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Skukuza 2009: River Murray « Previous | |Next »
September 17, 2009

The ANU Water Initiative is co-sponsoring the 2009 workshop of the Skukuza Freshwater Group, a biennial gathering of experts from academia, governments and environmental organizations to discuss a key emerging issue in freshwater conservation. Skukuza 2009 will be held on the estuary of the River Murray in Australia, a major Ramsar site at the end of a river system that is severely impacted by river regulation, diversions, over-allocation, deteriorating water quality and climate change.

There was an open meeting in Goolwa on September 9th with the members of the Skukuza Freshwater Group. The key message was that removing the barrages separating the Lower Lakes from the sea will give them the best shot at recovery; and that Ramsar isn't fussed on whether the Ramsar listed wetland was freshwater, seawater, estuarine water or brackish. So long as it is a wetland is what counts. So the lower lakes and Coorong certainly can be marine estuarine, since there is no reason why we cannot change wetlands.

The Skukuza 2009 communique focuses on the management of environmental flows within a changing climate and it emphasize that our societies know enough now to take action to improve the health of our rivers.

Personally I'm in favour of treating the Coorong and the Lower Lakes as one estuary, opening the barrages to the sea, and moving the barrages back to Wellington---pretty much in line with the old Murray-Darling Basin Commission's River Murray Barrages Environmental Flows Report in 2000. The lower lakes and Coorong should not have those 1940’s barrages separating them.

This is in contrast to the Murray Futures, government/community outreach program favouring a freshwater solution only. For the latter seawater is a 'last resort’. The assumption of this position appears to be that the Lower Lakes have predominantly contained fresh water for over and only occasionally become a more estuarine environment for a short period of time. Therefore they need to be kept fresh.

Those who support this position appear to be placing all their eggs in the freshwater basket, with little to no consideration being given to possible management strategies if there is insufficient freshwater available to maintain lake levels above sea level. Currently, there is insufficient fresh water available. The irrigators and state governments have made sure of that.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 5:56 PM | | Comments (13)


Change the ecosystem to sea water in the lakes, This is the only hope for the lakes survival, cost effective and manageable solution in the long term. They have destroyed the fresh water solution, no water or a costly water buy back. Save the lakes with salt water or it will be acid water this summer.

"Save the lakes with salt water ..."
Is that like "f...king for chastity" or "killing them to save them" or similar slogans that aim to whitewash unnecessary so called reality?
I remember when the US Army justified the 'destruction' of a Vietnamese city because they had to 'save it".
And we are talking the same thing here with the lakes in ecological terms.
For 8000 years the lakes have undergone a complex annual and seasonal cycle of a mixture of fresh, salt and brackish waters in complex patterns over time and area.
Flooding it totally and exclusively with sea water has never happened before and will be an ecological disaster for which there is no excuse.
Permanent sea water and a complex mixture of sea/fresh are NOT the same thing, lets not pretend they are.
I didn't comment on this post yesterday cos I was too angry at the stupidity and ignorance.
I went to one of the sites linked and saw where they claim that there is not enough water to save the lakes.
Total rubbish.
It is simply a matter of political priorities. Give an extra 2000 gigalitres to irrigators and that is 2000 gig the river/lakes do not get.
Give 2000 gig to the river/lakes and the reverse applies.
Or somewhere in between?
That is easily possible you know.
It is not an absolute given that overallocated, inefficientand unsustainable irrigation taking most of the water is the only option.
Political priorities.
The same link seemed to complain about the fact that about 1000 gig of fresh water normally evaporates from the lake annually.
Why is that a problem?
Why is it some people cannot tolerate the concept that natural systems can be allowed to exist, that they can only see 'value' whenever financial benefit accrues to a select group of humans?
There a few things that really p..s me off and the statement that environmental water is 'wasted' is one of them.
Flood the lakes, and the river above the lakes, with fresh water 'stolen' from its 'rightful owners' the irrigators and acid soils will be the same danger they have been for millenia.
We will never be able to save the lakes or the river upstream from the lakes nor ANY OTHER major or minor environmental systems anywhere in Australia if we continue with the attitude that we have no alternative except to lie down with our legs in the air and assume submissively that the only possible way of doing things is to continue with the shortsighted way that has caused the problems in the first place.
Sorry tim, not impressed.

we still need to make sure that the Basin is sustainable by cutting back on the over-allocated water to irrigators. That is the core problem.

I don't disagree with your analysis at all.

But "political will" means, in terms of the dynamics of knowledge/power, that the state will use its power to ensure water for critical human needs, then irrigators, then the environment if there is anything left. The irrigators made sure there was nothing left. This is the historical record, and little has changed with the increased intervention from the commonwealth in the last decade.

All the recent actions by Rann and Maywald after the River Murray stopped flowing indicate that any surplus water that is bought goes to critical human needs and then to the irrigators. They--and the other state governments--- were captured by the irrigators long ago, and so Rann + Co are left to deal with the consequences of a dying estuarine system in terms of engineering bandaids. It's the old story of the privatising of profits and the socialising of losses.

Unfortunately I absolutely agree with your analysis Gary.
I just don't like it.

I do not like it either.

It's a matter of facing political reality and biting the bullet. My reasoning is that it is better to have an estuarine system than none.

