The Murray in Myth, history and reality.

Presented to Saving the Murray, problems and prospectsOrganised by the Centre for Applied Philosophy, Flinders University, Adelaide

February 16, 2001

Åsa Wahlquist, Rural Writer The Australian

The Murray is a river that for too long has divided us.

The United States has the great Mississippi. It is a symbol of manifest destiny, the US drive to go west and populate the country. It is home to several great cities, the site of that American classic Huckleberry Finn. It is a river that unifies the nation, that feeds the US soul.

Mark Twain claimed the Murray could be our Mississippi. There are many myths surrounding the Murray, but it could never claim to be what the Mississippi calls itself, the pulse of the nation. Certainly the Murray is our foodbowl. But it is also source of much interstate rivalry, of conflicting demands between different users, between those who see wealth in the water that flows through it, and those who want the river returned to more natural flow patterns.

The Murray is a very potent symbol of what this nation has valued.

Water is the key to wealth in so many communities: put simply while rural communities across the sheep-wheat belt are declining, those in irrigation areas, along the Murray are thriving. Some could even been described as boom towns.

But the river has also, over the past decade, become valued for itself.

Water is now so prized that communities have fractured along irrigator/non irrigator lines and there is competition between regions for scarce water resources. Add to that those calling for a restoration of the Murray’s environment, the river and the floodplain, all competing for a very very limited resource, and you have incredible divisions. Some are due to personal values, others to financial aspirations and investments, and others are due simply to where people live along the river.

Freshwater ecologist, Dr Terry Hillman, tells me that, as a child in the mallee, he used to get bull-ants from one nest, drop them into another and watch the eruption. He suggests that you could follow a similar strategy along the Murray, taking members of one community into a meeting in another and watching the arguments start.

Because I believe that the area you come from is a great determinant in how you look at the Murray, along with you occupation and personal values, I’ll start by stating my personal position.

I am a fifth generation South Australian. My maternal grandfather, after serving his country as an ANZAC at Gallipolli, obtained a soldier settlers irrigation block at Barmera, in the Riverland. My parents farmed at Mudgee in central west NSW, on the eastern edge of the Murray Darling Basin. I first became interested in water management when I covered the 1,000 kilometre long blue green algal outbreak in the Darling River, in December 1991. I was then working for the Sydney Morning Herald, where I covered the management of the NSW Rivers for several years. Since 1997 I have worked for The Australian, writing about the management of the Murray Darling Basin from a national perspective. Water management is just about the most interesting subject to report on: it taps in so deeply to our national values. It is integral to our history, to our rural and economic development and, in many parts of the country, to our aspirations and identity.

I want to begin by looking at the history of the management of the River Murray. The great American Writer William Faulkner said “the past is not dead and gone; it isn’t even past”. This is so true for the Murray.

There are many myths associated with the Murray.

Many indigenous stories about the creation of the river feature that other powerful symbol of the river, the Murray Cod.

Paul Sinclair is a historian who has written a cultural history of the Murray since second world war, which will be published later this year. I owe some of the ideas in this paper to discussions with Paul. He says Aboriginal creation stories vary between regions, but the

general narrative remains similar. One version recounts how a hunter from Creation times chased a giant Murray cod from NSW to Lake Alexandrina. The bends and reaches of the river were formed as the fish thrashed along the channel.

The Murray was a well populated water course. Captain Charles Sturt, the first white man to travel down the Murray, in 1830, estimated he saw at least 4,000 Aborigines living on the Murray alone in his 88 day journey.

The Coorong is believed to have been the most populated area. Home to the

Ngarrindjeri it had freshwater and abundant food resources. Aboriginal people harvested those resources in a variety of ways, including woven fish scoops and fish traps constructed out of stone.

The Murray was the source not only of food and shelter, tools and clothing, it was of immeasurable spiritual significance to its indigenous inhabitants.

The Murray was first used by settler Australians for transport in the 1860s. The advent of irrigation in 1880s provoked the first disputes about river management: South Australians wanted the river managed to facilitate the passage of steam boats – they had a vision of Goolwa being the New Orleans of Australia – but New South Wales wanted the river managed for irrigation.

I should say I am indebted for the following analysis to Daniel Connell from the Murray Darling Basin Commission and his paper on the 1902 Corowa River Murray Water Conservation Conference.

Australian colonial governments saw the promotion of economic development as their most important role. By Federation all the arable land was taken up: the only opportunity for further development was through irrigation.

