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.