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Received evidence for deterioration in water quality in the River Murray

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Wednesday, 20 August 2003


Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.
- Aldous Huxley

Although it is rare for both sides of federal politics to agree the Government and Opposition agree that saving the River Murray is a national priority and both have canvassed the possibility of taking water from irrigators to increase environmental flows - in the case of the Opposition 1,500 gigalitre.

Why such drastic action? The river is apparently very sick. What is wrong with it? According to the Wentworth Group's Blueprint for a Living Continent (pdf, 208kb), The Economist agazine, and everyone in Ticky Fullerton's book Watershed, including Ticky Fullerton, deteriorating water quality is a major problem - in particular worsening salinity.

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The CSIRO website includes the statement, "…Australia's largest and most developed river system, the Murray-Darling Basin shows the nature of the problem we face. Salt levels are rising in almost all of the Basin's rivers and now exceed WHO guidelines for drinking water in many areas. Business as usual is not an option. If we do nothing, the salinity of the Lower River Murray - where Adelaide pumps out its drinking water - will eventually rise to exceed WHO guidelines."

But the facts do not support these claims of deteriorating water quality.

Key water quality indicators include turbidity (a measure of sediment load), nitrogen and phosphorus (nutrient levels) and electrical conductivity (saltiness). According to the Australian Water Resources Assessment 2000 we spend $142- $168 million each year on water quality monitoring. So let us consider the water quality data for key sites in the River Murray.

Salinity Levels

While Ticky Fullerton's 354 page book laments deteriorating water quality, no water quality data is provided. There was no data to accompany the very powerful statement on the CSIRO website. There is no current information on water quality trends for key sites on the CSIRO or Murray Darling Basin Commission (MDBC) websites.

Daily readings for salinity from 1938 are available on request from the MDBC for Morgan, South Australia. Morgan is the key indicator locality for water quality in the Murray Darling Basin. Morgan is just upstream of the pipeline off-takes for Adelaide's water supply. Its use as an indicator site emphasizes the relative importance of river salinity impacts on all water users in the system.

When the yearly averages for salinity measured in EC units for Morgan are plotted, current salinity levels at Morgan are equivalent to pre World War 2 levels! A plot of salinity levels for just the last 20 years suggests salinity levels are dropping at this key indicator site. These figures indicate that water quality is improving!

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The MDBC also provided me with salinity levels at Swan Hill or Yarrawonga, and there is no increase in salinity for the years 1982 - 2002.

The CSIRO website reads, "Salt levels are rising in almost all of the Basin's rivers and now exceed WHO guidelines for drinking water in many areas… If we do nothing, the salinity of the Lower River Murray - where Adelaide pumps out its drinking water - will eventually rise to exceed WHO guidelines."

WHO guideline levels are 800 ECs. Salinity levels are not approaching 800 ECs at key sites in NSW and Victoria. Salinity levels are not increasing at key sites in NSW and Victoria. Salinity levels are dropping at the key site in the Murray Darling Basin, Morgan. Salinity levels are high in the lower reaches of the river and only exceed WHO guide levels near the river mouth as you might expect. Someone is misleading the Australian public!

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Article edited by Ian Spooner.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article was first published at the IPA Water Forum No. 2, Canberra, 25 July 2003. Click here for the full text with graphs.



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About the Author

Jennifer Marohasy is a biologist and adjunct research fellow in the Centre for Plant and Water Science at Central Queensland University.

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