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Muddy waters: a guest post on the impact of recent Australian floods

February 21, 2011

Image: David Sinclair (ACF)

Ruchira Talukdar is a Healthy Ecosystems Campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation.  Ruchira argues that an overlooked opportunity presented by the recent large scale flooding events in Australia is the potential for political reform promoting sustainable water use policies.  Let us know your thoughts on Ruchira’s arguments, and what you see as the key issues resulting from the floods.

The recent floods in Queensland have affected lives, livelihoods, crops and stock. These damages will be felt for quite some time.

It is also true they will bring much needed water to the rivers, wetlands, floodplains and pastures in eastern and south eastern Australia.

Right now there is a lot of water in the Murray-Darling – Australia’s largest river system covering one-seventh of the continent and also our food-bowl growing forty percent of our agricultural produce.

And while 85,000 million litres of flood water continues to pour into the Murray in South Australia from the rivers and creeks of the upstream states of News South Wales and Victoria, the historical conflict of interests over water-sharing in the Basin continues.

Over the next few months, a lot more water is expected to travel down-stream and out through the mouth of the river near the internationally significant Coorong wetland in South Australia.

While scientists are still monitoring the ecological benefits from the January floods as well as the heavy rainfall across the Basin in 2010, we can already count some tangible benefits on our finger-tips:

–        Each year two million tonnes of salt needs to be transported out of the Murray-Darling towards the sea. Chronic lack of flows near the mouth of the river in the past had deposited vast amounts of salt in the Coorong, making it more saline than the sea and degrading the environment. The floods have reconnected upstream Lakes Alexandrina and Albert – also Ramsar listed – with the Coorong and ongoing high flows at the mouth will continue to flush salts out of the river-basin.

–        Sand dredging had been required to keep the Murray mouth open, at a cost of $36 million per year to the South Australian government. Recent floods have allowed the river to keep its own mouth open for the first time in eight years.

–        The floods have intervened to bring native wild-life species in the Basin back from the brink of extinction. The Congolli fish native to the Lower Murray in South Australia and the Southern Bell Frog in New South Wales are two key examples.

The main reason for the lack of flows is the unsustainable use of water for irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin – seventy percent of Australia’s irrigation occurs in the Basin which receives only 6% of Australia’s rainfall. In less than a century, water extraction from the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin has increased by 500%. Last decades drought took its own toll on the environment. As much as ninety percent of the floodplain wetlands of the Murray-Darling Basin have been destroyed by now.

The Basin wetlands keep the river alive and provide valuable eco-system services like water-filtration and refuge for insects and animals for pollination and pest control absolutely free of cost. Out of the of 30,000 wetlands across the entire Murray-Darling Basin, 16 are Ramsar listed and provide an estimated $2.1 billion p.a worth of eco-system services (without considering other direct benefits such as tourism and recreational value).

The long-term fate of these Ramsar wetlands, as well as the industries and communities which rely on a healthy Basin now depend on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

In order to revive the Murray-Darling to moderate to good health – so that it can sustain agriculture and food production in the long-term – above 4000 billion litres (GL) of water needs to be returned to the Basin each year.

The controversy following the release of the Guide to the Basin Plan in October 2010 witnessed a fierce debate about the short-term impacts on regional economies from proposed cuts to water allocations – no consideration was given to the long-term consequences of continuing at the current level of water-extraction.

The real possibility of environmental failure now threatens the long term economic and social viability of many industries in the Basin. And, the current wet spell will be followed by drought – the Basin may be 10 percent drier than now by 2030. Yet the Guide failed to provide modelling and information to account for these inevitable changes; it only considered setting Sustainable Diversion Limits between 3000-4000 GL.

The draft Basin Plan is expected this July, and the Federal Water Minister Tony Burke remains committed to delivering a final Basin Plan in early 2012, within this term of government.

A crisis created by decades of unsustainable water-use cannot be fixed by one big flood. The urgent need for Murray-Darling reform still continues. By making a large volume of water available for the environment and farmers in the short-term, the floods have provided temporary relief from the pain of last decade’s drought and provided our governments with the opportunity to bring in much needed reform when it hurts the least.

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