Unless you’ve been living under a rock you will know that there has been a horrible fish kill on the Darling River near Menindie in central west NSW. Actually there was one before Christmas, a big one on 6-7 January, and now a third, “worse than last time”.
In the middle of last year I started writing a post on the crisis in the Murray-Darling system. It began:
- Sarah Dingle has done a two-part investigation into the Murray-Darling on ABC RN’s Background Briefing. In Part 1 Best laid plans: The Murray-Darling Basin in crisis she begins by going wading in the southern end of the Coorong with ecologist David Paton. It should be a watery paradise for wildlife, which it was fifty years ago when Paton was a boy. Now it is up to 3 to 3.5 times saltier than seawater in the south lagoon, and taken over by algae. It’s dying.
One comparison is that back in the 1980s there were 40,000 sand pipers in the southern lagoon. Last year  the count was less than a thousand.
Dingle had seen an internal South Australian (Labor-initiated) government report about what’s called the Limits of Acceptable Change. The report recommends that bird populations have to fall 80% below normal before a report of concern is made to RAMSAR. There seems to be reluctance to fess up to RAMSAR that a crisis exists.
I didn’t and don’t have time to fully research the issue, but this was the central focus of the draft post:
- The Basin plan will see $13 billion spent on improving irrigation systems and increasing environmental flows. $8 billion has been spent and the Basin Authority claims that 2,107 gigalitres has been put back into the river system, officially banked in the environment’s account. But it just doesn’t seem to be showing up.
The problem seems to be ‘return flows’. Half the water from irrigation flows back into the river underground, according to the models. Some $3.5 to $4 billion has been spent on improving irrigation systems, so that only a quarter flows back. But they can’t measure it, so no-one knows. Profs Quentin Grafton and John Williams have had a go, and they reckon at best the environment has got nothing additional; it may even have gone backwards by 140 gigalitres. For perspective, the water theft in the Four Corners program was 10 gigalitres.
There is an obvious conundrum that having less water return to the river increases environmental flows unless allocations have been reduced. Not sure they have been, in part because the above calculations are average and allocations are specific.
Part 2 of the ABC Background Briefing program was aired on 6 May 2018. The focus was on the water politicking and at that time there was an upcoming parliamentary vote with this forecast:
- The Federal Senate is due to vote on major changes to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan – if it passes, it will effectively end further water recovery for the environment in the river system.
That bold and brave statement brought out the crabs, as it were, and as you can read on that link the ABC’s independent complaints handling body concluded that the statement needed to be qualified and also that undue weight was given to the research paper by Grafton & Williams. Plus a couple of factual errors.
I believe the parliamentary motion was passed, I think with Labor support, on the basis of trusting the independent umpire.
From that introduction you could profitably turn to the Late Night Live segment Murray-Darling fish deaths no surprise to science where Phillip Adams interviews Quentin Grafton, Professor of Economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the ANU and Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy, who did not hold back.
He said that water allocations had never been based on science, rather on established practice back in the early 1990s. Adjustments have not been made for reduced flows that may be caused by climate change.At every turn special interests had been at play with the result that water allocations had steadily increased. The central issue revolved around ‘return flows’ as indicated above, where improving irrigation systems was held to mean more water went back into the river, on the basis of some very convenient models, whereas what science we have is suggesting the opposite.
There was and is simply no appetite within the MDBA for measuring anything.
Grafton seemed to be saying that the ignorance was wilful, and suggested that the barrister leading the South Australian royal commission thought so too. That report is due soon, but I’ve not had time to follow it.
However, Grafton seemed to be suggesting industry capture amounting to fraud.
He believed that any new approach to the problem needed to be based on transparent measurement of the actual impact of policies.
Grafton is a member of scientific panel set up by Labor under the leadership of the Australian Academy of Sciences to advise on the reasons for the fish kill.
Then the Federal Government set up its own inquiry, to be led by Melbourne University’s Dr Robert Vertessy, along with news of another fish kill at Lake Inverell, on the Macintyre River.
Fortunately the scientists leading both inquiries said they would share information, showing more sense than politicians.
I also heard a caller on ABC Nightlife from a former irrigator and member of water management bodies, now a Labor candidate in the next election, who said that Murray flows, I think as measured at Wentworth where the Darling joins, had roughly halved this century, compared to the last two decades of last century, presumably due to climate change.
I’ll repeat here some general information and add a few comments.
This is a map of the Murray-Darling Basin:
Very little of the Basin is in South Australia.
The Basin consists of 23 river valleys covering over one million square kilometres, 14% or one seventh of Australia. It produces 53% of Australian cereals grown for grain, 95% of oranges and 54% of apples, and supports 28% of the nation’s cattle herd, 45% of sheep and 62% of pigs.
Ecologically it is rich, with around 30,000 wetlands, some RAMSAR-listed, 35 endangered species of birds, 16 species of endangered mammals and over 35 different native fish species.
The average annual rainfall is 530,618 GL, 94% of which evaporates, 2% drains into the ground and 4% ends up as runoff.
Menindie Lakes is about an hour’s drive south-east of Broken Hill. This screenshot helps place it:
Wilcannia is top, right, Mildura and Wentworth at the bottom.
I think about 6% of the runoff comes from Queensland, from memory 62% from Victoria and about zero from South Australia. However, both Melbourne and Adelaide outside the basin get water from the basin.
South Australia benefits a lot, especially in the Riverlands and Adelaide town water, but contributes little in terms of water. Much of their concern environmentally is with the Murray mouth, the saltwater environment of The Coorong and the freshwater lake systems around Lake Alexandria.
This is artificially kept fresh above the barrages and the saltwater systems below the barrages depend on new water coming through. This is the Murray mouth with the thin slither of the Coorong stretches into the distance:
This is a diagram of the barrages:
I’d like to see some serious consideration of taking out the barrages, returning the lower Murray to a tidal system, as it originally was. In other words, the ‘natural’ ecology near the Murray mouth is highly artificial, seems to work well once fro the environment and farmers above the barrages accessing fresh water, but is failing now.
South Australians in particular get agitated about Cubbie Station. I would suggest that what happens at Cubbie matters little to SA, but it is perhaps symbolic for cotton farming, which does matter, especially in the Darling.
Maryanne Slattery and Roderick Campbell have authored a substantial report for the Australia Institute, summarised at New Matilda and elsewhere, with a specific charge – the fish kill was caused by mismanagement, not the drought. Apparently the lakes were largely drained in 2016-17 when there was plenty water to the south and none coming in from the north.
Incidentally, Barnaby Joyce was minister for agriculture in the Abbott government from 2013, then Turnbull in September 2015, gifted him the additional ministry of water. This from Wikipedia:
- In 2016, Joyce supported reducing environmental water allocations in the Murray–Darling basin in order to reduce the impact on towns and people currently dependent on the rivers. This was contrary to a 2016 election promise by the government, and was widely criticised by environmental groups. In 2017, Joyce stated that the Commonwealth would not intervene regarding accusations of water theft in the basin.
Prof Grafton says holding both ministries was a conflict of interest.
However, the existing plan was an artifact of the Gillard government, with Tony Burke the minister. I recall that Tony Windsor did a lot of work on formulating the plan.
That will do from me. I’ll await with interest to see whether blame will accrue and whether any light is thrown on where we should go from here.