The Darling River fish kill is what comes from ignoring decades of science

That’s the headline for my latest piece in The Guardian. Final para

Events like the Menindee fish kill bring home the cost of treating the environment as a cultural battleground. The culture warriors’ policy amounts to listening to what scientists say we need to do, then doing the opposite. This is a guaranteed route to global disaster.

15 thoughts on “The Darling River fish kill is what comes from ignoring decades of science

  1. Much polemical discussion but it seems to me that you have not made the case that the fish deaths are due to culture wars issues. The question you have not considered is why were the Menindee Lakes left virtually dry? It seems they were drained to release water downstream for environmental purposes and because the managers feared evaporation losses. Maybe this was foolish or myopic policy – perhaps they should have kept water there in reserve lest a drought eventuate as it did – but the mistake (if it was a mistake, maybe they were needed downstream at the time) seems unrelated to culture wars issues. Were upstream allocations to farmers after the drought the reason that the Menindee Lakes were not replenished? My understanding is that these allocations were small and that, for example, over the past year, little cotton was planted.

    I agree these foolish culture wars attitudes might drive long-term inadequate allocations of water to the environment but it is unclear that this was the problem here. Indeed my understanding is that the Lakes were almost full prior to their being drained. They were then drained and not replenished mainly because of the drought rather than because of excessive allocations to farmers.

    But yes, quite frankly, not sure of my facts because there are various claims. I’d like to see a clear statement of what did happen here. It is important.

  2. The lakes were drained so as to have more water downstream by (notional) evaporation losses being reduced. That’s certainly true.
    The cotton farmers haven’t been taking water this season. That’s certainly true.
    But the reason the lakes were drained was so that the (notional) evaporation savings could be counted as meeting environmental water needs and so that cotton, and other irrigators, could get more of the upstream water when the lakes were draining. They got that increased water, with adjustment upward of their upstream entitlements and takes. That’s also, certainly, true (and publicly acknowledged, with skilful spin, by the head of the Murray Darling Basin Commission and by the Federal Minister, whose standard talking point in recent days is that the increased water availability upstream was agreed by ‘LaborntheGreens’).
    hc keeps asserting that the draining of the lakes was expected to be replenished, rains didn’t come, and hoocoodanode? I know of no statements suggesting that there was any near term expectation that the lakes would be replenished; and the consequences of draining the lakes were the very same kind of environmental harm that the whole Basin plan was meant to reverse, not implement.

  3. Anti-enviro at the beginning of the thread- no head.

    Still anti-enviro after reading all links and comments- no heart!

    People keep commenting having somehow STILL missed the oft=repeated point regarding science denialist land use and massive misallocation and theft of water over a period of years, involving naked graft.

    I dunno, write fifty times of the white board,

    “I must read others posts, not ignore inconvenient info and then double back down on original errors in the face of all info presented”

  4. @chishod. As I understand it the releases from Menindee were made to provide environmental water downstream – in particular to meet environmental demands particularly in SA. I didn’t claim that the expectation was that the lakes would refill but I assumed that, without drought, that would happen through normal streamflow. Hence I supposed that is what those doing the draining would have believed. But a drought occurred.

    But there is nothing in this view that suggests “culture wars” issues. Just mypoic or poor environmental management or pursuing one environmental objective in SA at the expense of the fish hatchery in Menindee.

    @ Paul Walter. Grow up.

  5. The fish kill has cut across the political army bargy generated by the SA Royal Commission into the MDB. It should be out soon and could prove to be a contentious document, the commissioner and his assistant did not suffer fools kindly.

  6. Culture wars suggests to me that politicians think that it is more important to prove to everyone who is right, instead of doing what is right for us all. To pull their heads in, and cooperate so we can get ourselves out of this mess. But now that I’ve just found out that Barnaby Joyce was the water minister, it all makes sense. We are so screwed. We should all leave now, on the boats, while we still can, and leave the politicians to die of dehydration like all the animals. People are sick.

  7. hc

    I agree with you, on the evidence available, that the recent fish kill can’t be directly attributable to culture war issues. But it’s not difficult to think conclude that the general indifferent-to-hostile attitude at the highest political levels to scientific analysis, embodied in beetrootish form in Barnaby Joyce (but not just him) contributed to the corner cutting, craven backdown to farmer interests, and a don’t-give-a-bugger culture by the regulators.

    Mind you, it’s not obvious that anything much will change if/when Labor wins government in a few months.

