I stayed in a house by the Murray River just upstream from Barham in the Central Murray Valley in November 2007. Every morning I drank a large glass of water from the kitchen tap; water that had been pumped straight from the river. The water tasted fine, and I didn’t get sick.
In the afternoon, I sometimes swam in the river. It was deep and there was often a strong current because water was being released from Hume Dam.
The bird life was especially amazing, with wood ducks on the river, cockatoos and galahs on the lawn, superb blue wrens amongst the roses and red-rumped grass parrots in the red gums.
According to Penny Wong, then Minister for Climate Change and Water, the two-year period to November 2007 recorded the lowest ever inflow to the Murray River. Inflows during that period were 43 percent lower than previous record lows which occurred at the end of 1938.
Given at the height of the drought there was water in the Murray river, and that it was of such a high quality that I could drink it, a reasonable person might conclude that all things considered the Murray River was okay – even healthy.
But for the computer modelers at the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), it wouldn’t have mattered if I had died of dysentery drinking that water. Their only concern – the only concern of the models currently underpinning the new water plan, also known as the guide – is how much water goes down the river.
And while the bureaucrats claim the new guide is not about returning rivers to their natural state, in fact these models average and then compare quantities relative to a hypothetic pristine condition again defined solely in terms of amount of water. Any reduction in the amount of water is considered bad, so irrigation is automatically bad.
Some old-timers complain about the quality of the water in the rivers and streams of the Murray Darling Basin because they remember it before the carp.
This introduced fish has muddied the waters.
But the computer models don’t consider carp, or the resulting turbidity, and so this pest is irrelevant to the new guide.
As the newly-appointed head of the MDBA, Craig Knowles inherits the computer models.
And as the new boss, he ought to come to terms with how they work because they underpin the planning process which is unreasonable and illogical.
I suggest Mr Knowles begin by reading an important book by Aynsley Kellow, head of the School of Government, University of Tasmania, titled ‘Science and Public Policy: The Virtuous Corruption of Virtual Environmental Science’ (Edward Elgar, 2007).
It explains the history and limitation of the type of computer modeling that is currently obsessing the MDBA technicians.
Professor Kellow explains, in particular, the dangers of developing public policy on the basis of these tools.
Mr Knowles would do well to heed this advice and consider a planning process that incorporated not only the impact of carp, but may other aspects of the river’s ecology.
First published in The Land newspaper on February 3, 2011, page 31, under the title ‘Knowles needs to know models’
spangled drongo says
If rivers needed to flow to be healthy, no one could live west of the dividing range.
Hope Knowles can be independent enough to do what needs to be done but at least the weather is on his side.
Interesting article Jennifer and great that you have a regular column in the mainstream media to extend your knowledge to the wider community.
Most of us only have the letters to the editor section of local papers to give our 2 bobs worth and are not scientists so have less authority as well.
Here is my latest effort in a letter to the Sunraysia Daily that was published in a reduced form, but at least I got some points across.
We’ve heard a lot about the terrible drought in the Murray Darling Basin ( MDB )during the period 2000 to 2009, so let’s check out some facts from the Bureau of Meteorology rainfall record 1900 to 2010.
I’ve also used a graph from a CSIRO paper to take the record back a further five years to 1895.
1.The average rainfall from 1895 to 1904 (10 years ) = 408mm / year.
2.The average rainfall from 1935 to 1944 ( 10 years ) = 402 mm / year.
3.The average rainfall from 2000 to 2009 ( 10 years ) = 421mm / year.
4. The average rainfall from 1900 to 1949 ( 50 years ) = 443 mm /year.
5. The average rainfall from 1922 to 1946 ( 25 years ) = 421 mm/ year.
6. The average rainfall from 1985 to 2009 ( 25 years ) = 467mm / year.
7. The average rainfall from 1986 to 2010 ( 25 years ) = 481mm / year.
8. The average rainfall from 2001 to 2010 ( 10 years ) = 445 mm / year.
From the above we can see that this recent 2000 to 2009 drought wasn’t unprecedented or unusual over a period of 116 years.
In fact there were two ten year periods that had lower average rainfall totals than 2000 to 2009.
Of course the average rainfall ( 421mm )from 1922 to 1946 ( 25 years ) is the same average as our last drought, ( 2000 to 2009 ) but 15 years longer duration.
Incredibly the addition of the 796mm total rainfall from 2010 lifts the 10 year average 2001 to 2010 to 445mm.
