Let’s Campaign Against the Barrages, Not Australian Agriculture

On Saturday I debated Arelene Harriss-Buchan, from the Australian Conservation Foundation, on the subject of ‘Water usage in the Murray-Darling Basin’ at the AUSVEG 2011 National Convention and Trade Show in Brisbane. Following are the notes I used in opening…

THIS morning I want to talk about the single largest user of water in the Murray Darling Basin – the Lower Lakes.

When six concrete barrages spanning 7.6 kilometres were completed in 1940, blocking inflows from the Southern Ocean, the lakes became an artificial freshwater system. The barrages were built during the depression, generating employment and to stabilize water levels in Lake Alexandrina, and they destroyed a once thriving River Murray estuary.

Today, the Lower Lakes are Ramsar listed, meaning they are considered an environment of international environmental significance, and there is a campaign to increase their annual water allocation by four million megalitres per year. But it is all so unsustainable in this land of drought or flooding rains.

Arlene Harriss-Buchan, representing the Australian Conservation Foundation, is on the public record campaigning against irrigated agriculture in particular claiming that over-allocation has ruined the Murray River system. But after at least 15 years of water reform I believe we have finally got the balance right between environment, communities and agriculture – where it not for the barrages.

I say this because during the recent protracted drought the river did not run dry as it has during previous droughts. There was enough water in upstream storages to supply Adelaide. The quality of the water was good; it was not salty.

There was even enough water for the world’s largest ever environmental watering with 515 Gl flooding the Barmah-Millewa forest in October 2005. There was not enough water to grow rice, but we don’t expect to grow rice during drought.

One environment, however, did suffer terribly and its suffering had nothing to do with Australian agriculture. The Lower Lakes were allowed to dry-up and it was so unnecessary. The lakes could have filled with seawater as once happened naturally. But instead the barrages were slammed shut keeping out the Southern Ocean.

Once upon a time each spring, after good winter rain and snow melt, the Murray would tumble down from the Mountains spread over the vast Riverina, wind its way through the limestone canyons of the Riverland, before flooding into Lake Alexandrina. But often by New Year, the river exhausted, and a breeze picking up from the southwest, the Southern Ocean would pour in through the Mouth. With the seawater came vast schools of Mulloway.

The fish came each autumn to spawn.

The sea would work its way up across the lake and sometime into the river. And so the lakes would be sometimes fresh and sometimes salty, but always full of water and each autumn full of Mulloway.

Then the massive steel and concrete barrages were built.

In the autumn of 1940, the year the barrages were completed and sealed, the Mulloway entered the Mouth, passed along the Goolwa channel and died in their hundreds of millions entrapped by the barrages and the falling tide.

The barrages killed the Mulloway fishery and crippled the estuary.

Visit the pub in Milang today – the little town that used to be home to a thriving Mulloway fishery – look at the menu and there is no Mulloway. Instead there is barramundi from Queensland, because the lakes are now full of the pest, European Carp.

The barrages created an artificial freshwater lake system, and there are now demands for an extra 4 million megalitres per year of freshwater to maintain this large, artificial oasis in the driest state on the driest inhabited continent.

Visit the new marina at Hindmarsh Island, the new housing estates, go water skiing at Milang and you soon realize there is not very much natural environment left.

The Lower Lakes are Ramsar listed, but they are neither natural, nor healthy.

For many South Australians the water allocation is about maintaining a lifestyle, for the Australian Conservation Foundation the Murray’s mouth has been a symbol for a long-running campaign against irrigated agriculture.

What upstream irrigators need to realize is, that like it or not, the Water Act 2007 puts environment first: the Lower Lakes before agriculture. To quote Sydney Barrister Josephine Kelly “The Water Act puts the environment first when allocating water in the Murray-Darling Basin. Social and economic considerations are not relevant to deciding how much water the environment needs. Water available for human use is what is left.”

