The crisis of the Murray-Darling river system must be properly addressed

By Jim Hayes

The sudden appearance of a mountain of blue green algae poisoned dead fish at Menindee in the north west New South Wales part of the Darling, has brought to public attention yet again, the fact that Australia’s biggest water system is very sick.

Video from 7 News Sydney

This is not a new problem. We have known for years, that way too much water is being  pumped out. The problem has been continuous mismanagement. There have been other warnings, like the previous blue-green algae blooms and the drying up of the mouth near Adelaide in South Australia.

Almost dry Menindee Lakes

The Menindee Lakes are the major water source for the Darling at this point, and falling levels have had an impact on the river.

Pumping water out of the Darling

Then there has been the increasing frequency of drought. The river system gets its water from rain that seeps into water courses and aquifers that feed the major rivers. Much of it comes from the Great Dividing Range. If more water is going out than is going in, there is going to be trouble. Drought conditions compound this problem.

The main culprits are the major cotton growers, assisted by the government of New South Wales. and further assisted by the rules put in place by the Howard government, which allows those holding licences, to claim a huge amount of water.

Water purchased by taxpayers to replenish the river system under Howard’s buy back scheme, has been diverted to the same cotton growers. A means of doing this is through the so-called empty bucket system, where cotton growers sell water back to the government water rights, but actually hand over none. What they use is not monitored. Former deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has been linked to the cotton industry and the empty bucket practice.

Water taken upstream in this way is the main reason why the levels in the Menindee lakes have been falling,

For years, cattle farmers and townspeople further downstream, have been complaining about not having enough water. They have not been listened to.

Mining companies have also traditionally benefited. A case in point is Broken Hill. For 65 years it has had water pumped up from the Menindee lakes. Although the population is declining at Broken Hill, the water usage continues to rise. A new pipeline from Wentworth on the New South Wales side of the Murray is now pumping more water to Broken Hill. Part of this will go to service the new Perilya and Hawsons mining projects.

If a greater environmental disaster is going to be avoided, there is no other choice but to shift over to properly managing the river system back to health.

At the very least, this must include the following.

  • There must be a major decrease in the level of water extraction.
  • The high-volume water using cotton industry must be phased out from a region where it is causing environmental harm, and the water currently in its hands returned.
  • An independent expert scientific body must be established to monitor the health of the Murray Darling Basin, which contains the river system.
  • The permit system, which is providing fertile ground for corrupt practices, must be ended and replaced with water allocation based on the needs of the wider community, while ensuring the needs of the environment.
  • This case underlines the need for a national anti-corruption authority.

Unless adequate steps are taken, the situation is going to get much worse. We must take note of the warnings.

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