Man-made Drought in Murray-Darling Basin

The latest Murray-Darling Basin report has highlighted deep discontent among regional communities over the Basin Plan’s water allocations, the science behind the Plan and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA).

The report into the “Impact of lower inflows on state shares under the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement” was conducted by the interim inspector-general of Murray-Darling Basin Water Resources, and former federal police commissioner, Mick Keelty.

It is the latest of about 40 reports on the deeply troubled $13 billion Basin Plan, and comes in the middle of another severe drought.

The Plan was put in place by then water minister Malcolm Turnbull, with the aim of redirecting 2,750 gigalitres (and eventually 3,200 gigalitres – over six Sydney Harbours) from irrigation agriculture to environmental flows.

Why are huge environmental flows being sent to Lakes Alexandrina and Albert in South Australia to artificially make them fresh water, and to keep the Murray mouth open, when scientific studies show that for thousands of years the lakes have been estuarine (a mix of fresh and salt water) and that the Murray mouth closes during a drought?

No wonder many in the Basin feel over-consulted and under-listened to, and deeply distrust their politicians, the MDBA and the CEWH.

Until recent times, a two to three-year drought would not have threatened farmers. The huge system of dams, locks and weirs built after World War II captured water in wet years to drought-proof this fertile but arid Basin. It created a massive inland food bowl with water that would otherwise flow out to sea in South Australia.

The size of the Basin storages is staggering. The biggest – Dartmouth, Hume and Eildon – hold 10,200 gigalitres, the equivalent of 20 Sydney Harbours. When full, all the Basin’s storages hold 22,746 gigalitres, more than 45 Sydney Harbours.

These massive storages used to supply farmers in a five to seven-year drought via thousands of kilometres of irrigation channels. They supplied permanent plantings – fruit, vines, dairy pastures – with high security water 97 years out of 100, while supplying annual crops – grains, rice, cotton, and so on – when additional water was available.

What happened?

Policy Blunders

Bureaucrats and politicians failed to understand that this arid Basin naturally goes through intense wet periods and extended droughts (see graph). Many of them became convinced that the Millennium Drought of 2001–09 was evidence of anthropogenic climate change, that it was “never going to rain again” in the Basin and that “the Murray was dying”. (In fact, it was the same length as the Federation Drought, 1895–1903.)

In this mindframe, Federal Parliament adopted the Water Act 2007 to implement a new Murray-Darling Basin Plan, tearing up decades of complex water rules that had been tailored to each Basin catchment area based on the region’s water variability.

Well, the long drought did end in 2010, with record rains and a massive revival of flora and fauna, but not in time to reverse the impending damage from the Water Act.

The Act prioritised environmental flows over irrigation agriculture. To put complex rules in simplified terms, whereas dams previously held about 50 per cent of water for farmers and towns, and 50 per cent for the environment, dams would now hold over 70 per cent for the environment. Further, $13 billion was allocated to buy water from farmers for the environment and for water-saving infrastructure. This infrastructure never compensated farmers for the huge buyback of water.

Effectively, these billions of dollars have been used to shut down irrigation areas and many farms, to put regular floods down the Murray River when, in its natural state, there would be no river flow in drought times.

Where to from here?

Join us by signing our petition

Regulating the Murray River

We call on the Federal Government to:

· Automate the barrier gates between the sea and Lake Alexandrina in South Australia to regulate water levels in this estuarine lake, instead of relying on huge freshwater flows down the Murray to maintain water quality.

· Build Lock Zero on the Murray at Wellington in SA to hold freshwater upstream of Lake Alexandrina for both local farmers and Adelaide.

· Restore some of the natural drainage from the Coorong’s wetlands catchment back into the Southern Lagoon of the Coorong, a narrow strip of water between Lake Alexandrina and the ocean that has become hyper saline since natural flows from local wetlands have been diverted to the sea.

· Build a new major dam on the Jingellic arm of the Murray (and possibly divert some of the Clarence River from northern NSW into the Darling River).

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An emergency should be declared. Water “losses” of at least 1,300 gigalitres in the system should be reclassified as environmental flows, making more stored water available for irrigation.

Then, costing far less than $13 billion, four infrastructure projects could satisfy both the environmental requirements of the Water Act and irrigation farming:

  • Automate the barrier gates between the sea and Lake Alexandrina in South Australia to regulate water levels in this estuarine lake, instead of relying on huge freshwater flows down the Murray to maintain water quality.
  • Build Lock Zero on the Murray at Wellington in SA to hold freshwater upstream of Lake Alexandrina for both local farmers and Adelaide.
  • Restore some of the natural drainage from the Coorong’s wetlands catchment back into the Southern Lagoon of the Coorong, a narrow strip of water between Lake Alexandrina and the ocean that has become hyper saline since natural flows from local wetlands have been diverted to the sea.
  • Build a new major dam on the Jingellic arm of the Murray (and possibly divert some of the Clarence River from northern NSW into the Darling River).

Conclusion

If urgent measures are not taken, the loss of food production will cost Australian households dearly and the political fallout, as seen at the NSW elections, is likely to continue.

So please join us by adding your name to the petition above, and stay in touch by joining our email list.