This system of prioritising is reflected in the New Guide with the largest single water allocation destined for the Lower Lakes.

The lakes did not need to dry out during the recent drought. That they were allowed to is a sad indictment of Australian politics. The barrages could have been opened. But the South Australian government choose to keep them slammed shut.

The problem for the Murray, for its estuary is not agriculture. It is politics and the barrages. During the prolonged recent drought the South Australian government sacrificed the lakes to make a political point.

And during the recent drought, the Australian Conservation Foundation could have campaigned to have the barrages opened, but instead Dr Harriss-Buchan was silent on this issue.

Let’s be honest, the Australian Conservation Foundation have clearly chosen to ignore the plight of the Congolli, the Mulloway, and other estuarine species and to campaign against Australian agriculture when they should, especially during the recent drought, have been campaigning for the removal, or at least opening of the barrages.

That the Lower Lakes are now full of water has nothing to do with the Australian Conservation Foundation, or government’s water reform agenda but rather natural climate cycles and the breaking of the drought with flooding rains.

The truth is there can be no River Murray estuary as long as the barrages are in place.

So, today, I ask Dr Harriss-Buchan to join with me and campaign against the barrages and for the restoration of a healthy River Murray estuary.

And to the food producers here today, I ask that you acknowledge that given the current legislation, until this is achieved, there will be limited water for agriculture, for food production. Because the environment must come first, the Lower Lakes must be saved, and given current arrangements with freshwater from upstream, rather than by the Southern Ocean.

But let us reform the current unsustainable arrangements. Let us save the Lower Lakes by removing the barrages and restoring the natural ebb and flow between the Southern Ocean and what was once a healthy estuary.

And in removing the demands of the Lower Lakes – the single largest user of water in the Murray Darling Basin – in removing this burden from the system, there will be more water available for upstream environments, communities and food producers.

33 Responses to Let’s Campaign Against the Barrages, Not Australian Agriculture

  1. John Sayers April 18, 2011 at 6:54 am #

    Well said Jen – I note you made no mention of a new weir at Wellington. Is it your opinion it is not necessary and the lakes should be allowed to vary from fresh to saline?

  2. Luke April 18, 2011 at 8:56 am #

    So what happened at the debate then?

  3. jennifer April 18, 2011 at 9:05 am #


    Arlene didn’t want to talk about the barrages and claimed that salt had never intruded beyond Port Sturt – which is essentially at the top of the Goolwa channel. In other words she claims, against a significant published literature, that the lakes proper have never been filled naturally with seawater from the Southern Ocean.

    She also tried to distract the audience with claims that the Yarra pygmy perch is a freshwater fish found only in the Lower Lakes – of course its called the YARRA pygmy perch because its from the Yarra! And she went on about climate change.

  4. jennifer April 18, 2011 at 9:07 am #

    John, The weir at Wellington is something of a distraction. Let’s first agree to bring back the River Murray estuary.

  5. Susan April 18, 2011 at 9:42 am #

    Up until very recently the ‘freshwater only’ proponents have been insisting that even the Goolwa Channel has always been freshwater.

    To get them to now claim Point Sturt as the seawater ‘intrusion’ marker is a significant change.

    Well done Jennifer.

  6. Ian Thomson April 18, 2011 at 10:12 am #

    Very well put.
    When Dermott Brereton hosted his ‘Murray River is Rooned’ TV program an Aboriginal elder noted that mulloway used to be caught at Morgan. He was preceded by the Coorong commercial fisherman who always insists that the fishing is ruined by salinity.
    Dermie agreed with both of them that the estuary was buggered, without noticing the opposites.

