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Saving the Coorong by restoring its native state

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Thursday, 14 August 2008

When the Minister for Climate Change and Water, Penny Wong, recently announced that there was insufficient water in upstream dams to flood the lakes at the end of the Murray River, ABC Online ran with the headline "Government says the Murray's Lower Lakes can’t be saved." But that's not what she said, and furthermore the lower lakes can be saved. The Murray River is at far greater risk and the solution for the river is not nearly as simple.

The lakes can be saved by opening the barrages and letting the area flood with seawater. This will solve the developing environmental problem with acid sulphate soils.

Flooding the lakes with salt water will create economic problems for the communities who live and farm in the region and who have come to reply on the lakes as a source of freshwater including for irrigation. Perhaps for this reason, and for local politics, this obvious environmental solution has been treated as a taboo subject for too long.


Most Australians, and many South Australians, have never visited the lower lakes, but they have come to believe that the region is now degraded because upstream irrigators take water which would otherwise flow to South Australia. The Australian Conservation Foundation has made the sand dredges working at the bottom of the lakes a symbol of the need for bigger environmental flows.

Arlene Buchan, a campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation, told national ABC radio in June 2006 that, "There are lots of problems with the River Murray, but lack of environmental flows is without a doubt the biggest one. We need to have much bigger environmental flows passing down there through the Coorong and out the mouth. A healthy river should be able to keep its own mouth open, and shouldn't need any sort of dredging or artificial assistance in keeping sand out of its mouth."

But this is not necessarily true of Australian rivers; the idea that a river should be always brimming with water and always flow strongly to the sea is a very European concept.

Indeed British explorer Charles Sturt, the first European to visit the lower lakes wrote in 1832, "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 tributaries 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 tide throws up before them."  

Captain Sturt left Sydney in 1830 in search of an inland sea but instead the Murray led him to the lower lakes and the Coorong in what is now South Australia. He travelled down the river in a whale boat; a boat resembling one of the lifeboats on the Titanic but longer, oar-powered and with a dismountable mast and sails.

While many Australians who watch the nightly news on television have come to associate the narrow channel between the sandbars below the barrages at the bottom of the lakes as the Murray River's mouth, Captain Sturt described the river's mouth as being above the lakes, where the township of Wellington now lies. After 33 days in the whaleboat, he wrote, "we had, at length, arrived at the termination of the Murray. Immediately below me was a beautiful lake, which appeared to be a fitting reservoir for the noble stream that had led us to it; and which was now ruffled by the breeze that swept over it."
Captain Sturt described the waters of the lake as initially "sweet" but by the morning of the second day on the lake, as they headed to the south western corner of the vast expanse of water, he noted the lake suddenly became salty and "unpalateable" and that "the transition from fresh to salt water was almost immediate."


That night they camped on the western shore of the lake and Captain Sturt wrote, "the stillness of the night was broken by the roar of the ocean, now too near to be mistaken for wind or by the silvery and melancholy note of the black swans as they passed over us, to seek food, no doubt, among the slimy weeds at the head of the lake."

On the third day, the expedition's attempt to maneuver the whale boat from the lakes to the Southern Ocean was blocked by sandbars. Captain Sturt wrote, "Shoals again closed in upon us on every side. We dragged the boat over several, and at last got amongst quicksands."

It was not until the next day, the fourth day at the lower lakes, that Captain Sturt conceded that it would be impossible for his men to drag the whaleboat any further over the sand bars and sand flats. He eventually changed plans and told his men they would be heading back across the lower lake and back up the Murray River because it was futile to try and break through to the ocean.

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About the Author

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

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