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So rich, we can afford to keep 'Saving the Murray River'

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Wednesday, 10 May 2006


The Murray River is a national icon, and campaigning for years by the Australian Conservation Foundation means the river is usually a focus when the federal government wants to show-off its commitment to saving the environment, particularly at budget time.

This Budget the Government has decided the river will get another $500 million with the money being promised to further reduce salinity levels, buy another 500 gigalitres of environmental flow, and build more fishways.

But does the Murray still need saving? Is there room for another salt interception scheme or another fishway? And didn’t government promise this same amount of water in November 2003?

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When the State and Federal Government Environment Ministers agreed to return 500 gigalitres of water to the environment in November 2003, the focus was to be on iconic sites along this iconic river.

The 500 gigalitres was heralded as a “first step” and it was widely reported as the first time water had been given back to the river. Yet the first listed icon site, the Barmah-Millewa forest, has enjoyed an environmental flow allocation of 100 gigalitres a year since 1993. The same forest also got up to 25 gigalitres of environmental water through the Flora and Fauna Bulk Entitlement for Northern Victoria and then there was potentially 30 gigalitres from the NSW Murray Wetland Working Group.

It is a well kept secret that in 2002, at the height of the drought and at a time when Peter Garrett - then President of the Australian Conservation Foundation - was asking for more water for the environment, the NSW Murray Wetland Working Group sold 23 gigalitres of water to irrigators for $3.8 million dollars. Much of the money from the trade was apparently used to build a fishway. This may have been a good investment, but we don’t know because there has been inadequate monitoring of the river environment.

The Murray Darling Basin Commission (pdf file 636KB) has just started collecting data on the movement and population dynamics of native fish species as part of its new Sea-to-Hume Dam fishway construction program. Vertical slots are being punched through barrages and ladders built up dam walls all with the purpose of making it possible for a fish to travel from Lake Hume to the Murray’s mouth. Before this project the best data on fish migration was kept by Terry Holt, the Reservoir Controller at Torrumbarry Weir and Torrumbarry fishway. Interestingly Mr Holt was recording silver perch, listed as critically endangered under Victorian legislation, in similar numbers to the feral European carp. (See Myth and the Murray: Measuring The Real State of the Environment available on the IPA website here.)

The Murray’s mouth was also identified as an icon site in November 2003. By January 2004, Mark Latham, then the new leader of the Opposition, was declaring that a full 450 gigalitres of water, worth about $540 million should be allocated there.

In fact, the Murray River flows into a large lake complex. When British explorer Charles Sturt first sailed down the river in the early 1830s in a whale boat, he could not access the Southern Ocean because the river’s mouth was blocked by sand bars and sand banks. We now dredge the sand to create a mouth and have built a series of large barrages across five channels to stop freshwater flowing out to sea. An intended consequence of the barrages is that they keep the seawater out, even when the ocean breaks through the sand bars. This keeps the lower lakes artificially fresh and at a more-or-less constant water level.

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When politicians talk about water for the Murray’s mouth, it is really code for the lower lakes and the recreational fishermen and commercial irrigators who use this resource.

During the recent drought, South Australia and these lakes, were guaranteed 85 per cent of their normal water allocation. Given this commitment, there was no opportunity to let stretches of the river just dry-up, as would naturally occur during a major drought event.

While we now expect the Murray River to be always brimming with water, Charles Sturt observed that Australian rivers:

Fall rapidly from the mountains in which they originate into a level and extremely depressed country; having weak and inconsiderable sources, and being almost wholly unaided by tributories of any kind, they naturally fail before they reach the coast and exhaust themselves in marshes or lakes; or reach it so weakened as to be unable to preserve clear or navigable mouths, or to remove the sand banks that the tides throw up before them.

But in the intervening years, South Australians, the Australian Conservation Foundation and others have conspired to rewrite history. The sandbars at the bottom of the lakes now equal inadequate environmental flow.

When I asked the Murray Darling Commission in June 2004 how much water is already allocated as environmental flow they explained they didn’t know because:

Environmental water comes in a variety of forms including minimum flows, environmental flow rules, contingency allowances and tradeable entitlements.

In the 1960s and ’70s salt levels were rising and hundreds of millions of dollars of public money was pledged to build salt interception schemes. The first was completed in 1982. They have been spectacularly successful. Salinity levels at the key site of Morgan, which is just upstream from the offshoot for Adelaide’s water supply, are now half what they were 20 years ago.

How much lower does the government want to push salt levels? The Murray is not a European river, the Australian landscape is naturally salty and many native fish species are adapted to fluctuating levels of salt including periods of high salinity particularly during droughts.

I am curious that the Government has made the Murray River a focus for environmental expenditure again this year, this budget. A commitment of $500 million from Australian tax payers, and 500 gigalitres of water for the environment is an enormous investment. I can only conclude that we are indeed a rich society if we can afford so much, for so little obvious environment gain - or hasn’t anyone realised that the Murray River has already been saved?

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About the Author

Jennifer Marohasy is a senior fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs.

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