In the lead up to Federation, NSW premier George Reid said his state needed unfettered access to water because irrigation was “the only chance we had to making our remote interior a hive of human industry”. It was an opinion echoed by Victorian minister Alfred Deakin, who brought the Chaffey Brothers, arguably the founders of Australian irrigation, to Australia.

For their part the Chaffeys wrote about their Australian efforts: “there is no nobler task for human enterprise in the present day than that which is to be found in the great pioneer work of colonisation”.

Tensions between NSW and Victoria were exacerbated by uncertainty over legal rights to the water, because the border of NSW started on the southern bank of the Murray.

South Australians were frustrated by their complete lack of influence on up-river management, prior to Federation.

At the constitutional convention, South Australia wanted irrigation brought under the national constitution. Management of the rivers was debated for weeks. They spent more time discussing the river than any other issue, and it almost de-railed federation. The up-river states wanted to use the water for irrigation, with NSW flatly refusing to discuss the Darling which all lay within that state: South Australia feared NSW would drain the waters of the river, and leave South Australia a dry stream.

John Hirst, in his book The Sentimental Nation, writes that the Commonwealth got the power to control river navigation, but NSW insisted that be offset by their right to irrigate. Hirst says it is “a right not often noticed by those looking for rights in the Constitution. A state and its people had ‘the the use of waters of rivers for conservation and irrigation’. But then the clever South Australians inserted ‘reasonable’ before ‘use’ and Reid and co could not get it out again.”

Alfred Deakin said that section of the Constitution was the most complex and obscure part of the whole Constitution, “and it will be extremely difficult to determine first, what are our rights and powers, and next, the most tactful and effective way of asserting them.”

The final result was that four states and one territory have jurisdiction over the land and waters of the one basin, the Murray Darling. It is a situation that has lead to a century of simmering, if not outright, disputation.

The lines being drawn are still much the same as they were before Federation: NSW asserts the right to irrigate. South Australia still looks to Federal intervention to protect its rights: the South Australian Senator, Robert Hill, who is also Environment Minister is on record saying that the Federal Government needs to take greater control of water management, because the current system was failing the Murray. He was, at the time, incensed by the increased diversions taken by Queensland from the top of the system.

Discussions between the states about the River Murray resumed in Corowa in 1902. But it wasn’t until 1915 that NSW, Victoria, South Australia and the Federal Governments actually signed the River Murray Waters Agreement. It was another two years before the commission charged with enacting the agreement was set up. It resulted in the construction of most the infrastructure still used today to regulate the river: a series of locks and weirs, Lake Victoria water storage and later the construction of the Hume and Dartmouth dams and the barrages at the Murray mouth.

The agreement guaranteed flows to South Australia; water sharing between NSW and Victoria; and provided a framework to co-operate on other matters.

Australia as a country that was colonised after the industrial age has a unique history. And perhaps no where is it more unusual that in the role governments took in setting up irrigation and closer settlement schemes. The aim was to both populate the inland with a society of sturdy yeoman farmers, and to produce food for consumption at home and to earn export income abroad, to make the desert bloom, to turn water into gold.

In NSW the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area was set up between 1906 and 1913.

After the First World War soldier settlement schemes were established in South Australia’s Riverland.

After World War II, further War Service Land Settlement Schemes were established in SA and Robinvale in Victoria. Coleambally Irrigation south of the MIA, developed between 1956 and 1969.

Since the sixties most irrigation expansion has been due largely to individuals, particularly along the Darling and its northern NSW tributaries and southern Queensland, in areas that previously had seen little irrigation development.

Paul Sinclair says that we are better at understanding the science about the Murray, even though that is limited, that we are at understanding the cultural tools that we have used to make decisions about the river.

The phrase “making the desert bloom” was used in the late nineteenth century. It’s an interesting phrase, given that throughout history, making the deserts bloom has always lead to salinity problems. The floodplains of the Tigris and Euphrates were irrigated for wheat in the fourth century BC. By 3500 BC rising salt made half the area unsuited to wheat and by 1700 BC no wheat would grow at all.

Ernestine Hill’s book, Water into Gold published in 1937, popularised that phrase. It was written on the fiftieth anniversary of the irrigation towns of Mildura and Renmark. The book described how irrigation and regulation of the Murray had “annihilated deserts” and distributed “Nature’s best gifts for the benefit and beauty of man”.

