Keep the flows coming for the Coorong

The Coorong was at its scenic best on Tuesday 8 May when I took a delegation of Indian water managers and engineers on a tour of the Lower Lakes, Murray Mouth and Coorong. The sun came out as we arrived at Goolwa barrage to hear about the complexities of managing the last water-control structures in the Murray-Darling Basin, 2370 km from the headwaters of the Murray River.

We were privileged to travel across the length of the barrages, with kind permission and an escort from the Department of Environment and Water. Out of 225 gates across five barrages only two gates were open, as the lakes are now filling again after being held at low levels to benefit fish and waterbirds in the Coorong. We could see the two open gates from far away, by the cluster of waterbirds looking for a feed of fish. As we got closer we could see the long-nosed fur seals were there too. Hopefully the protective covers give the native fish a reasonable chance to get through the barrage alive!

As we progressed across the sand islands of Hindmarsh, Mundoo and Ewe Islands to the Coorong, we enjoyed the classic scenes of sandhills reflected in shimmering blue expanses of water and huge flocks of ducks taking off in sequential waves as our bus approached along the causeways. The iconic pelicans were there, with black swans, crested terns, chestnut teal, grey teal, cormorants, coots and grebes.

It was a peaceful scene but misleading, as we travelled along the barrages on the same day as a critical vote was happening in Federal Parliament, affecting how much water will flow to the Coorong and Murray Mouth in the future. We saw the dredges working busily at the Murray Mouth to keep a connection open from the river channels to the sea. There is still a long way to go to ensure that enough water will flow to remove the dredges from the Mouth and to sustain the mudflats to feed the migratory waders which fly from Siberia every summer.

The Indian delegation is in Australia to learn about sound water management from our experiences and also how to learn from our less-than-perfect outcomes. They found themselves in the middle of our evolving implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, with all the twists and turns of the politics. Standing at the Murray Mouth, they could see the importance of having enough water to flow to the end of the system and keep the Mouth open. While the latest environmental flows helped black bream to spawn, they came too late for migratory waders which decided to cancel their annual summer migration to the Coorong.

As we travelled across the barrages, the lesson was clear — the Basin Plan will only work with real environmental flows delivered all the way down the system. The future serenity of the Coorong depends on continued river flows reaching this iconic location.

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Meeting with MP Tony Pasin on Basin Plan achieved ‘screaming agreement’!

Healthy Rivers Ambassadors Rosa and Anne had an opportunity on 30 April to talk to Tony Pasin, Federal MP for Barker, to put our view that the Basin Plan needs improvement before the SDL amendment is passed. Tony gave us his view first, that the choice was black and white, agree to this Plan in its current form or there will be no Plan. He believes that New South Wales and Victoria will walk away from the Plan if the amendment is not passed.

Having stated his viewpoint, he did continue to talk with us for 50 minutes and we were able to put forward evidence of the doubts around the 36 supply projects and doubts about whether the 2107 GL held by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder is all real water.

We emphasised that we want a Basin Plan but we want one that is effective, not rendered ineffective by compromise. However, when we talked about needing the 450 GL for flows and transporting salt out of the Basin, we hit a snag. Tony has been convinced that the 32 GL which he understands is South Australia’s share of the 450 GL could mean shutting down the whole Riverland irrigation industry. He said that SA irrigators just can’t give any more to environmental water.

We tried to convince him that it wouldn’t just be irrigators who have to find the extra water and the benefits help the whole Basin, but we didn’t have enough specific information to persuade him. We should develop more information on this point and follow up from this meeting, to try to demonstrate to Tony the benefits of the 450GL for all Basin communities and particularly his electorate.

Tony’s summary of the meeting was that we were ‘in screaming agreement’! We all want the Basin Plan but we have different ideas about how to achieve that end!

tony pasin, anne & rosa (2)

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Campaigning for Key Vote coming up on Murray-Darling Basin Plan

At short notice, representatives of Healthy Rivers Ambassadors and Conservation Council of South Australia scrambled to get to a meeting with Shadow Water & Environment Minister Tony Burke last Friday morning to discuss the upcoming Federal Senate vote on 8 May. It was a very positive meeting, with Tony encouraging us to continue our campaign calling for improvements to the Basin Plan before the proposed 605 GL reduction in the water recovery target can be approved.

Tony agreed with us that the efficiency projects to deliver 450 GL for additional river health benefits need to be sped up and their delivery should be tied to any agreement to the proposed Plan amendment. The supply projects which are intended to deliver environmental outcomes from 605 GL less water should also be subject to rigorous evaluation to ensure they can in fact deliver the projected benefits.

