Blog | 20th May, 2015

What does El Nino mean for our rivers?

While Melbourne shivered through icy winter weather last week, the Bureau of Meteorology quietly raised the country’s El Nino status from ‘alert’ to ‘El Nino’. This means that southeast Australia can expect below-average rainfall over winter and spring, and an unusually hot summer to follow.

This might seem like a distant concern, given all the recent rain in Melbourne, but northern and western Victoria have had well below average rainfall over the past year, and farmers are feeling the pinch even before this El Nino kicks in. John Vanston, a sheep farmer near Bendigo, recently told The Age that the conditions are similar to 1982, which was another strong El Nino year.

But this isn’t just bad news for farmers. The last time Victoria experienced El Nino conditions was during the millennium drought that culminated in the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009. In addition to the catastrophic human impacts of drought, El Nino is really bad news for our rivers.
During drought, our rivers get squeezed both ways, with less water going in, and a greater proportion of what’s left taken out. Many rivers in northwest Victoria are already down to less than 10% of their normal flows and some, including the Loddon, the Wimmera and the Werribee, have stopped flowing altogether.
This means dead trees, desiccated wetlands, struggling wildlife and poor water quality. This year water bird breeding has already stopped, and numbers are heading back to the lows of the 2000s as drought becomes reality. The below image of Victoria’s streamflow status shows the situation perfectly: it’s one big orange warning sign for the health of our rivers.

With politicians of all stripes recognising the importance of healthy rivers to communities and agriculture as well as wildlife and the environment, previous El Nino events have spurred action. At the height of the millennium drought, when the entire Murray system was almost dead, former Prime Minister John Howard set a process in motion to create a Murray-Darling Basin Plan. This national Plan is intended to reduce the amount of water that was being taken out of rivers, so that their health improves and the impact of drought is lessened in future. The most cost-effective way to return water to rivers is to buy it off willing sellers. This process transfers water from consumptive use to the environment and puts cash into the pockets of farmers – a win for everyone!

Unfortunately this time round, it seems like the political appetite for action has dried up. Consistent with their general antagonism towards all areas of environment policy, the Abbott Government is threatening to restrict the amount of water that can be bought back for stressed rivers. This means that the government will have to rely on expensive infrastructure investment to do the heavy lifting. The issue here is that the plan was never meant to work this way, and without additional funding the money is likely to run out before our rivers get what they need.

Given the gaining strength of the current El Nino, this means efforts to save our rivers are in danger of being driven right back to square one.

So what can we do about it? Next week federal and state water ministers are getting together to discuss progress on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and the proposed restriction on water buybacks. It’s an ideal opportunity for Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville to show leadership and stand up for a Plan that gives our rivers the water they need to be healthy. That means rejecting the cap, using tax payers’ money in the most effective way possible (which is buying back water) and making sure our rivers, wetlands and wildlife get the fair share they deserve.

Share one of our pre-prepared tweets below & make sure Lisa Neville knows that Victorians support healthy rivers!