Communities demand action on dying Murray

Among the crowd of some 2000 protesters in front of South Australia's Parliament House on August 1, eco-activists in jeans and windcheaters mingled with people in Akubra hats and Driza-Bone jackets. Mentions of Labor Party Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, federal water minister Penny Wong and South Australian Premier Mike Rann drew sustained jeers.

In the brief, angry speeches, several themes recurred: the Murray River is dying; the lake system at its mouth is almost dead and it is governments, not nature, that are to blame. Excessive water diversions — not drought or climate change — have stopped the river flowing from its mouth for the previous five years.

There is still plenty of water in the system, speakers claimed. It is held far upstream by self-interested users, and should be released to stop environmental collapse and the loss of livelihoods in the river's lower reaches.

In the weeks since that rally, residents of South Australia's Lower Murray region have continued to campaign. A lakeside meeting on August 6 was followed by Karlene Maywald, state minister for water security and the River Murray, gushing to journalists that she looked forward to the lakes in years to come being "absolutely pristine", with "lovely fresh water".

On August 10, thousands of demonstrators in the riverside town of Goolwa heard how the Inland Rivers Network and the Australian Conservation Foundation had released a proposal calling on the federal government to purchase, for more than $300 million, six large irrigation properties in Queensland and northern New South Wales. The private dams on these properties, the proposal argued, could immediately provide up to 300 gigalitres of water — close to the amount needed to sustain the lakes through the coming spring.

By and large, however, the news reports confronting the campaigners were grim. After a week-long audit of water held in storage, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority on August 7 concluded that releasing water to save the Lower Lakes was "not feasible". If water was released in the northern reaches of the river system, as little as 20% would make it down to the lakes.

Of the water supposedly available, other commentaries pointed out, much was held in numerous small farm dams needed for domestic and stock purposes. While 300 gigalitres might stave off disaster in the lakes through the spring, likely evaporation from the lakes over the summer months was around 800 gigalitres. Putting this much water in place would be impossible unless there were freakishly heavy rains across large areas of the basin. Long-range forecasts suggested this is unlikely.

'Development'

There is no question that governments and large-scale irrigators, over more than 100 years, bear most of the blame for the plight of the Murray ecosystems and for the hard times faced by the river's human communities. In its pristine state, the Murray had a flow from its mouth averaging about 13,000 gigalitres (13 cubic kilometres) per year. By 1950, diversions of water were taking out about 4000 gigalitres. Extractions then began growing steeply as state governments pursued "development" by constructing new water storages and opening new irrigation areas.

The governments involved knew that natural flows in the Murray-Darling system were highly irregular. Before significant diversions began, the worst droughts had caused the Murray to shrink to a string of waterholes. To smooth the flow from year to year and allow irrigation to develop, large dams were constructed.

Murray-Darling Basin Commission (MDBC) figures show that in the eventual peak years, annual diversions of surface water from the basin's rivers averaged 11,518 gigalitres. With extractions on this level, the waterways were routinely under extreme stress. Prior to "development", a CSIRO report cited in the July 15 Australian noted, water ceased flowing to the Murray mouth only 1% of the time. In recent decades, the figure has been 40%.

Astoundingly, governments until the mid-1990s refused to recognise that diversions on a scale approaching the entire average flow in the system were unsustainable. A salient reason was that control over the Murray-Darling basin was divided among four separate state governments.

In these circumstances, achieving a common vision of the needs of the river system as a whole was bound to be difficult. The fact that state politicians were mostly ignorant of environmental issues, and often beholden to monied rural interests, did not help.

It was only in 1994 that the Council of Australian Governments, which links the federal government with the governments of the states and territories, began work on national water reform. Progress thereafter was glacial. It was not until June 2004 that COAG adopted a National Water Initiative designed to manage water resources so as to "optimise economic, social and environmental outcomes".

By this stage, long-term drought was making "normal" inflows to the rivers an abstraction. According to the Australian's rural writer Asa Wahlquist on August 8, inflows into the Murray over the past decade have been down by 38%.

Climate scientists are wary of ascribing the drier conditions to climate change, noting the importance of natural seasonal variation. On the other hand, various mechanisms the scientists describe tie the long drought to global warming in considerable detail.

Record low

Drained by excessive diversion rights and extended drought, most of the upstream storages are now close to empty. Unusually dry conditions in 2006 and 2007 have depleted soil moisture and lowered water tables to the point where average rainfall in the current winter has not been able to restore inflows.

Run-off into the basin's rivers in June, according to the MDBC, was at a record low — only 14% of the average. In recent months, irrigators in South Australia have been receiving only 2% of their theoretical entitlements; for many of their colleagues in Victoria and New South Wales, the figure has been zero.

The Murray and its tributaries are hurting along almost all their length. But arguably, the situation is most dire where the Murray once met the sea through the system of tidal lagoons that includes the Coorong and lakes Alexandrina and Albert.

In the 1930s, eight kilometres of barrages were built to isolate the two lakes from the ocean. The estuarine ecosystems were replaced by freshwater ones. Over time, irrigation settlements grew up on the lake shores.

Now, the water in the lakes is almost half a metre lower than sea level. Irrigation inlet pipes stand high and dry, and the lake water in any case is saline enough to kill grape vines. Of the people demonstrating in Adelaide on August 1, more than a few would have been lake irrigators faced with ruin.

