The Murray-Darling and Australia’s great river of nonsense — by David Leyonhjelm

The Millennium Drought at the turn of this century led some to conclude that drought was the new normal and the environment was facing catastrophe. They were wrong; it was the worst drought for a century, but it ended with widespread flooding. Dorothea Mackellar’s description of a land of droughts and flooding rains was never better demonstrated.

However, during the drought a plan was devised to remove water from agriculture to “save” the environment. The plan calls for the “return” of 2750GL of water to the environment with a further 450GL to be returned subject to certain conditions. Substantial water rights have been purchased from farmers in Queensland, NSW and Victoria, plus a small quantity from SA.

In 2015–16 I chaired a Senate inquiry into the effects of the Basin Plan, with hearings in each of the participating states. We found there were farms no longer growing irrigated crops such as fruit or rice, thus requiring fewer inputs and generating less income. Workers had lost their jobs and moved away, and regional communities had fewer schoolchildren, volunteer firefighters and customers in local shops.

We also found very poor understanding of the plan. Many people had an almost religious belief that the environment simply needs water, irrespective of whether it is in the right place at the right time, or in the right quantities. It was even worse in South Australia, where suspicion about the taking of water from the Murray, Darling and Barwon rivers borders on pathological.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect was hearing how 900GL of the water, taken from productive agriculture in Victoria and NSW, evaporates annually in Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert in SA. If these lakes were allowed to remain open to the sea and subject to tidal influences, rather than being kept closed by man-made barrages, seawater could evaporate rather than precious fresh water. Preserving an artificial environment at the expense of farming and rural communities has somehow become a good thing.

Most of the water that reaches SA arrives via the Murray River. On average, only about 6 per cent of the water in the Darling and Barwon rivers, which flow south from Queensland and NSW, reaches SA. This is important in the context of the mass fish kill in the Menindee Lakes area caused by blue-green algae.

Fraction of normal crop

Such fish kills are not new; a series of blue-green algal blooms during the Millennium Drought killed thousands of fish and was influential in prompting the negotiations that led to the Murray Darling Basin Plan. Yet we are hearing the same old whines from the same old whiners — the environment needs more water, SA is being dudded, NSW farmers are stealing water, or big corporations, or foreign multinationals, or cotton growers, or [insert favourite scapegoat here].

As it happens, no water has been taken for irrigation in NSW for 18 months. The cotton industry, about which more lies are told than any other sector, has grown a tiny fraction of its normal crop.

For their part, governments are both blamed and expected to fix it. In fact, there is a specific contributor to the Menindee Lakes problem — water stored in the lakes was released by the NSW government and sent down the river to SA where the rate of evaporation is less. It has done the same thing previously, which is why Broken Hill ran short of water in 2016. If there was more water in the lakes, the algal bloom may not have occurred.

And yet, as with the lakes in SA, we are dealing with a man-made rather than the natural environment, where droughts are cyclical. The Menindee Lakes were originally ephemeral but deepened by humans to make them permanent.

The inquiry I chaired recommended the Murray Darling Basin Authority implement an environmental watering plan for the Menindee Lakes, notwithstanding their man-made history. Had this occurred, the fish kill might have been avoided.

But there are no guarantees; the Murray Darling Basin Plan can never hope to drought-proof the country even if its many flaws are corrected. There will always be occasions when rivers stop flowing, when algae blooms and fish die. And it’s nobody’s fault — Australia is indeed a land of droughts and flooding rains.

David Leyonhjelm is a senator for the Liberal Democrats

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review