November 2nd 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Murray-Darling Basin Plan based on debunked science

CANBERRA OBSERVED What does it take to knock down GetUp?

TECHNOLOGY Beijing's push to dominate world supply of electronics components

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Hong Kong protestors speak candidly to NCC, as Xi threat calls Tiananmen to mind

LIFE ISSUES Of foetuses and fallacies

LIFE ISSUES To hold the hand ... an answer to euthanasia

LIFE ISSUES Melbourne and Brisbane on the march

QUEENSLAND AFA/NCC forum addresses euthanasia legislation

THE ENVIRONMENT Fresh visit to the Great Barrier Reef in its death throes

COLD WAR HISTORY Was the Vietnam War worth fighting?

HUMOUR England United, and all that ... but with Hume?

MUSIC Usage and abusage: Words what got rhythm

CINEMA AND CULTURE The mirror of villainy

BOOK REVIEW Eclectic example of genre of decline

BOOK REVIEW Brief battle a model for combined arms


RELIGIOUS FREEDOM ABC survey finds majority agree there is unfair discrimination against religious Australians

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COVER STORY Murray-Darling Basin Plan based on debunked science

by Patrick J. Byrne

News Weekly, November 2, 2019

“It is not the drought causing farmers to leave in droves, it’s governments taking 30 per cent of irrigation water under the new Murray Darling Basin water plan that is based on ‘erroneous’ science that is driving farmers out of business,” according to a long-time Murray River farmer.

Neil Eagle is a farmer of over 60 years who was a member of the Anomalies Committee for the Murray River Private Diverters, which developed the formulae for water allocations from the Murray River. This became the template for all NSW river allocations.

Goolwa Barrage, near the mouth of the Murray, looking towards
Hindmarsh Island: fresh water to the left; salt water to the right.

He explained to News Weekly how the network of huge dams across the Basin, that once stored enough water to last farmers through a five-to-seven year drought, now only store enough allocation water for a two-to-three year drought. “These storages have been reprioritised to provide water to the Lower Lakes (Alexandrina and Albert) in South Australia to artificially maintain them as freshwater lakes,” he said.

Recently, water-starved, angry farmers vented their frustrations at Tocumwal. They threw an effigy of Federal Water Minister David Littleproud into the Murray River in protest at having to watch high river flows go past them down to the Lower Lakes under the Basin Plan.

The requirement for high river flows to maintain lakes Alexandrina and Albert as freshwater bodies is a legal requirement of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, which in 2012 was written into the federal Water Act 2007.

The Plan requires the buyback of 3,200 gigalitres (six Sydney Harbours) of water from irrigation farming to be diverted to river flows to maintain the Lower Lakes as freshwater lakes. The new water Basin Plan involves not only the Federal Government; the New South Wales, Queensland, Victorian and South Australian governments are also signatories to the Basin Plan. They have primary jurisdiction over the water.

Now, a revealing research paper published by the CSIRO refutes claims that the Lower Lakes have been freshwater lakes for the past 7,000 years.

The CSIRO paper, “Watching the tide roll away – contested interpretations of the nature of the Lower Lakes of the Murray Darling Basin”, was written by Dr Peter Gell of the School of Health and Life Sciences at the Federation University of Australia.

It is a sad read, not only for its exposure of erroneous science, but for how erroneous science was used to frame a new Basin Plan and for allocating $13 billion to “disinvest” in the Basin’s agriculture – that is, to reduce irrigation water allocations by one-third, resulting in an untold number of farms shutting down and causing enormous economic hardship and suffering.

Dr Gell’s paper cites the evidence of four scientific studies between 1994 and 2000 that showed the Lower Lakes over a period of 7,000 years were estuarine. That is, they experienced a mix of sea water from the ocean intruding “far upstream” and fresh water flowing down the Murray River from other rivers in the Basin stretching right up into Southern Queensland.

Furthermore, Dr Gell says that “this observation for an estuarine history” is now “vindicated” by another 2019 study of the region’s environmental history by Anna Helfensdorfer, Hannah Power and Thomas Hubble. Their paper, “Modelling Holocene analogues of coastal plain estuaries reveals the magnitude of sea-level threat”, in Nature, shows that estuarine conditions extended as far as 200 kilometres north of Lake Alexandrina, even at times in the earth’s history when sea levels have been significantly lower than today.

These estuarine conditions in the Lower Lakes continued right up until the mid 20th century, when long barrages were constructed to artificially prevent Southern Ocean salt water from mixing with the fresh water entering Lake Alexandrina from the Murray River.

