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Climate change and the Murray Darling Basin

September 22nd, 2008

I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate on the future of the planet for the last week or so, what with the nationalisation of vast segments of the financial sector, the disappearance of all four remaining US investment banks, the trillion dollar bailout and so on. But I’m going to be presenting a lecture for UQ research week on Wednesday night, entitled “Climate Change and the Murray Darling Basin”. The news isn’t good but there is still some hope if we act swiftly and sensibly. Perhaps the other speaker will have something more solidly positive to tell us. He’s Professor Paul Burn Federation Fellow, School of Molecular & Microbial Sciences talking on ‘Can Light Solve the Energy Crisis?’

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  1. September 23rd, 2008 at 07:29 | #1

    resource exhaustion, global warming, financial earthquakes, plus the usual military adventures. it turns out history didn’t end after all, ’cause we’re making it faster than ever.

    well, not me, i’m not in parliament. the saving grace of serfdom is, when our betters muck up the planet, we can just shrug our shoulders and say, with bart, “i didn’t do it.”

    cold comfort.

  2. MH
    September 23rd, 2008 at 08:30 | #2

    The only thing that will save the Murray Darling Basin as we used to know it is a season of really good cyclones in the North, they have been curiously missing for some many years now in the North. Well understood by long time land holders in SW QLD from the Gulf down that without that weather pattern no useful water arrives anywhere. Curious feature of current alterations in weather patterns is the lack of large and powerful cyclones in Northern Australia. Buy back all the water licenses you like the inflows will remain pathetic,

  3. Hermit
    September 23rd, 2008 at 09:15 | #3

    Water buyouts seem to be going the same way as tree planting; good intentions but questionable in the big picture. The latest round of financial packages for small acre irrigators seems really aimed at helping them retire gracefully, not freeing up huge volumes of water. Why should mid-section water users be phased out and not say the few struggling dairy farmers on the lower lakes? In other words the last 100km of the river system gets more protection than hundreds of kilometres upstream. Another blind spot is that everybody applauds water buyouts but can’t say how the food production will be made up.

  4. Father Mercy
    September 23rd, 2008 at 09:24 | #4

    The most obvious solution to revive the Murray Darling Basin is to buy another fleet of patrol boats for Indonesia. Why spend Australian taxpayers’ dollars on our own problems?

  5. Nick
    September 23rd, 2008 at 10:16 | #5

    MH @ 2, what the Murray-Darling really needs is the Murray to start pulling its weight; rain events in the last year in the Qld part of the Darling catchment have produced good flows into NSW. However, because of its long traverse of very dry country,the Darling has historically been the erratic contributor to flows into SA, and the Murray has been the ‘reliable’one- typically, the Murray above Albury has provided a third or more of the average flow. Of course,it’s probably providing that third and more now, but off a much reduced rainfall base,with more than a decade of low Autumn rainfalls exacerbated by other erratic seasons. The Murray hasn’t flooded below Euston since 1996…even the 1938-46 drought was punctuated by a couple of floods. Base flows in the Murray system are very low and it will take several years of consistently above average cross-seasonal rainfall to turn this around. Meanwhile, cyclone seasons have been quite active lately and the monsoon season falls more often than not above average.

  6. O6
    September 23rd, 2008 at 10:19 | #6

    Hermit, food production may be ‘made up’ in the short term by yield increases through better breeding, further intensification etc., but in the medium to long term it cannot be increased by our current unsustainable farming practices, based on quarrying the land with machines powered by fossil fuels. Phasing out lower lakes dairying makes sense, but so does an end to inefficient, salinity-inducing harvesting of the headwaters in Qld. Adelaide needs recycling of water, not fossil-fuelled desalination of seawater, let alone more MD pumping. We’re going backwards fast.

  7. September 23rd, 2008 at 14:03 | #7

    I remember a story years ago where visiting European farmers were aghast at how our farmers wasted the country’s water with over irrigation and inefficent practises. Not being an expert myself I can only ask has anything changed?
    There does seem to be a culture of arguing the cheapest method and unless you have fertiliser running through your veins how dare you question them.