  7. Debbie April 18, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    Good for you Jennifer,
    We’re all fortunate that you have stayed focused on this issue.
    You have done an excellent job highlighting the inconsistencies operating in MDB water management and the MDBA’s ‘end of system flows’ hydrological solutions.
    Most farmers are still reeling from the realisation that people are being encouraged to attack irrigated Agriculture.
    Why on earth are they attacking the very industry that puts safe food on their tables, contributes to Australia’s GDP and provides a huge whack of flow on benefits with other related industries and employment?
    Because that really doesn’t make sense, I would have to conclude the answer is ‘political’.
    Defending the barrages is a circular nonsensical argument which immediately reeks of ‘politics’ to me as well.
    Interestingly Arlene sounds like she was the politician and you sounded like the ‘environmentalist’.
    That is rather ironic don’t you think?

  8. TonyfromOz April 18, 2011 at 10:38 am #

    So, let me see if I have this right.
    The barrages were constructed during the Depression, and the gates slammed shut to keep out the sea water.
    If the Barrages were not there, the sea water would then flood in.
    If those Barrages are not a mirage, how could anyone argue that the area was not susceptible to sea water inflow before they were constructed.
    That only stands to reason.
    What is it with some people that they cannot see what’s in front of their eyes.
    Well done Jen.


  9. Raredog April 18, 2011 at 11:13 am #

    Excellent posting Jennifer. As noted above please stay focused on the MDB.

  10. Sean April 18, 2011 at 12:07 pm #

    Jennifer, A lock is a necessity somewhere between the Lakes and Murray Bridge e.g. Swanport where the bridge is, the river is only 220 metres wide we don’t need a weir. The idea of a weir has been one of the main problems, it was a solid construction with no lock, plus the site they suggested Pomanda Point was 2.6 KM wide and no one is sure where the bottom is. The S.A. Govt. tried sell it as “TEMPORARY STRUCTURE” which people know as far as Governments are concerned can be anytime between two to twenty years and it did not have a lock. They had enough problems with sinking mud at Clayton and Currency Creek and now they are having problems pulling them down. Adelaide’s 200 GL of water supply agreement has too be protected as saline water reached Mannum in 1915. It would have definitely done it again in 2009 when the Goolwa Channel at the Hindmarsh Island was – 1.034 m below sea level.

  11. John Trigge April 18, 2011 at 12:18 pm #

    There are some interesting videos, comments and suggestions re water (mainly related to Victoria) at http://topher.com.au/videos.html.

    I recommend you view them all as they refer to the Lakes systems, Murray River, MDBA, water from Tassie to Melbourne, the Vic desalination plant, lies by politicians, etc, etc.

    I found them thought-provoking, even if one does not agree with the recommendations Topher makes.

  12. Jennifer April 18, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    Hi Sean,

    Put a lock or more barrages perhaps somewhere above Wellington?

    There are barrages on the Fitzroy River at Rockhampton about 80 kilometres upstream from the River’s mouth and just downstream of the town’s water supply… leaving lots of opportunity for a functioning estuary.

  13. Debbie April 18, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    That is one of the best explanations I have seen of the circular, nonsensical argument that is going on here!
    I’ll be blunt (and therefore put myself out on a limb)
    At the bottom of all of this is a political scrap over the control of storage space in dams when WATER GETS TIGHT!
    The scrap is essentially about who or what gets priority over whom or what when we are in LOW INFLOW SEQUENCES.
    The ‘Environment’, very unfortunately, is being used as a convenient and popular leverage tool.
    Jennifer has done a superb job of pointing out that the ‘environmental argument’ is not making any sense ‘enviromentally’
    This scrap has been framed as an attack on the ‘evil irrigators’ who have stolen water from the rivers.
    Personally, I am very grateful to Jennifer for her courage to speak up loudly about this.

