Ten years ago I travelled from our home in Clayton Bay, South Australia to Canberra with my late husband Henry Jones, where we cooked Coorong Mullet for MPs to drive home the importance of reducing the amount of water being taken from the Murray.
Today, me and my daughter have come back to Canberra to replicate the action because the Murray-Darling is now in critical danger, and with new legislation before the Senate the next few weeks are crucial.
We know what my late husband Henry would say if he was still alive – the Federal government needs to step up now and guarantee the future of Murray-Darling.
We are here to remind our politicians that those of us who have lived and worked on Australia’s biggest river system for generations – including fishers, irrigators, First Nations and local communities – have a right to water from a sustainable Murray-Darling.
We know that a healthy sustainable river needs to come first and then healthy sustainable river communities will follow. We come to Canberra again because we know it’s not too late to keep the Murray mouth open and the river levels high enough to run to the sea.
The droughts experienced over the past decade have had a devastating impact on our communities and tested our resilience, but we can’t blame the droughts alone for the state of the Murray-Darling.
Unless we strengthen our efforts to reduce water taken from the river by getting behind government efforts to buy back water, then we will have gained nothing by the next time we experience a serious rainy season.
Both the droughts and climate change have no doubt made our task more difficult and urgent, but the core of the problem remains simple – river mismanagement in the form of too much water allocated to irrigators has devastated the long term health of the rivers.
We have seen an impasse in Murray-Darling water policy in which no single stakeholder will admit they are part of the problem – from high up the river in St George right down the Murray mouth.
The finger is always pointed upstream or downstream, but it is the overall river flows that are the loser. We can’t go on like this. Now it is time to make decisions for the good of the entire river system.
A healthy river environment means healthy industries can still thrive, but when the river is neglected as it has been, more fish species will be lost along with the pain that will continue to be felt in river communities.
As it stands, many species of fish, birds and plants have already been driven to extinction from the rivers and lakes around the Coorong where I live, and many will never recover. To keep on this trajectory is to do a gross disservice to future generations, including my grandkids.
One only has to look at what happened in the Menindee Lakes and the Darling-Baaka River with mass fish kills. We need greater protection and more water to be restored to these areas.
The same thing is now happening in the Coorong. After the recent large floods, Black Bream are now in their masses, but without regular flows – water for the environment – there is a grave risk these fish will die too. They cannot wait another three years.
We would be foolish to believe that our rivers will once again be pristine, but our communities have strong connections to rivers and wetlands so healthy cultural waters need to be protected. This also comes down to respecting Traditional Owners and acknowledging their wisdom shown in caring for these waterways.
We come to Canberra together with First Nations leaders and environmental groups calling for a true commitment to restoring a healthy Murray-Darling River system for all. Climate change means we need to act quickly and become smarter with water use.
The Water Act must be fully adhered to and the plan being proposed for both the northern and southern basins to keep healthy flowing rivers needs to be delivered in full. The water currently on the table will not be enough to bring health back to our waterways, so any reduction of that would be disastrous.
Minister Plibersek, on behalf of Henry Jones and river communities stretching from the south to the north of the majestic Murray-Darling, we ask you to be brave. Please, buy back the necessary water from willing sellers, sooner, rather than later
Gloria Jones is a founding member of the River, Lakes and Coorong Action Group, an independent community organisation advocating for the Murray Darling Basin system. Her family have lived and fished in the Coorong region of South Australia for sixty years.
Header image: Pelicans at the Coorong. Credit Max Phillips