Driving home late this afternoon I heard Tony Burke, the Federal Minister for Water and Environment, on ABC news radio explaining that because of “over-allocation” in the Murray Darling Basin the Coorong had suffered during the recent drought. So, he visited the region today to provide an additional $118 million to ensure a “healthy and sustainable future for South Australia’s Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth region”.
The claim of “over-allocation” is behind the Basin plan, but it ignores the reality of the allocation system already in place in particular that during drought allocations are significantly restricted and so crops like cotton and rice are not planted. That the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth region are now awash with water despite significant areas being planted to cotton and rice this last summer also defies the Minister’s logic.
Since arriving home, I have had an opportunity to read a bit more about today’s announcement on the internet and I see it was made with Paul Caica, South Australian Environment and Conservation Minister, who claims the money is part of a plan to ensure the Lower Lakes “remain freshwater”.
I was repeatedly told about the plan to secure a “freshwater future” for the Lower Lakes when I visited Goolwa in March.
When I suggested to the Mayor of Alexandrina Council, Kym McHugh, that the plan was absurd because the combined Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth region is just too vast an area to be reliably supplied from upstream storages, he replied well that is what we as a Lower Lakes community have decided and that is what we intend to see implemented by the South Australian and Federal governments and he then gave me a fridge magnet with the slogan “Securing a fresh water future” below the word “Alexandrina” and told me the same words were emblazed across the top of every piece of official correspondence that left his office.
Of course, water for Lake Alexandrina comes at the expense of upstream environments, communities and industries.
But many Lower Lake residents don’t seem to care. As one business explained to me, “We can import our rice and cotton from overseas, but we can only get our freshwater from upstream”.
In reality the “freshwater future” plan has nothing to do with the environment. Indeed if Ministers Burke and Caica were serious about long term sustainability and building “resilience” as they claimed today, they would be talking about the “saltwater solution”.
The Lower Lakes formed about 6,000 years ago during a period of sea level rise. Studies of fossil foraminifera – tiny protozoa with shells of calcium carbonate – preserved in the sediments of the Lower Lakes show that the Lower Lakes had a maximum marine influence 5,255 years ago and a maximum freshwater influence 3,605 years ago. The period of maximum freshwater influence is thought to have coincided with the period when the Murray Mouth was greatly restricted or closed because climatic conditions in the catchment were much drier. The change in the foraminifera complex over the most recent 2,000 years indicate a general trend of increasing marine influence, up until the construction of the five large steel and concrete barrages that now block the natural ebb and flow between the Lower Lakes and Southern Ocean.
Until construction of five barrages in the 1930s, the Lower Lakes were estuarine meaning there was a strong tidal influence. The barrages were built to stop these natural inflows and create a permanently fresh system. This system now evaporates more Murray River water each year than the total Murray River water allocation for South Australian agriculture.
If the Gillard government wishes to waste an additional $118 million on tree planting to beautify this unsustainable artificial lake system, and to dismantle regulators installed at the height of the drought because the South Australian government refused to open the barrages to seawater, it should not use the pretext of environmentalism. And that Minister Burke included with today’s announcement disparaging remarks about upstream irrigators – perpetuating the myth that they are to blame for the woes of the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth region – indicates that the Gillard government really is contemptuous of irrigated agriculture in the Murray Darling Basin.
Learn about the geography of the Lower Lakes region here:
Read about Sean Murphy’s saltwater solution here:
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