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Micro-managing the Murray-Darling Basin: what’s in it for fish?

Is layer after layer of regulation the solution to the problems the freshwater life of the Murray-Darling Basin face? Kristian Golding

Micro-managing the Murray-Darling Basin: what’s in it for fish?

This is part two of a series investigating the effect Murray-Darling water policy has on acquatic life. It’s told from the perspective of the new water minister, a Murray Cod called Mac Peelii, who last time gave his fishy perspective on the most important aspects of river systems needed to sustain him and all the other organisms in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Mac’s species may be in jeopardy but - contrary to media reports - Mac himself has survived politically. He, his minder and a few reporters are heading off from Canberra on a beautiful, crisp, winter’s day to take a grand tour of the Murray River.

Their first stop is the Hume Dam which, together with Dartmouth Dam, upstream on the Mitta Mitta River, starts off the regulation of flows in this, Australia’s most iconic river.

Mac learns that the Murray River has four major dams, 14 weirs and locks and five barrages to regulate river flows. He’s not surprised; but he’s staggered to learn there are over 4,000 weirs and dams across the Murray-Darling Basin, most of which prevent the movement of fish. What a relief to find that a small number of these dams and weirs have had fishways built on them with more planned, and that some obsolete weirs and dams are even being removed.

“Great! Pull out as many weirs and dams as you can. And be quick about it,” he instructs the managers. But he’s told removal is a long, slow process, involving lots of consultation, red tape and cost. Fishways are not cheap either; usually hundreds of thousands of dollars each. And if funds are spent on that sort of thing, there will be less for other projects.

“Surely removing dams is a better option than building fishways?” says Mac emphatically. “Why spend so much money retro-fitting something that only half solves the problem anyway? Make a note,” he instructs a minder, “talk to the PM about fishways and dam removal.”

Barmah forest. Michael Hopkins

Near Albury, Mac is told by wetland scientists that there are 30,000 wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin, all important to the health, and all contributing to the diversity of fauna and flora of the system. But then his reverie is shattered as he is informed that river regulation has degraded a very large number of these.

But it is not all bad news: some of the 30,000 wetlands, including “significant ecological assets” and “icon sites”, either have regulators or are having them built. This means they can receive environmental water at the turn of a tap. In fact, some of the best known wetlands on the Murray - Barmah Forest, Gunbower, Hattah Lakes, Chowilla - have regulators on them. Many more wetlands are on the list to receive environmental water each year.

“But that still leaves a lot of wetlands not receiving environmental water, doesn’t it?” he asks.

“And surely, artificially watering wetlands doesn’t act like a normal flood that animals and plants are used to. Shouldn’t the wetlands get their water naturally when rivers get high enough that they flood? That way, river and wetlands are connected, like a proper river system. Isn’t it the same as fishways on weirs: we’re retro-fitting and adding one level of artificiality to another, hoping that this will solve the problem? And who decides which wetlands get water … and when … and how much?”

The wetland scientists tell Mac that the decisions are made by bureaucrats or even water ministers who are often unfamiliar with the location, history, constraints or specific requirements of the wetlands.

“Well, if it’s me that makes those sorts of decisions … then I suppose that’s OK,” he says a little uncertainly.

“Make a note,” he instructs his minder, “visit all 30,000 wetlands, find out what lives in each, when they need water and how much. And remind me to talk to the PM about it.”

The Murray at Goolwa. Mundoo/Flickr

Finally, at Goolwa, at the Murray mouth, he stands on a spit of sand looking out to sea, surrounded by natural resource managers.

“Now, let me get this straight,” he begins, “we know that humans have radically changed the way that the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin operate, and the main channel, tributaries and many of the 30,000 wetlands are degraded. Yes? And, what’s more, where flows have been micro-managed - well as much as they can be, given climatic uncertainty and storage capacities – for irrigation reasons, now we are increasingly micro-managing flows for environmental reasons. So, instead of solving the problems of regulation with less regulation – which would seem logical - more and more regulation is being proposed. Am I right?”

The managers nod sagely, some even smiling in a satisfied way.

Mac looks around him to see if everyone is listening and continues. “And this approach to environmental watering assumes that the health of a river can be achieved by allocating discrete packets of water. It assumes that we know when to water and how much is needed to maintain the health of the various wetlands in the Basin. It assumes that even if we know when and how much water is most needed, that it will actually be delivered at that time. It assumes that better decisions will be made as we gain more understanding, even though results of flow allocations are often not assessed adequately, if at all. It assumes that future governments will appreciate the needs of the environment and not change the rules. Finally, it assumes that we will continue to do all of this forever!”

An uncomfortable silence ensues. Until finally Mac’s minder steps up and whispers in his ear: “Shall I make a note for you to talk to the PM, Minister?”

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