Lake Alexandrina, south of Milang. Image courtesy Iain Morton
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
Dorothea Mackellar 1877
River flows have always been variable in this ‘land of droughts and flooding rains’.
The evidence is that the unique water system of rivers and wetlands at the Mouth of the Murray remained relatively stable and restored itself after drought events. The Ngarrindjeri maintained permanent settlements throughout the region. There are numerous nineteenth century accounts of the freshwater system, from 1820s sealers and whalers on Kangaroo Island who told of the existence of a freshwater lake on the mainland, the explorer Sturt (1830), travellers, and graziers, including one family who drove their cattle from the port of Adelaide until they found abundant grazing on the shores of a vast freshwater lake where the family still farms.
Studies suggest that the Mouth did not close for at least 8,000 years. Geomorphological modelling shows that prior to the development of industries dependent on water extraction the average flow through the Murray Darling Basin system was 12, 233 GL. The average flow was reduced to around 4,700 GL by 2010 (Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists Sustainable Diversion Limits in Murray Darling Basin June 2010 (CSIRO 2011). Under natural conditions, flow out of the Murray Mouth was greater than 2,000 Megalitres per day ninety five percent of the time (Sims and Muller).
Within 100 years of non-Indigenous occupation, in 1889, South Australia complained of water extractions in New South Wales and Victoria as salt water encroached upon the Lakes. In 1908 the Mouth ‘sanded up’. Upstream extractions of water and the construction of locks and dams continued to reduce river flows. Construction of five barrages at Goolwa, Tauwitcherie, Boundary Creek, Ewe Island and Mundoo Island) began in June 1935 and was completed in February 1940. The barrages measure 7.6 km long and were built to maintain fresh water to communities, provide for irrigation and safe navigation, and in extreme events, to stop the incursion of seawater. By 1941 the system of freshwater lakes was stable again. (SA Government Fact Sheet The Lower Murray Lakes and Coorong 2011)
In 1981, the Murray Mouth closed for the first time in millennia. Between 1981 and 1985 water consumption increased by 50%.
No-one knew the River Lakes and Coorong better than fisherman and river advocate the late Henry Jones, who fished the waters for more than 50 years. His account of the Life and Times of the Coorong is at http://www.civictrust.net.au/WAC-HenryJones110430.pdf
Murray the Musical tells the story: ‘In 2003, the drought began. With no rainfall here and no flows down the Darling or upper Murray, irrigation allocations were reduced but the barrages stayed closed, the Murray Mouth was dredged to keep it open, the water levels in the Lakes decreased and salt levels rose. People started finding turtles with such growths of tube worms (a marine organism) on their shells that they were unable to move. Many died. Some were brought to the Milang School and the Turtle Project developed. School children carefully removed the tube worms. Over 3000 turtles were rehabilitated in the Turtle Shed and, when strong enough, released upstream in SA into less salty water.
[image of school turtle project]
As the level of the water below Lock 1 at Blanchetown fell, beaches appeared, farmers on Lake Albert walked their pipelines up to 3km out from shore to get water, and on Lake Alexandrina there was talk of engineering solutions.The Ramsar Wetlands of the Lakes and Coorong were to be sacrificed and left to turn into salt-ridden wastelands devoid of wildlife. Noone listened to the people of the Lakes and their local environmental knowledge’. (Silver Moon and Friends)
It was necessary to dredge the Mouth to keep it open from 2005 to 2015
In 2006 the River Lakes and Coorong Action Group (RLCAG), led by Henry Jones and environmental farmer Anne Hartnett, formed to stop the building of a weir at Wellington.
By 2011 there were signs of a dying river: poor water quality, frequent algal blooms, hazardous levels of salinity and acid sulphate soils, declining native flora and fauna levels. [Australian Conservation Foundation Briefing Paper August 2011]
By 2012 Lake Albert was disconnected from Lake Alexandrina by the bund at Narrung Narrows. Dam walls erected at Clayton Bay and across Currency Creek disconnected fresh water tributaries from Lake Alexandrina. Salinity levels rose in isolated tributaries, native fish refuges were destroyed, carp populations grew quickly and conditions favoured algal blooms. The ecology of the Coorong changed and the South lagoon became hyper saline. Water levels approached the acidification trigger point identified by the South Australian government. Independent experts and community groups contested the claimed risk of acidification, pointing out that acid sulfate soils disappeared with bioremediation and when fresh water levels were restored.
[image of Clayton regulator]
Listen to Henry Jones, River Lakes and Coorong Action Group spokesperson, commercial fisher for 46 years, 6th generation fishing family, address the Alexandrina Council on January 15th 2007.
Throughout this time, from 2006 to the present people have continued to advocate for the River, Lakes and Coorong, speaking out, advocating to governments, writing submissions, fundraising, participating in consultations, seminars and campaigns. During this time the satirical Murray the Musical was born.
LINK TO Everything is connected on Murray the Musical
RLCAG has provided commentary and critique on policies that impact on the health of the River, Lakes and Coorong; conducted seminars; written some 25 submissions regarding government inquiries and actions on environmental matters; organised and participated in a range of events; campaigned for environmental water and bioremediation of acid sulphate soils. Campaigns have included the Freshwater Embassy and the Water Election Team (WET). In the federal election of 2009 then Chair of RLCAG Dr Diane Bell stood as an Independent candidate on the Water issue. In October 2011 we organised a packed People’s Forum on Water in the Hawke Centre, University of South Australia, Adelaide.
The impact of a major ongoing campaign on a community fighting for their livelihoods and the land around them cannot be underestimated. However, the state government’s engineering solutions that the people of this region protested against, were reversed. The proposed weir at Pomanda Point did not go ahead. The regulator (dam) on Currency Creek was removed, as were the regulator at Narrung and the regulator at Clayton.
The development and enactment of the Murray Darling Basin Plan administered by the independent federal Murray Darling Basin Authority, gives hope. Above average rainfall in the Basin has delivered high flows. However people in this region remain acutely aware of the impact of variable flows and changing climate, of opposition to the Murray Darling Basin Plan and the ongoing underlying issue of overallocation upstream.