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Murray-Darling Basin: more bad news « Previous | |Next »
September 2, 2008

Pia Ackerman in The Australian reports that the acid sulphate soils, which threaten the Murray's lower lakes in South Australia, have spread to the river system's northern catchments in Queensland where up to 200 sites are under investigation by scientists. Pockets of acidification are also emerging in northern Victoria and along the Murray River in southwestern NSW. Acid sulphate soils can occur when river and lake beds are exposed to the air as water levels fall, triggering a toxic chemical reaction.

The Murray-Darling Basin Commission ordered the investigation in southern Queensland amid mounting evidence that wetlands and rivers in the north of the system were succumbing to the poisoning that threatened to overwhelm. More than 12,000 wetlands are potentially at risk in Queensland alone.

This is yet another sign of the consequences of taking too much water from the rivers by irrigators. Not that much will be done by Rudd and Wong to address the situation, judging by the way they handled the situation in the lower Lakes. It was a too little too late style of management in buying back over-allocated water licences.

The situation in the lower lakes is that unless it rains heavily between now and summer, October 28 may be the date used on the headstone of the Coorong and Lakes as it is laid to rest as a significant wetland. The Coorong will be delisted as a Ramsar wetland and become equivalent to the Dead Sea.

I doubt that Rudd or Wong will attend the wake. They will say something about climate change rather than mismanagement, do little to buy back irrigator licences, and allow the states to continue to grab as much as they can get for their irrigators.

Update: 3 September
The submission released by Senator Wong, to a parliamentary (Senate) inquiry into the Murray emergency, detailed eight emergency measures under consideration to prevent Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert near the river mouth from turning acidic. But the advice from the Department of Environment, Water Heritage and the Arts makes clear that there may be little option but to flood the lakes, southeast of Adelaide, with sea water.

Diverting more water from the key southwestern NSW reservoir of Menindee Lakes could jeopardise drinking water supplies for downstream communities, including Adelaide, in 2009-10. Releasing water from Menindee Lakes would be taking water that may be needed for human consumption in the 2009-10 water year if rainfall remains low across the basin. Up to 50 per cent of any release from Menindee would be lost in transmission.

There is not enough water in the system to meet the modest allocations promised to farmers in the past two months and supply water for Adelaide and the towns along the Murray. Wong's priority is securing Adelaide's water supply and the towns along the Murray until next winter. There is no water for the lower lakes.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 8:13 AM | | Comments (10)


Why would returning the lower lakes and Coorong to their natural estuarine state lead to the first being "laid to rest" and delisting of the latter?

To quote from Charles Sturt's "Expedition down the Morumbidgee and Murray rivers, in 1829, 1830 and 1831", vol.2, chapter 6, reporting on his second day on Lake Alexandrina having left the "termination" (i.e. mouth - just a little below where Wellington now stands) of the Murray the afternoon before:

"Thus far, the waters of the lake had continued sweet; but on filling a can when we were abreast of this point, it was found that they were quite unpalatable, to say the least of them. The transition from fresh to salt water was almost immediate,"

A little further he notes: "The flat we were approaching was a mud-flat, and, from its appearance, the tide was certainly at the ebb. We observed some cradles, or wicker frames, placed far below high water-mark,"

Before the barrages were closed in 1940 bream and mulloway were regularly caught at Murray Bridge and dolphins sighted as far up river as Mannum (BTW-without the barrages the water level there would be at least a metre lower and subject to tidal influence).

The constant whining about "saving" the lower Murray is driven by economics, not environmental considerations. The river, lakes and Coorong are only in danger if vested interests succeed in delaying a return to the natural state.

As your article should be making clear, any spare water would be of far greater benefit in the upper reaches of the Murray, and in the Darling.

If the acid sulphate soils there begin leaching toxic chemicals into the rivers in any quantity then the state of the lower river is immaterial. All the communities along the river, plus Adelaide and Whyalla will be stuffed anyway.

I didn't argue for returning the lower Lakes of the Murray to a natural state. I am in favour of reducing irrigator allocations so as to return water to the river for environmental flows in all rivers in the Murray Darling Basin.

I agree that the Goolwa Barrages were built for irrigators --just like all the other weirs along the Murray

I do not understand why spare water would be better in the upper reaches of the Murray and the Darling. Why is that? Isn't Victoria where the trading cap prevents the sale of water rights out of irrigation areas of more than 4% per annum and irrigator companies extract huge exit fees for selling water out of the district. Sounds very anti-competitive to me.

Meanwhile back at the ranch...
Tonight's telly tells us the 2008 winter is the fifth driest on record and that it take years of above average rainfall winters to repair the damage.
Cute, isn't it?

I do not understand why spare water would be better in the upper reaches of the Murray and the Darling. Why is that?

Your article is about acid sulphate soils in the upper rivers. This can only be fixed by flooding the affected areas.

Which cannot happen if large quantities of water, assuming there is in fact any, is sent downstream to supposedly fix the same problem in the lower lakes/Coorong. A problem that could be far more easily fixed there by using abundant local seawater.

the natural state of the lower lakes and Corrong is more complex than you have stated as the ecology of the estuarine system was a mixture of fresh water and sea water. That started changing due to less flow coming down the river because of the extractions by irrigated agriculture.

The ecology of that estuary of that area was still dependent on the mixture of fresh and sea water after the Goolwa barrages were built in the 1940s even though the fresh water flows were minimal.The drought was the tipping point. Climate change means a dry future for the southern part of the basin.

The Age spells out your comment in more detail. It is carrying a report that winter inflows to the river system were the fifth lowest in the 117 years since records began. River storages have fallen to 20% of capacity and when combined with last year's grim results, a record low of 3540 billion litres has flowed into the river in the two years to August 31. No better than average rainfall had been forecast for spring.

Grim news indeed. The Murray-Darling Basin Commission is saying that water availability now was in a worse state than during the previous two devastating major droughts of the 1940s and at the turn of the century.

the article referred to a meeting of the ast week's meeting of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission.I saw some stuff on the news last night,

I see that the Commissioners at the meeting agreed on a trigger point at which seawater would be allowed into the lakes. The trigger point is expected to be linked to water depth within the lakes, which are currently about 30 centimetres below sea level.

The trigger was expected to be set closer to one metre below sea level, given that acidification is expected to occur in the lakes once their depths fall below one metre below sea level.

The short term strategy says that South Australia should have ultimate control over any decision to allow the sea into the lakes.

Gary +Nan
interesting report. I see that the Age says

The medium-term strategy will be put to the Basin Ministerial Council — which includes water and environment ministers from the Federal Government, the four basin states and the ACT — as early as next week, and requires their ratification before proceeding. A longer-term strategy for managing the lakes will not be presented to the Ministerial Council until their next meeting in November.

What is the medium term strategy? What is the long term strategy? Rudd and Wong are saying that no water in the Basin is all due to climate change----and then bashing Nelson for saying that the current problems of little water in the Murray Darling Basin have been caused by 100 years of mismanagement and the drought.

I can't beleive that the result in Downer's old seat Mayo, in the southeast adelaide foothills almost adjacent to the Murray and its southern lakes, is any thing but an ill-tempered kick right up the Nelson butt.
They may be conservative there, but they are also well-educated and populism wouldn't be appreciated, which is why the Greens and progressive Indies did so well thee,too.

the result in Mayo show that when it comes to the River Murray people in SA don't want business as usual. They are getting business as usual from both Liberal and Labor on the River Murray.