Little wonder that Dick Condon ( “Out Of The West”) called the 1900 to 1945 period in the western division of NSW the “horror years”, when compared to the 1950 to 2000 period. The western division covers a large part of the MDB.
We have just experienced the strongest La nina since 1917 ( 93 years ) and the 2010 Indian Ocean dipole ( IOD )changed to the negative phase ( more rainfall over SE Australia ) for the first time since 1992 ( according to UNSW) or 1996 ( according to BOM )
Also the -PDO, responsible in part for the wettest periods of MDB rainfall ( 1950’s and 1970’s ) has now changed to the cooler negative phase after being in the warmer positive phase from 1978 to 1998.
There was two short negative PDO phases 1989 to 1990 and 1999 to 2001 as well. ( better rainfall )
Tony Windsor’s committee has been told by a number of groups ( at Mildura meeting )that there could be a huge saving in the use of environmental water and the committee gave a promise to investigate these submissions.
So once again the real science provides the answer instead of the non science so often used by biased journalists in the mainstream media.
val majkus says
Neville thank you for posting a copy of your letter; can you tell us in precis form what saving did the Mildura groups say could be made in the use of environmental water?
el gordo says
There is one simple answer to the carp problem, which will improve our rivers and please all political parties, put a price on carp.
Val they claimed up to 90% if flooding the guts out of each site was avoided.
It seems a lot but who knows.
Jennifer Marohasy says
El, the South Australians are making lots of money out of Carlie Carp and they are part of the problem by insisting that the Lower Lakes are kept full of freshwater… for the carp. If lake Alexandrina was flooded with seawater during the recent drought there would have been no carp money and a much improved environment.
Neville – why do you persist with the old whole of MDB scam. Why do you never do a spatial analysis? Really any hydrologist would just giggle at your analysis. You need to be able to convert to runoff with takes antecedent conditions into account. The best analysis of this gives record low inflows for the current drought sequence. And is this surprising? Record low rainfall in headwaters of the Murray over long periods – Figure 1 – http://www.seaci.org/publications/documents/SEACI-1%20Reports/Phase1_SynthesisReport.pdf
Do you actually deny that spatial pattern. Why do you persist in the whole of MDB scam.
Jen – the river only had water in it because of things called “dams”. So are you saying that the inflow models developed by the MDBA are wrong? If so on what basis?
Now that is not whether you disagree with how the models may be being used for policy or the policies developed – but do their models do a reasonable job of converting rainfall to runoff and hence to inflows?
While you may have had a fun time on the river – many farmers at that stage had no water allocation. If they did the river would have been empty? You have not given us an analysis of inputs and outputs, and what was going on next to the river.
el gordo says
Thanks Jennifrer, clearly there is a lot more to this than I imagined.
el gordo says
The NSW government has a few strategies in place to deal with the carp, I prefer the genetic solution.
Apparently the fish is inedible, has lots of bones and tastes of mud.
Luke I’ll have a look at that study when I get a chance.
You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve been trying to get the historical rainfall/ runoff records for all regions of the MDB for the last 3 months, but without success.
But these rainfall/ runoff graphs from this paper ( page 2) certainly shows that the whole MDB has had much higher r/fall/ runoff in the later 50 years than the period 1895 to 1947.
It was definitely a higher rainfall period from 1947 to 2000 and runoff was much higher as well.
Sure we’ve had some lean years from 2001 to 2009 but so what?
As Condon says the real horror years were the first half century not the later half century.
Anyhow if the MDB regional records are available why not let everyone have access to the raw numbers because at the moment they seem to be a state secret.
Sorry here is that study .
BTW I’ve shown this before and have read the paper but the entire 111 year record backs up my case whether you like it or not.
el gordo says
From the SEACI link above:
‘To the extent that the current changes in temperature and rainfall across south-eastern Australia may be linked to climate change (through the intensification of the STR), it is possible that the current dry conditions may persist, and even possibly intensify, as warming is expected to continue.’
Neville Nicholls is a big believer in the intensification of the STR, linking it to drought conditions and ‘climate change’. Wonder what he thinks now?
El Gordo – why would he think any different – are you now saying it will never stop raining – what happened to droughts and flooding rains. Next drought is out there. As always.
Neville – the point is that the severe drought is a Murray drought not a whole of MDB drought. And the science pointing to reductions in rainfall across the bottom of the continent. A very specific mechanism.
