Honest Politician Needed to Champion Removal of Murray Mouth Barrages

For years now I’ve been writing about the barrages, really sea dykes, that block inflows from the Southern Ocean making the vast shallow coastal lagoons at the end of the Murray River completely dependent on Murray River inflows. Without the dykes the sea would push in each autumn and for longer periods during drought.[1]

Somewhat disappointingly for me there is not one state or federal politician who will take up this issue of the Lower Lakes and in particular how the current management of Lake Alexandrina as an artificial freshwater oasis is unsustainable.

That was my message to Labor, Liberal, National and Greens Senators and MPs representing voters from across the Murray Darling when I visited Canberra in July last year. My trip was funded by Johnny Kahlbetzer from Twynam Agricultural Group. My message was that:

1. The health of a river system is more than the quantity of water flowing downstream;
2. Current management of Lake Alexandrina as an artificial freshwater oasis is unsustainable; and
3. Restoring the Murray River’s estuary must be a priority in any Murray Darling Basin Plan.

I was surprised to learn that all the politicians seemed to know about the barrages: the 7.6 kilometres of sea dyke that hold back the tide.

And they mostly agreed when I suggested that much of the current water reform agenda is based on a false premise because the water being ‘saved’ is likely to end up in Lake Alexandrina that is not a natural environment.

But the same politicians said restoring the estuary would be too hard, too political, and it was potentially a vote loser in South Australia.

It is South Australian government policy that Lake Alexandrina be considered a freshwater lake. This story goes right back to the foundation myths associated with the settlement of South Australia. Potential migrants were encouraged to buy land, sight unseen, on the basis that Lake Alexandrina was a fresh water lake and had a reliably navigable passage to the sea. Both untrue.

South Australians have never come to terms with the true nature of the Lower Murray and they have just made things worst by building the sea dykes so they avoid any discussion of the associated issues. More recently they have learnt it is popular to blame upstream irrigation for Lake Alexandrina running out of fresh water and the Murray Mouth closing over.

If the proposed Murray Darling basin water plan goes ahead in its current form it will be just building on this nonsense. Its time a politician, someone, spoke in the Australian parliament about these issues. As long as the current farce continues we are all the poorer, but particularly agricultural interests in the Murray Darling.

Yet agricultural interests continue to fail to speak up on this issue.  As I explained in January this year [2] industry leaders are behaving like turkeys…

ONCE upon a time there was a turkey that lived in a pen. Every morning a farmer brought food and water and talked to the turkey with soothing words.

The turkey thought it was special and would always be looked after.

Then one Christmas Eve, the farmer came with an axe instead of food.

Many organisations in rural Australia behave like turkeys. They are happily taking money from government believing they will keep getting fed. Of course government is handing out a lot of money at the moment.

In return, organisations might complain publicly just a bit about government. But mostly these organisations keep sending their representatives off to meetings and their leaders happily sit down with Ministers who feed them soothing words.

All the while, at the behest of environmental groups, Commonwealth and State governments, whether Coalition or Labour, have continued in the past decade or two to enact regulation and legislation that undermines food production.

It’s justified on the basis that environmentalists are the good guys, while farmers exploit natural resources for profit.

In the next few months there is an opportunity for some farm organisations to stop behaving as turkeys and instead bite the hand that has fed them so generously over the last year. It would involve calling the bluff of the Commonwealth Government over the Murray Darling water plan.

Instead of complaining politely about the plan on the basis industry might lose some water, what about rural leaders pointing out the obvious: that the plan will deliver no environmental benefit until something is done about the 7.6 kilometres of concrete barrage that sits across the bottom of the Lower Lakes?

Anyone vaguely familiar with this issue knows that Murray Darling Basin Authority boss Craig Knowles and Water Minister Tony Burke – and even Opposition leader Tony Abbot and Opposition water spokesman Barnaby Joyce – don’t want the issue of the barrages or the Lower Lakes raised in polite discussion.

