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restoring the River Murray? « Previous | |Next »
November 6, 2009

As we know the rivers and wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin experience water scarcity because state governments divert too much water primarily for irrigation. This is the over-allocation problem that the federal government is struggling to fix.

Richard Kingsford, the director of the Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre, University of NSW, is optimistic. He says in the Sydney Morning Herald that:

Australia has embarked on one of the world's most ambitious river restoration efforts for the Murray-Darling Basin.It is the equal of restoring the Florida Everglades, flooding the northern part of the Aral Sea, or even re-engineering the Rhine for salmon. It is massive, yet we don't know if it will work.

Whilst this is true disagree with his optimism. We do have a lot of moving rhetoric about river restoration, but there is little in the way of action or increased environmental flows in the River Murray.

It is also true that the federal government has begun to buy back some water. But there is no attempt at all to systematically prioritise wetlands, estuaries and rivers assets for conservation and restoration management; or to remove weirs, levees and other water management infrastructure that significantly fragment river, wetland and estuarine habitats, disrupting movement of animals, dispersal of plants and altering water quality.

As Kingsford himself points out:

The National Water Commission was scathing this month of the states' inability to deal with over-allocation. More than 40 per cent of water plans were not in place and even some in place were not operational. Recent behaviour by the states shows why rivers and borders don't work. NSW shut up shop to further federal buy-backs of environmental water in June because too much of its water was going to the environment. Victoria remains the spoilt child of the family, with its what's-mine-is-mine attitude: it allows only 4 per cent of its water to be bought and transferred out of the state in any one year.

SA is giving any increased water to its irrigators whilst Queensland is activating sleeping/dozing allocations on its rivers in the Basin.

The Murray River has become a series of pools of water for irrigators; a long irrigation channel if you like that is being defended by fair means and foul. So why the optimism, given that Kingford knows all the above? He says:

Let's hope Australia can show the world that not only are we good at reviving our rivers, but we know what we are spending it on.

Kingford only hopes that we are reviving the health of our rivers. Maybe it is good to have hope that the overallocation problem will be fixed when history indicates otherwise.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 6:55 AM | | Comments (17)


There's much anger in the Riverland where economic restructuring from lack of water is causing serious pain as Riverland irrigators rip up their crops and leave their land with exit grants.

The Riverland irrigators believe the Rann Government is too focused on critical water for Adelaide and that it has given up on the Riverland as a food bowl.

the Murray-Darling Basin is drying up and irrigated agriculture along with it. There isn't going to be much irrigated agriculture left in the Basin. This is currently being played out in the Riverland.

Not that this worries the National Party. They don't even seem to care. These climate deniers rant and rave about not accepting the climate change science. Science is bad their own commonsense is good. Their denialism is not scepticism. It is a refusal to accept all of the evidence.

"There isn't going to be much irrigated agriculture left in the Basin."

It's lucky farmers like me have people like Gary to bring us back to earth from our lofty dreams of future rain.
Climate models certainly don't suggest the current weather patterns are the future norm, but you seem to know that it's all over for us. In fact for our valley the csiro has indicated between a 30% reduction and a 20% increase in river flows.
No analysis can conclude that we are going through anything but a severe drought, and hence low river flows.


The Garnaut Report says that best-estimate projections show considerable drying in southern Australia, with risk of much greater drying.

Climate change in the southern Murray-Darling Basin means less rainfall, hotter and drier conditions, longer more frequent droughts and less run off. So there is less water available in a situation of over-allocated water licences.

So that means structural adjustment of the agricultural economy and less water in Adelaide. The frequency and length of drought will probably have greater impact than reduced inflows. Australia is one of the countries most vulnerable to global warming because much of our agricultural land is already at the hot dry margin of sustainable production. Under business-as-usual policies, the Murray-Darling basin would in 50 years come to resemble the Eyre River basin.

Garnaut says that by mid-century irrigated agriculture in the Murray-Darling Basin will be halved. That means closing down entire areas that are unviable, areas where the soils are poor, water tables are high, there are salinity problems, or they are too far from the main river channels.

The Garnaut Report says that though drought can be defined in many ways the main contributing factors for all definitions, however, are rainfall, temperature and evaporation.

Due to the strong connection between anthropogenic emissions and warming in Australia, the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology (2007) have concluded that the drought in many parts of the country is linked to, or at least exacerbated by, global warming.

What what we are experiencing now is worse than the scientists have predicted for the worst case climate change scenario for 2050.

The food bowl that was the Murray-Darling Basin is fast drying up - the CSIRO expects cuts in irrigation water availability of up to 85 per cent by 2030 in Victorian regions.