Perhaps we should all agree that coping with the variation between drought and flood is key. And udnerstanding in detail why these things are happening might lend itself to some good (better) forecast tools and risk management. Hence this whole program – well worth a read http://www.managingclimate.gov.au/
I’m a first time reader of Online Opinion and I see this article!
I can’t help but comment as one who is studying environmental management and living in the Riverina.
For me, it is not climate change or rainfall statstics and the debates of the so called Triple Bottom Line for instance. I have misgivings about the MDBA’s use of modelling based on Modified Bayesian Theory to produce its results. Modified Bayesian requires the use of well homoginised data, so for instance, the labelling and weighting of quantative science data inputs as “low confidence” reflects the modellors method of dealing with disprate sets of inputs. This weighting of data gives consistent results and makes the task “easier”, if that word can be used, but I put forward the means or lack of, cannot justify the end.
The reduction of the Basin to 18 icon sites (or assets) and 88 monitoring points (or functions) is unlikely to meet the environmental outcome claims that the Plan makes.
The 18 icon sites will require the engineering of low level diversion wiers to accurately control flows. There is precious little knowlege and skill sets available to implement the “correct” methodolgy for the icon sites, let alone manage the thousands od secondary creeklines and floodplain where river health is birthed.
IMO, theses 18 sites are a a very real risk of becoming environmental museums. I’m not ready to consign the environment across the Basin to reservations. To do so at this time is to acknowlege we cannot win, let alone pause the degredation; we are admitting we have already lost our environment.
If I may use an analogy for getting the policy, macro and micro outcomes correct and halt the degeneration of the Basin; using Modified Bayesian is to expect to use General Relativity to explain Quantum Mechanics. There is no Grand Unifying Theory there and I find no solidity in the MDBA plan for its’s claimed environmental outcomes.
I cannot go to any of the creeklines that I am collecting data from and posulate how the webs of life in there can be maintained using the Plan as a guide. The Plan is way too big and the individual creek lines too small. Yet I am discovering the creeklines contain much of that which we need to consider; they are the true refuges from shrinking habitats.
As a conservationist, it is in the very basis, the heart that produced the MDBA’s environmental claims where my misgivings are.
Each new piece of evidence I uncover takes me further away to a low confidence position in the Plan.
el gordo says
Neville Nicholls in the Heraldsun on February 8, 2011 said:
“The only issue we do have with global warming is that the changes we see around Australia are partly to do with the oceans around Australia warming – it’s a pattern of La Nina – and this year they’re hotter than they’ve ever been.”
Yes…yes, but what about the STR?
The next drought is out there, although we are unlikely to experience a big one for at least 20 years.
el gordo says
Found Ridgy on Climate Kelpie, thanx Luke.
So dig it? There’s a few more climate dogs there too.
el gordo says
Yeah, just had a look at SAM. This is a good educational tool for those farmers and graziers who may wish to get a handle on the complexity of climate change.
Jennifer Marohasy says
Thanks for your visit and comment.
I recommend Aynsely Kellow’s book given your interest in environmental management and follow the following instructions and you can get it at a discount:
Science and Public Policy by Aynsley Kellow
Web link: http://www.e-elgar.com/Bookentry_Main.lasso?id=12839
Normally £59.95/$110.00 Special price $40/£25 + postage and packing
To order this book please email (with full credit card details and address): firstname.lastname@example.org, or on our website enter ‘Kellowoffer’ in the special discount code box after entering your credit card details and the discount will be taken off when the order is processed.
val majkus says
Roh thank you for that interesting comment – are you able to tell us and I’ve been wondering about this for some time how runoff is calculated by computer models
and from what you’re saying I gather you’re in favour of localised management of the river system rather than centralised
Engineers Australia (IEAust)
Engineers Australia (IEAust) first produced the publication Australian Rainfall and Runoff (ARR) in 1987. This was revised and published in 1998. Engineers Australia are presently revising this with grants from the Commonwealth government (a COAG priority) and data input from BOM. The technical committee responsible is presently chaired by Prof James Ball (School of Civil and Environmental Engineering UTS) and all the members are Chartered Professional Engineers. The existing book has all the methods and models for calculating runoff, flood consideration and stormwater management which was based largely on US data because of the limited availability of Australian data at the time. BOM has been compiling more Australia rainfall data and this together with riverflow and dam inflow data from various authorities will allow better estimations for local areas.
On the ARR website (http://www.arr.org.au/index.html is the following statement)
“In parts of Australia alternative IFD estimates have been produced by other organisations. EA and BoM do not endorse or recommend their use. It is the responsibility of a user to decide whether the alternate IFD’s should be used in place of the BoM ARR data in their location.
