumping 3,000GL to 10,000GL of water over the Tauwitchere per annum. Lake Albert would be a transit lake which would allow alternate outflows via Meningie and Goolwa.

  14. John Sayers September 24, 2010 at 4:10 pm #

    A farmer in Casino, northern NSW, has just produced 500 tonnes of biodynamic Rice using natural rainfall. That should compete with the irrigators.

  15. John Sayers September 24, 2010 at 4:11 pm #

    sorry – link –

  16. Ian Mott September 25, 2010 at 12:02 am #

    John, the link says only 300 tonnes. And other reports indicate the yield was only half/ha of that grown under irrigation. But of course the NSW North Coast could grow plenty of rice. But the annual soil moisture deficit for Casino is 4 megalitres/ha. And with that extra 4 Ml from irrigation a second crop could be grown each year.

    But please, this guff from Santos about “saved” water is bollocks. To apply the same conceptual framework to water as is done with coal or oil is nonsense because the water is merely diverted from one use to another, it is never used up like a finite resource. It rains, it evaporates, it falls as dew, it is transpired, it spends some time in a river, some time in a cows bladder, some time in beer or milk, and a lot of time in the oceans.

  17. Ron Pike September 25, 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    Water is our most abundant renewable resource.
    Australia is blessed with an abundance, concidering our meager population on our great continent.

  18. dave shorter September 26, 2010 at 9:07 am #

    Thanks for the info Sean Murphy.My view is that evaporating fresh water from these lakes should be seen as a crime against humanity.How many people have to give up eating for each gigalitre diverted from productive to “environmental” use? Jennifer once wrote an article saying how many million meals of rice per day were produced in NSW.Can anyone reading this blog tell me how many humans are fed and clothed per gigalitre of irrigation water in the MDB ?That is a figure I would like to be able to quote to the misguided and/or misanthropic critics.

  19. Ron Pike. September 26, 2010 at 11:09 am #

    Hi Dave and Everyone,
    Although now retired I am a third generation rice farmer from the Murrumbidgee valley.
    My Grand Father Charles was one of the first settlers on the MIA in 1912 and began growing rice in 1925 when the total production was 232 tonnes.
    Prior to water shortages (now past, but being replaced by shortages of common sense) the Riverian produced well over 1M tonnes annually.
    The $700M industry employs 10,000 people and 85% of production is exported to over 40 countries across the world.
    Riverina producers are the worlds most efficient, producing yields of ove 10 tonnes per hectare, using varieties soley bred and developed in the area.
    Like most agricultural production from that area it is fully processed where it is produced and leaves there Supermarket shelf ready.
    What those who condemn the industry because of its water use, do not understand is that rice is actually a very efficient plant in converting the basic inputs of that region in Australia into food.
    Rice fields are also a great aquatic eco-system in which most aquatic species native to the region thrive.
    Research by the National University some years ago came to the conclusion that 5 Billion (yes 5B) frogs bred in the rice paddies of the Riverina each year. They were of course only one species in a chain of life that explodes when ever we flood the land.
    We need to always be mindful that it is the entity who is paying for the input that is in the best position to decide how that input is used.
    In the case of water (which has never been free or cheap) the farmer, like all producers of goods, first has to look to marketing and then decide how best to use any water to which he may be entitled.
    He is the only person (aided by his advisors) that can rationally decide which crops to grow.
    If Jennifer is in agreement I would like to post some further articles on water and its use in Australia on this site.

  20. jennifer September 26, 2010 at 6:36 pm #

    Hi Pikey, Send me in what you would like posted… something about frogs in the Riverina would be especially appreciated. Jen

  21. Ian Mott September 28, 2010 at 12:26 pm #

    Interesting question, Dave. The problem is that any crop can start with a full moisture profile to a depth of 50cm which, if soil moisture retention capacity is 20%, would have 1 megalitre/ha of stored water. The crop might need another 10 Ml to finish properly but if it only gets another 4 Ml of rain (400mm) then the entire 5 Ml will produce zero food. If another 5 ML is added by irrigation then the crop may produce 10 tonnes/ha but how do we allocate the yield? If we divide the 10 tonnes by the total input of 10 Ml (5 Ml by rain and 5 Ml by irrigation) the answer would be 1 tonne/Ml. But if we apply the null hypothesis we get zero tonnes at 5 Ml and 10 tonnes for the extra 5 Ml then the correct answer is 2 tonnes/ha.

