Friday, 8 August 2008

Hope dries with water in Murray's lower lakes

Meagre flows down the Murray have exposed mudflats near its mouth.

WITH publicly controlled water reserves in the Murray-Darling plunging to a new low, the despondency of communities on the dying lower lakes deepened yesterday as river managers warned there was no chance of transferring water within the basin.

As this dramatic photograph of the Murray mouth and adjoining lakes shows, drought and over-pumping of the river water have wrought more destruction in the past three years than anyone could have imagined.

The fresh water on the right side of the barrage - which for more than 60 years has separated it from the salt water of the Coorong and, beyond the silt-ridden Murray mouth, the Southern Ocean - used to be a massive series of lakes.

In recent years, however, the meagre flows down the Murray have dramatically shrunk the lakes, exposing wide swaths of mudflats, and increasing salinity and the risk of acidification.

The Murray-Darling Basin Commission revealed yesterday that public dams and other reservoirs were barely one-fifth full, when they would normally be between half and two-thirds of capacity. Worse still for struggling farmers and townsfolk at the bottom of the river, the agency dashed any hope of an emergency injection of water from upstream.

"Given the current level of storage, it's not feasible to refill the lakes by transferring water from other parts of the basin without any significant rain," the commission's acting chief executive, Les Roberts, said yesterday.

"As little as 20 per cent of any water released in the north of the basin would reach the lower lakes in South Australia, meaning that four or five times the water needed at the lakes would have to be released from that far upstream."

To the dismay of locals, this will make more likely the controversial option of flooding the lower lakes with seawater and walling them off from the river with a new weir at Wellington, where the Murray meets the lakes about 35km from the existing barrages.

The South Australian Government has committed $30 million to site preparation for the project, and is negotiating to obtain land from fourth-generation farmer Jamie Withers, 37, who is torn by the prospect of the weir across the river. "It would completely change the way we operate," he said.

For others, it is already too late. Neil Shillabeer, 61, walked away from three generations of family history when he gave up the struggle and sold his farm near Narrung, a spit of land between Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert. "It's a cancer that will work its way upriver," Mr Shillabeer said of the lakes' plight.

Clem Mason, 58, is clinging on at his mixed farm on nearby Poltalloch Peninsula. He can't irrigate and the grain crop that used to go to market to plump up his income is now reserved for his dairy herd.

"What we have down here is not a drought on the land ... it is a drought on the lakes," he said. "The water is simply not coming down."

Not only has the mouth of the river visibly narrowed since 2005, but the once-brimming expanses of Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert have given way to lengthening mudflats, which threaten to turn acidic. The river mouth would be choked off entirely without constant dredging.

The grim comparison between what the lower lakes were just three years ago and their near-disastrous state today was underlined by data released by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. In July 2005, Lake Alexandrina contained 1600 gigalitres of water. Now, it holds just 940Gl.

Adjoining Lake Albert, at 100Gl, is down from 280Gl three years ago. The Coorong wetlands, opening onto the Southern Ocean, have tipped into crisis as the lakes dropped below sea level behind a series of barrages constructed in the 1930s. Currently, the level of Lake Albert is 0.3 of a metre below sealevel and requires water piped from Lake Alexandrina, which is at -0.4m.

Scientists fear that increasingly exposed soil beds will become acidic if the lakes fall to 1m below sealevel. SA Water Security Minister Karlene Maywald says this could happen by the middle of the next year if inflows to the river do not improve, forcing the state Government to start preparations to build the new weir upstream at Wellington.

The $120 million-plus project would allow the lakes to be flooded with seawater, protecting them from sulphate acid poisoning but ruining existing freshwater ecologies.

"Every river needs a delta, a wetland," Mr Mason said yesterday. "This is the wetland for the whole Murray River and they are going to cut it off. They are very responsible for their actions, and they are going to be remembered for them."

When full, the lower lakes hold a combined 2200Gl. But their extensive surface area and shallow depth means they lose up to 950Gl annually in evaporation and seepage.

The MDBC estimates that up to 1250Gl would be required to fill the lakes and maintain levels for a year. However, only 350Gl was forecast to flow into them in 2008-09.

Garrett backs Wong on Lower Lakes seawater plan

Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett has reiterated comments by Water Minister Penny Wong that there is not enough water in the Murray-Darling system to save the Lower Lakes, saying they may need to be flooded with seawater.

Mr Garrett says the lakes will either dry up and become acidic or be flooded with salt water if it fails to rain.

The Federal Government is yet to make a final decision on whether to let seawater into the Lower Lakes, although preliminary work has begun.

Mr Garrett says the Government is looking very closely at what measures might be necessary to save the lakes.

"We certainly haven't given up on the lower lakes, but there's no doubt at all that we are in a really terrible situation and we are faced with some incredibly difficult choices," he said.

Udated: 11:43am (AEST)

Fed Govt 'open' to buying Murray-Darling properties

Murray's lower lakes: Anythings worth a try - upstream properties may help it.

A staff member for Federal Water Minister Penny Wong says the Government is open to the idea of buying properties on the Murray-Darling system as a way of returning water to the rivers.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) says federal and state governments should use big water storages on properties in Queensland and New South Wales to help the ailing lower regions of the Murray-Darling system.

The ACF has identified six properties with big water entitlements that are for sale in the basin, including Toorale Station and Darling Farms in New South Wales and Cubbie Station in Queensland.

Dr Arlene Buchan from the ACF says the properties, and others on the market, should be bought and the water used to flush the river system.

"They can provide not only medium- and long-term benefits to the environment but short-term benefits too," she said.

"And it's possible that water could be transferred right through the system to Meningee Lakes and offset water which is released from Meningee Lakes which would reach the lower lakes and the Coorong."

Senator Wong is not available personally to comment on the ACF plan.

A spokeswoman for the Minister says the Government plans to spend $3 billion over the next decade buying up water entitlements to return to the Murray.

She says the Government is open to the idea of talking to willing sellers.

Updated: 4:30pm (AEST)

Buy out water-hoarding properties: ACF

Large water-hoarding properties in the Murray-Darling Basin should be acquired so water can flow to the downstream lower lakes, a conservation group says.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) has called on the federal and state governments to consider buying six properties along the Darling River, in western NSW.

That would provide at least 300 gigalitres of water in the short term which could help revive the struggling river network, ACF healthy rivers campaigner Arlene Buchan said.

"There is actually a lot of water in the northern basin and the government has a golden opportunity to buy that water from willing sellers and transfer it through the system," Dr Buchan said.

"Buying these properties would be a win-win-win for the environment, for the communities in the basin and for willing sellers."

South Australia's freshwater lower lakes, which are at the mouth of the Murray River, are turning to acid because water levels are so low.

Authorities are considering walling off the lakes and flooding them with seawater.

But the ACF wants the government to try to save the lakes by buying up more water from upstream irrigators instead.

The ACF and the Inland Rivers Network have delivered a report to governments detailing which properties should be targeted and how much water they store.

Greens senator for South Australia Sarah Hanson-Young backed the call.

"This new plan from the ACF shows that if we were to release water that is currently being held in the Menindee Lakes immediately, that water would flow down to the Coorong which is where it is needed desperately.

"Over 50 per cent would reach the Coorong and that would help the problem for the moment," Ms Hanson-Young told reporters.

"You could then release water that is bought back from western NSW and Queensland to top up the Menindee lakes - that would avoid the losing water by evaporation that has constantly been used as an excuse for not going down this path.

"The water is available - but we need the political will.


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