It could cost them votes in South Australia. So industry and community leaders leave it well alone.

But with the New Year it’s time for a new approach: it’s time industry leaders took the high moral ground for once and confronted the issue of the barrages that have destroyed the River Murray’s estuary.

And while they are doing the right thing, they should sign the Rivers Need Estuaries petition of the Australian Environment Foundation, link here.

[1] My recent report ‘Plugging the Murray’s Mouth: The Interrupted Evolution of a Barrier Estuary’ can be downloaded here: http://jennifermarohasy.com/publications/
[2] First published in The Land, page 13, Thursday, January 5, 2012

22 Responses to Honest Politician Needed to Champion Removal of Murray Mouth Barrages

  1. AndrewS March 23, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

    I wonder why The Greens are not all over this? I would have thought returning the lakes to their natural state would be one of their top priorities. Apparently not.

  2. David Joss March 23, 2012 at 1:07 pm #

    Jennifer said:
    “More recently they have learnt it is popular to blame upstream irrigation for Lake Alexandrina running out of fresh water and the Murray Mouth closing over.”
    They’ve been at it for a lot longer than that.
    A report in the Adelaide Advertiser on 26 July 1902 claimed:
    “The chief cause of the low and saline state of the lakes can be found without much seeking. It is undoubtedly due to the very extensive diversions of the waters of the Murray and its tributaries throughout the whole year – at times of both winter and summer flow – in the State of Victoria.”
    1902 was at the height of the great Federation drought.
    On 19 August a river boat owner named Landseer told the Advertiser emphatically that it was not the irrigators but the drought which was the problem. He seems to have been the only South Australian who was convinced — the paper continued to quote people blaming interstate extraction and two years later the S A parliament was debating a Barrages Bill.

  3. Sean March 23, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    Good too see we now have a link to the crawling stage ( petition ) of the Lower Lakes.

  4. jennifer March 23, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    David Joss

    I guess the words “more recently” are not an accurate description.

    And while I am cutting and pasting from my The Land columns. The following is from June last year and answers the question of extractions/diversions for irrigation back in time…

    The latest piece of nonsense is from Dean Brown, South Australian Liberal Premier from 1993 to 1996, claiming in last week’s The Land that without the barrages there wouldn’t be enough sea water coming in through the Murray mouth, or fresh water down the river, and so the lakes would become hypersaline (The big barrage question, June 16, page 12).

    It may be the case that during drought there is not enough water coming down the river, but as long as the barrages are open the Southern Ocean will push in.

    This has been the case at least since European settlement and it is the same situation with the large east-coast Rivers including the Fitzroy in Central Queensland and the Clarence in Northern NSW.

    These rivers don’t have barrages crippling their estuaries and so during periods of low river flow, seawater may extend a significant distance upstream. It’s completely natural and healthy and the sign of a functioning estuary – only in South Australia do politicians blame upstream irrigators.

    Indeed, some South Australians blame the 1915 drought on upstream irrigators, never mind that there was no water for anyone that year.

    The stop-start nature of early irrigation schemes – the 1891 scheme on the Goulburn River failed and the Chaffey brothers’ scheme at Renmark collapsed in 1894 – meant there were no significant upstream diversions until about 1925.

    The Murray Darling Basin Authority estimates diversions to have been in the vicinity of 2,400 gigalitres at that time – not the 6,120 gigalitres quoted by whinging South Australian politicians.

    According to Warren Martin, former NSW Deputy Director General Water Resources, writing in ‘Water Policy History on the Murray River’, the annual diversion to NSW and Victoria were only 350 gigalitres in 1920, rising to 880 gigalitres in 1930.

    Of course the amount of water diverted for irrigation upstream varies with the amount of water in storage. This past summer, following the flooding rains, there was water for upstream irrigators and also more than 50,000 megalitres per day flowing down the Goolwa channel and out the Murray’s Mouth – with the barrages opened at last.

    In the last few weeks a crane has been working to lift the heavy concrete blocks that are the barrage gates back into place.

