THE Murray-Darling Basin is the food bowl of Australia and for years has been considered an ecological disaster.
Later this year the government will release a plan that is supposed to place the Murray-Darling on a sustainable environmental footing, and already $10 billion has been set aside for the plan’s implementation. But if the guide released last year gives any indication of what to expect, then it will do nothing to restore that part of the system most affected by agriculture and most in need of saving: the Lower Lakes and Murray mouth, once the Murray River’s estuary.
The estuary was destroyed when 7.6km of concrete barrages were built across the bottom of the Murray in the 1930s. If nothing is done about this enormous structure there is no guarantee water will get to the Murray’s mouth even if South Australia gets the 4000 gigalitres it is demanding as part of the water reform (4000GL has a market value of $3.2bn to $8bn, depending on where in the Murray-Darling it is purchased).
The barrages have turned the coastal terminal lakes into a permanent and artificially freshwater system, to the detriment of the local environment and the river.
The problem is restoring the estuary to something like it was before the barrages would not only upset local dairy farmers but could also create a problem for Adelaide because the city’s water supply is dependent on the Lower Lakes being entirely fresh water.
This situation needs to change. But instead of spending time and money finding solutions, politicians and environmentalists during the recent drought, for example, used the drying of the Lower Lakes to campaign against upstream rice and cotton farmers. Never mind that there was a natural and local solution: letting in the ocean by opening the barrages.
I’ve been in SA for the past two weeks meeting past and present water ministers, bureaucrats, scientists, activists and others. It strikes me from these discussions that many South Australians have a limited understanding of the natural history of the Lower Lakes and want to deny the effect the barrages and farming are having on the local environment.
The Lower Lakes were once the estuary for the Murray River. In summer and each autumn when the southwesterly winds picked up, the Southern Ocean would roll in, bringing the famous mulloway fish. This was an issue for the farmers who settled around the lake from the 1850s. They didn’t want the salt water, instead wishing the lakes were always “sweet”.
In 1902, during the height of the Federation drought, sea water took over the lakes and the local farming community was forced to sink more wells. This was the situation again in 1915 when the ocean not only flooded into the lakes but extended up the Murray River proper for about 80km. This was the natural state.
I live just north of the Fitzroy River in central Queensland and I know it is the sign of a perfectly natural and properly functioning estuary to taste the sea water tens of kilometres upstream, particularly in winter and during drought. But in SA, even in 1902 when there were no significant upstream diversions, the salt water was blamed on upstream irrigators.
A significant lobby, beginning in the late 1880s, claimed barrages were needed. The lobby was spearheaded by dairy farmers, who drained wetlands and swamps along the Lower Murray to provide pasture. They have changed the landscape and created the requirement for always fresh water, but this is not natural or healthy.
Newspaper articles from the 1850s show a battle between the farmer-settlers in SA and the fishermen, who lost out to the farmers.
The barrages were completed and sealed in February 1940, and that year the mulloway tried to come in but were defeated, thrashing against the Goolwa barrage on each tide.
In 1939, the annual mulloway catch by commercial fishermen was 595 tonnes.Last year it was 30 tonnes, all from the nearby Coorong. There are no longer any mulloway in the Lower Lakes.
The technical literature explains the barrages reduced the size of the estuary by 89 per cent and flows to the Murray mouth by 75 per cent. We are left with freshwater lakes full of carp instead of an estuary with mulloway, crabs, waders and the biodiversity that comes when there is natural mixing of fresh and salt waters.
Disappointingly, the Australian Conservation Foundation that is supposedly leading the campaign to restore the Murray appears reluctant even to talk about the barrages. They are arguably a bigger problem than upstream diversions because they not only reduce flow out but have destroyed the tidal prism that once, particularly in autumn, scoured the Murray’s mouth.
There is no mention of the barrages in the guide, and discussion about their removal or modification is taboo in official discussions on saving the Murray.
