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A tale of two lakes

July 28th, 2008

As inflows to the Murray–Darling system continue at record lows, conflict over water is intensifying. The management of both Menindee Lakes in Western NSW and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert in SA has been subject to severe criticism. Currently two of the Menindee Lakes contain nearly 600 GL of water (under current rules, this keeps them under NSW control). South Australia is calling for a release of water to prevent severe damage to the lower Murray, including the SA lakes and the Coorong. But lobbyists for the NSW irrigation sector, like Jennifer Marohasy, are arguing that the barrages preventing sea water inflow to the SA lakes, (themselves a response to flow reductions caused by the initial development of irrigation upstream), should be removed.

There’s little value in assessing these competing claims in isolation. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the current leisurely schedule for achieving a sustainable allocation of water rights is untenable. The Australian government needs to act to bring allocations into line with sustainable levels, and accelerate the repurchase of water rights from irrigators.

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  1. Hermit
    July 28th, 2008 at 22:42 | #1

    It appears to me that the lower Murray lakes are doomed so I’d suggest blocking off Lake Albert and letting it degenerate into a sulphurous saline soup. That would be just a few days work with bulldozers because of the narrow channel to the Murray strangely enough called The Narrows. Pension off the dairy farmers. A navigation and flushing channel could be dredged from Clayton to Goolwa in Lake Alexandrina as the lake level recedes.

    I have a novel proposal for Menindie Lakes, the town water supply for Broken Hill. Since Bob Carr is enthusiastic about both nuclear power and NSW perhaps a nuke plant could be built to arrest the decline of the once great mining town. Closed loop cooling (ie a radiator) might be needed so Menindie only supplies top-up water, though not needing as much as 600 GL in reserve.

  2. Salient Green
    July 29th, 2008 at 09:52 | #2

    It appears to me that South Australia is doomed so I’d suggest blocking off the river at the NSW/SA border. Pension off the lot of us Crow Eaters and send us to Darwin or Cairns.

    That will leave NSW free to grow as much cotton as it wants and poison the waterways without fear of consequence. It can continue to grow rice to soak up the last drops in case they spill over the border. Growing high value fruit and vegies is too much like work anyway, and the tractors are small.

    Victoria can put in a few more pipelines to syphon water into Melbourne, enabling it to double in size. They can continue to graze cattle on irrigated pastures to soak up the last drops before NSW can get their greedy pumps into it.

    Queensland can grow Brisbane all the way to Proserpine and bring a few more Cubbie’s into existence to soak up the last few drops before they spill into NSW’s wetlands.

    May as well pension off everyone in Tassie while you’re at it, bar the forestry workers. Then all that water can be pumped to the Mainland where it can be used to grow even bigger cities.

  3. observa
    July 29th, 2008 at 10:11 | #3

    The gift of wall to wall Labor govts to finally sort this backyard environmental problem out and the results? We’re off to solve the problems of the world with an international ETS. What can you say?

  4. Salient Green
    July 29th, 2008 at 10:21 | #4

    I am an irrigator in the Murraylands of SA. I believe water should be released from the Menindee lakes for environmental purposes in the lower lakes and Coorong.

    I would also point out that there is more water in Cubbie station’s dams than there is in the Menindee lakes. 150GL is lost per annum from Cubbie’s dams by evaporation and they are only one example of many.

    The water held in large farm dams in the Darling basin is un-audited. This water is being hoarded at a time when it desperately needs to be shared.

    I think they could be accused of looting the river system of scarce supplies and the waste from these enormous, shallow, poorly engineered dams is obscene and a disgrace to all involved in bringing them into existence.

    You can’t buy back much water at the current market prices. Unless the Government can buy it back from said hoarders at the price they paid for it – bugger all – it would be better to re-habilitate large irrigation schemes, such a MIA, quick smart, and take the savings for the environment.