  8. MH
    September 23rd, 2008 at 16:58 | #8

    Nick, interesting point, there are of course a number of rivers that feed the main river system at different points. I live in the upper reaches of the catchment that eventually feeds the Barwon. I have an opinion based on simple observation that the cyclones in the north fed the upper reaches of QLD and Northern NSW just as they did the central and southern parts of Australia late in the season (remember the days of non stop rain about Easter when the last remnants of cyclonic activity were swept up with the movement of pressure systems across the continent). I may be entirely wrong but having flown in Northern Australia for several decades I have observed that the cyclones spin up quick and spin down just as quickly, they lack mass and are more wind than rain. I have absolutely no idea why this is so and why high pressure systems in southern Australia no longer deliver many days of constant soaking rain and drizzle but they do not, something for the climate scientists to figure out. Before I stopped flying I notice very odd atmospheric lapse rates here and there like flying into pools of turbulent trapped air with lots of heat but no moisture and that you could traverse miles of cloud without moisture beading on the windscreen anymore, dry clouds dry air, I know not why. Something significant has shifted,

    As for the Murray Darling it is time to give up the long held dream of irrigated inland farming without this happening the river is stuffed. We gave it our best shot and did not work, time to live with that reality.

  9. pablo
    September 23rd, 2008 at 17:55 | #9

    Re: Toady. As an ex-Riverina ‘farmer’ in the early 1990′s we paid the Dept of Water Resources $400 odd perannum to ‘flood irrigate’ our pastures. You would open the pvc pipes connecting you to the adjacent channel and within a day your lot was a couple of inches under water. It seemed so simple. But rice farmers were concerned about ‘pugging’ and restricted to only growing on one fifth of their acreage each year ie rotating the pugging of mud. Waterlogging was a problem with the resulting rise in saline groundwater. It was enough to get me to change careers.
    I was hopeful that advances like drip irrigation would have taken over since then but apparently there is still plenty of citrus still being irrigated by old methods. These trogs should probably be the first shown the door IMHO.

  10. Salient Green
    September 23rd, 2008 at 18:54 | #10

    Toady and pablo, the most inefficient irrigation practice is flood irrigation using open, dirt bottomed channels fed from huge, shallow evaporation basins called ‘dams’. Most of Australia’s rice, cotton and irrigated pastures employ these wasteful practices or variations of, and generally nothing much has changed because they have access to cheap water.

    I would be surprised if any tree crops are still grown by these methods but even if they are, would still return many more dollars per ML than previously mentioned crops. In my experience, mature citrus does better with micro sprinklers.

    There is a culture in Australia that any water that floods beyond a river’s banks, or flows into wetlands, or flows over borders, or flows out to sea, is wasted water. Those that believe this are the real ‘trogs’.

  11. spangled drongo
    September 25th, 2008 at 14:57 | #11

    MH,
    Interesting observations. The far western rivers that flow into Lake Eyre often flood with the Arafura cyclones but the cyclones that used to cross the Qld coast south of the Tropic of Capricorn did what you said ie flooded the Murray. And prior to 1976 this happened sometimes several times a year.
    Strangely, not a cyclone has done that since 1976.
    This has no correlation with ACO2, it’s simply a cycle.
    The Murray has still flooded in spite of this but SEQ cyclones are the icing on the “cake”.

  12. Charlie Bell
    September 25th, 2008 at 15:05 | #12

    In response to point 8. The scientists have been doing something and it is written about in the June-July 2008 ECOS.

    In Brief, there has been a reduction in rainfall in SE Australia that correlates with Indian Ocean warming and a shift to more frequent El Nino events and less frequent La Nina events. The article says these are likely “imprints of climate change influences”.

    “Since 1950 Victoria has suffered a 40 percent decline in Autumn rainfall”

    “In south-west Western Australia the trend is strongest in winter; and in southern Queensland strongest in summer.”

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