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Living in the lower lakes: a human experience of environmental catastrophe

The proposed Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been one of the most controversial pieces of public policy in Australia’s recent history. There has been the predictable divide between irrigators calling for more water to be extracted from the river, and environmentalists, who say too much is coming out already. But between the two, many experts are looking at the nuances of the plan and saying it’s a lot more complex than farming versus nature.

This week, researchers around the Basin will give us their view of how their local area has fared in recent years and tell us whether the proposed plan will make things better or worse. Jonathan Sobels, Lecturer in Human Geography at Flinders University, spent the recent drought working with communities in South Australia’s Lower Lakes. Today he tells us their great fear is that they will lose their water again, thanks to a “politician-induced drought”.

A dry river isn’t just bad for the environment; it’s bad for communities too. Jonathan Sobels

The people of the Lower Murray and Lakes have experienced the most extreme circumstances of the recent drought and low flows in the Murray Darling Basin. Not only did the pumps and siphons of irrigators in the Lower Murray lose contact with the river, the irrigators of the Lower Lakes lost all access to water.

With the attendant complexities of inter-state and Commonwealth political river management, the people of the Lower Lakes were forced to deal with significant, disrupting uncertainty in their lives. The idea of the Basin Plan is welcomed; a deferred, “watered down” or even abandoned version of the Basin Plan is feared.

What hurt people more than loss of water was the way in which state politicians caused “political low flows”. The greatest fear of people of the Lower Murray and Lakes is that before a Basin Plan is fully realised in 2019, another drought will occur, and they will be placed in the same position again.

From South Australians’ perspective, the Basin Plan is about reasonable certainty about the part of the Basin’s off-take licensed to the state’s family farms, small to medium-sized businesses and SA Water. It is reasonable certainty that allows people to make decisions on their future livelihoods and, therefore, creates the conditions for community, for relationships, for networks, for jobs, for livelihoods.

It is more a political decision than a scientific one now. Our best modelling cannot guarantee flows in light of a drying climate, a climate which is also likely to become more variable – more intense floods and droughts. So “we” - South Australian users of River Murray water - must also prepare to change our livelihoods to make them sustainable in the long term.

The Basin Plan is not about fairness, per se, but the rules of engagement; indeed, changing the rules if need be. We need to get the rules set now, and ensure the Basin water flows are managed for the health of the whole and not the States’ benefit. I think this is the key benefit of the institution of the MDBA.

Making a living gets harder as the river dries up. Jonathan Sobels

The decisions taken by people of the Lower Lakes were not solely driven by access to water. There were individual contexts that each family, each small business, each town had to account for and work within, including demographic forces, bank and financial responsibilities, commodity prices and the mining industry attracting young men and women to better paying jobs. The cascade effects, for example, included changed land use, changed business focus, alternative off-farm or “off-business” jobs, vacant houses, closed schools, emergence of action groups and increased mental health problems.

From the point of view of South Australian people – irrigators, their towns and the population more generally - the following factors are likely to contribute to their access to water for their livelihoods. (This is not an argument about the volume of water required for environmental flows. At around 3573 GL in this draft plan, proposed flows are probably a good enough start, particularly if SA only has to reduce its take by 22 GL).

Things become unstable when the riverbed shifts. Jonathan Sobels

These factors are about creating a scenario where people can plan what to do five and ten years into the future. They will give South Australians the reasonable certainty they need to make land-use plans:

  • South Australia’s regional submissions to the Basin Plan need to explain why they are special and should be considered first. That is, why the lower reaches of the Basin should not continue to be beholden to the upstream states at the bottom of the entrenched political hierarchy of access to water. South Australians get access to the poorest quality water that has been used and re-used many times and which carries the accumulated salt and nutrient load from all the tributaries of the Murray and Darling Rivers. South Australian irrigators also had to rely upon the good will of upstream states just to survive the recent drought. This situation needs to be redressed for reasonable certainty.

  • A consequence of the lack of formal agreement for water in droughts is that the priority of vertical storage of SA’s water in Dartmouth Dam needs to be changed. It needs to be regarded as more important, or the second-last spill (before environmental water) remaining in storage. SA is the most vulnerable part of the Basin because of Adelaide, salinity build-up and the very real threat of acidified water in extreme droughts, possibly even beyond what we have recently experienced.

  • To South Australians and those with piped and pressurised systems, the question of equity in sharing Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs) is not about simplistic equal shares by region. Instead, people should get less water where least effort has been expended in piping water. The use of open channels for example, requires five litres of water to convey each litre of water used; reducing flows to these systems is equitable.

Acid soils are exposed as the water retreats. Jonathan Sobels
  • The SA Government suggested removing barrages at the mouth of the Murray in 2011, ostensibly to reduce salinity. The removal of the barrages is a red herring. If sea water was allowed entry to the Lower Lakes, they would rapidly become hyper saline; if they ever dried, highly acidic. The result would be a water body devoid of life and livelihoods. But the barrages do need upgrading, and Lake Albert’s hydrology should be re-engineered to ensure more freshwater circulation.

  • Finally, irrigators and SA Water need to have the rules of engagement for the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) to be made plain sooner rather than later. Its decisions will have a substantial impact on flows and market pricing. It will also be very important that the SA Department for Water manages licencing, allocations, environmental and dilution flows through good communication with consumers.

Many people whose livelihoods depend upon the Murray River in SA hope that Premier Weatherill can achieve an outcome that truly reflects both a socially and scientifically responsible solution to cross-jurisdictional management of a commons water asset.

Previous articles in this series

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