Present planning revolves primarily around how to buy back water from irrigators and improve infrastructure to make more fresh water available for the Lower Lakes. Mike Young, from the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, has calculated that the commonwealth is looking at spending $588,000 an irrigator towards this end.
But it is not more fresh water that the environment of the terminal coastal lakes needs, it is more salt water; and this should be allowed to roll in at no cost to the taxpayer each autumn and for longer periods during protracted drought.
First published in The Weekend Australian, on August 27-28, 2011. pg 12.
Available online here: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/opinion/sea-will-save-the-murray-mouth/story-e6frgd0x-1226123172587
spangled drongo says
Great article Jen!
With such a really fundamental argument I find it amazing that ACF, The Greens etc don’t support you on this.
Surely they are aware of the history that you have just spelt out or at least can appreciate the natural facts of it.
It’s not like them to back away from such an ecologically sensible proposition simply because it is also economically sensible.
spangled drongo says
But I suppose I really don’t have far to look to refute that proposition.
They do seem to prefer ecologically AND economically stupid:
do you know of any actual discussions of this issue with anyone in authority??
Everyone in ‘authority’ in Canberra seems across the issue. But reluctant to take on either the ACF or South Australian Liberals in order to force a sensible resolution.
There is an excellent piece written by the new president of the NSW Farmers’, Fiona Simson, on the issue of the lower lakes.
In ‘The Farm Post’ August edition Issue no:45.
It may be worth reproducing here as it absolutely backs up what you have been saying for a very long time.
The Lower Lakes is the ‘elephant in the room’ in the Basin Plan discussion. Very few groups have been prepared to raise the issue to this point in time but NSW Farmers’ believes it’s too important to remain a taboo subject simply because it is politically sensitive….. (end quote)
I tried to find the article at their web page but they are only up to issue 43 there:
I have the issue at home but unfortunately I am not ‘tecchie’ enough to successfully post it here via scanning etc.
My attempt was illegible.
To a large extent it is the work you have done that has finally got this debate out into the public arena. NSW Farmers’ are echoing much of what you have been saying for years!
As Fiona says: ‘This is not about pitting state against state in the Basin Plan discussion; it is about transparent discussion in the national interest.’ (end quote)
I believe that the sooner this issue stops being political and parochial, the better off we’ll all be.
We need some sensible practical solutions that recognise and cater for the needs of all producers on the river systems along with some environmental responsibility.
We have to start accepting that we have made some mistakes and they need fixing.
The Lower Lakes issue is one of the more obvious and dramatic mistakes but definitely not the only one.
The MDBP focus on ‘end of system flows’ is really all about the Murray Mouth and their solution is actually worse than the problem….it’s not actually rocket science….although we would all be forgiven for thinking it was because the whole issue has been made so political , so parochial and also SOOOOO UNNECESSARILY COMPLICATED!!!!
As you have often pointed out and now the NSW Farmers’ are saying….we are ignoring the real problems and trying to fix another one that doesn’t actually exist and therefore can’t be fixed.
It’s amazing that the ACF etc have also fallen for this.
Some common sense from all of them would be highly appreciated!
Thanks for all you have done on this highly vexing issue.
wes george says
So the largest river on the Australian continent is being raped by an artificial barrier destroying the natural mixing of sea and fresh water in Murray estuary, thus extinguishing a major ecosystem of continental if not global significance and the Greens, Liberals and Labor are all on the side of the rapists albeit for totally divergent self-interested reasons. The one thing none of them give a fart about is what is best for the restoration of the estuary to something resembling its natural state.
Hey, this cluster-blight might be the only political consensus in our Lucky Country today!
Alan Herath says
The follow up article in the Weekend Australian on 17-18 Sept by Kym McHugh to your analysis of Lakes Alexandrina and Albert is commendable in so far as it expands the scope for a more widespread understanding of River Murray issues. You were criticised by him among other things for overstating (in his view) “periods when the Lower Lakes were salty”.
