July 26th 2003


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Universities: battleground for next election?

EDITORIAL: Helping the disabled

SPECIAL REPORT: Ethanol: the untold story

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Star Wars / Provocative

AGRICULTURE: Murray River debate hotting up

QUEENSLAND: Values make a comeback

Will Saddam win Phase II of the war? (letter)

Anti-Western animus (letter)

Deflation causes (letter)

Australia's population challenge? (letter)

Christian victims ignored (letter)

COMMENT: Abstinence: the new trend in sex education

GOVERNMENT: Democracy needs a professional public service

COMMENT: Iraq and future US foreign policy

HONG KONG: Mass rally forces back-flip on national security law

BOOKS: BAUDOLINO by Umberto Eco

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AGRICULTURE:
Murray River debate hotting up


by Daryl McDonald

News Weekly, July 26, 2003
The Living Murray has been hijacked by an ill-informed media and is based on flawed science, argues Daryl McDonald, a fourth generation Murray Valley farmer from Murrabit.

Public perception is everything in the debate on delivering up to 1.5 million megalitres of environmental water to the Murray River.

To date we have seen a whole string of "The Murray is Dead" headlines and stories in our major metropolitan dailies.

We've had a feeding frenzy of scientists and environmentalists hollering for water under The Living Murray proposal.

But the reality is many of their claims are flawed and are being pushed by the bureaucracy in the form of the Murray Darling Basin Commission (MDBC).

Take the Commission's "scientific" gem that native fish numbers are only 10 per cent of the their pre-European numbers.

Who counted the fish numbers in 1770, and why do the statistics from the Torrumbarry fish ladder show that this is clearly not the case?

A survey of Wakool landowners, any Murray Valley tackle shop owner and The Weekly Times fishing Bite line column confirm the numbers from Torrumbarry, yet the MDBC continues to peddle this falsity as proof the Murray is dying.

The Torrumbarry fish ladder, the most comprehensive fish monitoring site in the entire Murray Darling Basin, is showing a five fold increase in native fish numbers the past 12 years, and declining numbers of the introduced fish pest, carp. Yet, the MDBC is claiming that Murray cod are an endangered species.

Much is made of salinity in The Living Murray report and, true, it is one of the major threats to our river systems.

However, what is not mentioned in the debate is the fact that more than 40 per cent of the total salt in the Lower Murray enters the river in South Australia, which contains just 6.7 per cent of the Murray Darling catchment.

The salinity levels of the water flowing into South Australia have actually decreased over the past 25 years.

And what of the media concern that the Murray River mouth has silted up due to over use of river water.

The region is experiencing a once-in-a-100 year drought. If left to nature, the river would not be flowing anyhow, and the native fish and local wild life would be greatly reduced. But because of the long stretches of permanent water created by dams, locks and weirs wildlife is not stressed.

Indeed without these in-stream structures, the river would be no more than a string of saline pools and dry river bed; Lake Alexandrina in South Australia would be dry; no water would be exiting the river mouth; and Adelaide would be no more than a small country town without a major water supply.

One other interesting fact concerning South Australia deserves an airing.

The evaporation from lakes Alexandria and Albert is more than the total water used in the State.

It's one thing to criticise other States, but South Australia (one of the greatest advocates of The Living Murray proposal) can certainly do more on water conservation.

Next we must consider "water trading". Maybe it's a fact of life, but is it a valid mechanism for water reform?

The scientists who make up the Wentworth Group and some Federal and State politicians certainly seem to think so.

They happily tout the benefits, yet apparently are oblivious to the fact that water trading has actually increased the use of water and eventually will lead to the vexing problems of stranded assets (where too many farmers sell their water out of an area making it unviable to deliver water to the remaining farmers), social upheaval and a declining rate base for local government.

No solution to these problems have been devised and yet we are gleefully told that we can double our production with half the water, thanks to the wonders of water trading.

At this point it is worth considering the comments on open water trading in the CSIRO's preliminary report on environmental flows.

It states; "If the benefits of securing water for the environment are not to be undone significantly, either the rules and conditions by which water is traded will need to be improved or significant restrictions on permanent and temporary trades will need to be introduced."

Hardly sounds like we have the answer.

A consistent pattern seems to be emerging in accounting and estimating practices these days.

We've seen it with the Skase, Bond, HIH, Melbourne Museum, Federation Square, etc. The simple trick is to overstate the benefits and underestimate the costs.

Now we find the Wentworth Group (led by Professor Peter Cullen) and some of our politicians claiming we can save the Murray, double our production and double the entire economic activity in the Basin.

At the same time, we have the CSIRO reporting the farm gate cost to irrigators of giving up to 15 per cent of their water for environmental flows down the Basin's rivers at $100 million.

Yet Professor Cullen argues this can all be done while doubling the economic output of the Basin to $150 billion.

While The Living Murray document talks of delivering up to 1.5 million megalitres to the Murray, the CSIRO report has done modelling on a range of environmental flows up to 3.35 million megalitres - twice as much as suggested in The Living Murray.

Is the crystal ball starting to clear? If there was any doubt that there is some twisted thinking behind The Living Murray documents, just consider what it asks of us. It proposes taking water from irrigators with no compensation.

It should be of great concern that The Living Murray process is being held up as the "road map to salvation" for the Murray Darling Basin.

The thinking behind it shows no more depth than a primary school discussion group.

The solution it proposes to river health is simplistic and is largely impractical. It contains around 30 half-truths, false assumptions and errors of fact.

As for the much touted "community consultation" process, the effort to date has set a new benchmark for tokenism.

This whole process has been thrust upon a reform-fatigued community in the middle of the worst drought we have ever experienced.




























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