Since the politicians have no intention whatsoever of ensuring enough environmental flows to keep the estuarine system as a mixture of freshwater and sea water, then lets go for salt water.

Climate change means higher sea levels and so the barrages become sea walls protecting a dried out lake bed. What's the point of that?

I suppose we are on the same page but one is accepting the reality of the politics of despair and t'other is rejecting that and opting for the politics of hope [in between bouts of pessimism].

I like one of the scenes in the movie "The Mission". Set in South America after the Spanish and the Portuguese had massacred a native group who had the misfortune to stand in the way of 'progress'. Two of the chief political power mongers are weeping croc tears and one says to the other "Sadly that is the way of the world" and the other replies "No, that is the way we have made it".
Nice lines.
I would have added " ...but it is not the way it has to be".
And, as long as we accept that it is that way, so it will be.
Non acceptance of the unacceptable is the first step to changing the unacceptable.
Flooding the lakes with sea water is unacceptable. Even after the fait accompli has been accomplished, it is still unacceptable.

To Fred and and all those still in denial: You have to accept that most of the water that once came down the Murray is not ours. It falls in Qld, NSW and Vic and they feel they own it. Furthermore it is enshrined in the Australian Constitition that we in SA cannot demand it. So while there was a surplus we got some. And if there is ever another flood they will use SA as the drainway to the sea.

The only way to change the constitution is by referendum - do you think SA would win that? Ha Ha!

We ought to be preparing to do without the Murray. If that means drinking stormwater, desalination plants, closing irrigation lots and flooding the lower lakes with seawater then so be it. Get real!

What a very strange reaction from you Brian.

Almost joyful that Australia's main river system has been degraded so badly by unnatural human use all along its lengths.
Chortling even, that it is full of salt and other artifial chemicals, that it no longer has a mouth, that the lakes have been reduced to an unprecedented dryness [the first time in 8000 years], that 100s of wetlands along the system for 100s, even 1000s, of kms are barren and weed infested with toxic soils, dying trees, declining animal life and that a natural lake system is about to be destroyed.

Nothing natural about any of that.

Why the "Ha Ha!"?
Is this funny?
"We ought to be prepared to do without the Murray".
You are joking I hope.
Disappear a river!
The water that falls in the basin belongs to the river first and foremost.
Of course its not 'ours', it belongs to the river. That is, or should be, the real, the natural state of affairs.
We have abused that and by 'we' I mean all those responsible for the mismanagement of the Murray Darling Basin all 1 million s.kms of it.
You are right about doing away with, at least the bulk, of irrigation along the river, overallocation by shortsighted state govts is the major cause of basin decline. Only when the river is no longer subjected to parochial state interests, [including that strange 'us vs them' thing you have going] reflecting the vested interests of a few irrigators and the like will we stand a chance of having a healthy river system.
You seem happy to consign one of the world's major waterways to degradation.

So guys, how much water has been extracted by irrigators in the last year? enough to fix the lakes?

I think not, and with such low inflows it is fortunate some stored water has been available for the environment.

For the first three months of this year inflow was practically non-existant, doesn't that mean flow at the end will also cease for months.

I like the certainty by some that the lakes have never been fully seawater. And the desire to cling to a manmade freshwater lake as if it were natural.

its not the current allocations that are the problem--its the over allocations. They need to be cut back to make the Basin economy sustainable.

"So guys, how much water has been extracted by irrigators in the last year? enough to fix the lakes?"

Excellent question.

Do you know the answer?

Cos I've tried to find the answer from official figures and I couldn't.
So I would be interested in getting accurate, inclusive, official figures that actually inform us about the total inflow of the whole basin [with diversions for irrigation along the basin included], storage, essential urban /domestic use, water actually used by irrigators and what is left over for the river.
Cos that is the problem, the river gets what is left over, it ranks last on the priorities.
From my local knowledge I am aware that just one irrigation company alone has been extracting hundreds of megs of water for its crops this year. Despite being on a low quota.
I can hear its pumps taking water out of the river therby lowering the river level.
Now it normally accounts for about .2% of irrigation use in SA. And SA uses less than 10% of MDB irrigation water.
And the other states have been using river water for irrigation at rates of about 4 times the quotas current in SA for most/all of this year thus far. On a much larger base of course.
So a very rough estimate, in lieu of accurate figures, would suggest that irrigators have used about two to four times the amount of water needed to keep not only the lakes but the entire MD ecology relatively healthy throughout this extreme drought. Or more.
Not counting the amounts they use before water flows into storage nor how much they have depleted storage by.
For example I drive through thr River Marne a couple of times a week usually. Its one of only a couple of tributaries in SA that 'normally' would supply some water to the river [very small quantities in the context of the whole basin]. But because of overuse of irrigation in its headwaters in recent years that river no longer flows into the Murray at all. Has not done so for some years now. Its dry near the mouth.
My car tires don't get wet.
Multiply that effect by huge amounts along all the tributuaries in the basin and you begin to get an idea of how much water irrigators take out of the entire system.
Much of it unregulated.

So my guess/estimate answer to your question " enough to fix the lakes?" would be "More than enough with lots left over".
Of course that would have meant a further cut in irrigation quotas.