The Goulburn River provides more water for use in Victoria than any other river except the mighty Murray itself.
Victorian Water Accounts figures from 2009/10 show 974 billion litres were extracted from the Goulburn, more than half of the water in the river.
And that’s not the end of the story — irrigators and other users are allowed to take up to 1759 billion litres when there is enough water in the system for them to do so.
It’s little surprise then the Murray-darling Basin Authority rates the river alongside the Murrumbidgee as being in the worst condition of all the basin rivers.
What then is the basin plan going to do to improve the health of the Goulburn? The draft plan is proposing to reduce water use in the Goulburn by 344 Gl per year, which still leaves 1415 Gl per year for irrigation and other purposes. Given the plan is supposed to be protecting and restoring environmental health, it’s worth asking, what will that extra water achieve for the Goulburn?
Upstream of Lake Eildon, not much will change as the plan is not concerned with this area. Downstream, where it’s possible to release environmental water in a managed way, conditions in the river channel and close to the banks should improve.
This is great news for native fish and river red gums close to the river, but what’s less certain is if there will be enough water in these areas for water birds to complete their breeding cycles regularly.
It’s worth noting that during the drought bird numbers declined by almost 80 per cent of early 1980s figures. Recent rains have seen birdlife flourish, but numbers remain low.
Higher up the floodplain it’s a different and more desperate story.
More water is needed to reach these areas; there are a number of constraints to getting water there and the effect on the environment appears to be less positive. It’s likely red gums and black box trees in these areas will still receive water only when there is a natural flood, so the plan is not going to do anything to protect their health.
This will be the bleak state of affairs in parts of the new national parks on the lower Goulburn between Shepparton and Echuca.
The authority acknowledges it will not be able to meet all environmental objectives, but unfortunately it doesn’t propose to do anything about that.
It should look at what providing a higher water recovery target above 2750 Gl (in line with scientific recommendations) could achieve.
And rather than saying it’s too difficult to get water to where it is needed, it should investigate what can be done about constraints to water delivery, its costs and who takes responsibility for sorting out constraints.
It’s in the interests of everyone to ensure a healthy river system. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking. Playing on the monkey bars in the playground. Jumping on the trampoline and throwing balls in the basketball net. Going to the art room and painting.