“The tragedy of the Murray- Darling River system is man-made”
quote: Richard Kingford July 25, 2017, Director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science and member of the Global Water Institute at UNSW Sydney.
The Murray – Darling River Basin has been a story in the headlines for months now. A cacophony of he said, she said, each state pointing the finger at each other, State versus Federal governments clashing, fishermen versus farmers, townspeople versus major irrigators. So much disunity and conflicting motivations meant it was easy to get lost in the facts versus fiction, nature versus manmade arguments, whilst watching a catastrophe unfold.
But a small story hidden on a recent new’s bulletin reporting yet another spontaneous fish kill, made me sit up and take notice. I know we are growing cotton in Australia, but like most people, was pretty confident our State and Federal governments would have the environmental health of the country as the number one priority, while of course using every opportunity to support primary producers, especially during severe periods of drought.
For others like me, unaware of the exact significance of this region, the Murray – Darling River system traverses four of our most populated states, and is our most important agricultural region, providing 39% of Australia's gross value in agricultural production. Whilst also being a stunning natural habitat to migratory birds, native fishes, forests of red gums, black box eucalypts and coolabah trees.
During a prolonged drought in 2002 – 2009, the Howard Government concerned for increasing environmental fragility of the river which actually saw Adelaide run out of drinking water, creating a new Federal Plan to ensure Federal management of the region and more specifically control of the all-important water resource. The plan was not immediately adopted, waiting another few years until Julia Gillard's government took action and created an independent national Murray-Darling Basin Authority, with a purse of $13billion and a strict agenda to improve irrigation efficiencies which would allow saved water to flow back to the environment. The Authority also had a yearly target to buy back water from irrigator, returning it again to the environment.
What has happened has been nothing short of an absolute disgrace.
I spent Saturday afternoon watching the four corners episode “pumped” from 2017, and was shocked to my core. As I mentioned, I knew we grew cotton in Australia, but had no idea where.
We have chosen the most barren, dry, desert, to grow the most water-intensive crop on the planet, making millionaires of the cotton growers in the process at the expense of our most important waterway. The millions have not only come from the cotton, in fact, in some cases growing cotton has been abandoned by these large agricultural entities in favor of trading their water allowances. And the money has flown from the water licenses as the two biggest players in the region, own so much water in this country, they are second only to the Federal Government.
How has this happened when the plan was for Federal control of the waterway and its distribution of the water resource?
Because lobbyists, pressuring the government at the state level, supported by Federal politicians, renegotiated water rules in NSW, which have allowed these major irrigators to continue to pump megalitres of water from the river, ignoring the strict protocols of the Federal plan, into massive storage dams that would give Sydney Harbour a run for its money. This water has been used to either farm cotton, or which is even more ludicrous, has been sold at exorbitant rates back to the Government for the use by farmers & towns lower done the river or in their half-hearted attempt to protect this fragile ecosystem.
And what do you think happens when the Government buys back the water – with taxpayers money from these powerful irrigators? They get slammed.
According to one article, Barnaby Joyce the then Minister for Agriculture brokered a deal for the buyback of water from one of these major players, who had decided to move operations from cotton farming to running sheep. The government purchased the water at a negotiated rate of $3500 per megalitre. When this price was market checked with water broker Waterfind Australia by the ABC – they have advised the average price of water in the Lower darling traded in recent years at $140 a megalitre.
$3500 versus $140, at the taxpayer's expense. A River system - not someone's private landholding. Our largest national waterway!
In an op-ed piece in the Age, Helen Vivian (March 2018) summarized this sad and sorry situation expertly: “Depleted, despoiled, often poisonous and since 2001 frequently dry, the Darling River is an emblem of poor government, mismanagement, greed, and anti-democratic activity”
Why do politicians and bureaucrats, continue to ignore the advice and warnings of our scientists, and plunder our natural resources for the benefit of a handful of large corporations?
The two prominent irrigators (and cotton farmers) in this region are Webster Pty Ltd and Peter Harris and own together about 70% of all licensed water in the Barwon – Darling.
At a property called Miralwyn, a major cotton farm run by Peter Harris’s young son Jack, inspectors discovered evidence of meter tampering, which had allowed the property to continually pump huge quantities of water from the river undetected – without recording one single drop. Blatant disregard and disrespect for targets set by the MRDBA scheme.
Jack Harris had used his Instagram to show an image of these huge pumps at work – with a caption “just fillin’ the bath”
To which one of his mates had replied: “pump the river dry”.
And we wonder why the fish are dying ....
A link to the 4 Corners episode and some articles of interest.