  5. O6
    July 29th, 2008 at 12:56 | #5

    I have heard that NSW irrigators have quietly been ‘given’ extra water keep Menindee storage below the limit at which some has to be released to downstream punters like S. Green. Does anyone know the truth of this rumour?

  6. O6
    July 29th, 2008 at 12:57 | #6

    Sorry, ‘to’ missing between ‘water’ and ‘keep’.

  7. Salient Green
    July 29th, 2008 at 14:04 | #7

    O6, I believe two smaller lakes in the Menindee system are full and rather than partially fill the larger lake and lose a lot of water to evap and seepage, it is being sent on.

    Lower Darling irrigators have 100% alloction this season.

  8. observa
    July 29th, 2008 at 15:23 | #8

    With record food and mineral prices isn’t it about time we talked about a quantum shift to a resource based tax system? I’ve said we should tax land use as a resource with nil for natural environment to a maxm for man-made cover. Perhaps artificially flooding natural land should incur the maximum rate here too.

  9. July 29th, 2008 at 15:53 | #9

    The Coorong, Lakes Alexandrina and Albert Ramsar Wetland has critical ecological significance and high conservation value. Failure by the Commonwealth Government to take immediate measures to protect it from further degradation is culpable neglect. Failure to have the region listed on the Montreux Record opens Australia and its leaders to justifiable international censure.

    Lake Alexandrina also provides a critically important function in maintaining the health of the River Murray itself. To advocate for the removal of the end of the system barrages and the accompanying destruction of the wetland is sheer folly. Destroy the Lower Lakes and you will see a progressive deterioration of the Murray. There is a vital symbiotic relationship between the two.

    Given the critically threatened state of the world renowned Coorong, Lakes Alexandrina and Albert Wetland, Hon Peter Garrett should ensure:
    1) its nomination by Australia for listing on the Montreux Record
    2) its listing under the Commonwealth Environmental Protection and Biological Diversity Act as a critically endangered ecological community.

  10. July 29th, 2008 at 16:03 | #10

    Please note correction of typo:
    2) its listing under the Commonwealth Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act as a critically endangered ecological community.

  11. pablo
    July 29th, 2008 at 17:53 | #11

    The NSW Agriculture Minister was interviewed on ABC Country Hour today and clearly indicated his support for NSW irrigators getting their current allocations. No surprises in that I suppose but I got the clear impression he in no way believes this current MDB drought is unusual, ie no evidence of climate change. There’s a strong clique of these denialists in the Iemma Government and this minister who also covers minerals is one of them.

  12. stockingrate
    July 29th, 2008 at 19:21 | #12

    Tax water rights annually to reflect the environmental externality and so free the desired amount of water. (or tax and then buy back) The whole nation is facing externality taxes on CO2 so why leave out water? Yes there is uncertainty for business – but that reflects the reality of uncertain rainfall/flows. Yes it impairs the water property right, but that is the nature of internalising externalities.

  13. melanie
    July 29th, 2008 at 20:31 | #13

    The idea of letting sea water into Lake Alexandrina when there is already so little water coming down the river that they have to dredge constantly to keep the river mouth from silting up entirely… Amusing.

  14. Silver
    July 30th, 2008 at 11:25 | #14

    I’d like Kevin to nationalise water.

  15. Ben
    July 30th, 2008 at 16:12 | #15

    I’m constantly amazed at the amount of disinformation and credulousness associated with this issue.

    For a start, if Cubbie station stopped diverting water tomorrow it would make SFA difference to the situation in South Australia. The Qld part of the Murray-Darling basin, the Condamine-Balonne catchment, contributes to less than 3 per cent of the total inflows of the basin. More importantly it is not even hydrologically connected to the Lower MD systems – the water that flows over the border into NSW all ends up in the Narran Lakes!

    SA’s problems stem from historical mismanagement of the their water resources due to their government handing out water entitlements without any consideration for what would be a sustainable take, especially during periods of low inflows.

