Posturing over water ignores our history of drought
It is an absolute tribute to the men and women who built the Snowy Mountains Scheme that their engineering marvels continue to supply drinking, irrigation and environmental water to two million people who call the Murray Darling Basin (MDB) home.
Because if it wasn’t for the man-made miracle that is the Snowy Mountain Scheme, the only thing coming out of many taps in the MDB would have been dust.
Permanent plantings of citrus, stone fruits, grapes and the myriad of fresh food that lands on our table would have been wiped out. Whole communities would have had to pack up and leave and the environment would have worn the full fury of Mother Nature with death a daily reminder of the power of the weather gods.
Michael McKernan’s book ‘Drought – the red marauder’ highlights the plight of the environment hit by severe droughts. Millions of animals, both introduced and native, died. Rivers that haven’t been dry since the Snowy Scheme was completed had all but disappeared.
McKernan says “writing in 1858, Charles Edward Strutt reported being told by ‘Blacks of the Murrumbidgee’ of a great drought about 120 years ago (around 1738). ‘It persisted so long,’ he reported, ‘that the Murrumbidgee became perfectly dry, which events reduced the Natives to the utmost distress, as there was no water nearer than the Murray. Many were fearful of trying to reach the Murray, because of the hostility of the peoples whose land they would have to cross, and many of the older people and women and children died, not wishing to risk the journey. Those who reached the Murray found it to be but a chain of water-holes. ‘The tradition says,’ Strutt concluded, ‘that a large multitude of blacks perished during that frightful visitation’.”
McKernan asks: did white people also die in drought in Australia? They most certainly did.
McKernan’s book also quotes extensively from the diary of Joseph Jenkins, who migrated to Australia at the age of 51 in 1869 was based in Maldon, in central Victoria.
In 1881 Jenkins recorded, ‘there is not enough grass in the bush for a man to wipe his back parts.’ A year later, ‘there is not enough feed for a lean goose around here.’
In February 1882, Joseph recorded in his diary it was 46 degrees in the shade; he wrote ‘no life without water’ and ‘nothing will be left tomorrow.’ In reflecting on whether it was wiser to pray for rain or put in infrastructure Jenkins wrote ‘It is wiser to make dams and preserve the waste water’.
In September 2008, the Murray Darling Basin Commission (MDBC) stated that the Murray River was reported to have stopped flowing between Tocumwal and Moama in 1850, and again in 1902 (for six months). In the 1914-1915 drought, flows in the Murray reached very low levels.
The MBDC report states: “Modelling has also been used to simulate flows in the Murray under natural conditions; in other words if all dams and weirs did not exist and no water was extracted from the system. This modelling demonstrates that under natural conditions the Murray would have ceased flowing during the more severe droughts, including the current dry period. In the last couple of years a continuous flow along the length of the Murray has been maintained by drawing upon water stored upstream, particularly in Hume and Dartmouth Reservoirs when other tributary inflows are low.”
The simple inescapable fact is that if we didn’t have human intervention in MDB then the Murray River and many of its tributaries would have become dust bowls incapable of supporting life. Many native species both fauna and flora would have perished already.
I get extremely frustrated when I hear people talking of returning the land and waterways to their original natural state. There is no such thing as a natural state anymore. As a matter of fact it is an illogical statement.
Take Toorale Station on the junction of the Warrego and Darling Rivers in the Bourke Shire which was purchased by the Rudd Government for $23.75 million in 2008.
On 24 September 2008, NSW Labor Deputy Premier Carmel Tebbutt stated: “The property has five separate water entitlements totalling 14 gigalitres. With the cessation of floodplain harvesting and the removal of artificial water catchments, long-term modelling suggests a minimum of 20 gigalitres of water per year will be returned to the local river systems.”
Senator Rachel Siewert, the Australian Greens water spokesperson said at the time: “The Australian Greens welcome the purchase of Toorale station and the restoration of free flows in the Warrego - and acknowledge this is a positive move by our governments in tackling one of our biggest national environmental challenges.”
It is ironic that fifteen months on from the purchase of Toorale Station, the Labor Party has managed to turn the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service into the largest floodplain irrigator on the entire Warrego River. Far from delivering the cessation of floodplain harvesting, Toorale Station is currently irrigating a couple of thousand hectares of wetlands and not been one single artificial water catchment removed.
Local graziers have been told by NSW Government officials that it will be at least another two years before a decision will be made on which dams and weirs will be knocked down and which will stay.
The local environment has adapted to the artificial water catchments and unique ecosystems have been created on Toorale Station. I warned in September 2008 that bulldozing those water banks would have a devastating impact on the local flora and fauna because the weirs had created a vibrant man-made ecosystem.
What this means is we could have had the eco-system retained, and also a food producing power-house that Toorale was under the previous ownership. Now we have the worst of both worlds.
The reality is that it is only through human intervention and infrastructure have the majority of wetlands in the MDB have had any water at all in them during the drought.
The current debate over whether NSW should release water from Menindee Lakes to help South Australia in an election year and threats of High Court challenges is just more waste – every dollar spent is another dollar not spent on doing more with the water we’ve got.
The reason that no one has a clue how much water is going to flow into the Menindee Lakes is because the Labor Party has failed to live up its promises and spent money on real-time metering of water in the MDB.
I cannot think of too many villages, towns, or cities in the MDB that don’t need a massive upgrade to their water infrastructure. Irrespective of droughts or climate change, the population explosion will continue to place an enormous strain on water resources.
Yet the Labor governments want to spent taxpayer’s money taking each other to court. So much for a new era of co-operative federalism under the Rudd Government.
In government the Coalition allocated $5.9 billion to invest in on-farm and in system water infrastructure. The plan was to ensure farmers could produce more food with less water, and the environment would get more water to ensure important wetlands could get a decent drink.
It is now apparent the only major infrastructure project in the entire MDB which will be completed in first term of the Rudd Government is the $750 million North-South Pipeline, which will take up to 110 billion litres a year out of the MDB to flush Melbourne’s toilets. The Labor Party will have begun pumping 75 billion litres of water out of the MDB to ease Melbourne’s water restrictions before the Lower Lakes in South Australia see one drop of the water from the current floods in the Northern MDB.
If we are serious about Australia’s food security, our economy, keeping a food manufacturing industry in Australia, the social fabric of the MDB and helping the environment, it is vitally important that the Rudd Government starts delivering on water infrastructure. Having an understanding of history might help too.
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