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History of the River Murray's lower lakes « Previous | |Next »
August 21, 2008

Like myself local photographer Michael Buddle is also photographing the decline in the River Murray's lower lakes. He has informed me that the Natural Resources Centre in Strathalbyn in South Australia has copies of Terry Sim and Kerri Muller's "A Fresh History of the Lakes: Wellington to the Murray Mouth, 1800s to 1935.

The Strathalbyn Natural Resources Centre originated from staff partnerships with groups such as River Murray Catchment Water Management Board, Landcare, Goolwa to Wellington Local Action Planning Association, Land Management Program and the Angas River Catchment Group, and the text was published by the now defunct River Murray Catchment Water Management Board. Defunct due to the introduction of integrated natural resource management across South Australia.

irrigationLake Alexandrina.jpg Gary Sauer-Thompson, irrigation channel, Lake Alexandrina, 2008

The argument of the text is that irrigation along the River Murray changed everything, since the extraction of water from the river for irrigation caused the lower River Murray to be filled with salt because river flows could no longer hold back the sea.

In the introduction to the text Sim and Muller say:

Prior to European settlement, Lakes Alexandrina and Albert at the terminus of the River Murray were predominately fresh, with river water discharging to sea and keeping the Mouth clear. Contrary to what many believe today, saltwater intrusions into the Lake environment were not common until after 1900 when significant water resource development had occurred in the River Murray system ..... Before large-scale extractions of water, the Lakes and lower Murray were rarely subjected to seawater invasions ... Short-lived intrusions of saltwater would occur during periods of low flow down river resulting in a lowered level of water in the lakes. Even in times of these low flows, it would appear that only small areas of the Lakes

It was irrigation that changed these natural conditions as the extraction of water reduced river flow down the Murray River:

irrigationLake Alexandrina1.jpg Gary Sauer-Thompson, irrigation infrastructure, Lake Alexandrina, 2008

Sim and Muller go to describe this transformation in the ecology of the region thus:

Saline invasions were more common after 1900 and the development of irrigation works because reduced river flows could not hold back the sea. Irrigation schemes began at the same time as a long lasting, widespread drought that further diminished the amount of water in the river system ... extractions of water from the system upstream in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, along with drought conditions, caused change to the Lakes ... as conditions in the river and Lakes changed the schemes were designed to prevent seawater from entering into the Lakes system and maintain a freshwater reservoir.What finally resulted were the five barrages, Goolwa, Mundoo, Boundary Creek, Ewe Island and Tauwitchere that are in place today.

This attempt to ensure a freshwater reservoir in the lower lakes for irrigators and towns has failed as there is not enough water to provide the water. The state governments in the basin have allowed this happen.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 8:14 AM | | Comments (8)


why are we defending Lake Alexandrina as a fresh water reservoir when we have that kind of run down irrigation infrastructure It's disgraceful Is that open channel for the dairy farmers along Lake Alexandrina? All the cow urine and shit would flow back into the Lake.

Why cannot they be bought out instead of trying to protect them? It is not worth it.

Pam, the majority of the water extracted on the shore (near Milang) is used by the local viticulture industry (Langhorne Creek) - The area of land now exclusively producing grapes in that region has grown a hundred fold over the last twenty years or so. Vast areas that were once wheat/sheep farmland is now vineyard. The grain crops of the past were never irrigated and the sheep never drank *that* much -
No denying from me at least, that we (South Australians) are partly responsible for what is happening down here.
I understand a pipeline is now being constructed for the vineyards to extract water from the river before it enters the lake as they can no longer use the water from the lake due to the low level & it's salinity. (Supposedly they're anticipating the weir at Wellington will go ahead)
Dairy is a very minor industry near Milang. But what you talk about would probably be common near Tailem Bend, Jervois & Wellington.

Michael B,
there are dairy farmers along the Milang Clayton road as the images of the irrigation channels show.It may be a minor industry now but they will suffer from allowing sea water to flood Lake Alexandrina unless they put in desalinisation plants to get the fresh water needed to water the pasture and keep it green.

The pipeline from Wellington to Langhorne Creek is being built--I've seen the pipes and the digging machinery. That means the weir at Wellington is going ahead.

Gary was a bit misleading in his post. I agree about the dominance of the wine industry ---Langhorne Creek---in the lower lakes region. That industry has boomed and they produce very good red wines. It needs to be protected.

But they are not looking after the rivers from the Eastern Mt Lofty Ranges that flow into Lake Alexandrina---Finness and Tookyarta. The extractions and dams continue. The Angas and Bremer rivers looked pretty dry to me when I was down there last month, despite the rain.

Are they flowing?

We drove through Milang on Sunday (7/9/08) and passed by where the Angas and Bremer rivers empty into the Lake. Both looked as if there was zero flow. The Angas is flowing in Strathalbyn, but not yet emptying into the Lake. I understand there has been some good flow from the Finnis river.

re your comment:

the Angas and Bremer rivers empty into the Lake. Both looked as if there was zero flow. The Angas is flowing in Strathalbyn, but not yet emptying into the Lake.

How com? There has been lots of rain--eg., the Finness flowing. So what has happened to the Angas and Bremer? Too much water being taken out?

Hi Pam - I honestly don't know. The Angas looked bad and the Bremer looked worse. Maybe this guy's been up to his old tricks again:
OK I'm kidding... but I did find that story just today.

Pam and Michael,
No doubt there would be more than one water thief in the region. That is not the problem. It is the legal water allocations yet again leading to an over-allocation of water. That explanation is where I'd start. SA is no different from the other states in the Murray-Darling Basin---eg., the Marne is also dry.

SA is doing very little to restore environmental flows to its own rivers that flow into the River Murray. Sa is very hypocritical on this issue--always pointing the finger upstream and ignoring what is happening in its own backyard.