South Australia's Royal Commission to investigate breaches of the Murray Darling Basin Agreement.

Beginning in 2018, South Australia’snewly announced Royal Commission will investigate breaches of the Murray Darling Basin Agreement, and the Commissioner “will examine the adequacy of existing legislation and practices and make recommendations for any necessary changes.”

Most significantly, South Australia  has proposed going beyond water theft to “look into whether any legislative or policy changes since the agreement was signed in 2012 have been inconsistent with the purpose of the Basin Agreement and Basin Plan”.

While bad behaviour in NSW is evident, of more concern is the way some state governments are frustrating implementation of the A$13 billion 2012-26 Basin Plan and associated programs to recover water for the river system.

The Darling River is simply not supposed to dry out, even in drought

File 20190115 180516 1t15oz7.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Puddles in the bed of the Darling River are a sign of an ecosystem in crisis.
Jeremy Buckingham/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Fran Sheldon, Griffith University

The deaths of millions of fish in the lower Darling River system over the past few weeks should come as no surprise. Quite apart from specific warnings given to the NSW government by their own specialists in 2013, scientists have been warning of devastation since the 1990s.

Put simply, ecological evidence shows the Barwon-Darling River is not meant to dry out to disconnected pools – even during drought conditions. Water diversions have disrupted the natural balance of wetlands that support massive ecosystems.

Unless we allow flows to resume, we’re in danger of seeing one of the worst environmental catastrophes in Australia.




Read more:
Explainer: what causes algal blooms, and how we can stop them


Dryland river

The Barwon-Darling River is a “dryland river”, which means it is naturally prone to periods of extensive low flow punctuated by periods of flooding.

However, the presence of certain iconic river animals within its channels tell us that a dry river bed is not normal for this system. The murray cod, dead versions of which have recently bought graziers to tears and politicians to retch, are the sentinels of permanent deep waterholes and river channels – you just don’t find them in rivers that dry out regularly.

Less conspicuous is the large river mussel, Alathyria jacksoni, an inhabitant of this system for thousands of years. Its shells are abundant in aboriginal middens along the banks. These invertebrates are unable to tolerate low flows and low oxygen, and while dead fish will float (for a while), shoals of river mussels are probably dead on the river bed.

This extensive drying event will cause regional extinction of a whole raft of riverine species and impact others, such as the rakali. We are witnessing an ecosystem in collapse.

Catastrophic drying

We can see the effects of permanent drying around the world. The most famous example is the drying of the Aral Sea in Central Asia. Once the world’s fourth largest inland lake, it was reduced to less than 10% of its original volume after years of water extraction for irrigation.

The visual results of this exploitation still shock: images of large fishing boats stranded in a sea of sand, abandoned fishing villages, and a vastly changed microclimate for the regions surrounding the now-dry seabed. Its draining has been described as “the world’s worst environmental disaster”.




Read more:
Humans drained the Aral Sea once before – but there are no free refills this time round


So, what does the Aral Sea and its major tributaries and the Darling River system with its tributary rivers have in common? Quite a lot, actually. They both have limited access to the outside world: the Aral Sea basin has no outflow to the sea, and while the Darling River system connects to the River Murray at times of high flow, most of its water is held within a vast network of wetlands and floodplain channels. Both are semi-arid. More worryingly, both have more the 50% of their average inflows extracted for irrigation.

There is one striking difference between them. The Aral Sea was a permanent inland lake and its disappearance was visually obvious. The wetlands and floodplains of the Barwon-Darling are mostly ephemeral, and the extent of their drying is therefore hard to visualise.




Read more:
It’s time to restore public trust in the governing of the Murray Darling Basin


An orphaned ship in former Aral Sea, near Aral, Kazakhstan.
Wikipedia

All the main tributaries of the Darling River have floodplain wetland complexes in their lower reaches (such as the Gwydir Wetlands, Macquarie Marshes and Narran Lakes). When the rivers flow they absorb the water from upstream, filling before releasing water downstream to the next wetland complex; the wetlands acting like a series of tipping buckets. Regular river flows are essential for these sponge-like wetlands.