Paul Sinclair says these foundation myths and stories are used to justify the changes we are making, and they continue to influence the decisions we think we can make.

He says that what underlies both phrases is a belief that what was originally there – the saltbush, black box, the mallee – had no value. He says it is based on the belief that you could stop history, and ignore it, and create something new without the past, present and the future being connected. This, of course, is diametrically opposed to the ecological view, which sees all life as intricately interconnected: alter one factor and changes ripples throughout the entire ecosystem.

The environmental cost of development has been huge: more than 30 species of plants and animals have become extinct in the basin, and another 70 are critically endangered. Fifteen billion trees have been lost in the past 200 years.

It was under those old values that the Snowy River was turned westwards, its waters used to generate electricity and irrigate the Riverine plains. Back then, the implications of transforming the rivers were barely understood. There was virtually no study into the effects of regulation on flora and fauna of the river. It was believed that technology and science would provide any answers that were needed.

There is no doubt the Snowy Scheme would not get through the first stages of an Environmental Impact Statement these days.

Nonetheless these values live on. At a meeting at Wilcannia on the Darling River during the 1994 drought, I heard locals call for the Clarence River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean, to be turned westwards. In writing a story in 1998 on a proposal to dam the Fitzroy River in the Kimberley region for irrigation, one of the proponents told me how so much water flowed into the sea, wasted.

And in the last NSW election, national party leader, George Souris promised more dams on in the Murray-Darling. Not surprisingly, that drew an angry response from South Australian deputy premier, Rob Kerin, who countered that NSW instead of, to use his words, “grabbing water back from South Australia”, should do something about their own system, and look to their national responsibilities.

In promising NSW country voters a dam, Souris was congruent with a long-standing Australian political tradition: if there is an election looming, promise them dams. They are particularly familiar with this in Queensland. Ernie Bridge a former West Australian Labor parliamentarian turned independent in part so he could lobby for his Water Australia plan, that would divert the abundant waters of the north west, southwards.

The environment has been slowly factored in over the past half century. By the early 1950s there was acknowledgement the red gum forests were dying. In the 1970s following the construction of Dartmouth dam, the largest red gum forest in the country at Barmah was drying out and dying. A campaign using slogans like “Barmah dying for a drink” was mounted. The forest eventually received an environmental allocation of water. Just this past summer, that allocation was used for just the second time to ensure high waters necessary for a major bird breeding event. There has been an increase in the numbers of birds breeding and three species of frogs were recorded in the forest for the first time.

Cotton growing began in NSW in the 1960s. At that stage water department officials could not give water licences away in northern NSW. By the 1980s interest in cotton was growing, and so were water allocations for irrigation. The value of water skyrocketed. These days, 972 megalitre water licences on the Gwydir are worth $1.45 million – that’s if you can find one.

The seventies and eighties brought a growing awareness of the environment, which translated into politics with the successful 1983 fight to save the Franklin from damming in Tasmania.

I think the turning point for the management of the Murray Darling system came with the 1,000 kilometre blue-green algal outbreak in the Darling river in November/December 1991.

The interest city people, who would have been hard pressed to identify the Darling in a map, showed in the river was astonishing.

It resulted in a huge attitudinal change in the water managers. I clearly remember the then head of NSW Water Resources, Peter Millington, telling me that it was as if the Darling had suffered a massive riverine heart attack. He acknowledged that the Department’s practice, of damming and allocating water along the tributaries with no consideration for the Darling itself, had been, to use his words again “developed in ignorance”. NSW water managers acknowledged that too much water was being extracted.

The problem the NSW government then faced was, having got to that point, with growers who had invested millions in infrastructure on the basis of waters licences they had legally purchased, how did the government then clawback water allocations?

This is an enormous problem, one I think the southern states routinely underestimate in returning NSW water management to a more balanced system.

The entire climate of water management changed in 1994 with the water resource reforms of the Council of Australian Governments, COAG. The aim was “to arrest the widespread natural resource degradation”.

Among the reforms are the environment being allocated water and full cost recovery or water.

Any new water schemes must be both “economically viable and ecologically sustainable”. Building a dam would never be the same again.

These reforms are part of National Competition Policy.

In 1999 Queensland had $15 million in National Competition Policy payments suspended due to its failure in ensuring the economic viability and ecological sustainability of new rural water schemes.

