Wednesday, February 28

How do our rivers run

[Note added on March 7:

I've re-read my original post a few times and I'm not happy with it. Although it's not a bad idea to try to paint a picture of the Darling River before it was modified by European settlement, I failed to make a strong enough case for its unique environmental needs, and the extent of the disaster which has overcome it with the over-allocation of irrigation licences. It's not just climate change -- although that will bring further worries -- but that even in a good year not enough water gets past the cotton growers to restore the river's health.

Evaporation takes the equivalent of four Sydney Harbours from the cotton growers' storages each year.

Further down, I failed to explain adequately the issues which will confront the Federal Government if Prime Minister John Howard succeeds in his $10 billion move to take full control of the waters of the Murray-Darling Basin. I support the takeover, but I also worry that Howard himself is unaware of the challenges ahead.

It's significant that he announced the move without consulting his Cabinet, nor the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, the authority now run by the States and the Australian Government to manage the system. So we don't know how he'll jump when he evaluates the competing claims of environmentalists and the agrarian socialists known as the National Party.

My praise of Dr Mary White's book, Running Down, should have been qualified by my belief that the right answer to these competing claims must sit somewhere in the middle, although I lean towards the ecologists' position.

Fortunately, some recent publications allow me to offer links to people far better informed than me, and by providing them I may be of more service than by rewriting the material below.

Today's Sydney Morning Herald reports on "The State of the Darling", a survey for the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. The Herald's report is at:
If you follow the "related stories" link on that page, it will take you to a feature article in the Herald. With that feature is an aerial photo of the Murray-Darling junction at Wentworth, and you can tell there's no water coming down the Darling. Darling water is the colour of milky coffee, and when it flows you can see the two distinctly coloured streams side by side until they go over the weir.

The official report can be read or downloaded as a PDF file at:

If you've read the post below, you'll know that I pleaded that no National Party minister be allowed near the new Federal authority. Yesterday's Herald showed why not -- Nationals Leader Mark Vaile wants most of the money to be spent on improving the delivery of water to irrigators, and not on buying out over-allocations. He didn't seem to mention ecological concerns.

That's the Nationals for you. Taxpapers to provide the capital infrastructure, and to pick up any losses. Nationals supporters to pick up any profits. Read the Herald's report here:

That story also reveals that many constituents in National Party seats are worried that if Labor wins the next election, power to regulate the Murray-Darling basin will pass into the hands of the environmentalist Peter Garrett. I guess they're right to be worried.

With this material available now, I think I can be lazy and not rewrite the blog below.

Additional note added Friday, March 9: The lead story in today's Australian Financial Review is headed "Nats threaten PM's $10bn water ". Vaile and Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran oppose Howard's plan to buy back over-allocations, and want to limit the CSIRO's role in assessing sustainable water allocations. In other words, they don't want any water restored to environmental flows.

The Nats' stance makes me change my mind -- it may be better to leave management of the basin to the existing arrangements. That would leave NSW with the enormous cost of buying back the gross over-allocations on Darling tributaries, rammed through by the late Wal Murray against the advice of staff in his Department of Water Resources. ]

Map shows the extent of the Murray-Darling Basin
Take yourself back to the late 19th century and sit in a pub above the bustling port of Morgan, overlooking the great North West Bend of the River Murray.

Look across the railway – it arrived in 1878, part of South Australia's strategy to capture the Darling River wool trade – and see the frantic activity on the steamboats and barges tied up against the repair yards. Then look a little upstream where labourers are heaving piles of cargo from the high wharves into more barges.

A day or two ago, a message on the telegraph said the river gauge at Walgett, where the Namoi and Barwon rivers join to form the Darling, had risen 16 feet.

Every riverboat man knew the figures – if the Darling is dry, it will take 60 days to “wet” the riverbed at Avoca station, thirty miles above Wentworth and 1200 river miles below Walgett. The Darling falls only three inches in a mile.

If the Walgett level held at 16 feet for one month, then a steamboat master knew that by the time he had enough water to move upstream from Wentworth, where the Darling joins the Murray, he could expect at least 10 feet when he arrived at Wilcannia to discharge his cargo.

