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a catechism of doom? « Previous | |Next »
July 4, 2003

The debate over environmental flows for the River Murray has been picked up by Alan Moran of the Institute of Public Affairs. Moran has written an article in The Australian Financial Review (no link, Wednesday, 2 July, 2003, p. 55) entitled 'Go with the flow on river management.'

The article is one strand in a political campaign to convert irrigator entitlements to access to River Murray water into property rights to ensure ongoing wealth creation and prosperity. The article is pretty bad when you look at the arguments. I am suprised the AFR has printed something close to junk journalism from a high profile public policy institute.

Moran's argument is that there is little evidence to justify a need for drastically curtailing productive agricultural uses of the river to bolster environmental flows. What needs to be protected is the prosperity of farming communities in the Basin.

He starts by addressing the Wentworth Group's recent text Blueprint for a Living Continent' as part of the campaign to save the Murray. Moran says the Blueprint text:

'....proclaimed our land management was causing our rivers to die and our topsoil to blow away, threatening our future capacity to farm. [The Wentworth Group] is the spearhead of a high-powered campaign calling for action to "save the Murray". The crux of the campaign is a catechism of doom about salinity in the Murray (sic) Basin.'

This is a catechism of doom, says Moran, because the evidence does not support the Wentworth Groups' thesis that bad land management practices have negative environmental consequences. Moran argues this case by trying to show that the green arguments about river flow, salinity and habitat do not stand up to scrutiny.

1. on the issue of natural flow Moran acknowledges that the River Murray is a working river system that has been radically changed since European settlement. But:

' remains swimmable and fishable.... it is even flowing now, in the middle of a "one in a hundred-year" drought.'

The River Murray is not flowing. There is river flow over the Blanchetown lock, but there has been no river flow over the Goolwa Barrages for some time. That is why the Murray Mouth is closed and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission is dredging the tidal inlet . The Murray is a series of irrigator pools not a flowing river.

2. On the issue of salinity Moran argues that the threat of salinity is being overplayed. He says that:

"..careful management and impressive engineering levels have restrained the river's salinity. Upstream of Morgan in South Australia, salinity levels have been reduced over the past 29 years and are now at the levels observed in 1938. Hence, for 1500 kilometres the river's agriculture has not adversely affected salinity, which is evident for the last 200 kms in South Australia."

True, the 10 year Salinity and Drainage Strategy did reduce irrigator induced salinity and remedied water logged land.

However, Moran ignores dryland salinity in which leaky modern agriculture and grazing agricultural systems has been causing groundwater tables to rise in many areas. As the water rises, it brings with it natural salt stored in the soil. The 1999 Salinity Audit indicated that the salt mobilisation process across all the major river valleys in the Murray-Darling Basin is on a very large scale. This Salinity Audit predicts that during the coming 100 years the annual movement of salt in the landscape will increase two to three times. The salt load exported to, and through the Basin's rivers will double. Consequently, average river salinities will rise significantly, exceeding the critical thresholds for domestic and irrigation water supplies. Salinity is already impacting on the wine industry in South Australia, throwing its future into doubt.

3. on the issue of the ecological habitat of the river Moran says that:

"...there is no data to support claims that river usage is threatening to eradicate native animals and plants. In fact, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission has only recently embarked on a systematic appraisal of the environmental health of the system."

The black and white photo of dead river gums that accompanied the article suggests otherwise. Moran should visit the Chowilla floodplain in the Riverland for a holiday. The agricultural use of the River Murray has meant that this floodplain has not received a decent flood for around a decade. Consequently, all the redgums are dying. This report indicates that there is compelling need for further action.

Contrary to what Moran claims, the status of native fish in the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) is alarming. Native fish are estimated to be at 10 per cent of their pre-European settlement levels and are still on the decline. Native species have also become extinct in some areas of the Basin whilst in others it is recommended that aquatic ecological communities in the Lower Murray be listed as endangered. Even the Murray cod, that iconic fish, has been declared a threatened species.

Moran's argument, that the green case on river flows, salinity and habitats does not stand up to scrutiny, fails badly. Since all that information is publicly available Moran presents a shoddy case built on distortions and misinformation. Why? Because he is primarily concerned to defend the policy to "turn southern Australia into the supermarket of Asia." He sees the environmental flows program as undermining the "affluence of the region's towns" and "undermine incentives to invest in increased productivity."

It is either wealth creation or environmental protection for Moran. He has no conception of ecological sustainable development or sustainable farming. The environmental groups must be rolled back to make way for property rights. Further reductions in water entitlements to irrigators will be a disaster is the gloom catechism that Moran is defending. The Living Murray Initiative is seen as the greatest threat rural communities currently face.

For instance, The National Party of Victoria says that there is:

"...a lot of emotional talk about the Murray mouth closing. We are in a drought and inflows are at their lowest level ever. In a totally natural state, the river would have stopped flowing a long time ago and sea water could have backed up to Renmark as it used to."

The National Party of Victoria says that the tidal wave of emotional sentiment is driven by metropolitan environmentalists whose solution of putting more environmental water back into the river is idealistic and simplistic. The River Murray is a working river and you cannot turn it back to what it once was. Whole communites, such as Mildura, are founded on irrigation.

THe National Party of NSW concurs. The 1500 gigalitres of environmental flows for the River Murray that was recently proposed by the Federal Labor Party is illogical.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:09 AM | | Comments (0) | TrackBacks (2)

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