    If, without access to irrigation water the crop is unlikely to be sown at all, then the total yield from the crop must be assigned to the irrigation water alone. But in cases of dryland cropping there is a possibility of a modest yield with rainfall alone. And in those cases the yield from irrigation must be adjusted to reflect the actual gain from that added water. And as rainfall can vary from location to location, and from season to season, there is no hard and fast number that can be used.

    Such considerations are no burden to the bimboscenti who have no problem with just plucking any convenient number out of any orifice to suit their purposes.

  22. Sean Murphy October 4, 2010 at 10:35 am #

    Jennifer I have just listened to your Counterpoint interview please refer to my reply to your blog 24th September, 2010 re the new pipelines etc in the Lower Lakes. They now have the best of two worlds guaranteed water supply through the new pipelines plus the continued big push for fresh water using the RAMSAR agreemnent for this purpose when we know that salt water sites come under RAMSAR. I have tried to contact Tim Flannery maybe you would have more success than me re his idea of a lock further upstream from Wellington and opening the barrages. Peter Marsh who I have met through various meetings has a plan ( given up the ghost ) which I keep pushing has a plan currently using sea water as above. As you know that is Taboo in S.A.

  23. jennifer October 4, 2010 at 8:03 pm #

    Sean, Points noted, it would be good if this was explained better including to me, perhaps you could send me something with references for posting at this blog and/or would you like to go on Counterpoint and talk with Michael?

  24. Sean Murphy October 5, 2010 at 11:52 am #

    Jennifer please give me your postal address and I will post you a copy it needs a map to help to explain idea. I will send Michael a copy as well. I will forward a copy to your e mail adress as it also includes the South East drainage scheme and is to long for the blog site.

  25. spangled drongo October 8, 2010 at 2:09 pm #


    More on this today with your commentary on the ABC’s Counterpoint and the news.

    It’s getting to be a very hot topic:

  26. jennifer October 11, 2010 at 1:35 pm #

    So much for all the fish ladders in the locks:

    “FISHY match-making scheme has saved an endangered species as thousands of female Congolli rush to the Coorong to meet males they have been separated from for the past four years.
    The Congolli were pushed to the edge of extinction earlier this year due to the inability of males and females to get together and spawn. Adult males typically live downstream in the Coorong and the females upstream in the Lower Lakes.
    Poor water levels caused the fish to be separated and unable to produce young which would ensure the future of the species.
    Environment and Natural Resources Minister Paul Caica said up to 20,000 amorous females rushed into the Coorong during a six-week State Government program involving opening the Goolwa barrage boat lock.”

  27. Ian Mott October 11, 2010 at 5:28 pm #

    I’m having some difficulty finding actual historical daily tide records for Victor Harbour or Goolwa environs. So if there are any old salts that get the local tide prediction tables as a matter of course then it would be really appreciated if you could take a look for the 1981 and 2000 series. As Elmer Fudd said, be vewy vewy quiet, we’re hunting bunny wabbits.

  28. Sean Murphy October 11, 2010 at 7:58 pm #

    Ian Mott send me your e mail address, I will send you a copy of the Walker Report 2002 on the Murray mouth that has some tidal info in it as well.

  29. Ian Mott October 13, 2010 at 2:38 pm #

    Thanks Sean, but I already have a copy of Walker 2002. In fact I am in the process of kicking the crap out of it right now and hope to have complete paper out soon. What I need is the actual tide heights for each high and low, for the whole years of 1981 and 2000 when this “mighty murri” is supposed to have closed. BoM only gives their estimates but past actual records seem beyond their wit.

  30. jennifer October 20, 2010 at 8:18 pm #

    posting comment sent by email:

    “Hi aprox 10 floods 11 droughts since1830 in lower murray 5floods before regulated river and irrigation 5after see(floods&droughtslower Murray)

    Lower lakes currently being flooded murray mouth open a natural occurrence?”


  1. Jennifer Marohasy » ‘Miracles, Media and the Murray’ on ABC TV - October 20, 2010

    […] For those of you wondering what was written on my tee shirt under the grey jacket, it was ‘Save the Murray: Remove the Barrages’. […]

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