The Murray Darling is a national crisis.
70% of Australia's fresh food, and one third of our wheat are grown there.
Draining a wetland in Queensland affects farmers in NSW and schoolkids in Adelaide.
The river is dying from the mouth up.
Kayak4earth recently undertook an expedition from Echuca to Melbourne, up the Goulburn River, over the Great Dividing Range and down the Yarra River into Melbourne to highlight the impact of the North South Pipeline on the Murray Darling River basin.
A new barrage is being built to flood Lakes Alexandrina and Albert with sea water. Locals lay crosses to mark the death of the river. The government feels that it won't look as bad as a dry river bed, below sea level.
The river at Echuca was low. Paddling against the current caused no difficulties and it was only 17km up the Murray before the Goulburn River entered. That is where the difficulties started, shallow sections, fast current, log jams, weirs and vegetation all combining to make the 370km upstream paddle to Killingworth a tough battle.
I got stronger on the way. Paddling as hard as possible, inching forwards and fighting to ensure that I was not swept backwards with an inevitable dunking in the icy waters, builds strength of character and strength of body. But that’s the physical side. On the way we met great people and started to understand the issues better.
Well meaning mates were concerned that I did not let politically motivated activists lead me into making strong statements that could harm my reputation as a professional engineer. We were asked whether we would really let Melbourne run out of water.
There is a simple issue here. We all know that the Murray River is dying. It does not reach the sea. Because we built a dam at the end of it in 1940, it is now way below sea level, retreating on itself, getting shorter. Parts of the lower lakes look like the Aral Sea with jetties sitting on the ground, boats lying forlornly on their sides where once they bobbed about.
Amidst this devastation, Victoria is constructing a pipeline 1.7m in diameter to suck water out of the river for the citizens of Melbourne. Climbing out of the river at Killingworth and dragging the kayak over the range, I walked beside this giant straw for sixty kilometres.
To justify the pipleine a “Food Bowl Modernisation Project” is underway. This is supposed to provide a win: win: win situation for everyone concerned, including the river. We are told this is a complex issue, the savings are real and we will all be better off with Melbourne taking 75 billion litres of water from the Murray Basin every year.
To me this is pure spin. It is fraudulent and insulting to our intelligence. Quite simply, we cannot make water. The alleged savings are 225 billion litres of water per year. They are comprised of three sources, approximately of one third each. These are seepage and leaks, metering and outfalls.
Seepage and leaks is water that soaks through the bottom of the irrigation channels into the ground. It has been going on for over a hundred years. If we stop that from occurring then we reduce some of the ground salinity problems, but where has this water been going? It won’t all fit in the ground so it has been flowing somewhere and the only place that t can go is back into the rivers. Lining the channels does not provide one extra litre of water for the river. In fact, it reduces inflow to the river.
Metering is all about the old dethridge wheel which is inaccurate and because of that farmers have been allowed a surplus over the measured amount. New flume gates are much more accurate so now that surplus is disallowed. In effect this is simply a cut in the amount of water going to irrigators. You can see why they might be upset. From the point of view of the river, if this really has the effect of reducing irrigation, then it might be a good thing, but not if the equivalent amount is pumped over the Great Dividing Range to Melbourne. It is simply sacrificing food production, food destined for all of us, including Melbourne, in favour of water for a large city.
Last but not least, is outfalls. These are concrete channels that you can see cascading down the banks into the river. It is water not used in the giant irrigation network that simply flows back into the river. The idea is to stop flow from these outfalls, to not take the water out upstream in the first place. The convoluted logic evolving from this is that it is a saving of water.
So that is the total of the modernization project. None of it is of any benefit to the Murray River. It is simply a grab for water for Melbourne. It is at the expense of a dying river. Surely if our rivers die, then we die. This is a very serious issue, it has in it the seeds of destruction of society, and yet most people seem to believe the rationalized, irrational and accept that this is what we have to do. If we do not make a stand now, then when do we make a stand? My great fear is that we will wait too long and it will be too late.
The 105km slide down the Yarra would have been fun if the time constraints had not been so tight. Melbourne threw high winds and soaking rain at us for the finish. It was a fitting end to a distressing journey.
Returning home via the Lower Murray confirmed all of my fears. The madness is just as evident there. Damming the Finnis in a fish breeding hole, failure to listen to locals, the sickening site of the colour of the Murray 400km upstream, the desperation in the voices of the locals, all combined to increase my pessimism. On a brighter note though, we have the makings of a very powerful documentary which we will aim to produce by Easter 2010.