I have received a barrage of excuses as to why the Lower Lakes at the bottom of the Murray River should remain fresh rather than removing the barrages and letting the area fill with seawater, as suggested in ‘Basin barrage of bad ideas” (The Land, November 4, pg. 26).
And I’ve made a few enquiries, to understand why, for example, the government and the opposition remain silent on the issue.
Advisors to both major political parties tell me that the barrages are far too contentious an issue, even for discussion, and that advocating the removal of the barrages could cost them important votes in South Australia.
Ask your average South Australian about removing the barrages and they may have no idea what you are talking about or harp on about how if there was no upstream irrigation there would always be flow down the Murray River and then no need for the barrages.
Indeed, such flawed reasoning suggests a need for discussion because no one can guarantee flow down the river particularly without the infrastructure built for irrigation.
One resident of Milang, SA, a small town on the shores of Lake Albert, emailed me he wouldn’t like to see the barrages removed because the local caravan park might be inundated with sea water. He explained sea levels have risen since the barrages were installed over seventy years ago.
But not enough I assured him, to flood the caravan park.
Phew! Imagine if it really did come down to a choice between irrigated agriculture across NSW and Victoria or the Milang caravan park.
Another wayward excuse comes from NSW Irrigators’ Council.
Their leadership claims nothing can be done about the barrages because the Lower Lakes are listed as a freshwater wetland in an international inter-governmental treaty.
But the Ramsar Convention can allow for the protection of wetlands whether they are coastal, estuarine or freshwater and I suggest the Irrigators Council petition for the current listing to be changed to estuarine.
Of course, the National Irrigators’ Council doesn’t want discussion of the issue for fear of offending its South Australian members, but surely the few remaining dairy farmers who draw from the Lower Lakes could be persuaded to have their water piped in.
I’m saving the barb for worst excuse for keeping the barrages, though for Rob Freeman, CEO of the Murray Darling Basin Authority and his comment at the Narrabri community consultative meeting that the barrages must stay because there is no scientific justification for removing them.
He is plain wrong and should start reading some science, perhaps beginning with the scientific report, River Murray Barrages, commissioned by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, (edited by Anne Freeman et al.), published in 2000, which explains how the barrages are the cause of serious degradation of the Lower Lakes and Coorong.
A version of this article was first published in The Land on November 11, 2010.