Water reform in the Murray Darling has been repeatedly justified on the basis that taking thousands of gigalitres of water — about 1/3 of all the water used to produce food in Australia — is necessary to keep the mouth of the Murray River open 90 per cent of the time.
In fact the tides of the Southern Ocean could scour the mouth of the Murray, at no expense to Australian tax payers, if only the Murray River’s estuary were restored and the evolution of the Lower Murray allowed to follow it’s natural course.
But instead of working with nature, Australian and South Australian governments have worked to stop the tides of the Southern Ocean and block the five channels that converge on the Murray’s sea mouth.
The South Australian government has always insisted that Lake Alexandrina be considered a freshwater lake, not part of the Murray River’s estuary. Indeed during the early years of European settlement the farm lobby was much stronger than the fishing lobby. So, the South Australian government lobbied the Commonwealth to construct barrages across the five channels that converge on the Murray’s sea mouth as part of the program of works along the Murray River. In the 1930s 7.6 kilometres of sea dykes were built. These structures, known locally as barrages, crippled the estuary but made the lake suitable for irrigation.
During the Millennium drought, which lasted from about 2001 to 2009, water levels in Lake Alexandrina fell precipitously from 0.85 metres above sea level to -1.10 metres below. There was simply not enough water in upstream dams to keep both Lake Alexandrina and the adjacent Lake Albert supplied with adequate freshwater. The South Australian government could have opened the 593 gates within the five sea dykes to let the Southern Ocean in, but instead they kept the gates shut tight. This was not reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, instead TV cameras focused on either the receding lake waters or the sand dredge working to keep the Murray’s mouth open conveniently avoiding images of the massive sea dykes in between.
The Goolwa section of the sea dykes is shown in the header of this website; the image was taken in 2007 at the height of the drought.
In May 2011, when the Australian government was consulting on its new water plan for the Murray Darling Basin a group of us got together to try and draw attention to the inadequacies of the proposed A$10 billion Basin Plan that was ostensibly about the environment, but that did not include any discussion of the crippled estuary.
We wrote to the Premier of South Australia, Mike Rann, on 15 July 2011 broadly outlining our concerns. The letter included comment that:
Myth and the Murray Group ask that the South Australian Government consider letting the Southern Ocean enter the terminal coastal lakes as once happened naturally in autumn and during protracted drought. This would restore the River Murray’s estuary and also make more fresh water available for upstream environments, communities and industries, including the horticultural industries of South Australia’s Riverland.
The old fishermen say before the weirs, locks, levees and sea dykes the Murray River would flog down, from September until maybe Christmas, filling the lagoon, then out the mouth. By Christmas flow had slowed and water levels dropped right down. Then when the south westerly wind picked up the sea would pour in through the mouth and work its way across the lake.
Sometime storms would deposit so much sand that the entrance would become blocked, that is the Murray’s sea mouth would become blocked, and Lake Alexandrina existed as a perched saline lagoon through winter.
In New South Wales these types of estuaries are known as ‘Intermittently Closed and Open Lakes and Lagoons’ or ICOLLS. There are about 70 INCOLLS between Sydney and the Victorian border.
In April 1802, Matthew Flinders, while circumnavigating Australia, described the shoreline as low and sandy topped with hammocks of almost bare sand. There was no river mouth on his map. Historians have written that his acclaimed navigator and cartographer “missed” the Murray’s mouth. It is much more likely that the inlet — the Murray’s sea mouth — had closed-over.
Nowadays Australian are lead to believe the Murray’s mouth closes over because irrigators take too much water. Indeed central to the government’s A$10 billion Basin plan is the buyback of irrigation licences to keep the mouth of the Murray open.
But there is even an insincerity to this claim — that the water purchased from irrigators will be used to keep the Murray’s mouth open — because the sea dykes have block the flow of freshwater from the lake to the mouth.
On behalf of Myth and the Murray group I visited the Australian parliament in July 2011 and met individually with a dozen Labor, Liberal, National and Greens Senators and MPs representing voters from across the Murray Darling. I explained that:
1. The health of a river system is more than the quantity of water flowing downstream;
2. Current management of the terminal coastal lake system as an artificial freshwater oasis is unsustainable;
3. Restoring the Murray River’s estuary must be a priority in any Murray Darling Basin Plan;
4. Restoring the estuary must involve fixing the barrages [sea dykes] which currently prevent inflows from the Southern Ocean; and
5. The current focus on buying back irrigation licences, while ignoring the crippled Murray River estuary and the impact of the barrage, is misguided, unsustainable and irresponsible.
I was mostly told by the politicians that they knew all about the sea dykes, the false premises on which much of the current water reform agenda is based, but that restoring the estuary would be too hard, too political, and it was potentially a vote loser in South Australia.
After we placed an advertisement on World Environment day in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers, calling for the restoration of the Murray River’s estuary, we were attacked by the mainstream media and the Australian Conservation Foundation. In an article published in the Adelaide Advertiser, an Australian Conservation Foundation spokeswoman claimed that we were trying to derail the process of water reform with “simplistic, local solutions to a complex, national problem.”
We agree that the Murray River’s estuary could easily be restored: that its current state is a national disgrace and that there is a local solution. You can learn more about this, and some of our other battles on the pages of this website.
In March 2013, after the Basin plan had been legislated in the Australian parliament, Minister Burke said that the Murray Darling Basin would now benefit from an extra “3,200 billion litres of water a year.”
But this statement, again uncritically reported by the mainstream media, is nonsense. Of course there is no extra water. There will simply be a redistribution of water to Lake Alexandrina away from agriculture and upstream wetlands. This major water reform will essentially result in the provision of billions of dollars worth of freshwater to an artificial environment that has been in ecological decline since the building of the 7.6 kilometres of sea dyke in the 1930s.
Many of us continue to be amazed at the success of the South Australian spin and at times we are disheartened by the politics.
The Myth and the Murray Group could go away, give up on the truth. But it is not in our nature.
Dr Jennifer Marohasy
Spokesperson, Myth & the Murray Group
Ph: 041 887 32 22
Email: jennifermarohasy at yahoo.com.au