How the Murray-Darling River was killed

Cry Me a River: The tragedy of the Murray-Darling Basin
Quarterly Essay 77, March 2020
Margaret Simons

"Cry Me a River", the March 2020 Quarterly Essay by Margaret Simons, charts the course of the Darling River and its historic demise from an inland paddle steamer route to a broken chain of algal ponds of recent years.

From the mouth in the Coorong to headwaters in Queensland, it is a long and sorry tale of the competition for control of inland waters on the driest inhabited continent. But rather than providing yet another detached survey of sustainable diversion limits, extraction monitoring and water trading, Simons actually speaks to the people dependent upon the inland waters.

She gives voice to a cross section of these people as she moves along the course of the river; farmers, irrigators, traditional owners, agribusinesses and townspeople -- all struggling for water security in the face of increasingly variable inflows, over-allocations and extorted extractions.

Simons delves through the stories of drought and diversions. She dives into the complexities of water management and ownership that has led to the demise of this once great river. She relates the seething resentments and anger between one community and the next, upper catchment to lower, river mouth to headwaters. Blame for the soaring price of water, for over-allocations, for fish kills and the ecological collapse is passed up and down the food chain from irrigator to cotton farmer, from state water ministries to federal authority, from traditional owner to multinational agribusiness.

Simons goes behind the agribusiness pumps and private dams to speak to those in Queensland and Northern NSW communities profiting from industrial cotton cropping. She meets Aboriginal river defenders to hear of the loss of cultural river flows. But Simons' could have delved more deeply here, given the scale of the hardship and pain Aboriginal communities are suffering from with the denial of safe drinking water and exclusion from the enormous profits being taken out of their river and lands.

Simons focuses more closely on the controversy surrounding the draining of the Menindee Lakes, which led to massive fish kills and the early drought downstream.

Simon’s traces out the struggle to share water between states enshrined in the fraught agreement between the state and federal governments, and the establishment of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission (later Authority -- the MDBA). Under the agreement, states retain power through water-sharing plans to manage over allocations and the federal government attempts to take control over environmental water flows.

Simon’s recounts early efforts of the federated plan under South Australian Senator Penny Wong, as Water Minister, to buy back over-allocated water from large scale license holders and the strong push back from the beneficiaries of agribusiness profits. The Liberal National Government changed track from resuming over-allocations for environmental survival of the river and focused on water use efficiencies. The result has been massive government funded private entrapments of water and less water returned to the ailing river system.

In the Southern Basin, Simon’s explores the frustrations of the smaller irrigators, who suffered through drought while watching water flowing past their paddocks on its way to South Australia. Their grievance targets the Goolwa barrages that stop sea water overtaking the mouth of the Murray.

Simons captures the political fallout for the MDBA and NSW National Party that led to the Can the Plan rallies in Canberra in 2019, and the latest political knee-jerk review thrown together under Northern Basin Commissioner Mick Keelty.

Simons has a huge repository of critiques to draw from, with 30 reviews of the largely political failures of water management at the state and federal levels. In particular, the scathing report of the South Australian Royal Commission and the investigations of the Australia Institute undertaken by Maryanne Slattery, a former MDBA employee.

Revelations of the most breathtaking mismanagement and wastage have also been exposed in media investigations, such as ABC's Four Corners. In its 2017 episode “Pumped”, Four Corners exposed the failures in NSW to monitor extractions and pump fixing in the Upper Basin which have led to prosecution of two of the country’s largest cotton producers.

In 2017, a hugely controversial water transaction saw a $79 million payment to a Cayman Islands bank account of a company associated with Energy Minister Angus Taylor MP. It involved a water-buy back approved by then-agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce, which has failed to return any water to the environment and which was paid for with public funds at many times the trading value of water.

Simon’s documents a litany of breaches and the kowtowing by state and federal politicians facilitating the water demands of corporate agribusiness and water speculators. She does, however, underplay the impact of the water market.

The decision to separate water rights from land title under the Howard government has facilitated the privatisation of water and created a water market now worth $27 billion. Water is traded across catchments and across industries through private hands, driving access to water well beyond the grasp of many long-term residents in the basin and onto high paying export agribusinesses and mines. The government hand-wrings about drought and acts of God, but the market drives water ownership into the control of speculators and international corporations.

Simons’ review of water management looks into the murky political waters of the Murray-Darling Basin. It documents the many fractured battles for our inland rivers which underpin the precarious survival of the nation’s food bowl and our inland settlements. "Cry Me A River" valuably recounts the complexities of one of the most enduring economic and environmental crises we face.