The increasing likelihood that Australia will soon return to drought conditions as a result of an ever strengthening El Nino pattern makes me wonder how the River Murray will be impacted over coming years. I remember clearly the depressing appearance of Goolwa channel and Murray Mouth at the height of the “Millennium drought” (1995 to early 2009), the worst recorded since European settlement. Exposed sand bars, brittle riparian vegetation and a distinct lack of vibrancy in the surrounding landscape contrasted starkly with my childhood memories of what seemed back then to be an aquatic paradise.
Just as clearly I remember how the river and landscape responded when the Queensland floods of February 2009 sent the first of 3.25 million megalitres of freshwater through northern catchments and the Simpson Desert into Lake Eyre. In stark contrast to the previous decades, the iconic lake filled completely for 3 consecutive years. Our wettest ever spring on record in 2010 combined to push life back into the lower reaches of the River Murray and the Goolwa Lakes responded with a fresh flush of vibrant green growth from wetlands after receiving their first drink of fresh upstream water in years. Dam levels rose, waterways and levies flooded, restrictions were ease and many forgot about the pain of prolonged drought experienced such a short time ago.
During the drought, a response coined the “10 point national plan for water security” was created by the Howard government from which the Murray Darling Basin Plan was born. The objective of the plan was to deliver more water for environmental flows with then Murray Darling system while minimizing impacts on other user groups. Considering an estimated 39% of national income derived from agricultural production (amounting to approximately $15 billion dollars of produce) is generated by the basin community, the need to create a balance is a necessity.
In a recent presentation at the Murray-Darling Association Conference in Goolwa on Wednesday the 9th October 2013 (http://www.environment.gov.au/minister/birmingham/2013/sp20131009.html), Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Environment, South Australian Simon Birmingham discussed the government’s plans for managing water resources in the River Murray over coming years. In what would have to be considered a positive, the Liberal government plans to allocate $12 billion dollars with a priority to target water recovery for environmental flows by improving irrigation and water distribution infrastructure. The devil as always exists in the details
“Fixing inefficient infrastructure is the best way to return water to the environment whilst helping irrigation community’s position themselves for a sustainable future” he stated. True perhaps, but it depends what you mean when you refer to infrastructure. If you rely solely on technological improvements to solve your issues you aren’t playing with a full deck of cards. There are all sorts of inefficiencies in our management of the water cycle which could be improved and there are many actions we can take as individuals.
The largest water storage potential we have is our soils and sub-surface aquifers. When water hits bare soil all sorts of problems can occur. Under these conditions, increased water run-off carrying with it top soil and excessive nutrients can have a major impact on water quality. Water infiltrating into aquifers becomes restricted as soil surfaces harden and as a result shed water more easily, not to mention the fact that bare soils contain little in the way of habitat diversity or the ability to reduce extreme temperatures as vegetated landscapes do. Salt tables not contained by vegetation start to rise towards the surface and un-vegetated river banks allow for little in the way of a buffer to our much loved waterways.
Perhaps one of the best things you can do to help manage water and the health of waterways such as the mighty River Murray is to become more aware of how water is cycled in your own backyard…we are all part of the solution.
You can learn more and have a greater impact on water management in the River Murray via these agencies and by getting in contact with the relevant politicians –
- Commonwealth Environmental Water Office – http://www.environment.gov.au/about-us/education-centre
- Murray Darling Basin Authority – http://www.mdba.gov.au/
- Senator Simon Burmingham – http://www.senatorbirmingham.com.au/
You can also find out more about how you can assist better manage your environment and soil contact your local NRM board, Local Action Planning group or Landcare association for great practical advice.