Touring the Murray

A few weeks ago, following the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society conference in Adelaide I drove with my Risk and Sustainable Management Group colleagues David Adamson and Sarah Chambers to Melbourne, going by way of the Murray River. David and Sarah had been to the Coorong in a pre-conference tour and on our trip together we managed to visit all the remaining ‘icon’ sites – these are the sites that are supposed to best represent the environmental values of the Basin.

There was quite a striking pattern, though not so surprising given the way water allocation works in the Australian federal system. The South Australian (downstream) sites, the Coorong and Chowilla, were much drier than would be expected under normal conditions, even allowing for a long drought. Things were much better in the Victorian (upstream) sites (Hattah Lakes, Gunbower Forest and the Barmah-Millewa). The Murray channel itself, which is the sixth icon site, shows the same pattern. There’s a problem with the icon sites approach – they are supposed to be representative indicators, but the temptation is to throw a lot of resources at the icon sites, and ignore everything else.

There are some reasons for optimism though. Most obviously, it’s been raining an awful lot in Queensland since our return, and some of that water is bound to make its way down the Darling and on to South Australia (we’re now trying to estimate how much). There’s also a major project going on at Chowilla to ensure that at least some of the floodplain there can actually get flooded from time to time. And, with the drought at least partly broken, the Rudd government’s policy of buying back water rights from holders willing to sell looks as if it will pay off. Hopefully, this will mean an end to some of the sillier engineering projects on the table, which will save only small amounts of water at very high cost.

There’s a set of pictures from the trip at my Flicker site

A few scattered observations:

* Even a modest tourism cash flow can make a big difference to the viability of a farm operation, particularly if the location is too far from town to make off-farm employment an attractive option

* When we planned the trip, we intended to focus on meetings with SA and Victorian irrigator groups, including some of we’ve worked with in the past. But the logistics and timing didn’t work out for that. So, we’ll go back next year and plan further in advance

* If you know any of us in RSMG, you’ll know that finding good coffee is an essential feature of a good trip. Northwestern Victoria looked potentially challenging, but I’m pleased to report that you can get excellent coffee in Manangatang. The cafe attached to the hotel also had a very appealing looking lunch menu, but not available on Sundays unfortunately. Swan Hill also has a nice cafe/ice-creamery

9 thoughts on “Touring the Murray

  1. It’s good to get a physical perspective on the Murray. As a youth I paddled a canoe and sailed dinghies on the Coorong and lakes. Later while living in the ACT I tramped the headwaters of the Indi and Murrumbidgee. A problem I have with the current flood event is whether it represents future ‘average’ behaviour of the system. While it may not refill the dried out sections there could be several years of carryover effect whereby moderate flows of upstream water get to the mouth. However I think a big dry will inevitably come back even under reduced upstream irrigation.

    My hunch is that a decade from now the correct decision in retrospect will be to have abandoned the lower lakes. Saltwater should be allowed to penetrate all the way to a weir across the lower Murray marking the end of the fresh water. Pay out those affected. Those like the Greens who want the system put on permanent life support are committing us to unjustified expense and false hopes.

  2. The intermediate option (but also in some sense the Greenest) is to return the lakes to their status before the construction of the barrages – mostly freshwater but with occasional inflows from the sea. I don’t know too much about the technicalities of this.

  3. I’ve bookmarked your link shopa. Recognising that you are likely an internet-bot of some sort.

    Great stuff Professor. Being as you’ve done work in problems with water allocation and so forth. This may wind up being a bigger deal than the flat oil production. These fresh water problems. No matter how theoretically sound folks are, I think people need to actually go there. See the river. Walk around and all that.

  4. John, the only way the Lakes could be returned to mostly freshwater with occasional salt inflows would be for 12,000 GL to flow into SA annually as it once did.

    Hermit wouldn’t like that at all as even the cost of the 1,500 GL being asked for the Lower Lakes and Coorong is too much cost to bear apparently.

    Given that in normal years NSW takes 8,000 GL and VIC takes 4,000 GL, much of it for low value/ML crops and much of it wasted to inefficient irrigation practice and evaporation from shallow farm dams, you would think that 1,500 GL wouldn’t be so hard to find.

    Tightening up on all these poor practices would probably lead to a lowering of costs due to the higher productivity. Growing cotton on centre pivot produces higher returns from less water than flood irrigation. I am an SA irrigator and the wetlands in the MDB have not had a fair go.

    Another thing for Hermit to consider, try to imagine the fish, frog and turtle kill by flooding the lakes with sea water while blocking off the exit with a weir, assuming all freshwater species could find the exit. What about all the birds and animals living and/or breeding in the fresh environment? How would you like the hundreds of tonnes of dead or starving creatures on your doorstep?

  5. We need to remember the barrages at the end of the Murray are not natural. If they hadn’t been built I’m not sure what the present drainage system would be. Another factor is that sea level rise at the Murray mouth (I presume ~3mm a year) will eventually overwhelm those barrages. Thus the lakes and channels are to some extent already unnatural and will require more structure building in the future. I understand freshwater barrier concept is already in place to some extent through the 110 km Tailem Bend to Langhorne Ck pipeline which takes water to the salinity affected areas. A permanent downstream weir and opening of the sea water barriers is an extension of that concept. Upstream irrigation is going to have to be vastly more efficient anyway when we get the 36m population the PM wants.

  6. Hermit, of course the barrages are not natural. I don’t know why you are stating the obvious. They were built to keep the lower Murray close to it’s natural state – fresh water – in response to diminished flows caused by large irrigation works in the eastern states. Without the barrages the Murray would be a saline estuary up to Blanchetown 274 km from the mouth!

    The barrages are high enough to keep out the sea for another 200 years at that rate of sea level rise and if we haven’t controlled global warming by then there will not be a lot of people around to worry about them.

    No sensible person wanted to build a weir at Tailem and flood the lakes with seawater. It was always only a very last stand against the drought and over allocation upstream. The weir was never going to be permanent either, being planned only as a dirt barrier which could be removed when river flows improved.

    The PM will not get the 36 million he wants. He was an idiot for wanting it and is an idiot for now treating it as inevitable.

  7. “Scientists unite over rivers management”
    THIRTY-THREE of Australia’s top scientists have formed a united front over reform of the Murray-Darling river system, calling for environmental outcomes to be given priority in the imminent ”basin plan”

    Most irrigators will squawk at this but it must be done this way.

    And this, a little history of the lakes from being fresh water to becoming saline due to reduced flows.

  8. Hi John

    I was looking for your email to send this to, but couldn’t find it. So sorry if this is a little off topic.

    I’m not sure if you’ve seen Bill Gates speech at TED on reducing global warming. I think you’d really like it. Anyway, here’s the link…

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