Last Thursday, TheDaily Advertiser reported that fish deaths in the River Darling/Menindee Lakes are a “man-made disaster”. Though man-made could perhaps have been better expressed as “anthropomorphic” to avoid charges of sexism, the reportage is accurate in that the deaths are largely due to human mismanagement of the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) river system.
Let’s look at the causes of this disaster. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has the nerve to make the argument that the state government carries no responsibility. Pull the other one, Gladys. NSW Regional Water Minister Neil Blair parroted the same nonsense when he said the drought was to blame for blue-green algae and fish deaths.
Many, however, are fighting this position, calling it a man-made disaster and telling the ABC it is a symptom of mismanagement.
The Nature Conservation Council noted: “Scientists, locals and environment groups have all attributed the mass fish kill to the mismanagement of the river, yet the NSW government denies responsibility.” Menindee farmer Kate McBride said: “The lakes were drained twice within four years and each time it was drained it should have had seven to eight years’ worth of water.”
The Menindee Lakes are at 5 per cent capacity and are expected to be empty by the end of January.
Mr Blair, showing his skill at blame shifting, said it was a federal government decision to drain water from Menindee, and that the NSW government only took control of their management when there was more than 480 gigalitres of water in them.
Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud was equally adept at blame shifting when he shot back with: “NSW is managing the Menindee Lakes system because of the drought and they are responsible for water management in their catchments, including water allocation and compliance enforcement.”
Gladys Berejiklian has the nerve to make the argument that the state government carries no responsibility. Pull the other one, Gladys.
As Sarah Hanson-Young, Australian Greens spokeswoman for the MDB, pointed out: “Without adequate environmental flows, there is no irrigation, no water coming out of the tap for thousands of families and no tourism.”
Inland Rivers Network president Bev Smiles said the problem at Menindee started before the drought, and pointed the finger at the cotton industry. “The cotton industry is capturing all the water and everyone downstream is left with no water.” Murray Darling Basin Authority chief executive Phillip Glyde said his team was getting the balance between environment and agriculture right. “We are reducing the amount of water used by farmers by 20 per cent and that's had a huge impact on those industries and the communities that depend on those industries,” he said. That’s misleading wishful thinking, as it is clearly not enough.
However, accurate Ms Smiles’ reference to the cotton industry is, there is another major instance of water mismanagement I’d like to emphasise: floodplain water harvesting.
This is a formal NSW government policy, which it is currently implementing under the title of the NSW floodplain harvesting policy, as part of its broader water management reforms across the Murray-Darling Basin. The policy’s stated aims are to provide clarity and certainty around how floodplain harvesting is managed in NSW, protect downstream users and the environment from the effects of unconstrained floodplain harvesting, secure the social licence for legitimate floodplain harvesting activities to continue, and provide a licensing regime that will form the basis for effective compliance and enforcement.
As this outbreak of blue-green algae and the fish deaths show its aim of protecting the environment from “the effects of unconstrained floodplain harvesting” has demonstratively failed.
As a recent Facebook post from Tolarno Station pointed out: “This NSW government has already done more damage than any government in Australian history to the survival of (the) river system and Menindee lakes. It appears that the NSW government policies (have been) created not only to undermine the MDB plan but also the very basis of the rivers’ survival (for the) financial benefit of a select few at the expense of the river system’s future.”
It seems the floodplain water harvesting policy is yet another example of the problem that has bedevilled the way we provide water for agriculture since the earliest days of white fella water management: overallocation of water for irrigation.