    The reality is that our storage and conservation and diversion infrastructures have gone past their ‘use by’ dates.
    In BELOW AVERAGE INFLOW YEARS, they are NO LONGER ABLE TO SUPPLY all the extra demands that GROWTH over the entire MDB has created. (sorry for shouting!!!!!)
    The storage systems were NOT (REPEAT NOT!!) built to assist flooding and flushing or to keep the lower lakes fresh.
    They were built to help PROTECT us from the extremes of our land ‘of drought and flooding rains’.
    If we use them for these new ‘environmental’ (AKA political) purposes, there will be radically (I mean RADICALLY) reduced agricultural production in AVERAGE TO BELOW AVERAGE INFLOW YEARS. (sorry, I’m shouting again!!!!!)
    If a further 3,000 to 4,000GL gets earmarked as storage priority for flushing then THE FARMERS WILL BE KICKED OUT OF ACCESS TO WATER AT EXACTLY THE TIME THEY WOULD NEED IT TO FARM!!! (sorry)
    If that’s what Australia really wants, then go ahead!
    It may cause some fairly unpleasant side effects.
    Paradoxically, as Jennifer points out, it won’t help to keep those lower lakes in better environmental health either.
    Neither the environment or Agriculture puts pressure on the system when we have above average inflows.
    I believe that part of the misunderstanding is coming from the fact that most people do not understand that the ‘timing’ of water allocations is probably more important than the ‘% volume’ of water allocations.

    I also agree with ‘the spirit’ of Sean’s comment.
    Those dams were very definitely built to protect fresh water supplies for towns and cities, stock and domestic and agriculture.
    We also have the bonus of power production.
    It is important to protect freshwater supplies for critical human needs.
    The recent drought has just taught us that we need to do more about this as well.

  14. Susan April 18, 2011 at 5:04 pm #

    The distance between Lock 1 at Blanchetown and the next controllable water management structure, aka Barrages is 274 km. The distance between locks and weirs on other parts of the river range from 29-88km apart. Check out this map:


    Seems to me there is plenty of room for a couple of weirs/locks and this should be re-examined to help the people and townships along the Lower Murray.

    One of the reasons another weir/lock is resisted by Lower Lake farmers is they see any weir as a pre-cursor to a salt water ‘invasion’ into the Lower Lakes.

  15. wes george April 18, 2011 at 5:44 pm #

    The hypocrisy of the self-proclaimed “environmentalists” proves that their agenda is wholly political and socio-economic and has nothing to do with what the “natural” state of the estuary ecosystem was or should be restored to again.

    But we can be sure that if these barrages weren’t a political expediency for the Greens that righteous calls for civil disobedience would have gone out long ago and who would be surprised if the barrages were blown up to let the Southern Ocean reclaim what was once her own?

  16. John Sayers April 18, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    Surely the location of the barrage/weir/lock is local politic. It doesn’t matter where, so long as it’s built.

  17. John Sayers April 18, 2011 at 6:39 pm #

    “let the Southern Ocean reclaim what was once her own?”

    giving a piece of the earth a gender eh wes?

  18. Debbie April 18, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    I totally agree John,
    It should be decided locally.
    They do have to actually have the courage (and the vision) to make the decision however.
    Recent history definitely indicates that some more regulation and some common sense is sorely needed in SA.

  19. el gordo April 18, 2011 at 7:47 pm #

    Arlene ‘went on about climate change.’

    More drought?

  20. Jennifer Marohasy April 18, 2011 at 8:21 pm #

    El Gordo, Arlene went on with lots of nonsense regarding climate change even claiming that everything the experts had said would happen was now coming to pass. Is that denial or what? She did at some point acknowledge that it had rained and that the drought had broken but just in passing…

  21. el gordo April 18, 2011 at 9:21 pm #

    It’s a worry.

    Good to see the sceptics party organize this Monckton tour, there’s life in them yet.

  22. Luke April 18, 2011 at 11:14 pm #

    OK Jen – one can imagine some local farmers getting upset about changes to their freshwater availability from the lake – but surely small in comparison to the overall net benefit – but otherwise the proposition seems compelling to put a weir at Wellington and open the barrages.

    So what then is the essence of the opposing argument – can you frame it?

