The mass deaths of fish along the lower reaches of the Darling River in NSW (Broken Hill, Menindee and Wentworth) reminds us of the outbreak of blue-green algae that poisoned hundreds of kilometres of the river in 1991 and 1992. The death of hundreds of thousands of fish due to the low river flow leading to a drop in oxygen levels, is yet another indication that too much water continues to be extracted from the Darling River.
The lower Darling upstream of Menindee has run dry. The river stopped flowing in August 2018, and the remaining waterholes have turned an ugly bright green. The river has become undrinkable, unswimmable and unsuitable for bathing. There is a push by the NSW Government to “decommission” the Menindee Lakes – in other words, to dry them out – which will cause further devastation to the Lower Darling.
This will mean that the cotton irrigators in the Barwon-Darling will no longer be restricted from pumping to ensure Broken Hill’s water supply when Menindee Lakes levels are low. Broken Hill’s water will come from the River Murray via a new pipeline.
This is in spite of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the ongoing impact of climate change. The Basin Plan is a reform to share water between irrigation and the environment. It sets a limit on how much water can be extracted for irrigation and therefore, how much is available to the environment and seeks to protect water set aside for the environment from being extracted for irrigation.
The recent frequent drying of the Darling River is a man-made situation: to sacrifice the Lower Darling River to the interests of the corporate cotton industry upstream in southern Queensland and northern NSW.
That in turn is an indication of the gross mismanagement of the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin, especially by the NSW state government, which has been captured by irrigator interests. As has the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, which has become an ineffective regulator, as it allows amendments to the Basin Plan to increase water available for irrigation through 36 projects that aim to use less environmental water in the Northern Basin.
What results is a consistent management pattern of undermining environment flows on behalf of irrigator interests, who have benefited from cheap water and publicly subsidised infrastructure investment.
A classic example of this mismanagement is what has happened to the Barwon and the Namoi Rivers, both major tributaries in the Murray Darling system. These rivers have run dry and the Narran River has also run dry. The town of Walgett is without water whilst other towns in western NSW (eg., Brewarrina, Broken Hill, Bourke) will face major water crises within weeks.
Niall Blair, the NSW National Party Minister for primary industries and regional water, says its the drought, but the cotton farms around Narrabri in the Naomi River catchment still have plenty of water to irrigate their crops. The water for the Narran River is held in massive dams upstream by irrigators, miners and pastoralists, including the huge Cubbie Station.
Big Cotton is calling the shots on how water is managed in the Barwon-Darling river system as more than 50% of their average inflows are extracted for irrigation. The climate change denying, anti-environmental National Party are the willing servants of Big Cotton. Their policies is to take water away from the ‘greenies’ and give it to agriculture.
Water trade has allowed the consolidation of water to large agribusiness and increasingly foreign institutional investors. Nuts and cotton are becoming the dominant commodities. Both have relatively high gross profit margins.The combination of scale and high gross margin will put pressure on small farms, dairy, and other horticulture.
While high flows will still make it through the Barwon-Darling, filling the floodplains and wetlands, and connecting to the River Murray, the low and medium flow events have disappeared. Instead, these are captured in the upper sections of the basin in artificial water storages and used in irrigation.
This has essentially dried the wetlands and floodplains at the ends of the tributaries. Any water not diverted for irrigation is now absorbed by the continually parched upstream wetlands, leaving the lower reaches vulnerable when drought hits.