The River Murray is notably absent from the lists of voter concerns and policy speeches in the lead-up to the SA election on 15 March. What happened to all that angst and concern for our lifeline, our vital water resource? The River is not fixed yet. Just because we were saved from disaster by Nature, with the good flows of 2010-2012, doesn’t mean that we can take our eye off the ball. The seedling red gums germinated after the floods have a long way to go before they replace the tens of thousands of mature trees that died in the drought (see photo). Yes, we have a Basin Plan, but that will only be implemented in 2019, and yes, we won some extra water to be returned for the health of the River, but the Coalition is slowing down the rate of buy-back.
The biggest threat to the River right now is the potential dismantling of the interstate cooperation and pooled funding which has underpinned all our efforts for sound management of the Murray-Darling Basin since 1988. When New South Wales withdrew its funding last year, South Australia should have stood alongside Victoria to fight them. Instead, South Australia is threatening to withdraw its funding, and key Basin programs are already closing down. The Sustainable Rivers Audit had just completed its third round of monitoring and was poised to give us the best information ever on progress in health recovery, especially on recovery after the floods, but it has been shut down. The Native Fish Strategy is gone too, with fish passage along the length of the River Murray partially completed. The next concern is whether there will be enough funding just to operate all the structures which manage water delivery and maintaining water quality – the weirs, the barrages, the dams, salt interception schemes and all the associated pumps and pipes. Already there has been talk of reduced lockages for boat passage through the weirs, because there won’t be enough people to provide the services.
South Australia fought long and hard to achieve those cooperative arrangements, and it makes no sense to be withdrawing our share of funding for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. South Australia has the most to lose if the cooperative arrangements for managing the River Murray fall apart. We have been fighting for our River since the 1870s and we need our state government to continue to fight for the future health of our lifeline so it can continue to provide essential environmental services that support our economy and our communities.