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Australia risks losing one of its greatest natural icons through government neglect, a coalition of groups has warned.
According to research released this month the Coorong, at the mouth of the Murray River in South Australia, is in terminal decline and risks permanent collapse unless more water is provided for the Murray.
Scientific studies and surveys of the internationally-protected area show:
* Pelicans have not bred for almost four years. The Coorong was Australia's largest permanent breeding colony;
* Brine shrimp, never before recorded in the Coorong, are now as thick as soup;
* Salinity levels are three times that of sea water;
* 12 species of fish are locally extinct. Migratory wader birds have dropped from 150,000 in the 1980s to 50,000. The curlew sandpiper dropped from 40,000 to 2000.
The research comes as environment ministers meet on Friday to discuss the Murray.
"This is a national emergency. There is nothing in the world that compares to the Coorong, which was memorialised in Storm Boy. So it's incomprehensible that Australians will allow this icon to totally collapse," said Dr Paul Sinclair, Environment Victoria's Healthy Rivers Campaign Director.
"The Murray needs water now. It has been promised water but not a drop has been delivered by governments."
The Coorong was entering an unprecedented state of decline which, once established, had little hope of recovering, said Catherine Way of the Conservation Council of South Australia. The ruppia plant, which underpins the Coorong ecosystem, has virtually disappeared.
"No plants means fewer fish and fewer birds. As salinity builds in the rest of the river the ability to irrigate crops will also be reduced," she said.
Dr Arlene Buchan of the Australian Conservation Foundation said the whole river system was at risk: "It's not just the Coorong. All the way up the Murray there are signs of severe ecological decline. 75% of river red gums are stressed, dead or dying. They will disappear, along with fish, birds and other wildlife, unless real water is returned to the Murray. That means governments purchasing water entitlements."
Nick Roberts of the Victorian National Parks Association said: "Australia has signed the Ramsar treaty to say we would maintain the ecological character of the Coorong as it was in 1985. We are failing this promise."