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Murray River: a toxic drain « Previous | |Next »
April 10, 2009

I flew back into Adelaide from New Zealand across Lake Alexandrina and saw an utterly parched Murray River system basin. I then heard that inflows into the Murray Darling Basin are at record lows and that the Murray River has become a toxic drain, due to a discontinuous blue-green algae bloom in an 800km stretch of the river from Lake Hume to Barham. Hell, Lake Albert near the Murray's mouth, is in danger of becoming equivalent of battery acid.

Good news though. The Murray-Darling Basin states and the Commonwealth have established a high-level panel of leading experts and senior officials to advise on the ongoing response to the blue-green algae outbreak currently affecting the River Murray. No worries then.

But we have the politics of the water as well its administration. Tim Stubbs, from the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, says:

If we no longer want this national treasure to be little more than a toxic open drain we need to reset the system. We need to ensure we have enough water to keep the river, floodplains and wetlands healthy and use what is left to grow more produce with less water. The potential impacts of climate change underline the need to make this adjustment sooner rather than later so that we are in a position to manage out future in a more proactive way then just praying for rain.

The damage is self-inflicted. It is not just the drought (record low inflows). Nor is it just climate change. If irrigators take water out according to a set of rules and too much water is being taken out within the rules, then the problem lies with the set of rules and those who set the rules. Those who historically set the rules are the states and now the Commonwealth. They have mismanaged the system to the point of turning an iconic river into a toxic drain.

We are taking about 80% of the water from the Murray-River with around 70% taken by agriculture and flood irrigating dairy pasture, rice and cotton; the companies and agri businesses currently pay very very little for the water (13c ents a litre)l; and the states gave away too many rights to use water that was not really there. Developmentalism still rules, even though the consequence of developmentalism for profit is a trashed system. There is now not enough water for agriculture in the lower part of the Murray-Darling Basin.

The implication of no river flows is that the southern lagoon of the Coorong becomes Australia's dead sea. The most likely solution for the southern lakes is that the barrages are moved upstream to Wellington, sea water flows into lower lakes, and the dairy industry around the lakes ends without compensation being paid.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 8:25 AM | | Comments (7)


It is so true, so sensible and so imperative when Tim Stubbs says it. From down here at the end of the sewer on Lake Alexandrina things are looking incredibly bleak. Over-allocation has left us with an ecological disaster in the Coorong and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert Ramsar site and now a whole swathe of very questionable engineering solutions are being referred. What we need first and foremost is freshwater for the river - everyone else gets their share when the river has enough for its health. More info at

Kazza--I didn't get to hear Maude Barlow, the senior advisor on water to the President of the UN General Assembly, when she was in Adelaide. I was in NZ.

But I gather from the Victor Harbor Times that Barlow was overwhelmed by the extent of the devastation and loss of habitat. Her judgement is that the Murray River is dying from the mouth up and that it is shocking that water that could protect and restore it was not being released for political reasons. As Tim Stubbs points out 4,100 gigalitres of water are held in public storages across the Basin.

the standard response is that it can be business as usual because technology will save us instead of conservation. Technology means more weirs, dams and desalinisation.

Desalinisation and water recycling work for cities---but does not deal with environmental flows in the Murray-Darling Basin and the overallocation of water for agriculture.

Climate change is important to the extent that a 2% increase in temperature is going to start the ecosystems feedback cuts in (permaforst melting etc) and we have a very different future.

Thanks Gary, good post.
I'm back into depressed mode, I'm sick and tired of hearing people [and people who should and who claim to know better] say that all we need is a good rain.
Ignorance and cupity reign.
This: "The damage is self-inflicted. It is not just the drought (record low inflows). Nor is it just climate change. If irrigators take water out according to a set of rules and too much water is being taken out within the rules, then the problem lies with the set of rules and those who set the rules." is as succint a desription of the problem as I have seen. Good one.
Please continue frquently.

As Mike Young points out we have had long term drought before --in the Federation years and from 1938 to 1945+ Rivers die from the bottom cos they don't get enough water, which is what is happening in this drought.

We have addressed the drier regime so far by running down the dams and drying out the wetlands. That cannot continue as climate change means reduced rainfall and much reduced inflow to the rivers. So there is less water in the system--the glass is now half full. It's drier regime that we are beginning to experience now.The corporate agri-businesses move in as the small family farms disappear.

So we need different ways to increase the supply of water---a suite of measures--for the cities.

The stretch of river that is actually carrying water for irrigation has blue green algae. Why would it be any better without extraction given that Hume dam is currently releasing 8GL per day, yet total Murray inflow is only just above 1GL per day in the last three months. Can anyone tell me what would happen to the lower lakes under pre-development conditions? yes thats right, they'd become salty as lake evaporation is about 2GL per day. Any complaints about acid sulphate soils reside solely with those who choose to keep the barrages shut. Nature is not providing enough inflow to keep the lakes fresh. It's mildly amusing, in a macabre sort of way, that water impounded by infrastructure for irrigation is being called upon to keep the lakes fresh when under truly natural conditions they'd be salty.