Would the Murray-Darling Basin survive another Millennium drought?


Rivers flow, but they also recede — from our minds and from our memories.

Key points:

  • More than 10 years have passed since crucial rainfalls broke the Millennium drought
  • Despite various compromises between competing interests, water policy remains contentious
  • A prominent water scientist is warning that, despite the current calm, the Murray-Darling Basin is alarmingly underprepared for another major drought

In his cycle of poems Four Quartets, the Nobel laureate TS Eliot noted that, once bridged, rivers are "almost forgotten by the dwellers in cities".

But Eliot also described the world's murky major waterways as "brown god(s)", which possess the power to control human fortunes.

Rivers, Eliot argued, lurk in the collective consciousness like snags just beneath the surface, "watching and waiting".

Of all the great river systems, the Murray-Darling Basin arguably provides the most striking vindication of Eliot's insight.

Just over a decade ago, tensions over water reached boiling point, and the Murray-Darling Basin was frequently front-page news.

The major flashpoint was the so-called Millennium drought, which, as early as 2003, was being described as Australia's worst drought on record.

The Millennium drought didn't just expose river beds — it also exposed deep tensions between environmental and economic sustainability.

Draft copies of the Basin Plan — the vexed compromise that was brokered in an attempt to balance those interests — were burned in Griffith by farmers who were fearful of the impact that cuts to irrigation would have on their livelihoods.

Irrigators burned copies of an early Basin Plan draft in protest, in Griffith in 2010.(AAP: Gabrielle Dunlevy)

Downstream, dire warnings about "massive fish kills" in South Australia's Lower Lakes were accompanied by surging hypersalinity and photos of turtles with shells covered in tubeworm.

But when the drought finally broke around 2010, the river system slowly retreated into the backwaters of public debate, "almost forgotten by the dwellers in cities".

"In academic circles we call this the 'hydro-illogical cycle'," said Australian National University water ecologist Jamie Pittock.

"Society and, in particular, our government leaders only pay heed to good natural resource management when there's a drought. When it rains, the political pressure to better manage water fades."

An aerial view of the Murray River at Renmark, with farm blocks clearly visible.(Flickr: Michael Storer)

In recent years, Professor Pittock has emerged as one of the most trenchant critics of the status quo, and believes the dilemmas of a decade ago remain unresolved.

"We were told that the Basin Plan was like the magic pudding, that we could all have our slice of water and it would all magically regenerate, and we could have our environment as well," he said.

"Sadly that's just not the case. We have to make some very deliberate choices between which social and economic values we can sustain, and also which environmental values we can sustain."

Another Millennium drought 'inevitable'

Despite the refocusing of public attention, the 10 years that followed the end of the drought were not a time of smooth sailing.

Instead, they brought further shocks to the basin.

In December 2018, a mass fish kill in the Darling River captured global media attention.

Two similar incidents followed in January 2019, and later that year the Bureau of Meteorology reported that the basin was in the grip of its "most severe" two-to-three-year dry spell "in 120 years of records".

Unlike the Millennium drought, this truncated sequel was most acutely felt across the basin's northern reaches.

"As the recent drought, from 2018 to 2020, showed — we haven't really learned the lessons from the Millennium drought," Professor Pittock said.

"It's appalling that so many towns in the Murray-Darling Basin ran out of potable water."

Thousands of dead fish surfaced in the Darling River in January 2019.(Facebook: Debbie Newitt)

The creation of the $13 billion Basin Plan was, among other things, intended to provide an overarching framework for water policy that operated across state borders — but that policy can still seem breathtakingly confusing.

Last year, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan's on-farm Water Efficiency Program was axed, meaning no more water would be taken from farms to be returned to the environment.

At the time, the federal water minister said it had been a failure, and that the government would instead direct funds towards off-farm water efficiency upgrades.

In October, water-saving projects in New South Wales received a $330 million Commonwealth cash injection.

Professor Pittock is among the most trenchant critics of current Murray-Darling policy.(ABC Canberra: Michael Black)

Regardless of these projects, Professor Pittock believes that the health of the river system will remain precarious for at least as long as the effects of climate change go unchecked.

"Unfortunately for us, the Murray-Darling Basin is in the difficult mid-latitudes that are heavily impacted by climate change," he said.

"A hotter atmosphere pushes the rain-bearing winter storms further south — in our case into the Southern Ocean.

"A drought of the scale of the Millennium drought is inevitable in the future.

"If we can't stop the rise in greenhouse gas pollution, and stop the heating of the basin, then we're going to end up with less and less water as the years roll by."

Murray-Darling 'nowhere near ready' for water shortfall

The most recent evidence would tend to suggest that the Murray-Darling Basin is still staring down the barrel of major challenges.

Research published in November 2020, and authored by scientists including Professor Pittock, revealed that the majority of environmental water redirected from irrigators under the Basin Plan has not flowed to its intended wetland targets.

"The governments promised to cap water extractions so that the available water could be managed to meet society's highest priorities, but a number … have not done that," he said.