  23. Sean April 18, 2011 at 11:54 pm #

    The local farmers no longer have to rely on the Lower Lakes for freshwater as they now have new piplines. The potable water is supplied from Tailem Bend and extentions have been added to the Strathalbyn line that comes from Murray Bridge and Hindmarsh Island from the Myponga Reservoir. A new irrigation pipeline has been laid from Jervois through to Currency Creek, the State and Commonwealth Governments put in $93 million and the irrigators raised $13 million.

  24. dennis webb April 19, 2011 at 12:01 am #

    OK Luke – Try the ‘Hurry Save the Murray’ website for the freshwater arguments. But don’t believe all of what is written at that site. http://hurrysavethemurray.com/

  25. el gordo April 19, 2011 at 7:30 am #

    Thanx for that link Dennis.

    So in a nutshell they are not in favor of weirs and blame the agriculturalists upstream for over-allocation.

    They say plan for floods, because that is mana from heaven, while droughts are human induced. Did I get that right?

  26. Sean April 19, 2011 at 11:08 am #

    el gordo

    How about the Greens they don’t believe in dams re The Franklin River but believe in barrages because we must protect the RAMSAR agreement as they must be fresh water, which is not true. A Liberal Premier used RAMSAR to obtain a guarateed 1850 GL ( per year )of water for S.A. of which 200 GL was to be used for Adelaide’s and states water supply. A much cheaper way of storing water than building new reservoirs.
    We all know that this agreement has done zilch to help the Coorong.

  27. Allan Taylor April 19, 2011 at 12:33 pm #

    The MDB problem is often there is a shortage of water. Lateral thinking is required … only by a few kilometers. At the end of the Murray River is the Great Southern Ocean having an infinite supply of water … good clean sea water which floats your boat and has umpteen edible fish (not carp or redfin). Therefore it is sensible to use this vast resource to solve the Lower Lakes problem. The objective must be to maintain the water level of the Lower Lakes by allowing sea water to come in during times of drought, which is probably about 70% of the time, and develop the region for fishing and aquaculture.
    The mismanagement of the Lower Lakes is a disgrace and must be changed. Tell RAMSAR to get lost because in Oz we control our own economic destiny, without bunkum emanating from it, or the UN, or other mind-contracted undemocratic eco-religious entity.
    Much can be learnt from studying how other countries develop their aquaculture and coastal shipping. I suggest a study of Chilean developments in this regard. What we do here in South Australia is pathetic .

  28. Stewie April 19, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    Jennifer, you said that the Australian Conservation Foundation, through Arlene believe this,

    ‘In other words she claims, against a significant published literature, that the lakes proper have never been filled naturally with seawater from the Southern Ocean.’

    Is this a fine example of true/gross denial? Using this as the context, can I be concerned for this persons mental state or in the very least their ability to ‘manage the environment’, after showing such gross ignorance? So bizarre must her mental processes be, one might question what the letters Dr. mean, that precede her name. They seem to indicate an intelligent person. But her comments are way to the contrary.

    Alas, we know this isn’t denial but a reflection of the state of politics and governance in Australia. This isn’t denial or ignorance. It’s deliberate. I grew up being taught this was lying. Not the little white lie type. A big, fat, obviously orchestrated, stinking lie. Such a lie you almost feel embarrassed for the person.

    We have to stop this obvious crap.

    In this land of large scale floods at one end and large scale bushfires at the other end, each of these events having a peak potential that can cause significant and destructive singular episodes that can ‘overwhelm’ large geographical areas and all the natural and manmade attributes within. With these issues, we don’t need a 4ft x 4ft. sign that says National Park nor some cleverly constucted sound byte.

    Facts. Facts and good, calm heads is needed. What have we got? Alarming, ‘what ever it takes’ politicians, in bed with headline seeking media interests, with depressing results.

