THE DEATH OF THE DARLING RIVER

We have all seen the shocking state of the river system that was the life blood for a huge area of QLD, NSW and SA. 

The deaths of millions of fish, some so old they have survived all other water problems, has shocked us all. 

We can blame the drought and agree with Minister Niall, that he is unable to make it rain, but this situation is unprecedented, and as most reports concur, it is the lack of river flow that is the problem. 

The small towns in NSW without water are increasing by the day.  Yes you read that. Correctly. We have entire communities in this state WHO HAVE NO WATER. The most basic and precious commodity for life. 

My mother never expected to pick up the Women’s Weekly and see shocking photos of a massive river system and read of towns with NO water. What the hell has been done to cause this? 

Artesian Basin

Wilcannia, Walgett, Murrurundi, Bourke are without water.  Most of the towns out west rely on bore water and stock is watered also by underground water. However, this supply is being degraded as more water is taken from the Great Artesian Basin. 

The Darling River system has been used and abused for decades. 

Here’s a tale about a person, a place and an industry. 

Wal Murray was the Country Party member for Parkes in the NSW Government and Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries from 1978 – 1984. One day he had a meeting with visiting cotton farmers from the USA. He showed them around his electorate and they were very impressed and told him that they would be interested in setting up a cotton industry around Moree and Wee Waa. Wal thought that this was a brilliant idea. It would benefit his voters and create a great industry for NSW and Australia. The one thing that the visitors were concerned about was access to a good water supply. Wal reassured them that there was plenty of water around for their venture. An unlimited amount of underground water and the Government could help this industry by building dams. 

Cotton Born

The Australian Cotton Industry was born and we were on the road to water shortages. This soon became obvious to governments and they decided to allocate the water to individual farms so that there could be some control on what water was being used, and to create a water industry, where buy backs and the costs could be calculated. However, as usual with all Australia’s natural resources, the water allocated to irrigators was over allocated by a huge amount. 

The cotton industry acreage continued to grow with huge unsustainable cotton farms spreading across the border into QLD. This is despite the conclusion that cotton uses the most water with the least production of any other irrigated crop, including rice and vegetables. (ABC News Alan Kohler business section. His source: Credit Suisse). 

This new industry was a great boon to the towns out west including Wee Waa, Narrabri, Moree etc. But back even then I thought it would be disastrous for the country. I had recently seen a documentary about how the cotton farms in the USSR had taken ALL the water from the Aral Sea. I could see this same thing happening to our fragile, ephemeral rivers.

Ok that’s enough bashing the cotton industry, there is plenty of blame to go around about how successive governments have harmed our natural environment. The whole issue of water sharing is now a Federal issue.

CSG

Over recent times the amount of coal mining and Coal Seam Gas extraction has grown beyond what we ever imagined.  This is undeniable. Both fracking for coal seam gas that occurred in Queensland and the number of coal mines started, were not in the calculation for how much water these activities would need. 

The water produced from fracking is so contaminated that it is unable to be used without costly treatment. This waste is a big secret as no one wants to show us how this waste water is dealt with, where it is going  and how much is used in the mining industry. 

It also appears that when we have water restrictions during a drought, the same restrictions are not placed on the mines that take water from out of the catchments. 

In a recent article by Nick Feik published in the estimable The Saturday Paper (March 8th) he quotes the Murray Darling Basin Authority as admitting that up to 50% of the surface water extractions in the northern basin are unmetered. This means that no one knows how much water is being used and how much is being wasted. The whole article is well worth reading as it describes what it is like to live in a town without water. 

Threat to Our Basin

Not only are the mining industry and the cotton farmers benefiting from unsustainable and environmentally harmful practices, but there is now a new threat to the Murray Darling Basin called ‘water harvesting’.  

In the northern basin ie: Queensland, farmers are putting in swales to stop flood waters from moving through the landscape, and damming it on their individual properties. These farmers get taxation assistance to put in these structures. This is another reason no water is flowing into the system. 

This is what I have observed travelling every year from the Manning Valley to the top end of Queensland. Firstly, our son lived in Narrabri and we were visiting him, and there was a plague of flies and we commented on how bad they were. He replied, “Don’t worry about them the cotton farmers will be spraying in a few weeks and all the flies will be gone.” I thought, ‘And also all the bees, lady beetles and other beneficial insects. Is this part of the reason for our shortage of bees?  

We were staying at Lightning Ridge and a flood was coming down the river system from Ord. The people in Lighning Ridge were very excited about the prospect of having water in the Narran River once again. However, they were unaware of what was happening at Dirranbandi just over the border. There were tankers lined up in Dirranbandi, with fuel for the water pumps at Cubbie Station to take the flood waters from the river and put it into their huge Turkey Nest Dams. 

The Narran River missed out on the water for another season. 

Seeing the Country

Going and coming into Queensland we tried to take different roads to explore more of the country. We noticed several things about Queensland that were a bit disturbing. One trip we were travelling when the Olympic Games were on. Listening to the radio, we were amazed that the sports commentators were claiming that “Queensland has won another Gold Medal”. We laughed  about this and thought we were maybe in a different country. We also noticed that on every river that flowed from Queensland into NSW there was a weir open on the Queensland side of the border, thereby preventing more water from flowing into NSW. 

The other thing we noticed was that Queenslanders believe that the water that falls in Queensland belongs to Queenslanders. There may be some people who are exceptions to this statement but we haven’t yet met them.

Systemic Problems

If the Murray Darling Basin Authority cannot fix these systemic problems, then most of the towns in the western districts will be de-populated. This is ironic, as when the Basin Authority published their first plans to save some of the water for the environment, small towns were up in arms about what these water restrictions would do to their communities. They said that their small town would be socially and financially  affected and to demonstrate their anger at the proposals, they burned the documents produced by the Authority. 

Now these towns and environs are dying because of the lack of water. Nothing can survive long without water; land, animals, us, the planet.  What have we done? Is it too late to turn things around?

There’s an election looming. Ask the hard questions – Who truly cares and who will save our country? Who will protect us from the big polluters, the water thieves and big business?   

Christine Gibbons. 

Tinonee, NSW. 

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