On July 1, 1995 the Murray Darling Basin put a cap on extractions at 1993/4 levels of development. This was a direct response to the threat facing the environment of the Murray Darling Basin due to too much water being diverted from the river system. State authorities then began the highly complex task of allocating water for environmental needs. The cap became permanent in 1997.

Something that is too often overlooked in the interstate slanging matches that regularly break out about the Murray, is how different the histories of water allocation are in each state.

South Australia had the most conservative, with a cap on water use since 1969. It completed the task of environmental allocations first.

The Victorian irrigation system focussed on permanent plantings, and water management was designed to maximise security. It completed its environmental allocations after SA.

In NSW most irrigation is used on annual crops. They have a lower security of supply aimed at maximising the current year’s crop. NSW also had to deal with some extraordinary situations, like that on the Gwydir River, where licences had been issued to provide 525,000Ml, but Copeton dam only had an annual average inflow of 445,000Ml.

Allocating environmental flows has been an arduous process in NSW, involving considerable political and financial pain that I think Victorian and South Australians tend to dismiss in their criticisms of that state.

That said, it is also the case that NSW, according to the review of cap implementation for 1998/99 has increased extractions along the Barwon/Darling, with a 42 per cent increase in on-farm storage capacity and 33 per cent increase in area planted over the 1993/4 levels.

Queensland has not yet signed off on the cap. It was exempted from this originally on the basis that water development in that state lagged behind the others. Queensland is currently undertaking their Water and Allocation Management Plans with a slowness that drives southern states into a frenzy. The Queensland attitude to harvesting water from floodplains also raises the ire of the southern states.

How the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council deals with Queensland and with NSW’s Barwon Darling will be a real test of its resolve.

Finally, I have talked about the myths of the past century in water management.

There are a couple of modern myths that I would like to diffuse.

In any interstate discussion of river management, be it the Murray-Darling Basin Commission Ministerial Council meetings, or river dwellers chewing over the problems of the system, there is inevitably some serious blaming. It is all too easy, and not entirely accurate, to lay the blame on Queenslanders, cotton or rice growers.

Let me set the record straight.

The Queensland rivers contribute just four per cent of the Murray’s flow, and about two per cent of the salt.

The Darling River contributes an average of 12 per cent of the Murray’s flow.

The most environmentally damaging use of irrigation water is on pasture. According to the 1996 State of the Environment report, irrigated pasture has a significant to severe environmental impact, mainly on rising water tables and salinisation.

Rice has a significant impact.

Cotton has a moderate to significant impact, through downstream impact of pesticides, large-scale water use in areas of limited water availability.

Horticulture has a slight to moderate impact through localised impact of pesticides, and subsurface saline drainage water.

Rice can only be grown over non-leaking clay, identified by electromagnetic surveys. Murray Irrigation Limited strictly controls rice growers’ water use: any grower going over a set limit has their water cut off. It is, to my knowledge, the only industry operating under such a strict environmental control.

All runoff water on cotton farms is re-circulated, collected in tail water drains then returned to the main dam for re-use. This is due to both economic considerations, water is very expensive – remember those $1.45 million water licences on the Gwydir, and environmental imperatives. State departments monitor water quality. Chemical contamination of rivers can result in prosecution and fines of up to one million dollars.

Cotton actually uses less water per hectare than maize, soybeans, citrus and rice.

The major source of salt in the lower Murray is from South Australia itself: in fact 40 per cent of the salt comes from inside the state.

Some is due to naturally salty aquifers, but the real culprit is the extensive clearing of the mallee over the past 50 years. That will contribute significantly to future salt loads.

It might not pack the same punch to blame mum and dad farmers watering their pastures, or the post World War 2 land clearers rather than those well-heeled cotton growers, but if we are serious in looking for solutions we need to clearly identify the cause of the problems.

If we are to find a solution to the problems besetting the Murray, we need to move beyond parochialism, beyond blame, and see through the many myths that have shaped how we see it.

We need to find a unifying vision, one that encompasses a healthy river and floodplains, vibrant communities. We might not ever reach the love Americans hold for the Mississippi. The Murray might not ever be imbued with the spiritual power of the Ganges or the Nile, but the Murray is our greatest river. How we treat it, is a great measure of who we are, and what we value as a nation.

Remember Faulkner saying: “the past is not dead and gone; it isn’t even past”. 18,000 years ago the Murray basin was a salt desert. If we continue to manage as we have for the past 100 years, it will again become one.

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