Wretched as the dilemma of the farmers is, that of the lake environment is worse. As the water retreats, iron sulphide minerals in the exposed lake bed react with oxygen from the air to form sulphuric acid. In extreme cases this process, known as acid sulphate leaching, can result in acidity levels approaching those in car batteries. Once formed, the sulphuric acid mobilises heavy metals such as lead and cadmium that are also present in the sediments. The environment becomes lethal to fish and much other aquatic life.

As related in the Australian on June 19, a leaked South Australian government report has warned of "complete ecological collapse" in the lakes if action is not taken by October. Other sources speak of the damage as being irremediable.

How can acid sulphate leaching be prevented? The only realistic way is to keep the lake beds covered with water. Fresh water is now most unlikely to be available in the quantities needed. The only environmentally responsible course is to open the barrages, let in the sea, and allow the lakes to return to their natural brackish state. Estuarine ecosystems would replace the freshwater ones, but the latter would survive in the river itself, and at least the lake beds would not finish up devoid of life.

Wong has now recognised the obvious, acknowledging on ABC Radio on August 6 that "there is insufficient water currently in storage … for us to viably manage the Lower Lakes". But her South Australian counterpart Maywald shows no sign of appreciating what is at stake. On August 7 Maywald was quoted by the Adelaide Advertiser as saying it was unlikely the barrages would be opened, arguing that the lakes would "take decades to recover from this".

Federal opposition water spokesperson Greg Hunt, meanwhile, told the paper that Wong had "waved the white flag" on the lakes.

Water "reform"

Where water issues are concerned, a new realism and a new sense of urgency need to take hold among both state and federal politicians. So far, there have been few signs of this happening.

In January 2007 the former Howard government announced its National Plan for Water Security, proposing to spend $10 billion on water management over 10 years in exchange for the states ceding their powers over the Murray system to the Commonwealth. A sum of $6 billion was to be spent on modernising irrigation infrastructure, while $3 billion over 10 years was to be spent on buying back water diversion licences.

The Rudd government has taken over most elements of this Howard plan. Under the plan's provisions, some $50 million will reportedly be spent this year to buy back 34 gigalitres of water entitlements. These purchases, however, will have essentially no impact on the immediate water crisis. Because of the drought, the Australian reported on August 5, almost none of this water is currently being delivered anyway. For its $50 million, the federal government this year will return to the rivers only enough water to fill ten Olympic swimming pools.

Meanwhile, the job of creating new laws and regulatory bodies for managing the basin has gone ahead. By July this year, Rudd government amendments and a COAG meeting had brought the Howard government's Water Act 2007 to what appears to be its mature form. A new, independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority, to report to Wong, will take over many powers formerly exercised by the states. A new Basin Plan will oversee "the integrated and sustainable management of water resources".

The functions of the plan will include setting long-term diversion limits, identifying risks such as climate change, and setting rules for the trading of water rights. Meanwhile, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is to have extensive powers to regulate water charging and the market in water.

The problems of the River Murray, however, have already gone critical — and whatever meltdown is in store, the Rudd government's new water regime will not come into effect in time to stop it. The new provisions for managing the rivers have been deferred until 2011, after the next federal and state elections. The last of the state water plans, in Victoria, will remain in force until 2019.

The federal government has, of course, also announced a number of practical, near-term water measures. Rudd has now heeded the call to allot funds to buy up large irrigation properties in Queensland and northern NSW, along with their water rights. On August 14, Rudd agreed to a proposal that an independent audit be conducted of all water across the basin. Money is also to be offered to the South Australian government to double the output of a desalination plant planned for Adelaide.

But will steps such as these have any appreciable impact? They must still be measured against the need for massive cuts in the overall quantities of water taken out of the system. In the July 15 Australian, University of Adelaide natural resource specialist Professor Wayne Meyer was quoted as saying: "In the longer term, we've got to figure out how to reduce our water extraction by 30 to 50 per cent just to match inflows available and just to retain some of the essential environmental features of this Australian inland river."

Improved water infrastructure, with pipelines taking the place of leaky open channels, can provide some savings. Better urban water use is necessary, but can only be a minor part of an overall solution. Overwhelmingly, the savings must come from some combination of improved irrigation practice, less water-wasteful crops, and above all, a sharp reduction in the area of irrigated land.

The real challenge will stem from the need to end irrigation farming on large numbers of modest-sized, mostly family-run holdings. Irrigated pasture, the basis of much dairy farming in northern Victoria, will have to go. So too will cotton and rice-growing. Generous compensation must be paid to farmers prepared to quit. Financial assistance must be extended to threatened communities, with programs aimed at developing new sources of employment.

Ultimately, no measures of this kind will save the Murray unless global warming is slowed, then halted. A two-metre rise in sea levels, widely predicted for late in the century, would see South Australia's Lower Lakes become the state's third gulf. Without extensive new infrastructure works, the Murray itself would become a tidal estuary for well over 100 kilometres upstream.

Climate change is also predicted to make the basin drier. According to the more likely warming scenarios, CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology data indicate, climate change by 2030 is likely to reduce average winter and spring rainfall in south-eastern Australia by 5-10%. Stream flow will diminish still more markedly, since run-off declines by 3% or even 4% for every 1% decline in rainfall. Rainfall will become more erratic, with droughts more frequent.

These effects could cancel out any gains from improved water management. If the impacts of past folly and irresponsibility are to be contained, action on water issues cannot remain distinct from the fight against global warming. Community activists from the river and lake towns must join with capital-city climate campaigners in a unified, broadly based popular struggle.