action-story | 17th Dec, 2020

Peta Thornton: A force of nature

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With some childhood memories, the magic never fades. For Peta Thornton, canoeing through the flooded Nyah Vinifera forest is one of those unforgettable experiences.

“The tranquillity, the reflection of trees on the water, the birdlife … Seeing that as kids was transformative.”

When the Murray River overflowed, the forest would burst to life. “The floods transformed the land into a vibrant, pulsing life-force. Everything would start to grow, breed, nest.” Paddling amongst the Red Gums, Peta felt a sense of adventure and awe. “The forest is always beautiful, but in flood it’s enchanting – a magical place.”

Peta's experiences as a child fuelled her life-long love for our rivers.

Peta’s love of the Murray runs deep, and protecting its ecosystems is a lifelong passion. “Being close to nature as a kid leaves a real impact on you,” she says. Over the years she’s run a native plant nursery, a seed bank and numerous local revegetation projects. She’s now an orchardist, conservationist and mother, growing stone-fruit in Woorinen, near Swan Hill, with her husband.

Two decades as an irrigator has only intensified Peta’s respect for the river. A ripe nectarine tastes like sunshine, but water is the magic ingredient. Like many locals, she owes her livelihood to the Murray. “You have to irrigate stone-fruit, or the trees die. Water is incredibly important.”

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The river also has a deeper significance. “It’s hard to put a value on what the river does for our community’s mental health and wellbeing,” says Peta. Locals gravitate to it for peace, solace, quiet reflection and family time.

“They hold it really dearly. And they don’t know what they’d do without it.”

But their beloved waterway is facing profound change. “Our whole landscape is drying out.” The loss of natural flooding is a major blow. “Until my early 20s, the river would spill over into wetland ecosystems almost every year. It did that for millennia.” That natural cycle, and the regular explosion of life it sparked, no longer happens.

Birdlife is now in decline. Brolgas were once regular sights, “but you don’t see them anymore,” says Peta. “The last time I saw Brolgas was ten years ago.” Plants are suffering too. “All the massive old Red Gums, some 1000 years old, have been decimated by the lack of flooding. They’re either dying or dead.” Important cultural trees are facing the same fate. “Huge ring trees, canoe trees – they’re dying too.”

Fish are also at risk. Natural flooding flushes away leaf litter, but without this regular cycle, organic matter builds up and infrequent floods can become noxious “black water events”, potentially killing thousands of fish. This is increasingly common in the region.

Multiple factors have stressed the river, says Peta: water trading, climate change, the Millennium drought, the “unbundling” of water rights from land, intensified irrigation, patchy regulation, and the contested upriver practice of “floodplain harvesting”. These causal factors can be hard to unpick, but the resulting damage is clear.

Peta sees the Murray–Darling Basin Plan as a valuable landmark agreement. But while science should guide Basin decisions, climate change wasn’t factored into the models, and political interference is muddying the waters.

Like many locals, she rejects the proposed “water offset” projects, costly engineered floods that benefit big corporations over delicate ecosystems.

“The river’s not just a channel of water,” she points out. “It’s an intricate web of lakes, wetlands and forests that follow ancient laws of flooding and drying.”

Powerful voices often drown out smaller ones, so Peta’s happy to be part of Environment Victoria’s storytelling project. “Human beings love a story, and our rivers belong to everyone. By sharing stories from real people who value our rivers, we can help protect them.”

Your support will kick-off a long-term collaboration across the Basin states to change the story. You’ll help build a powerful movement capable of shifting water politics and saving our Murray-Darling.