    The barrages aren’t being closed because of a lack of freshwater from upstream, but because of concerns about seawater coming in.

    That’s right. Despite the flood conditions, flow reversals have been occurring causing increasing salinity upstream.

    Goolwa resident, Ian Rowan, has been watching the tides and the salinity levels.

    Mr Rowan noticed that between May 16 and 21 [2011] the spring tides caused flow reversals at every high tide with corresponding salinity increases to about 12 km upstream. Then on May 22 an intense low pressure system associated with a west to southerly wind of up to 40 knots blew in and salinity levels increased to over 35,000 EC units upstream of the Mundoo, Boundary Creek, Ewe Island and Tauwitcherie barrages.

    Indeed given the recent history of the region it beggars belief that Mr Brown could try and suggest without the barrages the Lower Lakes would become a dead sea.

    The truth is that the best way to ensure the Lower Lakes don’t become hypersaline during drought is to open the barrages and let the Southern Ocean roll in as it once did naturally. ” End of quote from that The Land column.

  5. will gray March 23, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

    Would SA be threatened with less water if the barrages were gone and the ‘green army went to work’ on restoration?
    What is the SIMPLE plan?

  6. Susan March 23, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

    This letter to the editor from 1892 is from a local landowner near Lake Albert. There were plenty of irrigation schemes being discussed at the time. Direct and to the point…

    “Sir — Refering to the discussion which has taken place respecting the Milang irrigation scheme and the lake water I may say that I have known the lake since 1854, and have been interested in land around it ever since, and have known it salt many times. At the present only salt water fish are to be caught in Lake Alexandrina which shows salt at the present time (and always is more or less when the up rivers are low and winds a certain way). At any rate the water as it is is quite good enough to irrigate the abominable land proposed for irrigation. If even that water was used for the purpose it could not be made worse than 99 per cent of it is at the present time, for a blade of grass will not grow on it, say nothing about a crop of any other sort. Good water would be only wasted on such a barren soil.

    I am, Sir. &c, THOMAS DODD


  7. Hasbeen March 23, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

    I can actually remember when Noosa estuary was fresh.The sand dune between the river /lake, & the sea was not some minor sandbank thrown up by the tide, but a hundred foot high wide dune system.

    We were there in 46. It was dads demob holiday, our first time together after my father came out of the air force. Our 2 week holiday among the sand flies at Tewantin was rudely interrupted by the tail end of a cyclone that came down the coast.

    We watched in awe as the waves rolled right over the dunes & into the lake. Ultimately they cut through, & Noosa had an estuary.

    I remember asking dad why the locals were so upset, if they could now get out to sea. Evidently they reckoned “they’d all be ruined”, with a salt estuary, rather than an almost fresh lake.

    Noosa would still be a sleepy sand fly ally today, if that opening had nor occurred. I wonder if we could get some of that SA lot, to come to Noosa & see how good for business, an estuary can be?

  8. John Sayers March 23, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

    Yes – stories from the oldies around the Tweed river spoke of pure white sand rivers where you could see the fish under you. The Teranora lakes were pure white as there was no runoff from stormwater drains and rivers with cattle on the edges and there would have been no weir creating a saltwater barrage so who knows how far up the river the saltwater went in times of drought.

  9. jennifer March 23, 2012 at 9:25 pm #


    I visited the mouth of the Noosa River a few hours ago.

    There is now a rock wall and sand pumping to keep the mouth open.

    And neither the local government nor Queensland government asks the Commonwealth to pay. Amazingly the SA government gets not only the Commonwealth, but also the Victorian and NSW governments, to pay for the Murray’s mouth to be dredged.

  10. Debbie March 24, 2012 at 11:12 am #

    Good point Jen,
    We do need to point out that a CBA may indicate that it is far more cost effective and sensible to pay for dredging and mitigation works at the Murray Mouth rather than spending billions on re appropriating water from upstream and making it a highly cumbersome and expensive problem for the whole nation.
    The recent drought has taught us that it probably won’t help much anyway.
    As you have often said, other coastal communities, Noosa being just one example, have taken responsibility and turned their position into an advantage.
    SA seems to want to make it a total disadvantage and to paint themselves as a victim of everyone else.
    It doesn’t need to be.

