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The Murray River - Time Running Out

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Crisis time is upon this river system

It is the 21st century.  In 1969, we put a man on the moon.  We have sent space probes past Pluto, we have one on Mars now, looking for water – how appropriate – it may have more luck there than in the Murray River Basin soon. 

For decades, warnings have been voiced loudly and clearly about the vulnerability of the Murray River basin, the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA) and the Darling River System.  However, as at June 2008, the scientists’ warnings are screamed out – less than 6 months to go, before the Coorongs, the lakes near the mouth of the Murray River, will be dead, and irretrievably lost along with numerous native species of fish and marine life.

What to do?

Water is the key.  We waste so much, and allow so much more to run to the sea in areas where it often does more damage than necessary.

Rainfall in Australia falls in different places in different seasons.  In the South East corner, it’s mostly a gentle winter rain, with occasional summer storms.  In the North, from Broome to Townsville, it’s the summer “wet season”, with some areas having incredible falls – areas such as Cape York Peninsula, Darwin and with individual areas breaking records.

In the wet season areas, rivers are often seasonal, and flood enormous amounts of muddy, agricultural land runoff out onto the tropical reefs on the north and north-eastern coasts, especially the Great Barrier Reef.  Further south, along the Northern Rivers region in New South Wales, the rivers Tweed, Nambucca, Richmond, Clarence, Bellingen, Macleay, Hastings, Manning, and Hunter Rivers are huge coastal rivers, which for many decades, were coastal highways for riverboats, barges and pleasure craft, the main modes of transport of people and goods throughout the Northern Rivers Region.

However, the population generally lives elsewhere.  Agriculturally suitable land and climate is generally in the South West of West Australia, South East and East of the country and up into Southern Queensland for broadacre crops.  Horticultural regions are dotted around Australia where there are river flats with good quality alluvial soil, irrigation available either from underground supplies or river systems, or where abundant rainfall can support it, mostly in the tropical areas.  In drier areas, tree and fruit crops are grown.  The Eastern Seaboard is great for dairy and smaller cropping, being too wet for sheep grazing.  The drier and cooler climates inside the Great Dividing Range are where fine woolled merino sheep are found, and western, drier regions are for both the broader woolled merino sheep and cattle.  Under normal conditions, if only we knew what they were, these regions and applications are generally suitable and sustainable.

The climate and soil is also ideal in many areas where water supply is not.  Here is where river systems have been exploited to the maximum and now, with a record breaking drought, the worst has happened.  The western plains in New South Wales and Victoria and the western Darling Downs in Queensland are great examples of this – minimal water in wonderfully fertile areas, but only viable under irrigation.

Hence, the MIA exploded into reality, producing everything from fruit to grapes for wine and small crops of every type; Cubby Cubby station has huge water reserves, drawn from the Darling River system, for massive broadacre cotton crops.  While everything was ‘normal’ and the rain fell with the occasional drought, this worked too.  Then it stopped raining.  Climate Change became a buzzword, the “El Nino” effect entered our vocabulary and the weather became a concern for everyone in the population.

During this period though, population and industrial infrastructure became established in these marginal areas and without declaring these areas “Ghost towns”, those centres of population are here to stay, in some form.  They will certainly evolve as the climate changes become established as permanent situations and facts of life.

What is necessary is both a rethink from most of the players, a cold shower for many and a radical restructure of both our governance of water usage in Australia, and a much better utilisation of the available water within Australia.

Wastage.  So much fresh, river or dam storage water that is used by industry could be recycled water, if only the infrastructure allowed it to be utilised.  That includes storm runoff water, water from treatment plants, and water available on an almost ongoing basis from some of the massive water industrial users.  If this was recycled water, a huge difference in the management of the water storage systems we have could be implemented.  We “drink” such a small amount of the water we store, we only need a small percentage of it as “pure” water and this needs to be understood more widely.

Recycling.  Toowoomba voted against recycling of “treated” water recently.  However, we are all drinking water that in some ways has been recycled from effluent plants, whether it is water dammed downstream from towns with treatment plants on the river, or catchments that have treatment plants in them, or mobs of cattle and other livestock grazing in catchment areas.  We, as a nation, need to stop being so “precious” about what is good enough and what is not.  Some of the currently available water in our various towns and cities is little short of disgusting and certainly not within the limits of ‘potable’ water, yet it passes, Giardia and other bugs included.  However, we have the technology to more than adequately clean and purify water for drinking and other personal use applications.  We need to implement it on all water supply systems and get the politics out of it.