On the same day that water restrictions are eased in Adelaide and quotas in the Riverland are increased for irrigators, SA Water has begun to pump River Murray water 800 kms west to Ceduna.

I thought that Adelaide had a plan to urgently wean itself off the Murray?

The State's contribution of $45million to stormwater recovery is still only 3% of what it is spending on the Port Stanvac desalination plant. If the government was really serious, then they would invest more money into making better use of the water we already have. We know there's enough water falling on Adelaide and its hills catchments that if managed properly means we don't need either the desalination plant or the River Murray.

According to the Garnaut report:
"Rainfall decline in other parts of the country, such as south-east Australia, has not been definitively attributed to human-induced climate change."

I understand evaporation would be higher under increased temperature, but that will only increase the value of irrigation to the community when we do have water. The basic premise about climate change is that we are likely to experience extremes at both ends of the scale. Dams are there to average out those extremes, and the irrigation works required to apply that captured water fruitfully.

I see things are going too bad for SA irrigators.

I was referring to the southern Murray Darling Basin --what is called the food bowl. There is no need for more dams at all as there won't be the water to fill them.

There are two contradictory strands in the Riverland --increased allocations for the Riverland irrigators at the expense of the river and economic restructuring in the Riverland region as irrigators walk off their property. Of course, you know about the latter. It's in the news and linked to above.

I am surprised that you are not concerned about how one would facilitate economic growth in a region with a devastated environment and facing long term decline in irrigated agriculture. It sure ain't tourism to see dead river gums and dried out wetlands.

gary, again you seem to have some psychic ability to foresee future weather. The science predicts lower runoff for sure, but also predicts extreme events. That would include floods for which storage is essential both as a damage mitigator and for irrigation.
I'm not specifically familiar with Riverland irrigators walking off, but it's not a pleasant existence at the moment for any of us.

I'm sorry but if it weren't for irrigation many of the towns along the Murray would barely exist. Without access to water Mildura for instance would be about as attractive as (insert dustbowl of choice here). Tourism depends on having something to see, something different. Wetlands are a drawcard, but how many do we need? Is quantiity better than quality?

My valley has seen the Govt buy back some 20% of the water, so we'll see how tourism flourishes.

'psychic' for natural science and computer modelling? That's an indication of climate change denialism. I await for you to support Ron Boswell's assertion that natural history is cyclical and an ice age now looms.

However, you are not anti-science, as you do say that:

the science predicts lower runoff for sure, but also predicts extreme events. That would include floods for which storage is essential both as a damage mitigator and for irrigation.

True, the CSIRO modelling predicts regional variations in weather due to global heating. It looks as if floods may well be the case in the northern part of the Murray-Darling Basin. Your assumption, from I can gather from the reference to dams, is that upstream irrigators take all of the flood water. Is that right? If so, then there is no need to roll back overallocated water licences. More should be issued. Is that right?

In the southern basin, as you know, extreme weather events means more heatwaves, which Adelaide has been experiencing for the last 10 days. Today it will be 43 degrees. Heatwaves in November should help the grapes along nicely don't you think?

So, why you take my comments about the future decline of irrigation in the southern Murray-Darling Basin as being anti-irrigation. Where do I say that Mildura should not exist? So why raise the red herring?

The core issue is that overallocation and reduced water flows means that the future of irrigation and regional communities in the southern Murray-Darling Basin is one of decline and economic restructuring. There is a pressing need to find alternative income streams, even in lovely Mildura, which still has plenty of water for now. Some downstream communities ---eg., those that rely on the Lachlan River in the Riverina in NSW---face the prospect of no water as the river runs dry. Some downstream regions will have to be abandoned because of encroaching desertification.

The Riverland irrigators, for all their talk about grabbing as much water as they could get their hands on, sensibly started forming small solar power companies to generate power and earn an income.They got it right---regional communities can use solar power to supply their own and a lot of SA's electricity needs. Clever thinking as they have an abundance of sunshine and not much cloud cover or rain during the year. If they can pull it off, then the Riverland will havea broader economic base.

But it looks as if the Rann Government has bumped that entrepreneurship on the head.The Liberals in SA of course wouldn't have a clue as they are still sorting themselves out in a decade long identity crisis. Those in Canberra (eg., Minchin, Bernardi) have lost the plot completely, cos they reckon that global warming is a left-wing plot to de-industrialise the world. Maybe they should go and talk to some Riverland irrigators about solar power.

The Nationals are lost in cloud cuckoo land for all their rhetoric about protecting regional Australia. If they have any idea what is happening on the ground in the southern Murray-Darling Basin they are sure keeping it to themselves.

re "the Nationals are lost in cloud cuckoo land for all their rhetoric about protecting regional Australia."