Tony has a very clear and extensive understanding of the Basin Plan and all the twists and turns in its history, having been the Minister in charge of getting the Plan signed back in 2012. He is fighting hard to negotiate the best possible outcome for the future of the Plan and will be negotiating right up to the vote.

Our lobbying campaign leading up to the Senate vote is on the right track and will support the efforts of many concerned politicians trying to get the best outcome!

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From source to sea, a marathon journey!

British Paralympic athlete Karen Darke is hand-cycling the length of the Murray River! That’s 2,300 river km or about 1400 road km. Whilst cycling, she is making a radio program for the BBC called ‘From Source to Sea via Me’.

She is looking to explore the fragility of the Murray River and its ecosystem, using it as a metaphor for our own vulnerability and the consequences when we place too much stress on ourselves (which she knows well from her own journey as an athlete). She is seeking a perspective on the big challenges for the river and how to restore or maintain its health in the face of all the stresses placed on the river systems.

I met Karen and her cycling partner at the Bonneyview Bakery in Barmera last Saturday. I nearly missed seeing them because I was expecting to see a support vehicle with caution lights flashing. Instead it was just low-profile two road bikes with mini-trailers consisting of Karen’s wheelchair and the smallest bags of luggage!! On an un-seasonally hot day when temperature records for April were being broken across the country, they had already cycled for 2 hours from Renmark to Barmera. After a well-earned cold drink, we chatted in the shade about the major issues and challenges facing the Murray-Darling Basin. Our final conversation centred around the peace and serenity of sitting by the water at sunset under a majestic river red gum hundreds of years old, from a time long before European settlement. We agreed that it is worth fighting for the survival of the Murray River, but there are big challenges ahead!

I passed Karen later on the highway, as she pedalled through the heat towards an overnight stop with Liz and Clint Frankel at Riverview Glen Art & Glass studio at Good Hope Landing. Their cliff-top house has a spectacular setting overlooking the river and one of Nature Foundation SA’s environmental watering sites at Yarra Creek, so Karen had a great chance to view the Murray River while enjoying Liz & Clint’s beautiful artwork.

Karen’s final stop on her epic journey will be at Goolwa, where David Paton will share the special story of the Murray Mouth and Coorong with her, and demonstrate why flows to the end of the system are so important. I look forward to hearing Karen’s radio program for the BBC when her challenging journey is completed.

Posted in caring for our planet, conservation, ecosystem services, environmental flows, Murray-Darling Basin, river red gums, sustainable natural resources management | Tagged , , , , , ,

Is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan meeting its targets?

Preparing a presentation entitled ‘Is the Basin Plan on track to deliver its environmental outcomes?’, I stopped to ask ‘what are the actual targets in the Plan?’

Answer: after asking Google and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority website, not finding any handy list, then trawling through the very details Basin Plan Act, it is quite difficult to find the targets!

I came up with a long & mixed list –

  • 4 over-arching objectives (protect & restore ecosystems, functions & resilience, ensure
    coordinated management of e-water)
  • 2 objectives for water quality & salinity
  • 2 major objectives for SDLs & 605 GL reduction (with 7 sub-objectives in total)
  • 7 intermediate targets (to 30 June 2019) –
    requiring no loss or degradation in flows, connectivity, assets, functions, Coorong, Lower Lakes & Murray Mouth flow regime, condition & recruitment of native species
  • 7 long term targets from 1 July 2019 requiring improvement in same parameters
  • 7 targets for 450 GL increase, including floodplain & habitats in Southern Basin, flows to Lower Lakes, Coorong & Murray Mouth, & salt export target
  • 16 flow & biodiversity outcomes = 16 clear environmental watering

I concentrated on looking for results for the intermediate targets and the environmental watering targets and found both good and bad news.

On the intermediate targets which require no loss or degradation to 30 June 2019, there are serious shortfalls, including:

  • concerns about health of Coorong, algal blooms in the Southern Lagoon, although on the positive side recent coordinated flows to the Northern Lagoon provided feeding habitat for migratory waders at critical time
  • individual site and reach improvement has occurred but there is continued decline and stress in ecosystems at wider scale, and a need to support regeneration post-2011 flood at a wider scale
  • very significant continued decline of waterbirds occurring at Basin scale, in spite of floods 2010-12 and 2016
  • concerns for survival of threatened species of small native fish.

