Rivers in crisis: The deliberate murder of the Menindee Lakes

Sheep stuck in the drying mud at the end of the Menindee Lakes, in January.

After five years and $13 billion of public money spent on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, there is less water in the river than ever before — and more in the private water storages of a handful of National Party donors.

While everyone in charge is saying only more water will fix the problem, none of them are talking about pumping water back out of these storages, even though billions of litres have been illegally drained out of the rivers.

Instead state and federal governments are pushing on with their Menindee Lakes Water Saving Project that seeks to “decommission” the lakes by drying them out. The effects of this policy will be devastating for the Lower Darling.

These lakes are a key wetland in the Murray-Darling Basin freshwater ecosystem and an important fish breeding and waterbird habitat, with more than 30 species of waterbirds, including threatened species such as freckled ducks and migratory waders, inhabiting the area.

Drying the lakes means that the 18,000 residents of the regional NSW town of Broken Hill require a new water supply. To meet this need, the state government has gone through with its controversial 270-kilometre Wentworth to Broken Hill Pipeline. The new pipeline has been designed to ensure water supplies for two new mines in the area.

The decision to decommission the Menindee Lakes also strips out the water that is at the heart of the Barkandji native title claim. The Barkandji were granted NSW’s largest native title claim in 2015. The claim includes the towns of Broken Hill, Wilcannia and Menindee. 

The success of the Barkandji’s claim relied heavily on evidence of their continuous occupation around the Barka (Darling River).

The drying up of the lakes has already had a huge impact on Broken Hill and surrounding communities. Permanent irrigation rights have been removed for local table grape growers, with no compensation or real consultation. Graziers have also been negatively affected.

Meanwhile, governments are proposing to pump water into the new, bigger and deeper on-farm dams that have been built upstream in northern NSW and southern Queensland. This move would largely benefit big irrigators in the Nationals-held electorates of former and current water ministers, Barnaby Joyce and David Littleproud, respectively.

Floodplain harvesting

The NSW government is also legislating for ongoing water theft by issuing free licences for existing floodplain harvesting.

Floodplain harvesting is the process of intercepting water before it enters rivers. A license is generally required to pump water out of rivers, but floodwaters are free for the taking. Irrigators have been allowed to build vast earthworks to funnel floodwater into enormous dams without any license or the need to measure how much has been taken.

In some cases, all of this is done with money from public grants, such as Queensland’s Healthy Headwaters scheme.

Water ecologist Bill Johnson, who used to manage environmental water for the federal Murray-Darling Basin Authority, told ABC News the only limit to how much floodwater irrigators in NSW can take is the size of their pumps and dams.

Harvesting floodwater has had a crucial impact on the Menindee Lakes.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald last year, Helen Vivian outlined exactly how floodwater harvesting is killing the Menindee Lakes: “Some will say it’s the drought causing problems in the lower Darling. But there have also been floods and generous flows throughout this period.

“In June 2016, approximately 60,000 megalitres of water per day was measured flowing down the Macintyre River at Boggabilla, in the Darling River catchment on the border of NSW and Queensland. The Macintyre forms the northern boundary of Joyce’s New England electorate.

“By December 2016, the Menindee Lakes were at 89 per cent capacity. Just four months later they were down to 45 per cent … Very little if any of the water from the floods in early 2017 reached the Menindee Lakes. [Instead it] was allocated and distributed to upstream irrigators.”

As Vivian notes: “This transfer of water and wealth to a very small number of corporate farming operations comes at great cost to the river and cannot be justified economically, let alone environmentally or socially.”

Fish kills

The drive to kill off the Menindee Lakes has also played its part in the recent fish kills that resulted in millions of dead fish floating along the Darling River downstream of the lakes.

The Australia Institute (TAI) discussion paper, A fish kill QandA: Questions, answers and dead fish in the Menindee Lakes, released on January 19, notes that the fish kill crisis was largely due to decisions taken by the MDBA, on instruction from the NSW government. 

TAI senior water researcher and former MDBA employee Maryanne Slattery said: “It is clear what has caused the Darling River fish kill – mismanagement and repeated policy failure.”

“To blame the fish kill on the drought is a cop-out, it is because water releases were made from the [Menindee Lakes] when this simply shouldn’t have happened.”

“The lakes were drained in late 2016 and 2017, with a total of 819GL [gigalitres] released from Menindee Lakes... This is not a natural phenomenon, but a management decision.”

“Such releases have been made in the past, but in recent times inflows from the northern basin to refill the lakes have declined significantly.”

Contrary to claims that the lakes were drained to meet South Australia’s needs, Slattery noted: “Releases were made from Menindee Lakes in excess of South Australia’s requirements…

“In fact, parts of South Australia were recovering from flooding and months of wet weather at that time.”

“A possible part of the answer is that the lakes were drained to justify the Menindee Lakes water-saving project, related changes to the basin plan and the related Broken Hill pipeline project.

“They are easier to justify if the lakes are empty and Broken Hill appears at risk of running out of water,” she said.

Alternatives

Independent MP for the Victorian district of Mildura Ali Cupper said on January 28 that the decommissioning Menindee Lakes will “make an ecological disaster worse” and severely affect farmers on the Lower Darling.

Rather than push forward with the murder of the Menindee Lakes, Cupper has suggested an alternative three-point plan: close Cubbie Station, the largest irrigation property in the southern hemisphere; ban floodplain harvesting; and give farmers incentives to grow crops better suited to arid clim­ates.

Cupper’s plan was put together after consultation with community stakeholders including farmers, scientists, local government leaders and water bureaucrats.

It’s not the first time alternatives like these have been presented.

In 2006, a meeting of western NSW mayors, chaired by state Labor MP Peter Black, voted to call on the federal government to buy Cubbie Station and its water allocation. Instead it was sold to a Chinese-led consortium.

TAI’s Trickle Out Effect: Drying up money and water in the Lower Darling September 2018 report summarises the problem best: “The experience of the Lower Darling shows that the Basin’s decision makers have one way of dealing with a powerful agribusiness and a different way of dealing with native title owners, graziers, communities, small irrigators and the environment…

“The problem is not that there are big agribusinesses flourishing under the Basin Plan, but the inability or unwillingness of governments and their bureaucrats to ensure that those with power are not prioritised at the expense of the wider community interest…

“Democratic governments and their agencies are supposed to govern in the interests for the wider community interest. This is not happening in the Lower Darling, or elsewhere in the Basin.”

[Elena Garcia is a grazier based in Littleproud’s Queensland electorate of Maranoa. This is the latest in the ongoing "Rivers in crisis" series. To read the others articles click here.]

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