A scare campaign by irrigation lobby groups suggesting the Federal Government wants to create massive artificial floods with its Murray-Darling water targets is disappointing and incorrect.
Victoria and NSW’s flood emergency is an ongoing disaster. Although communities are coming together to help those most impacted, many people are still contending with a coming flood peak or a river that stinks with blackwater.
Yet amid this calamity, some irrigation lobby groups are engaging in a scare campaign suggesting the Federal Government wants to create massive artificial floods every few years with its Murray-Darling water targets. It’s disappointing and incorrect.
The reality is that targets for the Murray-Darling will be delivered with flows before minor flood levels, not at all like the water we are seeing at the moment.
Critically, reaching those Basin Plan targets can help make future floods less damaging. They’re intended to reduce blackwater events while upgrading flood-prone infrastructure. There are hundreds of millions of dollars set aside to invest in flood resilience. But this work can’t move ahead without constructive, good-faith dialogue.
Farmers and vegetable growers along the Murray and Goulburn rivers we have spoken to told us they’ve lost everything in these floods. They live in fertile regions on the floodplain. For some, their entire property became part of the river flow.
In the process, many lost their entire crop. And they’re questioning whether to start again from scratch.
One vegetable grower in Seymour said she lives in a diverse community with a real variety of concerns. But one shared thing is “people who live on the land all know that climate change is the issue right now and its impacts are only getting harder on us”.
Climate change is amplifying an existing problem for rivers. For decades, rivers have been increasingly modified. Infrastructure like dams and weirs altered the timing and intensity of water flows.
Many rivers now see their highest flows in summer, with rivers flowing bank-full for downstream irrigation demand. Naturally, the highest flows would occur in winter, with small and medium floods through spring. When inflows are held back by dams, those smaller floods don’t happen.
In a hotter, drier climate, the outlook for floodplains is more consecutive dry years. Interrupted by erratic, larger floods that sweep over the landscape.
One nasty consequence is severe blackwater. Across the floodplain, there’s leaf litter and bark that has built up over consecutive dry years. Those organic materials wash into waterways where bacteria and microorganisms break them down. The water takes on the colour of black tea.
Blackwater events occur naturally, caused by rainfall and smaller floods, providing nutrients on the floodplain to aquatic life. Hypoxic black water – severe events with very low oxygen in the water – is the issue.
This is the crux of the problem, the more years the floodplain stays dry, the more that material builds up. It washes in at once and the bacteria get to work, sucking up a lot of oxygen. This is when blackwater becomes heartbreaking. Murray crayfish crawl out to survive and yellowbellies suffocate.
Preventing blackwater means changing the way we treat the river. Right now, so much is held back in big dams year-to-year for large-scale summer irrigation demand. This means smaller floods just don’t happen.
The wider floodplain hasn’t been getting enough water over the past years of drought. So, the river can’t sweep away blackwater-causing material regularly.
This is where national water politics and flood management need to be in unison — but at the moment that cohesion is sadly lacking and subject to the vested interests of the irrigation lobby.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan set out to address constraints on the river’s flow through projects that support struggling wetlands to properly clear out black water while avoiding community disruption.
If these projects were completed, they would be a key tool for managing blackwater.
In Barmah-Millewa Forest, for example, you need 60,000 megalitres per day for a month to flush out the forest. Without these management projects, it currently only gets 15,000 megalitres per day.
These projects for responsible river flows have all sorts of benefits. They would result in forward planning for infrastructure to protect the community from the type of larger floods we are currently witnessing in Victoria and NSW, as well as more sophisticated early warning systems.
The problem is this work has been way too slow. In NSW and Victoria, these plans have sat motionless for most of the past decade while the states have resisted the water targets in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, rather betrothed to the wealthy irrigation lobby. The former Coalition Government was also hesitant to step up and get the job done.
With a relatively new Labor government in Canberra pledging to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan “in full”, now is the right time to have serious conversations about putting climate adaptation at the top of the list of Basin priorities.
It’s disappointing to see agricultural lobby groups use this moment for scare campaigns. We need to be willing to have real conversations about river management in a fast-changing climate.
This article was first published in Independent Australia on 27 November. Read it here >>