 On the 16 targets for the environmental watering program, there is good news:

  • basin-scale management maturing well, cross-basin coordination of flows
  • now achieving re-use of e-flows at multiple sites
  • coordination achieving end-system-flows
  • building connectivity with floodplains
  • meeting most of 16 targets
  • however, outcomes limited by physical & governance constraints, volume available.

So is the Basin Plan on track? While not doing so well on the intermediate targets, the scorecard for the environmental watering targets is looking good. At this critical point in the implementation process, it is important to make sure that enough real water will be returned to keep the rivers functioning and to meet the targets.

If you are interested in the details, my presentation for the Conservation Council of South Australia’s forum on How the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is Progressing is here ccsa MDB presentation apr2018.

Picture1

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Watering Stories Blowing in the Wind

It wasn’t the best weather for filming a video on the Murray River floodplain this week, as Nature Foundation set out to tell the story of its successful environmental watering program. The light was good but the gusts of wind were causing too much background noise of rustling leaves in the black box trees. Then there was the take interrupted by the fly on my sensitive collar-microphone! After several repeated takes, finally the story was ‘in the can’, talking about why we need to return water to river ecosystems, and what are the benefits we have seen so far in Nature Foundation’s many watering projects.

The purpose of the ‘My Healthy Rivers Toolkit’ project is to share the stories of local people who have been involved in the projects, and to encourage others to join in the fun of providing environmental water to suitable sites on their land. At the end of the project, there will be six fact sheets and a set of video tutorials to provide information about how to identify sites in the Lower Murray Valley that need watering, and how to go about applying water at the right time and frequency.

The filming included an interview with tireless volunteers Liz & Clint Frankel at Good Hope Landing, mid-way between Waikerie and Kingston-on-Murray. Their interview had to be shifted indoors to their art studio because the stormy winds outside were much too strong and noisy for recording. Liz & Clint told their story with passion and energy, making light of the commitment required to keep a pump going for three months to deliver water to the Yarra Creek wetlands on the floodplain across the river from their property. Their enthusiasm was infectious, as they talked about the deafening chorus of frogs which they could hear from across the river, as the water spilled from one wetland into the next. They told their story of environmental watering while surrounded by their artwork which reflects their love and passion for the Murray River environment. Here’s hoping the ‘My Healthy Rivers Toolkit’ project will encourage more landholders to join in with environmental watering all along the Murray Valley!

 

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Keeping the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on track

Is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on track to deliver its outcomes? Yes, the Basin Plan has been signed as an overall framework, but the devil is in the detail as it is gradually implemented on the ground! Questions are being raised about whether the process of implementing the Plan has the potential to compromise the effectiveness of its outcomes. Genuine concerns are coming from many directions, from groups and individuals with long connections with the Basin, great knowledge and experience, and objective evidence to back their concerns.

2013 june berri river panorama

Recently, the Chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority wrote an article dismissing these concerns as ‘opportunistic partisan antics’ and ‘political grandstanding’. However, concerns raised include the very slow rate of action to deal with serious compliance issues and water theft, the failure to challenge NSW regulations which allow irrigators to take unsustainable volumes from the Upper Darling, and the lack of measures put in place to ensure environmental flows reach their targets. These are real and important concerns raised by qualified people concerned about continuing compromise of environmental health in the Plan and they deserve more attention than being dismissed as ‘antics’ and ‘grandstanding’.

In the Murray-Darling Declaration of 5 February, twelve nationally-eminent scientists and economists called for a temporary halt and an audit of investments before further implementation actions. Shortly after, legislation to amend the Basin Plan and reduce water recovery in the Northern Basin by 70 GL was blocked in the Senate.

Another piece of legislation currently before the Federal Parliament proposes reducing water recovery in the Southern Basin by 605 GL. The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists has raised serious documented concerns about the projects designed to deliver these savings.  The Senate vote is due on 8 May and Senators will be subject to even heavier lobbying to block this change until the projects have been improved.

Do we need a temporary halt and audit of progress to date? These issues will be discussed at two public meetings in Adelaide in advance of the Senate vote. Details of time, location and booking are in the flyers attached (see hyperlinks below).

Everyone interested is welcome to attend, to hear the background to the concerns being raised and opportunities to influence the decision-making process.

5 April 2018      Hydrological Society of SA Forum
Tracking Progress on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan

19 April 2018    Conservation Council of SA Forum
Implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan

HELP KEEP THE BASIN PLAN ON TRACK!!

 

 

 

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