So, how has this hydrological harmony of regular flows and fill-and-spill wetlands changed? And how does this relate to the massive fish kills we are seeing in the lower Darling system?




Read more:
How is oxygen ‘sucked out’ of our waterways?


While high flows will still make it through the Barwon-Darling, filling the floodplains and wetlands, and connecting to the River Murray, the low and medium flow events have disappeared. Instead, these are captured in the upper sections of the basin in artificial water storages and used in irrigation.

This has essentially dried the wetlands and floodplains at the ends of the tributaries. Any water not diverted for irrigation is now absorbed by the continually parched upstream wetlands, leaving the lower reaches vulnerable when drought hits.

By continually keeping the Barwon-Darling in a state of low (or no) flow, with its natural wetlands dry, we have reduced its ability to cope with extended drought.




Read more:
Why a wetland might not be wet


While droughts are a natural part of this system and its river animals have adapted, they can’t adjust to continual high water caused in some areas by water diversions – and they certainly can’t survive long-term drying.

The Basin Plan has come some way in restoring some flows to the Barwon-Darling, but unless we find a way to restore more of the low and medium flows to this system we are likely witnessing Australia’s worst environmental disaster.




Read more:
It will take decades, but the Murray Darling Basin Plan is delivering environmental improvements


The Conversation


Fran Sheldon, Professor, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Adani submitted in 2017 when applying to the Queensland Government for a licence to take the water from the river.

In that document, released to Lock the Gate Alliance, Adani details other users of the river, noting their total combined take is just more than 9.3 billion litres.

Other government documents show there is another agricultural user with a licence to take 4.8 billion litres of water a year, taking the total to 14.1 billion litres — 13 per cent more than Adani’s licence.

There are three other licences that do not have total limits, but are limited to draw between 100 and 500 litres per second from the river.

Adani has been given a licence to take water at a rate of up to 11,600 litres per second — a rate that would fill an Olympic swimming pool in about 3.5 minutes.

  • The productivity Commission Review report [Sep 2018] revealed that the $13 billion Murray Darling Basin Plan is under fire for poor governance, lagging behind schedule, lack of transparency and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars all under the watch of Joyce. Serious questions remain as to why he signed off on purchases of water at highly inflated prices that netted big irrigators millions of dollars in profit for unsecured or so called ”ghost water”
  • Sacking of Ag Dept Secretary in 2015 when he told Joyce he “no longer had confidence in his capacity to resolve matters relating to integrity” with him and subsequent Ministerial Hansard doctoring allegations.
  • Huge delays in release of the 2015 Agriculture White Paper, due to push backs from politicians and public servants about the wacky, poorly thought out ideas being promoted by Barnaby [including multi-peril crop insurance ] but without detail and no overall strategic plan for the Agriculture sector

 

The Amazon is on fire – here are 5 things you...

The Amazon is on fire – here are 5 things you need to know Huge fires are raging across multiple regions of the Amazon Basin. Guaira...

The Strait of Hormuz is the most important oil choke point...

The Strait of Hormuz is the most important oil choke point in the world. Use our interactive map to explore it Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC...

Minor parties perform well in federal election and reconfirm the power...

Minor parties perform well in federal election and reconfirm the power of preference deals This was an election brimming with surprises and hocks. An unexpected...

Real estate agents targeting tenants is the lowest of the low...

Real estate agents targeting tenants is the lowest of the low blows during election 2019 Real estate agents don’t decide rents, landlords do. Shutterstock Danielle Wood, Grattan...

Adani – Interactive cost, environmental impacts, jobs and the future

Interactive: Everything you need to know about Adani – from cost, environmental impact and jobs to its possible future ABC News: Nationwide, a majority of voters...

Google’s tax deal with the UK: key questions answered

Google’s tax deal raises the question of whether the government is taking too soft a tone with multinationals over their tax. When Google reached a...

Murray Darling & Great Artesian Basin are dying

Talk about killing your darlings. Our habitual Australia Day flags-and-dates furore tells more about our insecurities than we’d like. Easy solutions to both dilemmas present themselves. Lose the...