The Prime Minister, John Howard, has called a summit to discuss the water crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin.
The meeting, being held as I write this blog, was apparently triggered by the NSW government decision to suspend water trading on the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers and the low state of the dams in New South Wales and Victoria.
According to Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, the big dams on the river will be just about empty by Autumn if it doesn’t rain.
Leader of the Australian Greens Bob Brown is claiming there has been a problem for years, the government has done nothing, and “seventy per cent of the river red gums along the Murray are either dead or dying.”
There are a few dead red gums along the Murray. But anyone who lives along the river, regularly visits the river, or saw the recent ABC series ‘Two Men in a Tinnie’ would know most of the river red gums along both the Darling and Murray Rivers are very much alive.
Another huge porkie from Mr Brown! Another piece of misleading, probably originally from the MDBC.
What seems to have been forgotten in all the recent hand wringing is that just last October the NSW and Victorian governments – the same governments who this year are complaining their dams are empty – made the world’s largest delivery of environmental water letting the equivalent of a Sydney Harbor of water flood the Barmah-Millewa red gum forest which straddles the Murray River upstream of Echuca.
According to a Victorian government report on water operations: “The joint release saw 513 gigalitres of water delivered to the forest and the inundation of over half of the forest floodplain, resulting in greatly improved condition for wetland vegetation and breeding activity for key wetland fauna. Wetland vegetation, including moira grass and the threatened wavy marshwort, responded with significantly improved condition and the flooding waters provided for new growth and canopy regeneration in stressed river red gums. The release also triggered large reproductive events in important native fish species such as golden perch and the threatened silver perch as well as in many water bird species, including the great egret, darters, spoonbills, grebes, ibis and cormorants, and the critically endangered intermediate egret.”
All this during one of the worst droughts on record!
Then there is the water being sucked up from regrowth following the January 2003 bushfires in the upper catchment, new plantations, groundwater licences being activated by farmers who can now trade that water, improved on-farm water use efficiency and recycling some of this in place because of a past fear of rising groundwater tables*, water being evaporated by the Murray Darling Basin Commission’s salt interception schemes and low rainfall …and it is not that surprising that the region has a chronic water shortage.
But rather than do a proper water audit and work out the relative contribution of these factors which have probably all contributed to the current problem, governments and many key commentators keep blaming climate change. Yet the rainfall record for the MDB doesn’t show an abnormal decline.**
Rainfall record for the Murray Darling Basin from 1900 to the end of 2005.
South Australian Premier Mike Rann said he would use today’s summit to ensure water reached the bottom of the Murray-Darling basin. Yeah, many South Australians see the river as nothing more than an channel for getting water from the Hume and Dartmouth dams to Adelaide and their wine grape growers.
But sorry Mr Rann, noone can ensure that their will be water for South Australia if the dams run dry.
In advance of the summit, the National Farmers Federation Executive Director, Ben Fargher, put out a media release saying, “As a first priority, we need to ensure that towns which support regional communities have certainty over water supply. “There must also be a clear strategy to effectively manage core breeding stock, permanent plantings and other production issues in order to protect Australia’s agricultural base through this unprecedented drought.”
But that’s also impossible Mr Fargher if there is no water.
If the Murray runs dry next year it would be devastating for farmers and rural communities that draw their water from the river, but it would not be a disaster for the environment. Australian rivers run dry. Water levels in the Murray River have been artificially high so far this drought, because of the dams and weirs.
The Murray River at Riversdale in 1914.
The Murray River at Riversdale early this year.
Here’s some really ridiculous commentary from an article in last week’s The Age to illustrate the extent to which our politicians and environmentalists seem to not really care or understand the issue. They don’t seem to understand that if you don’t have any water, there will be none to save, and none for the environment. The article follows an announcement by Mr Turnbull inviting farmers and irrigators to participate in an “excess water scheme”.
“The scheme will provide an incentive for those with water entitlements in the southern Murray-Darling Basin to cut their water use.
Farmers could switch from flood-irrigating an orchard to using water drippers, for example, and sell the water they saved from their entitlements to the Federal Government.
… Peter Cosier, from the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, slammed the tender, claiming it was “too complex” and “too bureaucratic”.
Mr Cosier said Australia was “way behind” its target to return 500 billion litres to the Murray River by 2009. “We don’t have time to muck around with inefficient grant schemes because they are not delivering water for the environment.”
… Opposition environment spokesman Anthony Albanese said that while Labor supported buying water, the Murray needed water now, not in 2009.
… Meanwhile, the Murray-Darling Water Crisis Management Council warned that the Hume Dam – a source of water to many towns and now at only 11 per cent capacity – would run dry in 24 weeks unless all environmental flows down the Murray were suspended.”
No Mr Albanese, the river doesn’t need water now, it’s all the industries that have grown up along the river that need water now. Without the dams and weirs built for these same industries the river would have already run dry.
* I explain how past policies driven by a fear of rising groundwater and spreading salinity may have artificially dehydrated the landscape in a piece I recently wrote for OLO: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=5076 .
** I have recently explained that blaming the current drought on climate change is indeed drawing a long bow in a piece for the Courier Mail: http://www.news.com.au/couriermail/story/0,23739,20678328-27197,00.html