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Murray's long journey to health

Hattah Lakes

After decades of false dawns and failed reforms, the long journey to create a plan for the health of the Murray-Darling is almost at a close. The plan is now in the hands of the federal government. And we now have compelling evidence for why the Murray needs higher flows than the current version of the Basin Plan allows.

Newly released scientific research is providing a valuable insight into what the Murray Darling Basin Plan could achieve if national leaders put the Basin’s long-term sustainability ahead of vested interests. 

After months of requests for modelling of higher volumes from environment groups, scientists and politicians, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has modelled the environmental benefits of returning 3200 billion of water to the environment; rather than 2750 billion recommended in the current Basin Plan.

The results show that the extra water would mean the difference between life and death for many of the Basin’s internationally significant wetlands, including the Coorong, Hattah Lakes and Gunbower Forest.

This ACF analysis shows the improvements that 3200 billion litres of additional water can provide over the current 2750 billion litre version of the Basin Plan.

The extra 450 billion litres could provide the river enough flows to flush two million tonnes of salt out to sea a year and to keep its mouth open without the need for dredging. The flushing flows would mean the difference between life and death for the Coorong – the largest internationally significant wetland in the Southern Hemisphere.

By the last drought, decades of unsustainable water use had left the river so weak that its mouth closed over and the Coorong became five times saltier than the sea

The salty water left native flora and fauna struggling to survive and made for the ideal breeding ground for invasive tube worms, which attached themselves to the shells of native freshwater turtles. These bulky parasites weighed down many of the turtles so that the suffocated and drowned.

Conditions were tough for communities at the mouth too. Tourism was all but put on hold, dairy operations dropped by 70 per cent and more than $35 million of South Australian tax payers’ money was spent on dredging in an effort to open up the river mouth.

As this new research shows, improving the Basin Plan to return higher environmental flows is the only way we can restore the Murray’s health and to prevent South Australia from suffering the same fate again.

While it is a step in the right direction, the new modelling shows that 3200 billion litres will not be enough water to stop the decline of all key floodplain wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin

Key areas of floodplain wetlands and large areas of river red gum and black box forests at the Hattah Lakes in Victoria will not be saved under a 3200 billion litre Basin Plan. These magnificent old-growth forests grow on upper floodplains and rely on being intermittently inundated when flows are high enough to spill over the river banks

The recommended increase is an improvement, but still not adequate to protect Basin’s ecosystems against the mounting impacts of climate change.

On top of this, the modelling does not take into account the impacts of extracting large volumes of groundwater, as proposed in the current plan. The modelled increase from 2750 to 3200 billion litres is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough and more work needs to be done before a final plan is tabled in federal Parliament. The majority of South Australian federal members of parliament have been calling for an improved Basin Plan since the release of the draft in late last year.

The Basin Plan is now in the hands of the federal government and the clock for delivering a good plan is ticking. South Australian federal MPs now have a final chance to stand up for a strong Basin Plan which returns the Murray to health.

They recognise that with this Basin Plan comes a rare opportunity to restore our nation’s lifeblood so its wetlands can function as habitat for endangered wildlife and filter river water for communities and industries to use. It’s worth getting the plan right and this new scientific research is evidence that with more environmental water we can.

Call your federal MP to speak up for more environmental water for the Basin.