    As for the Lower Murray, IMHO it’s reached the point of where ecological triage seriously needs to be considered. As hard as it would be on the local irrigators, it’s better to remove the barriers to let the sea back in to prevent an even bigger environmental catastrophe which would occur if those acid sulphate soils are exposed.

  16. Salient Green
    July 30th, 2008 at 17:44 | #16

    Ben, what a load of rubbish. The Condamine flows into the Balonne which joins the Barwon which then becomes the Darling which flows into the Murray. At least 50% of Cubbie’s 600GL would reach the lower lakes if left undiverted.

    SA’s problems stem from States upstream over-allocating. If you had bothered to read the link which John included in his “A tale of two lakes”, highlighted in red ‘a response to flow reductions’, you would have seen that where once SA received more than 13,000GL over the border, it now averages only a fraction of that.

    The lower lakes are historically an estuarine system, not a marine system. The Coorong is dying because the southern lagoon draws water down from the north by evaporation and when this replacement water is marine, as it has been for many years now, it gets concentrated and is now six times saltier than the sea.

    Close down Cubbie and many others, send their water down the Darling, dig a channel across from Lake Albert to the Coorong and an environmental disaster will be avoided wihout any tears from anyone who matters.

  17. rojo
    July 30th, 2008 at 18:34 | #17

    Cubbie(group) is holding about 200GL, and incidently has never been full to it’s 500 odd GL capacity.
    A quick perusal of the “State of the Darling” hydrological report will indicate that 75% of inflows do not reach the Murray under natural conditions, and that 40% of all water is lost between Bourke and Menindee alone. Cubbie water if released at realistic volumes would be most unlikely to reach the lakes even in winter, let alone have a meaningful impact.

    Fresh water from the Murray has not had an influence on the Coorong, it’s role it seems post-barrages is to keep the Mouth open. The Coorongs history has long been hypermarine.

    “dig a channel across from Lake Albert to the Coorong” why not from the Coorong to the sea? The Coorong has not been fresh, and I would venture that being the same saltiness as the sea would be better than 6x, except for the species adapted to hypersaline conditions.

    Melanie, the lakes are half a metre below sea level, the flow would instantly open the mouth. If 1GL/day supposedly keeps the mouth open, then the 400GL+ below sea level space should keep it open for a while.

    It’s incredible a natural system is to be orientated around something as unnatural as the barrages, when everything that is being spoken about with regards to the acid soils and Coorong is a direct result of a man-made structure.
    Apparently the solution is to store more water in man-made structures, to be released at man’s desire, to keep lakes at an increased man-made level. How amusing.

  18. Salient Green
    July 30th, 2008 at 21:32 | #18

    rojo, last I heard Cubbie filled its dams during the S Queensland floods early this year. If it currently holds only 200GL I would like to see your evidence.

    Your summary of a ‘quick perusal’ of the ‘State of the Darlingâ€? hydrological report is misleading. I have to thank you for drawing my attention to this document. A good read has trashed your case and our new senator Xenophon will find it very interesting.

    Your statement that fresh water has not had an influence on the Coorong is nonsense. Your description of the Coorong as ‘hypermarine’ is nonsense. The Coorong has always been exposed to estuarine conditions which is largely brackish water. The southern lagoon needs to be diluted, not turned fresh and not become the sea.

  19. observa
    July 31st, 2008 at 08:17 | #19

    I see some of the natives are getting restless-

    ‘ORGANISERS expect thousands of angry River Murray protesters to gather at Parliament House tomorrow to demand immediate action to save the river.

    The coalition of protest groups, including the Mannum Progress Association, wants protesters to wear yellow as it is the traditional colour representing hope that something loved can be saved.
    Spokeswoman Helen Griffiths said the 11.30am protest would target all politicians and make them responsible for the “environmental national catastrophe”.

    “Communities along the River Murray will join the whole state of South Australia and support from interstate and overseas to demand of our leaders a better deal and emergency plan for this Murray-Darling Basin and the Murray River now,” she said.