  8. The issue is both complex as environmental/biodiversity field always is, but also simple. Climate change scientists have long predicted that extreme weather events will be more frequent and more severe in the coming century. To make an environmental management plan which assumes climate variables (temperature & rainfall etc.) will be the same as what was in the past decades is simply ignoring climate science and disastrous consequences from “unforeseen weather circumstances” is bound to happen.

    While there may not be sufficient evidence to determine if it’s guilty beyond reasonable doubt that ignoring climate change was due to cultural war ideology or simply a mistake. It is certain that the latter is grossly negligent given how well known climate change is.

  9. Both ignorance and ideology are at play. By now, it should be mainstream that there is too much irrigation in Australia for economic and environmental reasons. There are numerous reasons for the current mess. It was always dubious that a long-term plan was the best way of correcting the mistakes of the past. The fraught political situation of the Rudd-Gillard years and the long-term marginalisation of central agencies from the water policy debate weakened the hand of the Commonwealth in curbing local enthusiasm for irrigation that drives the states. Also disappointing was the behaviour of the organised environmental movement that went along with the hydrological deception that substantial expenditure on irrigation infrastructure is justified for water saving, not to mention a public finance disgrace.

  10. According to Cotton Australia, the cotton industry “the Australian cotton crop is worth AUD $2 billion annually”. It’s not clear what this means, but it sounds like total sales at each stage of the production process, so there’s multiple counting of the same dollars. It’s a small industry. Cotton farms use 4.5 million litres of water per hectare per year, which is a helluva lot for a dry continent.

    Just shut down the industry and pay the farmers compensation. If it’s good enough to waive the car manufacturing industry farewell, it’s good enough for cotton. And the rice industry, another water gobbler, while we are it. Times have changed. There’s less water to go around and the environment needs it more. We can’t afford these National Party fantasies any longer.

  11. personal/political perceptions strike yet again.

    culture war issues? and grow up? sigh.

    (said it before: “The Call of the Reed Warbler.”)

  12. Do / did you run models like this please JQ?

    IMHO Mike Young of
    … has delivered the simple but not simplest option to fix this mess: Hands Off Flow water. Simple. Has anyone heard anyone else talking of HoF? (In 1993 Glyn Rimmington and I proposed a new “Land System Dynamics” Journal. Yes, LSD. Mike Young was onboard. Still a good name.)

    We are not quite at HoF rules I believe. If anyone knows I’d appreciate to see a post and ref.

    HoF is used in England. It is the criteria for ceasing extractions (callled abstractions) and is the minimum needed to keep rivers ‘healthy’. CSIRO already came up with numbers for this and from memory 6200Gl for “good” river and 3200Gl for base ok river. Of course ‘we’ chopped even the 3200 and a few releases here and there, a bit of harvesting and drought defeat any human intervention. Unless we prioritise HoF. I want HoF. Now and forever at 6200Gl please.

    All models equations and references in link below. And they “are checked offline prior to solving for each time step of the model.” An unusual method yet totally apropriate. Do we do this?

    “”3.2. Water Allocation
    “Hands-off Flow (HoF) rules are conditions on licenses that specify the minimum flow in the river below which the affected licenses must reduce or stop their abstractions [Environment Agency, 2012c]. The purpose of HoF rules is to ensure water availability for priority uses and to protect the environment during drought. Section 57 rules describe emergency provisions for managing spray irrigation licenses in case of drought. These provisions limit or prohibit abstractions for the purposes of spray irrigation to ensure public water supply needs are met [Environment Agency, 2012a].

    3.2.2. Modeling License Restrictions: Hands-Off Flows and Section 57

    If flow at a flow observation gauge is less than the minimum flow set by a HoF rule specified in the license, the abstractor is not allowed to divert water from the river or sell any part of the license.

    The above if-then conditions (equations (11)and (12)) are checked offline prior to solving for each time step of the model.””

    And again, does this apply in Australia to any power stations?

    “The power station’s license is affected by Hands-off Flow conditions defined with reference to gauge C (Figure 1). When the river flow at gauge C (shown in the Figures 5 and ​and6,6, bottom) is below Hands-off flow, the power station’s license is temporarily suspended, and this user satisfies its water demand by buying from the public water supply company.”

    Water Resour Res. 2014 Jun; 50(6): 4726–4745.
    Published online 2014 Jun 6. doi: 10.1002/2013WR014493
    Simulating water markets with transaction costs

    Judging by UK govt they also are not keen on telling anyone this as the HoF are “Availability: Not Released”! The above serves well to detail modelling and HoF.