  11. Magwitch March 24, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

    “”SA seems to want to make it a total disadvantage and to paint themselves as a victim of everyone else.
    It doesn’t need to be.””

    Quite so Debbie

    Its even more true now that they have mis- spent many billions to build a huge de sal plant, and the re designed/rebuilt the distribution net work all based upon the idiot advice/predictions of people like the now Climate Change Commissioner Flip Flop Flannery and other government advisers such as Prof Barry Brooks for example.

    There is only one or two other problems to consider however, like the massive increase in power costs as result of windmiling it all, plus the fact that inmates are going have to dig even deeper to afford the already higher water bills, on top of the power.

    On top of this we are going to have to suffer the costs and imbalances created by Combet,Swan and Gillard Carbon Tax regime.

    So whether or not the barrages are open or closed is neither here or there, its a minor matter in the whole scheme of all the other disasters imposed upon the people of SA by the idiot Labor/Green machine.

    I think SA is basically stuffed… courtesy of the greens and the GW shonkademics at both that State and Federal levels. So pull the plug if you think it wll be a net benefit…frankly who gives a toss.

    Lets hope Labour gets a drubbing in Qld and we can this country back on an even keel being run by people who put the national interest first and know how to do CBA

  12. John Sayers March 24, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    On Simon Marnie’s ABC radio morning programme he was discussing what seafood was available and it was mentioned that Coorong flounder were abundant at the moment.

  13. Susan March 24, 2012 at 3:30 pm #


    I think ‘abundant’ is a relative thing with the Coorong flounder. The freshwater flow coming down the river is most likely helping the Coorong estuary, but the overall lack of habitat due to the barrages is the culprit no one in SA will admit to.

    But I found this:

    “6.2.5 Potential environmental influences on catches of greenback flounder

    The abundance of greenback flounder in the Coorong lagoons may be related to freshwater
    inflow from the Murray River and the available area of estuarine habitat (Hall 1984; Pierce
    and Doonan 1999). In South Australia, in the 1940’s, a series of barrages were constructed
    between the mouth of the Murray River and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert that effectively
    reduced the area of estuarine habitat to 11% of its original size. It is likely that this severely
    reduced the area of habitat available for greenback flounder.”

    In 1976-77 the catch was 232 tonnes.

    Since 2005 the commercial catch of flounder has gone from 7 tonnes to ONE tonne in 2009/2010.

    From: http://www.sardi.sa.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/73198/rd06_00081_greenback_flounder.pdf


    Imagine the fishery that the Lakes would be if they were restored to estuaries.

  14. Sean March 24, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

    The river is not only fresh it is now sexy. I love Murray campaign continues.
    http://www.adelaidenow.com.au then click on the video.
    Some of us in S.A. are still trying work out if it is the tennis player or is it loving “The Advertiser”.
    RIVER doesn’t get mention. Must be a printing era

  15. Ian George March 25, 2012 at 10:41 am #

    Downloaded the MDR basin rainfall off the BOM site from 1900-2010. Here are some interesting facts.

    Long-term overall average (ie 1900-2011) for the area is 471mls (the average the BOM uses is the 1961-1990 mean average rainfall which is slightly higher than the 1900-2011 average).
    Not one decade from 1901-1950 reached the average rainfall – either the overall average or the 1961-1990 mean.

    Driest decade 1921-1930: 437mls
    Next driest decade 1931-1940: 438mls
    This decade 2001-2010: 444mls
    The 13 year drought (1997-2009) touted by most pundits as the worst ever had an annual average of 445mls. The 1937-1949 dry period/drought had an annual average of only 420mls.

