The once-mighty Murray River Mar 29, 2008 13:21:26 GMT -5
Post by Flash on Mar 29, 2008 13:21:26 GMT -5
ONCE the farmers and townsfolk in Queensland, NSW and Victoria have finished dipping into it, this is what becomes of the once-mighty Murray River as it trickles across the parched expanse of South Australia to the sea.
The nation's most important waterway is dying from the mouth up.
And despite long-overdue action this week by the nation's political leaders to kick-start a $10billion bid to rescue the ailing river system, is it too late to save the Murray?
In the late summer of 2001, when The Weekend Australian kicked off its Saving the Murray campaign by visiting Big Bend, 234km upstream of its now mud- and sand-choked entrance to the Southern Ocean, the river flowed proud and strong. People would ski and fish in the lagoon at nearby Walker Flat, on one of the Murray's most picturesque reaches.
Today, the waterhole is virtually dry. Lifeless gum trees stand like sun-scorched toothpicks on its banks, where the water used to be waist-deep. "I walked out the other day with waders into a metre of mud," said David le Brun, who operates night tours for visitors to Big Bend.
"For the people on the river, who live on it, it is devastating."
The crisis on the Murray reaches across state borders, blurring the traditional fault lines in Australian politics between Canberra and the states.
At the end of the line in South Australia, they blame those upstream for taking more than their fair share of the water that runs down rivers such as the Barwon, in northern NSW, into the Darling, then on to the Murray.
But Joanne Grainger, who runs a livestock and farming operation based at Mungindi, just south of the Queensland border, appealed for understanding. This year, she and husband John were denied a sufficient water allocation to irrigate their preferred crop of cotton. They were forced to plant sorghum instead.
"I can appreciate the situation people are in downstream," Ms Grainger said. "But the Murray-Darling is a system that needs to be managed as a whole ... and I guess we need a little bit of understanding on all sides."
The crisis in the Murray's stricken lower reaches intensifies as the river approaches the sea. Between Mannum and Murray Bridge, 115km upstream of the mouth, the channel narrows to a ribbon of coffee-coloured water, framed by baking mud flats. By the time it reaches Mike South's cattle property at Point Sturt, where what remains of Lake Alexandrina has fallen below the surface level of the nearby sea, the water is too salty for stock to tolerate. Mr South won't even use it on his olive trees.
The effort to rescue the Murray was revived when Victoria finally signed up to a federal takeover of the river system's management -- albeit after Premier John Brumby extracted concessions worth nearly $1 billion at Wednesday's Council of Australian Governments meeting with Kevin Rudd and the other premiers.
While any action was welcomed by Mr South and those at the sharp end of the ecological crisis on the Murray, they wonder when they will experience the benefits of the $10 billion first promised by former prime minister John Howard.
"I'm disappointed it has taken so long to get to an agreement," Mr South said yesterday. "I'm also disappointed it will take three years until they develop their plan, but what can you expect from public servants?"
One of the nation's leading water experts, Mike Young, of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, painted a grim picture for the Murray.
The detail of the memorandum of understanding signed on Wednesday by Mr Rudd and the premiers of the Murray-Darling states -- Queensland, NSW, Victoria, South Australia and the ACT -- reveals government action will take years to eventuate.
That is time the lower Murray might not have, Professor Young warns. He is concerned the as-yet-unspecified cap on water extracted from the river system for irrigation will not become fully operative for more than a decade.
The states' existing water resource plans will also remain in place until they expire in 2012 in the case of South Australia, 2014 in NSW and Queensland and 2019 in Victoria
"The river has to be fixed, but it has got to be fast and done properly," Professor Young said.
"The agreement is not going to do that. We will remain in continuous crisis until we can put a sustainable regime at the top."
He said the only chance for the river, apart from drought-breaking rain in its southern catchments, was for the Rudd Government to immediately start buying back water entitlements.
While the federal Government is already committed to spending $50 million on buying back irrigated water allocations for the Murray, that was only a fraction of what was required to make a difference in the river's lower reaches, which are effectively empty, Professor Young said.
Andrew Chapman, who operates a marina on Hindmarsh Island near the river mouth, said the nation had to come to terms with how extreme the crisis was.
"I think it is hard for people in Sydney and Melbourne to understand just how little water is left at this end of the river," Mr Chapman said. "It's absolutely devastating. We're very supportive and appreciative of all the efforts of the ministers and people involved, and we just need to see this brought to fruition overnight, not long term."
Sally Grundy, whose cattle property on Mundoo Island is the last on the Murray before it empties into the sea, said too much time had been wasted.
"We're the first to be affected and will be the last to be remedied," she said.
- Additional reporting: Pia Akerman, Andrew Faulkner