Water, water, everywhere and all the trees will shrink
History is littered with good intentions gone bad and concerns are growing the Government’s recently released draft Murray Darling Basin Plan is a prime example.
Frontline environmentalists, who live and work with the vagaries of the rivers, are warning that the Government is heading down the wrong track and could be responsible for allowing wetlands, which not even the worst drought in living memory could kill, to be severely damaged as a result of over-watering.
If we have above average rainfall over the next 12 months the world’s largest river red gum forest is facing the very real prospect of being degraded within three years of it being declared a national park, and two years before the Federal Government has signed off on an environmental watering plan.
Australian irrigators are widely regarded to be amongst the world’s best. They are ready to help this nation’s newest and largest irrigator, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH), administered by bureaucrats from agencies like Treasury and Prime Minister and Cabinet, understand how the rivers work and how to manage water to maximise outcomes.
The Government currently holds, controls or jointly manages over 2.1 million megalitres of water entitlements across the Murray Darling Basin which it is using to flood irrigate wetlands, including the Lower Lakes in South Australia.
We are pleading with the Government to not destroy our wetlands and environmental assets by ignoring experience and relying on computer models. We are very willing to help them understand what is actually happening on and around the river.
The failure of the Government to establish the Australia’s largest irrigator in the communities where irrigation operations are undertaken is a vital mistake and needs to be rectified.
The irrigation bureaucracy that is the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder is already spawning and breeding in Canberra while the Government is advocating a model of ‘localism’. How can there be ‘localism’ if there is no local presence?
Water, killing precious red gums with kindness
Work done for the Living Murray program, available on the Murray Darling Basin Commission website makes the following points about river red gum forests:
“In the Barmah Forest the duration of natural floods ranged from one to seven months … if flooding duration is too long, soil oxygen is depleted and red gums will be either killed or gradually replaced by other plant communities.
“Complete drying between floods is needed to ensure that the soil is aerated.
“An average depth of 1 metre across the floodplain ensures adequate watering of red gum seedlings. Larger (or deeper) floods might cause seedlings to be immersed in water for too long a period and result in drowning.”
Danger for the world’s largest river red gum forest
The Barmah-Millewa Forest on the Murray River upstream of Echuca is the world’s largest river red gum forest. It was the first site ever to be granted an environmental water allocation through an intergovernmental agreement in 1993 granting 100GL/yr guaranteed allocation and a further 50GL/y dependent on water availability sourced equally from the NSW and Victorian water resources.
The forest is also an Icon Site under the Living Murray Program and can access additional environmental flows from that program’s 486 GL.
In the late 1990s it was noticed that higher river flows to meet downstream requirements was leading to sections of the forest suffering from over-inundation.
In NSW the (then) State Forest Commission, Department of Land and Water Conservation along with local landholders and Murray Irrigation developed a program for environmental works and measures to place regulators in the Forest to manage flows and allow for the necessary drying cycle. The project was jointly funded by the State Government and Murray Irrigation shareholders.
It’s an excellent example of local communities finding solutions to balance environmental needs with socio-economic outcomes.
Most recently the forest has been in flood since late winter 2010 with natural flows (flooding) continuing through the summer of 2010/11. It has now received additional ‘top up’ flows from a number of sources including the NSW Government’s Barmah-Millewa Environmental Water Allocation and the Living Murray Program.
Already parts of the forest have been underwater for longer than the usual duration of natural floods (one to seven months). Advice is that the forest needs to be drained in the next twelve months or there is a danger of significant environmental damage due to too much water.
The concern is not limited to the actual watering of the Barmah-Millewa forest, but also running the river at higher levels to deliver water for downstream requirements.
A major physical constraint known as the Barmah Choke is there and regardless of good intentions, any flows that exceed the natural constraint (8,500megs/day) without adequate management of the forest regulators does not simply flow downstream without first spilling into the forest.
As the MDBC research highlights, river red gums need at least eighteen months between flooding events to dry out. It is not in the interest of the long term health of the Barmah-Millewa forest to be flooded every summer because the Government wants to run the Murray River above natural flow constraints to get water downstream, leading to a flood of sorts every year.
The verge of catastrophe
The Government cannot ignore the physical constraints in the rivers. They are real and to not fully consider the unintended consequences brought about by pushing water into the forest while attempting to deliver water downstream will end in disaster for the world’s largest river red gum forest.
It would be a travesty if the Government, not nature, was responsible for significantly altering the Barmah-Millewa floodplains leading to the environmental degradation and potential drowning of significant areas of river red gum forests and associated wetlands.
Good intentions should not be allowed to destroy our environment or the social and economic fabric of our communities. As frontline environmentalist we can help, we want to help and we have decades of invaluable practical on the ground experience to share.
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