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community cabinet in Adelaide: water « Previous | |Next »
January 21, 2010

Federal Cabinet was in Adelaide last night at the Norwood Morialta High School in the marginal, Liberal-held seat of Sturt. This is the third community cabinet held in South Australia. The local Labor marginals, Kingston to the south and Wakefield in the north, have already hosted community cabinets of their own.

This is a rustbelt state facing a crisis in manufacturing as the local car industry winds back production and exports due to GM crash into bankruptcy last year. As Hendrik Gout points out at Crikey, the Holden Commodore is no longer exported to the US, and production at Holden's Elizabeth plant is now well under capacity with shifts shortened or cancelled.

Exports were seen to be a key part of Holden's strategy to continue building large cars in South Australia in response to Australian sales of large sedans having dropped for the past 15 years. The outlook here is grim. is SA moving from the Rust Belt to the Green Belt.Is it a technology state focused on the future of green manufacturing?

03January02_Adelaide, Milang_185RundleMall.jpg Gary Sauer-Thompson, Milang, Lake Alexandrina, 2008

As would be expected, the main issue to surface at the Sturt community cabinet was the lack of water flowing into the Lower Lakes of the Murray-Darling Basin, despite the recent deal that had been reached between NSW and SA that guarantees 148 gigalitres of floodwaters from NSW will flow into the Lower Lakes region, with a Federal Government injection of 20 gigalitres on top of that.

The unexpected environmental flows may buy a year or two for the lower lakes and Corrong. The concern expressed at the community cabinet was about the decline of the local communities, due to the lack of water in the lower lakes. This kind of protest will happen more and more across the Murray-Darling Basin due to the effects of climate change. Victoria's solution, to impose a cap on water trading and so retain the water for itself, is an example of the dysfunctional governance.

My position is that, given the incapacity of CoAG to deal with the water crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin, the only long term and sustainable solution to the problems of the Lower Lakes and Coorong is to return the Lower Lakes to a saline estuary. This can be accomplished by the following:

• Allow seawater to flush out damaging acidity and prevent further deterioration.
• Modify the barrage gates to be operated remotely and quickly to take advantage of tidal cycles and wind induced heads of water.
• Remove accumulated sediments inside the Murray Mouth.
• Build a weir or lock between the Lakes and the River.

This would create a biologically diverse Ramsar wetland rather than wind swept dusty paddocks of acid sulphate soils. Of course, that still leaves other regional communities along the river facing their decline.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 9:38 AM | | Comments (15)


You make a good point with regards to the water issue in South Australia. The government's solution is a band-aid, not a long-term solution. We are in need of a national agreement that guarantees the health of the river for all Australians and future generations.

I agree that we "are in need of a national agreement that guarantees the health of the river for all Australians and future generations."

But I'm not sure that we will get one in the next decade or so. I am becoming more pessimistic not less, in spite of Rudd Labor's talk about having finally got a cooperative federalism on the move in the right direction.

There is not much cooperation or movement on water issues. There's lots of talk though about how much has been done etc and how things are moving in the right direction.

Sorry Gary I agree with you on a lot of things but not on turning the lakes into salt.
Firstly because if we surrender to those who have caused the problem, the irrigators and governments et al, the vested interest lobby groups will simply demand more in similar issues in the future.
Appeasement is no answer.
Secondly if they who are causing the problem see the lakes stink in their barren death they can see that for which they have been responsible.
Let the dead lakes be a monument to greed, selfishness, ignorance and stupidity otherwise there will be no overt lesson learned and the same cupidity will prevail elsewhere.

Drastic I know, but its what I see as I look out my window now, a dead wetland, and I don't want those responsible to shrug and say "Well it looks alright to me" just because it has some seawater in it.

its a multifaceted issue because of the complex hydrology and so it is very much an open issue, rather than a closed one, with a number of options.

I think that those who are responsible--the irrigator lobby in the first instance---will go down because of the lack of water. Go down, in the sense of there is going to be a huge shakeout in irrigated agriculture in the Murray Darling Basin--its already happening despite Victoria's various attempt to block the reform and arrest the changes. Tasmania has read the situation accurately and is positioning itself to become the new breadbasket.

However, the state politicians in the basin who allocated the licences, supported the irrigators, and turned a blind eye to the environmental destruction, will duck and weave and remain in power. They will not go down. I had hoped that the Commonwealth would have penalized them for their resistance to reform --like Keating did re competition policy--- but the Rudd Government is weak, cautious and easily frightened.

So maybe your option is the only way that the finger can be pointed at them and the way that they can held responsible for the destruction they have allowed to happen. However, there is also the need to keep the Coorong functioning as a wetland as opposed to being a stagnant pool of salty water.

Why is it so important to Australians to point fingers? Opinions like Fred's are at the heart of the problem with the Lower Lakes. Many people would rather have the lakes be a 'monument to greed', a barren wind-blown acidic dust bowl, to make a point, rather than to give in. It is as though we (SA) have admitted defeat.

The Aussie battler spirit works against finding a solution here.

