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River Murray: it's climate change not drought « Previous | |Next »
September 1, 2009

Finally, some sense on the causes of a warmer south eastern Australia that has seen the annual inflow of one of Australia’s largest river basins drop nearly 80% in the seven years. The hotter drier conditions here have usually been put down to a big drought, with the implication that the drought will break and things will return to normal. 'Normal' in this context means the wetter conditions of the 1950s-1970s.

This is the position of most of the loud irrigator groups along the River Murray. They argue that the federal government needs to modernize the irrigation infrastructure, especially in Victoria (the Foodbowl Modernisation Project) since wetter times will return. The rains will comeback is the position of both the Coalition, who are opposed to the buy back of over-allocated water licences, and it, would appear, the Murray Darling Basin Authority.

03January02_Adelaide, Milang_185RundleMall.jpg Gary Sauer-Thompson, Clayton, Lake Alexandrina,South Australia, 2008

The South Eastern Australian Climate Initiative was set up in 2006 to find the causes for why south-east Australia had experienced a dramatic loss of rain. The crucial question is the why (drought or climate change?) and, secondly, how the drier conditions in the Murray-Darling Basin will affect stream and river flows in the Basin.

My understanding was that the loss of rain, and the weather patterns in southern Australia shifting to a dry phase was simply due to the rain-bearing storms shifting south off the continent. I had assumed that while the precise role of cyclical changes versus the impact of greenhouse gases remained unclear, changes in the basin are consistent with CSIRO computer modelling of the impacts of increased concentrations of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

Melissa Fyfe reports in The Age that scientists working on the research programme have discovered that the 13-year even of hotter drier conditions is not just a natural dry stretch--a drought--- but is a shift related to climate change.

They found that the rain has dropped away because the subtropical ridge - a band of high pressure systems that sits over the country's south - has strengthened over the past 13 years. These dry, high pressure systems have become stronger, bigger and more frequent and this intensification over the past century is closely linked to rising global temperatures.

The Wenthworth Group in their submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Coorong and Lower Lakes stated that we must reduce our extractions of water to:

(1) correct our over-allocation during a period of plenty, (2) to be more sustainable under climate cycles we have experienced in the past and (3) to adjust to declining water availability under climate change.....If we are to maintain healthy rivers and provide high quality water to produce food, our analysis suggests that the consumptive use of water across the Murray Darling Basin may have to be cut by between 42 and 53 percent below the current cap. This will require a re-design of our irrigation industries to bring the demand for water into alignment with the greatly reduced supply capacity from the rivers and groundwater.

If the likely future is one of reduced river flows, then the policy pathway for the Commonwealth is to acquire 300 to 400 GL of river flows into Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert, to secure a sufficient reserve to maintain lake levels to avoid any significant release of acids this coming summer and autumn. I cannot see that happening myself.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 7:51 AM | | Comments (5)


I am surprised by Fyfe's report that Rob Freeman, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority chief, told a water summit in Melbourne in August that he believed the extreme climate patterns that have dried out south-east Australia would not prove to be permanent:

Some commentators say this is the new future. I think that is an extreme position and probably a position that's not helpful to take

Apparently, Freeman expressed confidence that wetter times would return.I am surprised because the Murray Darling Basin Authority helps to fund the research of the South Eastern Australian Climate Initiative (SEACI). So they would have access to the results of the on going research programme.

Freeman, in ignoring the science and calling it extreme, is an ideologist. he should know better since he was the chief executive of the South Australian Department of Water, Land and Biodiversity Conservation and the deputy president of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission.

there is more here on Freeman's speech at the Melbourne water conference. He says:

We are always going to have droughts and floods, but to suggest the future is this, I think is misrepresenting the situation … while it's nice to have a burning platform on which to implement reforms, we've also got to be very honest

The Brumby Government in Victoria adopts a similar position in relation to the amount of water that can be saved in irrigation upgrades such as the Foodbowl Modernisation Project.

The Brumby Government has kept faith in its water recovery targets for the project, despite the fact rainfall must increase in northern Victoria for them to be achieved.

The Brumby Government also supports the work of eSouth Eastern Australian Climate Initiative (SEACI). So they too are ignoring the research findings.

The Murray Darling Basin Authority favours irrigators in its water planning--just like the old Murray Darling Basin Commission. Not much has changed despite all the bureaucratic talk about the basin plan.

I also had noted that Freeman assumed that the MDB was suffering drought rather than climate change.
It's a pity that he is in such a prominent position because while he is there, there will be no action taken to ameliorate the effects of climate. Meanwhile farmers will continue to pay $36000 per annum for water rights and 0 water flows. The Coorong will continue to stink even more - that smell can't bode well!

From here:
which praises itself as "a world first for rigorous and detailed basin scale assessment of the anticipated impacts of climate change...use of water resources....most comprehensive hydrologic modelling ever undertaken for the entire ....MDB ..."

Some [random] comments from the Exec Summary:
"The impacts of climate change are uncertain, however surface water availability across the entire MDB is more likely to decline than increase..The median decline for the entire MDB is 11 %....the relative impact of climate change on surface water use would be much greater in dry years [p5]...The median of likely climate changes by 2030 would be an 11% reduction in average surface water availability across the MDB [p8]"

Lots more, masses of it, available for various component areas of the MDB.

How any person who necessarily has access to this massive document can deny that climate change is probable is beyond my understanding and well below my tolerance level.