September 6th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: How to help democracy in Hong Kong

Australian Senate backs Hong Kong democrats against China

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Government stumbles over Manildra, Tuckey fiascos

STRAWS IN THE WIND: J'accuse / Shape of things to come

WATER: Murray River farmers face man-made 'permanent drought'

NATIONAL PARTY: Why John Anderson should stay

LETTERS: Sugar price

LETTERS: Rail the key to rural infrastructure

LETTERS: Amrozi death sentence

Ethanol, sugar and free trade

EDUCATION HISTORY: Social justice in education - self-interest disguised as altruism

FAMILY: Quick facts on marriage

BOOKS: GULAG : A HISTORY, by Anne Applebaum

BOOKS: The Maverick and his Machine: Thomas Watson Sr and the Making of IBM

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Murray River farmers face man-made 'permanent drought'

by Patrick J. Byrne

News Weekly, September 6, 2003
Farmers in the Murray Darling Basin face a man-made permanent drought if the Federal and State Governments proceed with proposals to cut farmers' water rights for environmental river flows, as contained in the Murray Darling Basin Commission (MDBC) Living Murray proposals", according to Neil Eagle, a leading water expert and prominent citrus grower from Barham in northern Victoria.

"Taking even 10% of farmers' water allocations for environmental flows is the same as taking 10% of their income. That is their profit margin. It would be the same as subjecting farmers to a permanent drought. It would guarantee the destruction of agriculture in Australia's main food bowl.

"Incredibly, the MDBC and the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) are actually talking of taking up to 15% of farmers' water over ten years, and up to 30% over 20 years.

"This is being justified by groups like the Wentworth Group of scientists which is sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund. They falsely claim that the Basin's river systems are severely degraded, that native fish species are declining, that salinity is worsening and that large numbers of river gum trees are dying.

Then we have politicians having photo shoots at the closed mouth of the Murray in South Australia and claiming this is an environmental disaster, illustrating the degraded health of the river.

"These claims are based on false science and ignorance of the river's environmental history," Mr Eagle said.

Any assessment of the river's health today should at least start by comparing it with what it was like prior to the building of the dams, locks, weirs and thousands of kilometres of irrigation channels, starting some 80 years ago.

According to Trevor Jacobs, in "Regulation and Management of the River Murray" (The Murray, published by the MDBC, 1990), from early settlement times there were "numerous reports of the Darling and its tributaries ceasing to flow for long periods during droughts and also being very salty. When Captain Sturt discovered the Darling in 1829, its waters were undrinkable ... Navigation along the Darling was particularly perilous. One voyage of the PS Jane Eliza from Morgan to Bourke took three years to complete, between 1883 and 1886." (p. 45)

"During times of drought, the Murray was reduced to a chain of saline ponds. It has been reported to have stopped flowing between Tocumwal and Moama in 1850 and one could walk across it at Echuca at times. In 1839, the Murray at Albury was reduced to 'only a small stream trickling among the pebbles'.

"Further downstream, in 1902, [it was reported that] 'not a drop of river water has reached the sea mouth of the Murray during the past six or seven months' and water was so brackish as to be unusable from the Mouth to Murray Bridge." (p. 43)

The photo below shows the river almost dry during a drought in 1914-15.

Contrast these accounts with the Murray River today. Even in the midst of the worst drought for a century, the river is full all the way from the Hume Dam storage near Albury to the Murray mouth.

This huge stretch of once unreliable water is now a permanent water system that has seen the flourishing of native fish, land animals, birds, trees and other native plants. Further, the thousands of kilometres of irrigation channels through large tracts of land in the basin, much of it arid, have also helped native flora and fauna to thrive.

Salinity levels in the Basin, as measured at Morgan, South Australia, have reduced substantially since peaking in 1982. This is due to twelve major salt interception schemes that have been completed since 1978, at a cost of about $100 million. At the same time, farmers in the Basin have invested in excess of $200 million of their own money in works to mitigate the salinity impacts of irrigation.

Of all the salt entering the Murray River, approximately half comes into the river in South Australia, which comprises only 6.7% of the catchment area of the basin.

The Living Murray claims that 16 of 35 native fish species are listed as threatened in the basin, with trout and Murray cod rated as critically endangered.

Yet this is contradicted by fish count statistics from the Torrumbarry Fish ladder, the most comprehensive fish monitoring site on the river. It shows that fish numbers, Murray Cod in particular, have shown a five-fold increase in numbers in the past decade, upstream of South Australia.

While it is claimed that gum trees are dying in some areas, what is not stated is that river red gums very rapidly regenerate. The evidence for this doesn't require rocket science, just a walk along any sandy bank of the river after a flood flow. The sandy beaches and banks are covered in thousands of rapidly sprouting red gums.

As for the closing of the Murray mouth being an environmental disaster, if it were not for the dams, locks and weirs on the river, the river would have ceased to flow past Albury, in eastern Victoria, as of March this year, due to the drought; and the river mouth would have closed naturally.

The river ceased to flow at Swan Hill in 1902, 1914, 1915 and 1923. The Murray mouth closed in 1930. It partly closed in 1967-68 when no water flowed for a record 563 days. Ocean conditions appear to have as great an impact on the river's mouth as river flows.

  • Pat Byrne

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