Nothing is Wasted: The Human Island (Chapter 5)

A deep, enraged bellowing came through over the radio. It was mid October, 2010, and I was a passenger in my bosses 4WD travelling along the main street of Renmark. The crowd encouraged his outrage with cheers.

What was supposed to be an informative meeting, with question time, in Griffith, upstream, had crumbled out of the public servants’ control and had become little more than an emotionally fuelled rally. Of course, to say this openly in Renmark today might be seen as act of suicide.

We parked only a few meters away from the great Murray River, in the car park alongside the local department of a national radio station. They had asked to interview my boss on the hot topic at hand – the newly releases Murray Darling Basin Plan (MDB).

Stepping out of the car, the air was absolutely wonderful. Being an Adelaide boy, it’s not often I feel an air so humid and comfortably warm. At home, it’s cold and wet or hot and dry.

Renmark, Nov 2010

Around a year earlier, I had been standing more or less where I was currently. Through the frequent visits over the past year, I had witnessed an amazing change to this beautiful town.

I guess the locals, walking the street day after day may not have noticed it so much. However, I was amazed by the health of the grass. Compared to the bone-dry dust of a year ago, the end of a decade long drought, the riverside parks were fluorescent green. The air was fragrant with flora and energising.

It would be easy to let yesterday’s nightmare fade out of mind on the streets of Renmark on this day and feel it unjust that the government would want to take the good times away from you. It wouldn’t be as easy, however, to hold this illusion once you began travelling out of town again.

There was less rhythm to the farming lands this season. Some had planted earlier than others. On more than a few plots, fruit trees were being pulled up. It all seemed confused and unsure of itself. The effects of the Big Dry were by no means over.

The more temporal wetlands looked more like islands of desert surrounded by healthy scrub.
The monitoring site, half an hour north of Renmark, was in bloom.

In every respect, life along the Murray Darling Basin had gone from hardship to confused contrast – and all because of water.

Going back a couple centuries, before western intrusion on the Australian landscape, this river system was a different place. From the highlands of the Great Dividing Range, various small creeks wound down on to the western plains of the southern border region of Queensland and throughout New South Wales. Eventually, the river system reached the Murray River – a river the marks most of Victoria’s northern border and cuts a zigzagged path from the Riverland region to Morgan and then south to Lake Alexandrina and the Coorong.

The Murray Darling river system, provides a corridor path through outback New South Wales and the mid eastern region of South Australia which would otherwise rely solely on the infrequent and sporadic showers that occasionally overcame the land shadow effect. Clearly, regions like the Chowilla floodplain, rich with biodiversity, would simply not exist, but be just as arid as the dry neighbouring region, where it not for this large movement of water.
The Chowilla floodplain nowadays is recognised as containing 4 animals of national significance and 51 plant and animal species of state significance. So rich is it with life, that it is recognised as a Ramsar Wetland [4].

The possibilities of natural harvest; the agricultural potential; the eco-tourism potential of such a staggeringly beautiful region; all of these things cannot be, and have not been, ignored by humanity. For all this and much more, the water is not only the life blood of the region, but also real world income.

Before the European appearance, contrary to the booming voices over the radio, none of this water was wasted. It snaked through the environment in constant flux. In times of high flow, the banks would be broken, allowing water, maybe once every few years, to travel to the more arid floodplains at greater distance from the main flow, bringing with it nutrients and minerals that would see the hardy environment through the next few years of drought. Because of such fluctuations, the Murray Darling region is dynamic and efficient at exploiting the good times.

As such, from the air, the various environments and soil chemistry paints the region just as beautifully as the morning golden sun breaking through the river gums along the Murray’s bank.
Lake Alexandrina and the lower lakes, being the tail end of the terrestrial transfer of water, have probably seen the worst of a poor managed river system over the past two centuries. Some might say that it doesn’t matter for the fresh water would otherwise be lost to sea.

The Coorong and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert Wetland are also recognised as Ramsar sites due to the rich diversity of wetland types (23) of the region that support an incredible array of species, many of which are threatened. These wetlands are the result of mixing waters from the Murray mouth with ocean water and many species need access to both waters as part of their life cycle [5].

Twenty five of the bird species that rely on the lower lakes are listed under international migratory conservation agreements and many species of fish rely on the wetlands for nursery environments [5]. Both migratory birds and estuary breeding fish are great long distance transferrers of nutrients. Whether the species are of direct economic value or transfer nutrients to species and ecosystems that are, areas of high biodiversity value that support these species, such as the Lower Lakes, obviously have direct and indirect economic importance globally.

Since European settlement, the frequency of flow ceasing from the Murray mouth has increased from 1% to currently 40% of the time, with the average annual flow reducing by 61%. Such restriction of flows from the Murray mouth increasingly threatens the biodiversity of the region [6]. Clearly, none of the water is wasted and never was.

A point that my boss made within the interview is a simple continuation from this realisation. When human activity enters an ecosystem, or intensifies practices, it’s a trade-off. There are no extractions of resources from an environment without an effect, because the resources most certainly would have been used by another species at some point. By using any of the water continuously, we had already begun to change the ruling factors that governed the more distant wetlands that relied on the infrequent water supply and as we increased our extraction rate, this brought change closer to the main flows and even more noticeably, to the lower lakes. A warmer and drier local environment as climate continues to change will only exacerbate the alterations of such wetlands.

As yet another farmer stood to shout at the MBD Plan’s representatives, now completely beyond all reason (one even threw a toy horse head at the representatives), I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. After a decade of drought, you would’ve thought proper water management would mean more to the Griffith community. They should have learnt that being water smart, regardless of the actual flow, ensures resilience. Sure, the local towns might be vivid green, but the land between the township and the farm paints a different picture for anyone who wishes to look. The Riverland was settled and farmed because it screamed with fertility in the many voices of the local ecosystem. Now, even when the flow is good, that ecosystem is parched. Clearly, the ecosystem that made the region what it is needs a drink.

[4] MBD commission, 2006. The Chowilla floodplain (inc. Lindsay-Wallpolla), Icon Site Environmental Management plan 2006-2007.
[5] The Coorong, and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert Wetlands website: (accessed 4/11/2010)
[6] Dept. Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, 2010. Coorong and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert Ramsar Wetlands Fact sheet.

This is chapter five of the series The Human Island: A Place of Ecological Ruin. To see the previous chapter, click here. As the series grows, the complete work can be found here.

h/t To Mike of WtD for letting me know of this article: Murray Murmurings: Postcards from Mildura.


2 thoughts on “Nothing is Wasted: The Human Island (Chapter 5)

  1. Saw Malcolm Turnbull on 7.30 report last night ……..
    “Our inland rivers – Murray Darling basin, classic example, are slow, you know, lazy, floodplain river systems. They’re not very steep. From the dam at Albury right down to the Murray mouth – 2500 kilometres of river – the drop in elevation is less than 200 metres. So it’s probably flatter than this table in truth.
    So what that means is that all of the environment is floodplain environment. ”

    I’m not so convinced by his arguments about how to deal with the plan and the politics but I thought that was a really good summary of the river’s circumstances.


    1. It is a fairly good description of the system.

      If you look at the Chowilla region and surrounding in Googles aerial photographs, from Loxton to Mildura, you can see just how immense the floodplains are. Winding over the Murray, as you do following the road from Murray Bridge up to the Riverland you’re surrounded by the floodplains. It’s a wonderful region of the world and goes far beyond the perceived river banks. It’s a biodiversity hotspot as well. I camped nearly 2 years ago near the Lindsay-Wallpolla islands and there was little noticeable flow. In recent months, it’s been the opposite.


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