Thoughts on the Murray Darling Basin

Screen Grab from Bottle Bend, From Wetland to Waste land

On Friday last week, Hack was asking for ideas of how the audience thought our most important water way should be managed. I couldn’t call them up due to having to be driving at the time, so I fired through an email which I’ve since decided to post here also. I’d like feed back if anyone else would like to offer it.

“I feel that the only way we can make head way on improving the problems of the MDB is by working holistically. The different states have proven themselves unable to care for this resource properly and as you’ve heard all this week; the further you go down stream, the more you hear people saying, “The people upstream should come and see what it’s like down here!”

Although the final say should be at a federal level, this needs to work from sub-committees that look at the whole river from different angels (ie. agricultural, ecological, indigenous use, recreational use, other industry use and household use).

There are some excellent models that give us an idea of predictions of coming conditions and a range of expected inputs of water. There is also a wealth of monitoring data along the MDB. At the top end, some hard decisions have to be made (ie. what allocations will be allow for the various fields addressed above – by % so that if in-flows are less or greater than expected, they can adapt to this change quicker?), based on the best of our understanding of the system as it is and the likely conditions of the following year. This info needs to be fed into the sub-committees to nut out who gets what.

As the cotton farmers correctly stated, cattle (for instance) is a terribly inefficient water user (comparing water requirements to yield in either beef or dairy) where cotton can adjust itself to the water allocations (personally, I feel that cattle, rice and probably cotton are not suitable in almost all Australian agricultural lands, but both cotton and cattle are so ingrained in Australian culture that it probably won’t change regardless). Anyhow, these sub-committees are unlikely to be very cooperative because EVERYONE would feel the pinch.

That said, taking farmers together to talk about what agricultural water allocations are available to them as a group will start them talking (well fighting unless they have a good mediator). From what I’ve seen, if you get a group of farmers together who are under pressure, you’re able to steer them into discussions over land use changes; there are plenty of examples of farmers looking at how to do things differently to reduce their resource requirements and still make a profit. Working together will mean that as an industry, they can foster changes that potentially achieve agricultural use better suited to Australia (hopefully turning us back into a country of growers rather than miners).

Using the same approach for ecological management would mean that together the different managing bodies can put forth the situations their local wetlands are facing. As it stands, higher in the system, wetlands have more flow while lower wetlands stagnate and dry up. What is needed in the short term is a good flush through the lower areas – but that won’t happen any time soon with current management. Working together and looking at the ecological importance of each area and the relative state currently, they can develop a measured approach to allow flow where it is most needed and juggle it between the sites over the years.

With household use – it’ll mean restrictions across the whole system, not just downstream (making all home users aware of their ailing waterways).

Indigenous water use seems to me to be the less problematic as they tend to be far more democratic; wanting a healthy water ways for all Australians (they should be given a louder voice).

By addressing the water use of other industries, we will both address inefficient water users as well as force the bigger water users to use a chunk of their profits to better manage water usage.

Recreational use would probably fit under household, but demonstrate some profit (as was the example of the water sports at Renmark) which should give healthy flow extra importance.

It won’t be a pretty process, but it will address this magnificent waterway for what it is rather than the micro-management process currently in place. I once heard from a friend who works for the air force would said that he spent some time working with Americans when he was younger. He said that on vessels like their subs, they had twice as many men working as on an Aussie sub, with each man a specialist at his own equipment but relatively ignorant to the rest (while the Aussie’s multi-tasked). He argued that you could take out one or two blokes on board the American sub and it could render the sub dead in the water. I don’t know how much truth is in this, but this is the approach we take with our largest waterway and is the result that we are seeing.”

Basically I feel that it should be treated similar to the federal budget, but that the fed’s work out the percentage that each sector gets and it is up to each sector to negotiate how much each part gets (potentially selling and buying quotas among themselves). It forces communication among farmers across the MDB and hopefully stimulates innovation and changes in practices. It should also allow NRM manages across the length to discuss where greater flows should be allowed to move through on a year by year basis to encourage the health of wetlands along the entire length by considering all the affected areas holistically.

Mallee scrub near Renmark.

Anyone who listened to the Hack series this past week would realised just how important the river system is to millions of Australians and an abundance of wildlife. It deserves better treatment.

As a last note, I was discussing this with a friend over the weekend and she raised an excellent point that would also be worth discussion. She made the point that when we look at how poorly we look after this water way through across states in one country, imagine how impossible it would be to manage major rivers that run through multiple countries. If anyone knows of such where the involved countries are doing a good job, please let me know.

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