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Macquarie Marshes again

July 9th, 2006

The debate over returning water to the Macquarie Marshes is reported here at the SMH. Jennifer Marohasy’s claims that “cattle are killing the Marshes”, discussed here, get an airing, but very little support. This kind of emotive anti-farmer rhetoric has mostly gone out of fashion among environmental groups, being regarded as counterproductive, particularly when it is based on almost no evidence. But apparently it’s OK for a lobbyist for one group of farmers to use it against other farmers.

More encouragingly, the article gives a good presentation of the idea of buying back excessive allocations of water. This is the only option that is going to achieve the reductions in water extractions on the scale needed to restore the Murray-Darling Basin to a sustainable balance.

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  1. kartiya
    July 9th, 2006 at 22:35 | #1

    JOHN , I have two dams 50 metres apart .one is used by cattle ,the other has been fenced off for 5 years . i do not like to admit it but the one used by the cattle is an ecological disaster – smelly from urine and faeces and discoloured by the disturbance of the clay banks. The tree reserve dam has various seasonal native water plants[ plus some non- native ones as well] ,beautiful clear water and abounds with frogs etc -its a delight to view.
    The other one is very cattle practical if admittedly not ideal .
    Cattle will ruin the natural environment of wet and boggy areas very quickly -they can recover to an extent but it takes quite a few years of cattle and other livestock exclusion .
    It may be necessary for me to either periodically burn or stock the new tree reserve at some stage, ideally with with lambs to reduce the grass mulch and to give the grasses and other herbages vitality .
    I always remember Major Thomas Mitchell commenting in one of his exploration diaries how he had “blushed inwardly” in front of his “sable” Aboriginal guide when coming to a camp site in northwestern NSW at a reasonably big river or creek waterhole that because of cattle access was now almost undrinkable for his men . He noted Aboriginal people in the area had taken to lining parts of the waterhole edges with tree branches to prevent cattle from polluting the entire bank .

  2. Birdo
    July 16th, 2006 at 19:03 | #2

    John, the idea that buying more water for the Macquarie Marshes will fix all it’s ills is easy to swallow on the surface. However consider that 90% of the Marshes is privately owned and these wetlands are intensively grazed. What will happen if more water is sent to the Marshes? More cattle! A better and much cheaper option is to buy grazing land that contains good wetlands, and manage it for conservation. We have done just that in the Marshes, and the results are astounding. Within 12 months we have reed beds 2m high where no reed beds existed due to overgrazing. I’m not against graziers, but there are some special places that just shouldn’t be grazed.

  3. steve munn
    July 17th, 2006 at 10:26 | #3

    John, are you seriously arguing that cattle should be stomping through a wetland system? Surely cattle in the Macquarie Marshes is akin to buffalo in Kakadu wetlands, which everyone acknowledges has been disasterous. Thankfully the latter are now well controlled through culling.

    Surely it would make sense for the Government to buy back a proportion of the marshes from cattle graziers and set it aside as national park.

    Obviously more water in the system would mean more cattle could be grazed. Why do you think that would be a good outcome?

  4. jquiggin
    July 17th, 2006 at 15:39 | #4

    I have no problem with the idea of buying back land as well as water. But fairly clearly, land without water is not a wetland. And I think it is generally a bad idea to promote division between groups of water and land users.

  5. steve munn
    July 18th, 2006 at 22:00 | #5

    Yes, I agree. Both a land and water buy back are needed rather than one without the other.

  6. Birdo
    July 19th, 2006 at 10:25 | #6

    Again this solution sounds logical, but there is a bit of a problem with water buyback for the Marshes. The Marshes are a huge area (200,000 ha) of extremely flat country. It only takes a very low levee bank, or even a road, to alter the direction of flow. By building these levees you can create irrigated pastures on previously dry land. Because water is a very limited resource in this arid landscape, the new pasture you create will starve downstream wetlands of flows and gradually destroy them.
    When you buy back land, it stays where you bought it. The water however gets actively manipulated. The best solution would be a combination of land purchase of current wetlands, and proper restrictions on levee construction and local water diversion.
    Under current water sharing rules, the Marshes get 85% of the water they got naturally, but less and less of this seems to be getting to the core wetlands in the Nature Reserves, and more and more of it is creating irrigated pasture. Note that cattle prices are extremely good at the moment.