The Nationals now support the coal lobby over farmers. Weird.

Gary, I am definately not anti-science. I do tend to the logical, so if a model predicts a decline of 30% runoff and you endure 80% decline either the model is wrong or we're in a climatic aberration. If the model is wrong what good was it in the first place?

I'm sorry I took it that you had an anti-irrigation stance.
With regard to Mildura I didn't mean anything about it's right to exist. I'm saying that if the environment was left natural ie. no irrigation, it would be unlikely to exist. To that extent degradation would not really affect an economic revival.

The Lachlan system certainly has had a rough trot. For what it's worth optimists live longer.

In relation to cental valley I do think it is worth factoring in history when we think about droughts as well as population expansion and losses for environmental purposes.

I'm a bit disillusioned with all political parties, being in a safe National seat doesn't help. The problem is there is no long term planning, and by that I mean thousands of future generations not simply the rhetoric "for our grandchildren". If that view was taken seriously fossil fuel extracion would be on a sustainable basis, ie removed at the same rate as being formed.
Politics(safe opposition seat)has put a large proposal for a solar power plant in my area on the backshelf. North West NSW is regarded as amongst the best areas in Aust for generating Solar power. I'll checkout what the riverland guys are up to.

the article on Central Valley In California is eerily similar to what has been happening in the Murray Darling Basin. The irrigation allocations were done during a period of wet seasons in the second part of the 20th century.That was taken to be the norm, when it wasn't/.

We have entered a dry period in the southern part of the Murray-Darling Dasin --what people call a drought---but the bountiful years of rain wont be necessarily return because of the long term effect of climate change. There may be the odd wetter year etc here and there, but the overall trend or big picture in the southern Murray-Darling Basin is less rain, less runoff, less river flow, and hotter conditions.

I accept that big picture (not the exact estimated figures) from the CSIRO modelling about the future that is in-formation.

What it implies is that something has to give--so we now have dried up wetlands, reduced annual allocations to irrigators, conflicts bwtween upstream and downstream users on the Queensland/NSW border and elsewhere, and consolidation in the irrigation industry. Dwindling supplies of irrigation water in southern Australia means that this foodbowl will also have to rely increasingly on rainfed agriculture for providing staple grains.

These are the conditions that farmers will have to adapt to if they want to continue to farm. But I don't hear many of the politicians talking about giving funding to CSIRO to do some decent research to help them to adapt.

As for the parliamentary politics my advice, from years working in the Senate as a policy /political wonk, is to dump the Nationals and put in a good tough independent-- like Tony Windsor-- who is willing to do the policy grunt work and is able to negotiate with the government of the day to get funds flowing for innovative projects in the region---as in the riverland. Farmers are in the position to make money from an emissions trading scheme--it's what the American farmers are doing.

That's much better than walking in circles, puffing up the chest and doing some sort of rain dance as the Nationals are currently doing.

Richard Kingsford, the director of the Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre, University of NSW, is in the news again; this time calling for 700 gigalitres for environmental flows for the Murray River.

Their report Engineering a Crisis in a Ramsar Wetland: the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth, Australia says that:

This [700 gigalitres] is considerably below historical levels, but probably is a minimum requirement for an estuarine-freshwater ecosystem in the Lower Lakes and, with management of the barrages, should restore conditions favourable for waterbird populations in the Coorong. Flow could also be managed to ensure fish passage and reinstate a range of floods. In the short term, vigorous efforts are needed to recover fresh water for the Coorong Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth and riparian wetlands along the Murray below Lock 1 (Blanchetown). Claims that too little water is available demonstrate the low priority given to critical environmental needs.

That is true in terms of ecological science, but where is the water going to come from? What about the Basin politics? They say:
The proposal to build a ‘temporary’ weir across the Murray at Pomanda Island, at the junction of the River Murray and Lake Alexandrina should be abandoned. This is planned to secure a potable water supply for Adelaide and rural towns in the event of continued drought, or highly saline water in Lake Alexandrina, but its incidental ecological effects would be overwhelmingly negative. Part of the supply will be met by the recent decision to construct a desalination plant at Port Stanvac, Adelaide. Also, an increase in flows would potentially avoid any need for a weir.

Nothing about storm water retention there. So where is the increase in flows going to come from? At whose expense will this be in a warmer world and less runoff?

The report goes on to say that:

The proposal to open the barrages and admit seawater to the Lower Lakes also should be abandoned, as it would irrevocably change the freshwater character of the lakes. If the proposal were implemented, a weir at Pomanda Island would be inevitable.

It would, but is that worse than dried out lower lakes?

maybe they--Kingsford + Co-- are addressing the Murray Darling Basin Authority Basin plan and its idea of sustainable limits?