The user also needs to confirm that the alternative IFD data is compatible with the flood estimation approach and parameters they adopt. Many of the parameters for particular flood estimation approaches recommended in ARR were developed to ensure neutrality of Annual Exceedence Probability (AEP) when used with the BoM ARR IFD data. This may not be the case with alternative IFD data and it is incumbent on the user to ensure the reasonableness of the parameter values adopted.”
Of course governments have been ultimately responsible if they use or accept responsible professional engineering advice. The Queensland Professional Engineers Act should have made that mandatory for all projects in Queensland (as it applies to all persons including the State). It is hoped that similar legislation will be enacted and policed over the whole of Australia. Scientists, who are not registered engineers, should only be advisors to registered Professional Engineers who have broader vision and wider skills.
Thanks for the compliment & book information. I will find some reviews of the book and consider it.
I am frustrated by the lack of supporting information on how the MDBA calculates the runoff. I did write a request. The reply was that the information is in the Technical Volumes with no specifics. I also privately asked Fraser McLeod who is chief modelling architect where to find further information on this and some other issues but my enquiry was politely deflected. I’m not suprised though, the emotions at that time were on boiling point and he did not know whom I may have been representing.
As for localised management, that is what will happen when the Plan is rolled out. The Plan seeks to set parameters and the relevant States implement the conservation, reform and socio economic aspects with Commonwealth money. Mark Taylor hinted in Melbourne at the Sofitel meeting that for Deniliquin, the socio-economic impacts could be mitigated for that town with the diversion weir projects for some of the 18 icon sites. However, the contracts can’t be given locally; there are no businesses in Deniliquin of that nature (I checked later). It is the likes of the Civil and Civic’s who will receive that money with drive in drive out workforces working 10 days on, 4 days off as is currently occurring with the Stevens Weir fish ladder project.
So, I think we do need the MDBA. I think we do need overarching policy. We do need water reform. Centralised control is the next step away. I am wary of that when the Plan is a product of the political parameters that were set for it.
It can be argued if the Plan is implemented that the Commonwealth Water Holder becomes another irrigator, albeit a specialised one, who forces entry into the system under the guise of environmental commitments such as Ramsar and a bucket of money. The rights or wrongs of this and other points are for each to decide as they can.
However, this is getting away from my point that the basis for the modelling is flawed in its ability to deliver return-to-health environmental outcomes. I’ve not studied the impacts of the Plan on social and economic matters, so I don’t put my above points dogmatically.
I will say that the modelling as used by the MBDA to produce the Plan is a “bridge too far” for calculations based on Modified Bayesian Theory.
What has the runoff been over the last 2 months into the Murray River?
val majkus says
Roh – I’ve had a look at the document http://thebasinplan.mdba.gov.au/guide/guide.php?document=technical-background&chapter=the-murray-darling-basin and you’re right – it says “Water run-off in the Basin is very low compared with other major river systems around the world; river systems in the Basin also experience much higher flow variability than those of any other continent. Inflows from rainfall to the rivers of the Basin have ranged from around 117,907 GL in 1956 to around 6,740 GL in 2006 (MDBA unpublished modelled data). The average annual flow of the River Murray is only about 16% of that of the Nile, 3% of the Mississippi and just 0.25% of the Amazon (McMahon et al. 1992). See Figure 2.3 and Figure 2.4 for information on run-off and evapotranspiration in the Basin.’
It seems to me that surely the Authority would be obliged to send that ‘data’ referred to as ‘unpublished’ and documents disclosing how the modelling was done (so it can be checked by other interested parties) if it received an FOI request
After all its estimate of runoff forms an important part of its conclusions does it not
And Jen, maybe that should be a question directed to the Authority
Ian Thomson says
About computer models of run off
Where I am sitting right now near the Murrumbidgee River was isolated recently for 15 days, by a flood, underestimated by computer models, by about a metre. There is still a bridge gone from that water , on one of the ways out. It was supposed to be a 2 day closure.During the recent ( there’s another now) , flood on the Billabong Creek ,it was clearly stated on ABC Riverina , that noone had any idea where water would go – Reason- no models. There is currently water backing up the creeks here again and the locals are worried We must go to a FLAT place near HAY tomorrow which is to be engulfed by Friday, then return.
All this water is headed for the Murray .
Perhaps a few computers may help with the levees .The models belong in Fairy tale land