Blog | 24th Jul, 2011

How quickly we forget

Last year, the Murray River and its tributaries were on the brink of collapse because of a dire lack of water. Yet we’ve allowed one good season of rain and a political water-fight to almost wash that memory away.

From the late 1990s to 2010, we suffered through the longest drought in our county’s history. But the Murray River was suffering from decades of abuse long before the drought hit. Over the past century, water consumption for irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin skyrocketed by 500 per cent.

As the 4000 dams and weirs were built, water that once coursed through the great river to give it life, was taken away for irrigation.

A snapshot of the health of the Murray and its tributaries shows the impacts of these decades of water diversions, abuse and drought.

Ninety per cent of floodplain wetlands in the Basin are gone and waterbird numbers plunged to 20 per cent of their historic level. We watched as wetlands turned to acid and salt levels in some waterways grew to 10 times higher than the sea. And before the recent rain, three-quarters of our unique and ancient river red gums were stressed or dying.

Even after the rains finally broke the drought, the big dry still took its toll. The leaf litter and sediments that had accumulated in dried-up wetlands for years due to a lack of environmental flows washed into the Murray, causing low-oxygen “blackwater” events that suffocated fish. It came down to savvy paddle-streamer captains to stir up and aerate the water with their paddles so that Murray Cod could simply breathe.

It’s so much easier to forget these events and tell ourselves that this was just a blip, a once-in-a-century drought that we hope never to see again. But as attractive as that option is, the science simply doesn’t support it. We know that under climate change, the Murray-Darling will experience longer, harsher droughts. Failing to prepare now will only lead to more pain and suffering for the river and the communities who depend on it.

There is one solution to solve this problem and that is to take less water from the Murray and its tributaries.

At the height of the drought in 2007, our politicians decided to keep the Murray-Darling alive and rein in wasteful irrigation. Both sides of politics united to pass the Commonwealth Water Act to return water to the river system.

Last October the first step in this reform was the release of a guide to the proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan. This guide was met by howls of self-interested outrage by a small number of irrigators, the irrigator lobby, and irrigator agribusiness, who mounted a campaign to have the Basin Plan thrown out.

Their calls for business to continue as usual, and for less water to be returned to the environment are really calls to let the rivers die and to permanently damage our farms and rural communities. A dead river is no good to anyone.

Without important national water reform, the Murray-Darling Basin faces a very uncertain future – environmentally, socially and economically.

In coming weeks, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority will announce a new Draft Basin Plan – one that will either condemn the Murray to a slow death, or start the difficult, yet much-needed, reforms. This will be a once in a generation opportunity to sort out how to share the Basin’s water and give water back to the river.

If we are smart enough to grab this chance, we can return the river to health and provide a future to the farmers and communities that depend on a healthy river for their livelihood. But if we if we stick our heads in the sand and forget the past few decades, we’ll destroy the river and take away the lifeblood of Australia’s foodbowl.

Recently, federal Water Minister Tony Burke has suggested it’s not the volume of water that matters most – it’s the end result for the environment that really counts. This is true in principle, but for most of the environmental values we’re trying to protect, only large volumes of water will do the job.

Scientists say that if we want to flush salt from the river system and allow the river to flow to the sea; if we want to prevent our wetlands turning into silent acid pools and keep the water safe to drink and swim in; if we want fish to flourish, birds to breed and red gums to blossom; and if we want to secure our foodbowl and the future of its communities, then we need to reduce water consumption by at least 4000 billion litres.

Not only is returning this much water to rivers necessary, it’s also possible and according to a recent Newspoll, is supported by more than 77 per cent of Victorians, living in and outside the Basin.

But there is a real fear that the science is being sidelined. Scientists from the Wentworth Group and from the Australian Academy of Science are concerned about the scientific rigour being applied to determining how much water will be returned to the Murray-Darling. They’ve asked for an independent review but so far, the authority has refused to do so. This has left our best scientists with little alternative but to walk away from the negotiations.

So the question is, will the Murray-Darling Basin Authority deliver a plan based on the science or will they give in to vested interests and condemn the river and communities to a slow death? And will the $10 billion of taxpayers funds allocated to the process be used wisely to save the river system once and for all, or will it only deliver incremental, modest reform?

There’s no doubt it would be easier to forget about the horrors of the past but if we are to avoid them in the future, we’ve got to make some tough, fact-based decisions this year.

This opion piece by our CEO Kelly O’Shanassy was published in The Age on Friday, 22 July 2011