During the Millennium Drought, water levels in the lake dropped, exposing areas of the lake bed to the air that created acid sulphate soils. Despite acid levels being equivalent to that of a car battery, calls for the barrage gates to be opened and allow the lake bed to be protected by saltwater inflows were refused on the grounds that the lakes were supposed to contain only fresh water.

In turn, the acid sulphate soils were used as another reason to divert water from irrigation farming to protect the Lower Lakes environment.

Dr Gell says that, in the run-up to the Murray Darling Basin Plan, “government agencies used, and cited exclusively, the conclusions of an unpublished paper” that had concluded the Lower Lakes had been “predominantly fresh” over 7,000 years. This was then interpreted to mean that this was the “natural condition” of the lakes despite four previously published scientific papers that indicated the lakes were estuarine (and here, here and here).

He particularly pointed the finger at the South Australian Department of Environment and Heritage and its influential 2009 report on the Lower Lakes and the Coorong. The Department reiterated the “erroneous” claim to the fresh natural condition of the lakes, which was then adopted by the Murray Darling Basin Authority as the basis for establishing the new Basin Plan.

The Plan, as written into the Water Act, says that maintaining the Lower Lakes as fresh is its core objective.

This resulted in the Basin Plan requiring $13 billion of taxpayer funds to buy back the equivalent of six Sydney Harbours of water from irrigation farmers, and for investment in new water infrastructure across the Basin, to keep the Lower Lakes full of fresh water from the Basin. The infrastructure works aimed to saving 700 gigalitres (1.4 Sydney Harbours) in transmission losses, but that high level of savings was not achievable.

In short, $13 billion is being spent to achieve an environmental objective based on erroneous science. In addition, the Federal and NSW governments have just announced another $1 billion for two projects – extending the Wyangala Dam and building the new Dungowan Dam – to add the equivalent of just one Sydney Harbour storage to the Basin.

When I asked Neil Eagle what needs to be done in the face of these scientific revelations, he said that that two things were urgently required.

First, 1,000 gigalitres of water are “lost” in transmissions from Hume Dam down the MurrayRiver to Lake Alexandrina through seepage, evaporation and the watering of forests.

“This water should be treated as part of the government’s environmental flows, which means that an equivalent 1,000 gigalitres held in storages should be made immediately available to irrigators,” he said.

Second, “the Federal Government must call an immediate inquiry to review the science behind the Basin Plan, which is necessary to recognise the Lower Lakes as historically estuarine, and then to amend the federal Water Act to have the lakes restored to being estuarine.

“If this is not urgently done”, Mr Eagle said, “Victoria, NSW and Queensland must walk away from the Basin Plan.”

Mr Eagle applauded the recent Federal and NSW governments’ $1 billion commitment for new water storage projects in New South Wales. However, greater immediate impact would come from building Lock Zero near Wellington on the Murray in South Australia, which would secure freshwater supplies for Adelaide as well as local and upper states’ farmers. Read an outline of what is needed here.

He said this needs to be complemented with automating the gates on the barrages between the sea and Lake Alexandrina – to regulate seawater inflows at high tide and scour the channel from the lakes to the sea at low tide. This would restore the Lower Lakes’ natural estuarine conditions, revitalise aquatic life and maintain a high lake level for those now living on Hindmarsh Island.

Mr Eagle warned: “Unless urgent action is taken, there will be a mass exodus of farmers from Australia’s main food bowl.”

Overview of the Murray Darling Basin


  • Total Murray Darling Basin reservoir storage capacity, 45 Sydney Harbours. One Sydney Harbour is 500 gigalitres, or half-a-million Olympic-size swimming pools.
  • Current storage capacity, 36 per cent.
  • Prior to the 2012 Murray Darling Basin Plan, half (22.5 Sydney Harbours) was for the environment and half for irrigation, towns and industry.
  • Following the 2012 Basin Plan, an additional six Sydney Harbours worth is allocated to environmental flows for the Lower Lakes, reducing allocations for irrigation to 16.5 Sydney Harbours, that is, by 30 per cent.
  • Hence, instead of dams storing enough irrigation water for a five-to-seven year drought, enough is held to sustain farmers only for two-to-three years in a long drought. But for NSW Murray River farmers, it has meant enough for only one year of drought after having full storages after the 2016 large floods, followed by only 51 per cent allocations in 2017-18, then zero allocations in 2018-19 and 2019-20.
  • The new Federal and NSW government allocation of $1 billion for new dams will add only one more Sydney Harbour to storages, and only about one-third of that will be for farming.

 Patrick J. Byrne is national president of the National Civic Council.

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