Wider focus needed on Murray Darling water controversyby Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
, April 19, 2003
Federal and State governments have very narrowly focused on removing 5-15% of farmers water allocations, in the false expectation that increased water flows will solve the environmental problems experienced in parts of the Basin.
However, environmental experts say that any serious attempt at solutions must involve a five part strategy, aside from salinity management that has already seen a substantial reduction in salt concentrations at the point where the Murray leaves Victoria and enters South Australia.The issues that need to be simultaneously addressed are:
- instream habitat: the logs, water plants, water turbidity and temperature that affect life in the river;
- riparian zone health: this relates to stream bank stability, land and vegetation adjoining the river, like wet lands and billabongs, and flood effects on the regeneration of the flora and fauna;
- instream structures: the use of locks, dams and weirs which affect river flow, irrigation use and timing of riparian zone flooding;
- seasonality of flows: the natural regeneration cycle is in August-September (coinciding with the periodic, traditional snow melt leading to river flooding) whereas current flood timing is November-February when farmers need irrigation water; and
- volume of water flows down the river systems in the Basin.
The only one of these five aspects being considered by Federal and State authorities is volume flow, which is arguably the least important. It may dilute the problems but won't solve the environmental issues, and is likely to throw most of the cost of the plan back onto residents of the Basin, particularly farmers.
For any strategy to work, it must address this range of environmental issues and win the confidence and support of the regional residents of the Basin. The process must involve:
- clearly defining agreed river health issues;
- prioritising river health issues as to the urgency of remedial action and the costs and benefits of such action;
- agreeing on the most cost-effective method of addressing each problem, and minimising the socio-economic impacts; and
- instituting an agreed monitoring program, involving agreed regional representatives to ascertain if the remedial measures are actually delivering results.
Currently, there is no proposal to have any scientific monitoring of increased water flows to determine how they impact on the environment!
Public perceptions about the Basin's environmental issues also need to be corrected. For example, currently, the region is gripped by drought. If it not for the dams, locks and weirs in the Basin, the river system would be dry or stagnant, inflicting an enormous toll on wild life.
As the Murray Daring Basin Commission weekly report indicated in January, "Under fully natural conditions without the dams and weirs of the Murray System, the River Murray flow would by now be extremely low or would have ceased to flow downstream of Swan Hill. In contrast the flow at Swan Hill is currently 4,300 megalitres/day and actual flow into SA is 7,000 megalitres/day." (One megalitre is the equivalent of one Olympic sized swimming pool.)