    “”Hands off Flow Surface Water Abstractions
    Availability: Not released (sound familiar! )
    Last updated:19 December 2013
    “Hands off Flow Surface Water Abstractions consists of surface water abstractions with Hand off Flow conditions. This means abstractions have to stop when the river flow falls below a particular flow.”

  13. Pr Q said:

    In part, this is the usual story of powerful financial interests triumphing over the public good. Irrigation lobbyists benefit from a larger irrigation sector, whether or not individual irrigators are doing well. And some large irrigators have benefited greatly from cheap water and publicly subsidised infrastructure investment.

    The crucial factor, however, is the continuous culture war in which Joyce and Littleproud are on the frontline, along with the majority of LNP MPs and virtually all of the rightwing intelligentsia. Among the perceived enemies of the culture warriors are environmentalists and scientists, correctly seen as largely overlapping groups. So, in rejecting scientific evidence as a basis for water policy, Barnaby Joyce made it clear that his primary concern was to “make sure we don’t have the greenies running the show”.

    Events like the Menindee fish kill bring home the cost of treating the environment as a cultural battleground. The culture warriors’ policy amounts to listening to what scientists say we need to do, then doing the opposite. This is a guaranteed route to global disaster.

    The so-called “conservatives” in the LN/P Right-wing have disgraced themselves for politicising the Climate War, pulling off the the unholy trifecta of denying hard-headed natural science from its own advisors, traducing its managerial reputation in its blue ribbon heartland and despoiling the natural ecology at national and global scales.

    All for the sake of holding an indefensible line in the Class War, to hustle campaign dollars from the Greenhouse Mafia donor elite.  Whilst launching a diversionary attack in the Culture War, to disingenuously whip up cheap political support in their populist voter base.  This historic betrayal, and not the furphy of a merger with thw National party, will likely hasten “the last Liberal” government.

    The polling and trolling evidence shows that most Right-wing Culture Warriors have foolishly let themselves be suckered by lining up with Right-wing Climate Warriors. Martin Hultman, professor at Chalmers university and author of a study “Why don’t we take climate change seriously? A study of climate change denial”, concluded:

    ”Two strong groups have joined forces on this issue – the extractive industry, and right-wing nationalists. The combination has taken the current debate to a much more dramatic level than previously, at the same time as our window of opportunity is disappearing.”

    This development drives me up the wall because there is no intrinsic connection between Right-wing Culture Warriors who want to conserve cultural identity and Right-wing Climate Warriors who are content to destroy natural sustainability.  Apart from both being Right-wing, which implies prioritising politics (who is at the helm) over policy (the bearings of the ship).

    Culture Warriors, going back to the 19th century, were on the side of scientific conservatism.  They have the science of fixed human nature (Darwin) and a functional social structure (Durkheim) on their side.  The science of the 21st century, including the vast bulk of empirical evidence flooding in from life sciences (GWAS, neurobiology and psychometry), supports the conservative arguments on race and gender.

    Moreover, early modern conservatives had a consistent record of conserving both their cultural traditions and natural resources.  The paradigmatic example being Teddy Rooseveldt who supported both restrictions on culturally diverse immigration and the establishment of the US’s magnificent network of national parks.

    There are hopeful signs that the Alt-Right embraces the scientific consensus on climate change. Philip Santoro, writting in the Alt-Right journal American Renaissance urged ethno-conservatives to join forces with eco-conservatives:

    Environmentalism should likewise be embraced as a conservative, nationalist, populist cause…Preserving the beauty of the land is not an inherently liberal cause. The health of the environment is closer to conservative and nationalist Republicans than to liberal Democrats… Trump Republicans should embrace environmentalism, not only to broaden the voter base, but because it is good, nationalist and conservative policy.

    It shouldn’t be a hard sell, either. There is a nationalist-conservative tradition of men like Theodore Roosevelt, who thought overhunting would despoil the land. Today, overdevelopment and pollution are the major threats. Our natural commons needs stewardship; it needs future-oriented management to ensure it will still be there for our descendants.

    Left-environmentalism also opposes nuclear power even though it is probably one of the greenest alternatives we have that isn’t dependent on favorable weather. Nuclear plants produce essentially no greenhouse gas, and nuclear power is a more efficient than burning fossil fuels. Its only major drawbacks are waste management and security—but the power grid should be secure anyway.

    Of course most Left-wing environmentalists would rather let the planet die than share a platform with Right-wing environmentalists. Hopefully the Greens disastrous lock on environmental politics can be broken in time.

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