  7. jquiggin
    July 19th, 2006 at 10:32 | #7

    This problem isn’t unique to the Marshes and surface flows of water are now being regulated with precisely this sort of capture and diversion in mind. So, I agree that such regulation is necessary, but that still doesn’t get us past the fundamental problem that total flows are inadequate.

  8. Terje
    July 19th, 2006 at 10:56 | #8

    Water capture is not always the issue. Sometimes the issue is water flow.

    When I was growing up on the farm we had neighbours upstream that put a dam in the creek. It was controversial at the time. However once it was completed it reduced flooding and improved flows. This was because whilst they stored a lot of water they also provided a guaranteed rate of flow (unless the dam was empty).

    Of course I have no clue if this was good or bad in a broader ecologically sence. However it was not a problem for down stream farmers and may have even been a benefit.

  9. Birdo
    July 19th, 2006 at 11:17 | #9

    John, what is your evidence for stating that total flows are inadequate?
    The general evidence presented is that the Nature Reserves are showing signs of demise. This can equally be explained by the array of levees that prevent water getting to them.
    If we removed these levees and diversions, would these wetlands recover? I argue that they would , given the highly variable natural flow regime of this river, and that current flow is 85% of natural.

  10. jquiggin
    July 20th, 2006 at 06:35 | #10

    “John, what is your evidence for stating that total flows are inadequate?
    The general evidence presented is that the Nature Reserves are showing signs of demise. This can equally be explained by the array of levees that prevent water getting to them.”

    I’m starting with the general point that more flows are needed for the MDB system as a whole, as shown by the Living Murray Initiative. As regards the Macquarie Marshes in particular, you seem to agree that the problem is not enough water, but want to shift the blame from one group of users to another. As I said at the outset, I don’t think this is helpful.

    Apart from the irrigator lobby and people who represent them, I haven’t seen any support for the view that diversion by the cattle industry are the main problem. Nevertheless, to restate a point made above, I agree that diversion and capture of surface water needs to be integrated into the general system of water management, subject to pricing and so on.

  11. July 20th, 2006 at 14:11 | #11

    John wrote: “I haven’t seen any support for the view that …”

    John, Instead of always relying on the consensus view/ the opinion of others, why don’t you put some effort into finding out what is actually going on … what about considering the evidence.

  12. jquiggin
    July 20th, 2006 at 18:04 | #12

    As the global warming debate has shown, when the choice is between the consensus view of the scientific community and the output of interested lobby groups, going with the scientific community is a pretty good bet. If there’s a serious case to be made on some issue, I expect that sooner or later, researchers with no particular axe to grind will make it.

    On a number of issues (for example your own claims about cod I’ve taken the trouble to go back to the original sources, and I found that the scientists had got things right on most points.

    But I’ve got my own work to do, and I can’t spend all my time checking other people’s work just because their results are politically inconvenient for some group or another.

  13. Birdo
    July 25th, 2006 at 23:08 | #13

    A look at Jennifer’s latest blog posting 23/7 will show that the consensus scientific view ie “more flows are needed for the MDB system as a whole, as shown by the Living Murray Initiative” can certainly be questioned in some river systems.
    The evidence should stand on it’s own merits and not be judged by your perception of who brought it to light.
    After all, consensus scientific opinion once told us that the earth was flat, didn’t it?

  14. jquiggin
    July 26th, 2006 at 06:45 | #14

    “consensus scientific opinion once told us that the earth was flat, didn’t it?’

    Would you like to name the scientists who held this opinion, Birdo, and the industry lobbyists (or their historic equivalent) that stood out against the consensus?

    As regards Jennifer’s post, I have to say it struck me as more special pleading on behalf of those irrigators who want to resist necessary changes. The role of tree cover in the relationship between rainfall and stream flow has been an important theme of scientific research for some years now, so it’s not as if this is a new point that hasn’t been taken into account.

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