As a one time irrigator on the River Murray and a subsequent SA Government water resources management engineer responsible for the Govt published Metropolitan Adelaide Water Resources Study (MAWRS) Report way back in 1978, I have been a 30 year commentator on the River Murray and Lower Lakes and I am inclined to support your analysis rather than his.
For example, the Lower Lakes were already salty back in the 1920’s when there were far less controls on river flow and lower consumption from the River.
The South Coast Story by J C Tolley (1968) notes that “the main purpose of the five barrages that have been built at the Murray Mouth, (commencing in 1935), was to ensure the freshness of the River Murray and also to maintain water at a sufficiently high level to permit the watering by gravitation on the various reclaimed areas between Mannum and Wellington. In addition the structures prevent the ingress of salt water from the sea during periods of low river and maintain, as far as possible, the freshness of water in Lakes Alexandrina and Albert, thus securing the productivity of surrounding areas which would otherwise be affected by the salt water after long periods of salinity.”
Note that “long periods of salinity” were apparent a long time ago.
The conference of Commonwealth and State Ministers that met on 18th Feb 1930 and resolved that the River Murray Commission inquire into and report on the advisability of construction of works (or other methods) to solve this problem proves that salinity was well and truly an issue already by the 1920s if not earlier.
If the Barrages were mainly installed to hold up the water level “between Mannum and Wellington” above the Lakes (but not necessarily the Lakes as well), implies that maybe a weir at Wellington or some other solution such as dilution flow as suggested by the 1930 Parliamentary Committee would have been a better solution. In fact I understand that fresh water from above the Lakes is currently being pipelined to many areas around these Lakes to help avoid future catastrophic drought impacts on local water users.
I studied the possibility of constructing fresh water channels around the Lakes in 1976 as part of our investigations for the MAWRS Report. We have also seen the Tony Read proposal in around 2005 for an annulus of fresh water to be constructed within and around the edge of the Lakes. We now have the far more cost effective pipeline proposal around the Lakes, some 35 years after I initially investigated this type of solution.
Thankfully a previous Chief of the Engineering and Water Supply Department talked Don Dunstan out of building Chowilla “salt lake” (in favour of Dartmouth), and while I concede that consumptive water use from the River Murray is now greater than in the 1920s, we have effectively ended up with “Chowilla” behind the Lower Lakes Barrages.
The MAWRS Report contained predictions of the impact of droughts on the Lower Lakes, in particular how often “entitlement” and “below entitlement” flows would be received based on 100 years of flow records and consumption levels in the 1970s.Without going into it in any more detail here, suffice to say that Lake levels were predicted to fall often and significantly enough for other River management solutions to be investigated and initiated, which unfortunately has not seriously been addressed until the very recent infrequent drought.
I have been a long standing advocate of more sophisticated river flow management in a drought, based on storing more of the available water in upstream storages at the onset of a potential drought. This means that more water can be available for dilution flows and various uses before it gets to the bottom end of the system where up to 4 times Adelaide’s annual consumption evaporates every year from the Lower Lakes.
Mike Young from Adelaide University who I was communicating with on these matters, subsequently came out and supported this idea in one of his media forays (in the Mt Barker Courier in April 2008), and I am pleased to see that as late as last week or so the Govt has agreed to allow irrigators to store unused allocated water upstream.
Whereas I have not been working professionaly in this area since around 1980 I would be most interested in seeing the results of any robust analysis that has been or could be done to compare flows to the Lower Lakes since all the upstream storages, Locks and Weirs at and above Blanchetown have been built, with the flows that would have occured without these structures. I would anticipate that flows along the River including into the Lower Lakes have been more beneficial to all water users and the Lakes environment compared with the more extreme flow variations that would have occured without the construction of these storages, Locks and Weirs.
Not many have had the will, political or otherwise, the fortitude, or the expertise to really question the high opportunity costs of simply treating the (artificial) Lower Lakes as an unmanageable resource which appears to have starved the Coorong, which in turn questions the fundamental basis for Ramsar classification of that area incorporating the Barrages.