Ten years ago the Lakes had environmental problems and back then scientists were recommending moving the barrages back to a location near Wellington and allowing the Lakes to return to being estuarine. The tidal barrages wreck havoc on the interplay between fresh and salt water environments.

People are going to have to let go of the past to find a way forward to solving this problem of the Lower Lakes. And we don't have an endless amount of time to do it because of the acid sulphate soil problems down there. Fred should take a look at Bottle Bend Lagoon before he makes up his mind.

The report mentioned above and pictures of Bottle Bend Lagoon are at the website,

fred, the lakes were originally brackish under tidal influence (before the barrage got put in). I think the Coorong was as well, altgough since the South East was pretty swampy before the pastoralists drained it there were probably flows of fresh water.

David Irving (no relation)
that's how I understood the lower lakes pre the Goolwa barrages as well. As for the Corrong, is there any way that the various SE salt drains can be re-engineered so that their water can feed into the lower Coorong?

From memory there was a big holding basin back of Salt Creek that contained the salt water from the drains. Do you know what happens to that water? When the holding basin is full then it flows into the Coorong?

My judgement is that the finger needs to be pointed at the irrigator lobby and the basin's state government from the time of the Snowy Mountain Hydroelectric Scheme and the start of river regulation onwards.The so-called working river was an irrigator tap and drain.

The irrigators were allowed to take too much water from the regulated system and they did not care about ecology, environmental damage or environmental flows, which they regarded as water wasted. Those views are still held today by the irrigation lobby. From what I can make they want all the water that is left for themselves and are unwilling to take responsibility for the ecological vandalism that has happened.

The state governments utilitarian calculus has always been one of sacrificing the wetlands (costs) to protect the irrigator's profits (benefits). The benefits out weight the costs. The current state of the lower lakes and Corrong and the dead wetlands in the Riverland (eg., the Chowilla floodplain ) -- ecological destruction-- are the consequences of that economic calculus.

That history is something we should never forget, as we confront all the spin from the irrigator lobby about the drought being the prime cause of the River Murray's current state.

The Lower Lakes restoration to an estuary can and should be a separate environmental cause because the problems there are caused by more than just a lack of freshwater. It is not just the irrigators fault. Even in times of plentiful freshwater, the Lower Lakes freshwater ecology has been in decline since the barrages were built. Reconnecting the Lower Lakes to the Coorong (by opening or removal of the barrages) and restoring the habitat that supports a range of estuarine species should be a respectable environmental goal in its own right.

Possibly true to a certain extent but what you are largely overlooking is the fundamental ecological fact that the Coorong/Lakes etc are an inseparable element in the ecology of the entire River Murray-Darling basin.

Thats basic to any understanding of how a river system operates.

In my neck of the woods along the river the riverboat tour operators are unhappy because one of the side effects of overallocating water to the irrigators is that the public has perceived that the river is in strife and therefore less attractive as a tourist destination.
Tourism is down and its affecting sales, jobs and revenue.
So the boat owners are trying to claim that the river is OK.

To do so they have to ignore all but the main channel [and not mention that it has declined in depth by metres so that some riverboats cannot navigate as before].

The backwater swamps are ignored.
Between Blanchetown and Tailem Bend there are some 80 back water/swamps/lagoons/wetlands.
One of them, Paiwalla, has water [artificially so].
The rest are dry and have been, unnaturally so, for the better part of 3 years, only partiallt related to the drought, only partially related to decreasing rainfall in the MDB catchment area due to climate change [the precise mechanism affecting the MDB has now been identified]. The cause is essentially overallocation of water to irrigation, a cause we can change in the short and long terms.
In his comment above Gary mentioned the damage, again caused mainly by overallocation of water to irrigators, of the Chowilla flood plain and I previously mentioned the Menindee Lakes.

The problems we have with the river are along its entire length, its entire catchment area, an area of about 1 million square kms.

Your example of Bottle Bend can be multiplied by 79 along my stretch of the river. The lagoon in front of me now is dying.
It is covered partly with weeds, partly by salt encrustations, there are acid sulfate soils in it. Bird species, snakes, frogs, water rats, bats [including the vulnerable Large footed Fishing bat] etc have disappeared. I have been part of two scientific biodiversity baseline surveys both of which showed a dramatic decline in bird species along the river, a sure sign of declining health.

All of these problems are affecting people along the entire river length.
Employment in the tourist and river recreation industries are suffering, I know of shops whose sales have declined and caravan parks whose clients have decreased, land and home values falling all, or at least primarily because of overallocation of water to irrigation.

In the case of my ex-wetland the govt is proposing concrete barriers to prevent water ever getting to the acid soils, it has already built one such here, also they are proposing various actions, including the addition of fly ash form coal power stations, to counter the acis soils.
All of this, along the whole stretch of the river, is estimated to cost many millions of dollars, some of which has already been spent. You are probably aware of such in the Lakes region.

Yet the remedy is simple.

Cut irrigation allowances [permanently] to give the whole river more water.

Without that simple solution all other measures will be expensive, second rate, band aid, essentially public relations exercises which may slow down but never halt the demise of the river.