He knew too that if he wasted no time, he could get his plant back to Wentworth, picking up waiting cargoes of wool along the way, before the “freshet” ran out.

Today, when you approach Wilcannia from Cobar, you drive across an extensive, but dry , floodplain. This is the Talyawalka. It leaves the Darling above Wilcannia and continues south for several hundred miles before it rejoins the river below Menindie.

In the old days, in years of high flood when stations couldn't get their wool bales to the Darling riverbanks, a few intrepid masters took their steamboats into the Talyawalka to pick up the clip. They'd follow the anabranch creeks until the overhanging trees were knocking bits off the superstructure, then steer across the flooded plain to the woolsheds.

I've never seen the Talyawalka in flood. Probably I never will. Perhaps it will never flood again. And that's my purpose in presenting this historical trivia (which I find fascinating). Now, as in the old days, we have the dry spells, but when it rains, cotton growers – mostly – grab the water which should deliver the floods.

Without those great floods, where water spread over the broad plains and remained for months, there can be little regeneration of the grey box, the river red gum and the coolibah.

To refresh my thoughts for this piece, I grabbed an armful of books off my shelves. If you're interested, my clear favourite is Riverboats and Rivermen (Rigby, 1976), the vivid, detailed recollections of William Drage, who spent almost all his working life on the rivers, and that's where I learned the importance of the river gauge at Walgett. The Talyawalka account came from Ian Mudie's River Boats (Rigby, 1961).

But I have another book about the rivers – not a history of the old riverboat days, but a warning of the dangers we face from degradation of those rivers. A book which says:

The continuing saga of the extraction of massive amounts of water from inland rivers to satisfy the escalating demands of the irrigation industry is Australia's most serious, and ultimately potentially most disastrous water-related issue.

It is a battle between two essentially irreconcilable attitudes to land use.

The quote comes from Mary E. White's Running Down – Water in a Changing Land (Kangaroo Press, 2000).

Dr White is a paleobotanist, whose interest in fossil plants led her to study the changes as the Australian island continent drifted out of the Gondwana land mass, and why a green, well-watered Gondwanan fragment became the driest vegetated continent.

To her study of the geological past, she also studied accounts by explorers, surveyors and travellers which showed how much our rivers have changed since European settlement – “how many of the rivers which now form well-defined, incised systems used to 'die in the plains', or end in reedbeds and swamps, how the connections one to another were across floodplains during big rainfall events.”

Dr White invites us to join her in “on an exploration of the role of water in Australia through the ages, to assemble the background and big picture, so that we may understand the present situation (and because the story is fascinating in its own right).”

Dr White is a scientist, not an irresponsible greenie throwing reckless claims around, and she also strives to be fair to irrigators with their promises of economic prosperity. The book is lavishly illustrated to coffee-table standards. If you can get your hands on a copy, you won't be disappointed.

Should we send a copy to Queensland Premier Peter Beattie, who recently revived the Bradfield scheme to turn eastward flowing rivers back under the Great Divide to give water to arid inland regions?

Dr White lumps the Bradfield scheme in with the old proposals for a canal from the ocean to flood Lake Eyre with seawater, and comments: “Fortunately, because surely we must strive to leave Australia habitable for future generations, none of these schemes were, or are, financially viable. Their implementation would have resulted in hydrological disasters of an unimaginable scale.”

When the Federal Government takes control of the waters of the Murray-Darling Basin, promising to spend $10 billion over ten years, some tasks will be obvious – buying back at least the worst of the over-allocations of water rights, and upgrading the canals and pipes to minimise wastage in delivering the water to irrigators.

It must also find a balance between those essentially irreconcilable attitudes of which Dr White speaks.

I'd like to see one particular core promise from John Howard if he wins this year's Federal election – that he will never appoint a National Party politician to run Australia's water resources. Where do you think the over-allocations of water licences, particularly on the Gwydir and Namoi rivers, came from?

[The map is from Mary E White's book, Running Down ]

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