    “We need more accountability with urgent actions and results from our politicians.

    “If the Murray and basin die our politicians will be responsible for the poor management of this iconic national asset.”

    Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Water Minister Penny Wong, Premier Mike Rann and Water Security Minister Karlene Maywald have been invited to speak.

    “Future management of the Murray Darling Basin must be with an independent body responsible for developing a sustainable water-sharing regime and enforcing it,” Ms Griffiths said.’

    It would seem eminently logical to ask of wall to wall Labor Govts- If you reckon international cap and trade on CO2 is such a goer, what about water cap and trade in our own back yard experts?

  20. rojo
    August 1st, 2008 at 08:21 | #20

    salient, wanta bet?

    http://www.dwlbc.sa.gov.au/assets/files/USE_CoorongWQChangeDraftNov05.pdf

    A study by Uni of Adelaide no less. Basically there is not enough volume change in the Coorong to be anything other than hypersaline, it’s a big evaporation pond, moreso since South Australians diverted natural inflows from the east straight out to sea.

    Well last I heard Cubbie had captured 200GL, so how about you show me yours first. Cubbie needs very large floods to fill, the past flush was not one of those episodes. Many farm storages on the Darling did indeed fill, but not Cubbie.

    State of the Darling is a public document, I would be most unimpressed if Sen X was not aware of such documents already. He wouldn’t be talking half informed would he?
    It’s all quite well to tell me it’s misleading, but which part exactly. Either transmission losses are immense or they’re not, which is it?

  21. Chris O’Neill
    August 3rd, 2008 at 18:23 | #21

    May as well pension off everyone in Tassie while you’re at it, bar the forestry workers. Then all that water can be pumped to the Mainland where it can be used to grow even bigger cities.

    Growing even bigger cities is a silly idea of course but at least Tassie is not going to notice if someone gets some of its 99% of water that flows straight out to the sea without going through anything more than a hydro generator.

    Tassie has a lot of great quality water going into the ocean and sending some of it to Melbourne is a far better idea than brain-dead schemes like taking water from the Murray basin to supply Melbourne.

  22. observa
    August 7th, 2008 at 12:39 | #22
  23. melanie
    August 10th, 2008 at 20:58 | #23

    #17 Historically, the lakes were about a metre above sea level. The barrages were built when upstream irrigation reduced inflow to the lakes. When I was a kid I spent a lot of time in the Goolwa area and the barrages were very successful at keeping the water level well above SL. I’m talking about the 1960s.

    If they are now half a metre below sea level it can only be because of the lack of inflow down the river.

    Cubbie Station is only one small part of the problem (though some people here are reproducing data straight from their very own website). There are plenty of other irrigators in Queensland, NSW, Victoria and South Australia, all of them doing their bit to reduce the water reaching the estuary lakes.

    Ms Wong has obviously caved in to the vested interests upstream. What a tragedy!

  24. rojo
    August 16th, 2008 at 22:31 | #24

    23, no melanie, the lakes at 0.8m above sea level have caused serious bank erosion over the 70 years of barrage existance, although it’s just become the “norm” now.

    the coorong on the other hand, presumably due to prevailing winds, can achieve heights of one metre above sea level, completely independantly of the Murray.

    Absolutely agree, it is all about lack of inflow. Record low inflows to be exact. Don’t confuse it with extraction.

    Record low inflows would obviously mean less inflow than during the 60′s.

  25. David
    August 17th, 2008 at 19:03 | #25

    rojo, apparently another part of the Coorong’s problems are that the swamps and wetlands of the South East, which used to drain into it (ensuring a constant flow of fresh water northwards to the Murray mouth) have been drained (directly out to sea, at a guess) for agriculture.

  26. rojo
    August 18th, 2008 at 00:01 | #26

    David, yes thats true, though the SA govt were planning to put that right. In the scheme of things it isn’t a lot of water(I’m told 40GL), but I’d say it was important to that immediate end of the Coorong.

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