The entire river.
Lakes included.

you write:

The Lower Lakes restoration to an estuary can and should be a separate environmental cause because the problems there are caused by more than just a lack of freshwater. It is not just the irrigators fault. Even in times of plentiful freshwater, the Lower Lakes freshwater ecology has been in decline since the barrages were built.

I agree with you about the destructive effects of the barrages on the ecology of the Corrong.

My historical understanding was that they built in the 1940s to provide freshwater for the local irrigation industry. Or have I got this wrong?


Is your wetland on this map I created a few months ago? . I located these wetlands on this map for the purpose of helping people know where these areas are and to give visibility to the problem.

I think much of this debate continues to revolve around whether people believe the numbers of GL's that are available as true. These are the government numbers . Currently there is 5664 GL in storage. The Lower Lakes at full pool level hold 2015 GL. One scientific report said that ideally between 3000 and 4000 GL of freshwater coming down the River Murray per year was required to keep the Lower Lakes in a healthy freshwater regime. And periodically more than that if you ever wanted to 'flush' the system through the Murray Mouth. The amount of water now being secured by the government (148 +20) GL is literally a drop in the bucket.

These are huge amounts of water that are just not available in storage.

An estuary has the benefit of improving fish nurseries and improving the range of tidal wading birds. It will accommodate tourism and recreation. It has the benefit of actually improving the situation permanently in a sustainable way for this part of the river system. And it is under the SA government's control.

Once the lakes are estuarine, there will be no excuse left for the irrigators to say 'all that water going to waste'.

The lakes have been kept, until recently of course, at an artifical depth for local irrigation. The 'top' 1/2 metre or so of average depth was for the benefit of local lakes irrigators.
Its been a long time since they were natural.


The irrigators have NEVER [sorry to shout] had grounds to claim that environmental water is wasted.
Such an attitude is barbaric and ...
Words fail me on that one, I tend to splutter with rage when I hear it at meetings and conferences.
Irrigators also are never satisfied with anything less tha 100% of their licence allocation.
Greed and selfishness personified.
You can see my attitude to this general issue in back posts if you wish and perhaps I'd better inform you that I am an irrigator [or would be if I had water] but recognize that the environment and urban domestic water needs should take priority.

Yes the amount of water 'offered' by the govt is pitiful.

And the 3000-4000 EXTRA [not shouting just emphasising] water that should be allowed down the river for environmental flows sounds about the right quantity.

And it is freely available.

I'll repeat that.
It is freely available.

We simply decrease irrigation quotas by that amount.
[And start looking at flows into the river, small catchment dams, native vegetation,a plethora of related issues]
Not necessarily last or this year because we ought to be simulating natural cycles as much as possible, keeping my lagoon at pool level for 15 out of the last 20 years or so has not been a healthy or natural cycle.

The ONLY [I'm back to combining shouting and emphasising] way to manage the whole river is according to these following priorities in order of importance and need [which has been stated by some scientists but I can't link without a few days notice]

1.maintain urban domestic supplies. [Roughly 300 gig PA I think, very small quantity of water.] Neglible quantity really.

2.Sustainable environmental flows - again I'm not sure of the amount but 3000-4000 GL sounds about right.
And released and/or allowed into the basin to maintain as natural a cycle as possible.
Please note that that would mean occasional flood years and occasional dry years.

3. Irrigators can have varying percentages of what water, if any, is left over.

Contrast this to the current scenario where #3 and #1 are vying for supremacy with #2 receiving close to nothing and then usually as a PR exercise.

Obviously if such a drastic re ordering of priorities becomes the accepted new norm there will be a massive howl from the irrigation lobby.

But they will need to get their act into something approaching sustainable practice sooner or later and the sooner the better.

The time for catering to their every want is well past, or should be.

And yes 'my' lagoon is on your list.

I find it difficult to accept the views of a minority who wish to keep the lakes fresh water. Lets face it they haven't exactly been "fresh" water for a good while. Furthermore, regardless of fossil evidence and all sorts of other mysterious evidence I can not accept that our lakes would not have been salt water for a good part of most years. Of course, like all that make comment I wasn't here nor were they.
Lock at Wellington and open and close barrages to suit tides is my vote. What an opportunity to create a magnificent inland waterway which if promoted in the right way would bring many more $s to SA than Lance and co. Furthermore, it would be hard for the Vics to steal the lakes.

It reminds me of a visit which I made to my hometown some years ago.
The deputy mayor is a mate of mine and he knew my interest in wetlands etc.
So he took me to the brand spanking new wetland site they had created from storm water storage which was going to purify the storm water and as a side benefit create a tourist attraction.
As we were looking at the site he remarked how wonderful it had been to change the previously degraded land into a potentially useful and aesthetically pleasing wetland.
That was when I told him that that exact same site had been a wetland when I was a kid.
I remember it well.
It had been later cleared and used for, among other things, a dump [later relocated] [later relocated, aerodrome and light industry [later relocated].
In 50 years the land use had gone full circle back to its original state.
And it had only cost several million dollars and the loss of the original once vibrant wetland to be replaced by a pale imitation.