"Farmers in the northern basin have been largely unregulated in capturing so-called floodplain flows, and that's contributed to the major fish kills we saw in the Darling River a few years ago.

"We simply can't keep alive the 6.3 million hectares of wetland that exists in the basin with the water that's available."

The Murray-Darling Basin is much more than the Murray and Darling rivers, and stretches across southern and eastern Australia.(Supplied: Murray Darling Basin Authority)

Available water is itself something that has been subject to decline — data from the CSIRO revealed a huge fall in inflows across the Murray-Darling Basin in the past 20 years.

Another report, published in August, found that climate change since the 1990s had drastically reduced the amount of water available in the southern part of the system.

"The horrible thing in Australia is if rainfall on average drops 10 per cent, then the amount of water that's available for use drops by about 70 per cent," said Mike Young, the research chair in water and environmental policy at the University of Adelaide.

Professor Young said the basin was "nowhere near ready to deal with" a drop on that scale.

"These sorts of things need to be part of the architecture — we have to improve the structure and we have to improve the basic strategy and then get down to tactics," he said.

The basin is a crucial resource for many of the nation's irrigators.(ABC Rural)

For irrigators like Caren Martin, however, what can get lost in debates like these is the human factor.

The Murray-Darling Basin is not merely an ecosystem — it is a resource, and a vital one for the immense agricultural interests it sustains.

Ms Martin is the chairperson of the South Australian Murray Irrigators group, and also runs an almond and dryland farming property in the state's Riverland.

She and her family are among the thousands of people across southern and eastern Australia who depend on the river system for their livelihoods.

"Water policy, for decades now, has respected the fact that everyone has a right to earn a living, that critical human needs are important," she said.

"The Millennium drought caught people — water managers, governments, etc — off guard, and we wasted a lot of our water use at the front end of that.

"We could have conserved it longer had we anticipated such a thing, but I don't think we anticipated it to go on as long as it did, and that caught us out at the back end of it."

'Different lead-in to dire straits'

Ms Martin is a backer of both the Basin Plan and the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder — the federal agency that, in her words, gives the environment a "legitimate voice" and is responsible for the management of water entitlements.

The current compromises might not be perfect, but Ms Martin believes they are immeasurably preferable to the uncertainties that preceded them.

Caren Martin represents South Australia's Murray irrigators, and is also a Riverland almond farmer.(ABC Riverland: Jessica Schremmer )

"The drought forced a lot of policy changes and they included the environment being [recognised] as a legitimate licence holder in its own right," she said.

"We've got this extra federal environment custodian in there, which takes a lot of heat out of the argument."

For the time being, at least, Ms Martin believes there is time to prepare for the next dry spell, and she says that even "if it absolutely stopped raining tomorrow", water storage depletion might take as long as three to four years.

"We're in a wet cycle at the moment and the system's well and truly primed and full of water. Storages are full, channels are full," she said.

"It'll be a long time coming now before we hit a terrible drought sequence like we saw in the Millennium drought."

But that sanguine outlook is not an expression of over-confidence.

The Murray Mouth at the southern end of the basin is currently a picture of good health.(ABC News: Alice Dempster)

Ms Martin, like Professor Pittock, is acutely aware of the fact that parched years will return at some point, and she acknowledges that the Basin has not yet "had the opportunity" to put all of the water conservation measures to the test.

"It could get quite scary at that point, where people are starting to compete for a diminishing resource," she said.

"But what's beautiful is that you have the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder who will be getting the same cuts as us, so if we're only getting a 30 per cent yield from our entitlement, that's all they'll be getting as well.

"There's no you'll-be-getting-more-than-me-type argument. We'll be on an equal footing.

"It will be a very different lead-in to dire straits."

Master, servant, god or king?

There are many glorious vantage points along the Murray-Darling Basin, but among the most stunning is the Big Bend, south of Swan Reach in South Australia.

In afternoon sunlight, the ochre cliffs look almost burnished, as if they were the walls of a ruined hall of a long-departed emperor, or the riparian remains of an antipodean Valhalla.

The sublime setting features in the opening sequence of the television series The River Kings, set just after World War I and aired on the ABC in the 1990s.

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It is at places like the Big Bend that the river's human and non-human dimensions seem to collide, and the question naturally arises: are we the river's rulers, or are we its caretakers?

In one of the novels upon which the The River Kings series was based, author Max Fatchen pondered this question, and reflected on the power of flowing water to bewitch.

Unlike TS Eliot, who wrote of rivers as deities, Fatchen described the Murray not as a god but as a monarch.

"It does what it likes with us. We come to it, cap in hand. We go against it, and it puts us on a sandbank," one of the characters, a canny old paddleboat skipper, tells his budding underling.

"When I stand at the wheel, I feel like a king. This is our kingdom, lad: the river. Sometimes I even think the old river is a king itself and we're just its poor subjects.

"We're all kings together, you and me and the river."

This 2014 photo captures spectacular cliffs of the Big Bend along the SA section of the Murray.(Facebook: Nicko Djeric)

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news



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