    This Australian Conservation mob not only deny basic realities of our hyrological systems, they do the same with bushfires. They deny the significant effects aboriginals and fire stick farming have had on the evolution of fires in Australia. They also deny the history of bushfires and its peak destructive potential.
    We need to get these people, put them in front of a flood or fire and see if the ‘classic’ sound byte, park ranger shirt or do not enter sign sign does.

    None, zip, zero that comes from the environmentalists should be taken seriously. Which, as it turns out is very unfortunate for the environment.

    This land of droughts and flooding rains produce two outstanding and overwhelming events, bushfires and floods, with each of these events having a peak potential that can cause significant and destructive singular episodes that can ‘overwhelm’ large geographical areas and all the natural and manmade attributes within. These two events demand our attention. They demand proper attention. Not these up themselves, attention seeking, self-appointed environmentalists.

    While these environmentalists deny hydrogical realities of Australia’s major flood prone waterways, they also deny bushfire history and potential. They are on the record, downplaying the role aboriginals played in the evolution of fire in Australia.

    Whi political animal, that is so far up itself that it can deny basic hydrology/ecology laws, while pretending to ‘save’ the lakes,

  29. Stewie April 19, 2011 at 12:38 pm #


    You were not supposed to cut and paste the last 3 paras of your last post. Whoops.



  30. Susan April 19, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    I’ve noticed a distinct shift in the tone of reports coming out of CSIRO, SARDI, PIRSA, CLLMM, MDBA, etc.

    Looking at the older reports around 2000-2004. There is an acknowledgement that the barrages cut the estuary down to 10% of it’s former size and that it used to be tidal. They refer to the lakes as ‘previously estuarine lakes’. The reports from this time frame note that the distinct change from fresh to sea water caused by the barrages is a problem for the environment.

    But look at the more recent ,reports since about 2006. The lakes have a ‘fresh history’ and all the problems are from a ‘lack of freshwater flows over the barrages’, etc.


  31. Debbie April 19, 2011 at 10:20 pm #

    How very convenient to be able to change the history to suit the current political climate.
    How strange that it suddenly became a fresh history at the very same time we had record low inflows.
    Methinks that people are speaking and reporting with forked tongues!
    I wish I could change recorded history to suit my changing situation!
    Maybe I should join the MDBA or SARDI or PIRSA or CLLMM or maybe even ACF?
    They could teach me how to do it!

  32. el gordo April 21, 2011 at 5:24 pm #

    ‘How very convenient to be able to change the history to suit the current political climate.’

    “Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.”
    – George Orwell, 1984, Book 1, Chapter 3

  33. Debbie April 22, 2011 at 9:13 am #

    Good pick el gordo,
    It was only yesterday that my Mother said we should all pull out 1984 and read it again.
    It seems it is modern, urbanised and politicized mankind who is interested in creating and mainaining some type of cerebral balance and control.
    Our climate, our environment and our history are not interested in co-operating!
    Therefore, it seems, it becomes necessary to manipulate what really happened to suit what ‘they’ think should have happened.
    Our definition of ‘balance’ and nature’s definition of ‘balance’ are obviously not the same.
    I have a feeling that the definitons of ‘sustainable’ may be at odds with each other as well!
    There really isn’t a magic, utopian and balanced environment. That environment lives inside people’s heads and presumably inside predictive computer models.
    If you actually live and work in the natural environment you quickly learn that it is always in a state of flux and we must get better at adapting to it and controlling it where we can.
    If you don’t learn this lesson, you don’t survive for long.
    We do make mistakes, we always have, but we’re also not bad at fixing them if given the chance.
    If we allow people to reinvent the past, we can’t learn from our mistakes and we also can’t fix them.
    Arlene’s power point presentation looks alarmingly like something straight out of Orwell’s 1984.
    It has very little connection to the real MDB environment.
    It is tightly connected to the computer modeled and highly politicized MDB debate.
    How extremely odd that Arlene of ACF appears to be a politician and Jennifer who often gets accused of being too political is talking about the actual environment.

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