    The only part they got right was the period 2000-2009 with only 418mls. The period 1940-1949 was almost the same – 421mls.

    So the MDR basin may have been drying since the 1970s (although 1991-2000 was the second wettest decade since 1900) but there has still been more rain since the 1950s than before that period.
    You can see for yourself here.

  16. Sean March 25, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

    The Adelaide Now web site has done it again. The Sunday Mail front page :- ” I love SNUB MURRAY” Caica rejects offer on waterway’s future.
    The State Government turned down invitations to have senior staff embedded in the drafting of the Murray-Darling plan ( Twice ). MDBA authority was prepared to meet costs of the secondment.

  17. Debbie March 25, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    I truly feel sorry for SA Sean.
    The politics surrounding this issue are absolutely woeful.
    Isn’t any politician there interested in coming up with some practical long term plans?
    Everyone just seems to want to complain and bluster.
    Had to laugh at your first link.
    Classic example of self justification.
    I think they did actually think it was ‘love the ’tiser’ 🙂 🙂

  18. Alan Herath March 26, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

    G’day to All who have commented on this site,
    I am an ex Victorian irrigator and retired water resources engineer having worked for water authorities in Canberra during the Basin wide 1967 drought, then in the Northern Territory and finally in Adelaide.
    While I have been a long time critic of the Lower Lakes what do you all think of the fact that SA has not taken any more water out of the River Murray since the 1967 drought (and has actually removed alot of the previous extraction capacity in irrigation licences that was not being used up to that time), in comparison with our Premier’s claim that upstream States have allocated an additional 5000GL per annum since that time?
    The Lower Lakes are perhaps a separate issue in that in a dry year SA extracts only around 700 GL for both irrigation and urban water use annually from the Murray with evaporation and evapotransporation from the River accounting for around 1150 GL (mostly from the Lower Lakes). This occurs when SA receives only its Entitlement flow when the River is fully regulated – usually in a drought, such that there is no water available to spill to the Coorong or thru the Murray Mouth unless a decision was made to operate the Lower Lakes barrages in a different way,

  19. will gray March 26, 2012 at 4:12 pm #

    Hi all.
    having read mosts threads on this issue ive come to understand:
    Native esturine fish stocks have collapsed.
    Many decades ago, contraversy over water security and a convoluted political climate in SA, lead to the current management of the lower lakes. The land directly to benifit was of lesser grade for most agricultural production. Cow grazing doesn’t need to have a huge fresh water lake nearby.
    This friction regarding inflow times and outflow times is meaningless. Why judge a tidal mix? It will be what it is!
    If one were to remove completely any trace of human structures and send in the Climate Change (green work for the dole) Army, it would prove interesting.
    Hey Bob Brown are/were a hero- REMEMDER the Franklin campaign but in reverse.
    Rant over.

  20. Derek Smith March 26, 2012 at 7:04 pm #

    Hi Jen, great interview on counterpoint this evening. Duffy’s comments didn’t make Holmes look too good.
    Amazing that so many scientists are so scared of speaking the truth, says something about our so-called ‘enlightened’ society.
    Keep up the good work.

  21. Susan March 26, 2012 at 8:08 pm #


    I think you’ve about summed it up. I thought it ironic that ‘native fish’ in Australia only relates to freshwater species. Not much attention is given to those mysterious species that bridge saltwater and freshwater, ie. estuarine. Just give them a ladder…

    Mulloway, flounder, congolli are all down due to the lack of estuarine habitat in the Lower Lakes.

    Instead of trying to make the Lakes ‘fresh’ and worrying about salinity, they should be watching pollution and nitrogen levels for an estuary.

    The Goolwa Cockle season is closed due to ecoli now for the last month.

  22. Sean March 28, 2012 at 9:52 am #

    Borman and Harvey of the Adelaide Uni. have just made their second submission to the MDBA and it is an engineering option of automating the Mudoo Barrage gates.
    Maybe you should have a word with these people re an engineering solution for Lock Zero below Tailem Bend.

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