It is common knowledge that the water supply bodies in most of our cities are little bureaucracies that exist not for the water supply, but the for the welfare of their department heads.  These little fiefdoms need to be disbanded and a new system of water services and supply administration needs to be put in place.

Next, the technology that even a high school student has access to, which has been regularly demonstrated on TV shows, needs to be installed on EVERY water treatment plant and ALL water treated, to give every town and city decent quality water, whether it comes from bore supplies, rivers and dams or recycled sources.

Waste river water.  This is a contentious issue also.  The most radical greenies amongst us contend that rivers must not ever be diverted and they will point to the abuse of the Snowy River, where it is a fraction of the mighty river it once was.  True, that is an environmental crime and it needs to be addressed.  However, if we use that as a learning experience and accept that we only need a small amount from a number of rivers which flood multi-mega litres into the oceans daily and in flood times, much, much more, then we must accept that there is much water going to waste that could safely be diverted for better utilisation.

The further result.  The Great Dividing Range separates the coastal rivers right along the eastern seaboard from the drier western plains.  The Snowy River WAS diverted westward in the 1950’s, proving it can be done, with technology that is now 70 years old.  Granted, it was overdone and far too much water was taken from that particular river.  What we need is a feeder supply from some of these east and north flowing rivers to supplement the irregular flows down the Murray Darling system.  Not a diversion, but a supplemental amount only.  However, what is absolutely critical is that the usage of this water for irrigation and industrial purposes is not increased, but only maintained or possibly and preferably reduced, to enable the healing of the river system.

When the rivers are in flood in the summertime wet seasons in the north, then excess flows above what is required for river health in the high rainfall areas could be diverted to the Darling River system.  If, as in the winter of 2008, excess river flows in the Northern River region from disastrous rainfalls and flooding through that area occur, then they could be diverted westward also.  Currently, areas of the Hunter, Manning and Richmond river regions have disaster relief conditions applied because of flooding, while on the other side of the range, over 80% of the state is in drought or near drought conditions.

The problem is not the lack of water; it is in the distribution of the water that is available.  This is the key to the whole situation.

There are enough watchdogs in our systems, from the policing by bureaucrats, to green groups, local action groups and satellite photography and Google Earth to check on the water usage.  In the Hunter Region, a group of grape growers have a satellite controlled irrigation system, privately financed, managing their water flows and irrigation needs, even the sale of excess water between subscribers to the system.  If privateers can do this successfully, then we can certainly scale it up to the point where wasted water can be harvested and utilised elsewhere.

The engineering.  We have GPS technology that will enable us to pinpoint the simplest and easiest routes to take the water across the mountains.  We have the new earthmoving and boring technology that would enable us to pipe water through the mountains to the western slopes with much less trouble than ever before.  We have the pumping systems that will transfer the water much more effectively than ever before.  Seventy years after the brilliant engineering which gave us the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectricity Scheme, we have advanced every area of the engineering abilities we then had, to make this project a reality in each area, with a guaranteed payoff on it’s successful completion.  As discussed elsewhere, with river-based turbines and carefully engineered siphoning systems, supplementary power required for the system could be reduced to the absolute minimum.

Further benefits.  This is not the only country on the planet where this technology would be utilised.  What we learn and demonstrate here could become even more technology that we export and make more of the planet habitable.

As I write, much of China is under water from some amazing flood rains, Burma has been hit with a cyclone and floods have done terrible damage there.  The negative publicity has been enormous, the Generals blocking aid to the millions of people on the Irrawaddy River Delta and this is an area where this technology could change the lives of millions of people.  Floods are a fact of life in many places around the world, while at the same time, neighbouring areas live with drought.

This is where our tiny, but creative and innovative population CAN make a huge difference – not only solving our own problems, but then exporting our technology around the world also.

What can we do immediately?

Forget about 10 year plans.  Look at the data available and act NOW to send the available water downstream to save the valuable Coorongs.

Establish a body to oversee the development of the harvesting of excess Eastern river flood waters and storage along the inland river system.

Plan immediately to divert up to 5% of the major east coast rivers into the Murry Darling system.  Start costings to establish best value for water supply for the first rivers to be harvested for up to 5% of water flow.

Buy currently established private inland water storage reservoirs and further develop them for flood mitigation, storage of surplus water from river diversions, and controlled river system flushings as required.

Build further massive inland water storage areas at strategic locations along the darling for flood mitigation and flushing control, to be filled from the river diversions, but not for irrigation purposes.

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