There’s a better way to restore wetlands than Victoria’s risky and unproven Murray floodplain engineering projects. The solution is real water returned to the river and more natural flows.
Last week, Victorian Water Minister Harriet Shing halted four wetland engineering proposals on the Murray.
It’s a welcome pause. These projects are expensive experiments, a bureaucratic attempt to redesign complex wetlands into more ‘efficient’ holding ponds.
Now the Minister has an opportunity to get back to basics on wetland restoration – securing enough water and shifting the balance towards more-natural flows.
Along the Murray, red gums and billabongs have missed out on the regular floods they need to survive. The combined history of river regulation, over-extraction and climate change has inverted the natural flow pattern.
High flows are pushed downstream during summer to meet irrigation demand, eroding banks and damaging fish lifecycles. With regular floods missing, leaf litter builds up, creating blackwater events when bigger flows come.
What the floodplain needs now is to return to more-natural flows. Part of this is setting enough water aside.
But it’s not the whole solution. To spread out to wetlands, the river needs to flow over the low-lying floodplain upstream. In water jargon, we need to relax ‘constraints’ on river flows.
Victoria’s wetland engineering is a separate proposal with a wholly different logic. It assumes red gums and billabongs need infrastructure. Instead of natural flows, water will be pumped and ponded with levees and regulators.
Water scientists and several Indigenous leaders have criticised the approach. Victoria has spent $54 million to justify it. But the stack of plans doesn’t answer a basic question: what do these projects deliver that a less-constrained river can’t?
This pause should give time to look at realistic alternatives. A less-constrained river can water an area 27 times larger than the engineered projects. Often those maps overlap.
But there’s another reason the Victorian government is so eager to modify wetlands with pipes and concrete. These projects are part of an ‘offset’ scheme that aims to keep the Murray alive with less water.
It’s a risky move: constructing a few ‘water-efficient wetlands’ while leaving other parts of the floodplain to dry out and die.
How long can we cook the books? Clever accounting isn’t a substitute for real water. It won’t trigger bird breeding events or fish movement.
With this bizarre proposal on pause, Minister Shing should take the chance to go back to basics – rivers need water and flows to sustain life.
That means purchasing real water from willing sellers, including institutional investors who own an outsized proportion of water in the Basin. It’s time for them to step up, turning their private gain to public benefit – a healthier river for everyone.
First published in The Weekly Times.
For the first time in 10 years, we have a federal government committed to saving the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin.
They’re ready to start purchasing water for the environment, to make sure enough stays in the river to sustain the fish, birds, turtles, trees and wetlands that depend on it.
But there’s one thing standing in the way: a Victorian government more interested in protecting the interests of corporate agribusiness, than protecting a healthy river for us all.
Call on Premier Andrews and the Victorian Water Minister to stop blocking the one solution that could finally get our rivers the water they need!
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