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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Climate change, Fish Die-offs, algal blooms, drought and water mismanagement in the Murray Darling Basin

Rob McBride and Menindee resident, Dick Arnold stand in the Darling river, holding Murray cod that have lived through decades of droughts and floods, but could not survive this human-made disaster. Image: Kate McBride

NSW Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair revealed the latest fish die-off has occurred at Lake Hume on the NSW-Victorian border. The numbers of dead fish are much smaller than at Menindee: perhaps about 1800 according to the NSW Department of Primary Industries. Cause of the deaths are still being investigated. Lake Hume is controlled by the Murray Darling Basin Authority and is currently 30 per cent full.

Niall Blair is trying to divert blame to drought and heatwave conditions rather than ongoing corruption (water theft) and mismanagement of water flows and over-allocation of water to upper Murray Darling basin irrigators (especially cotton), at the expense of environmental flows, to ensure the health of the Murray Darling river ecosystem through drought periods. The Australia Institute have now researched and published a discussion paper which holds the NSW Government and Murray Darling Basin Authority water mismanagement as culpable for the massive fish kill in the Darling river near Menindee.

Other recent fish die-off events that Mr Blair listed include outside Port Macquarie on Friday and yesterday at Lake Burrendong near Dubbo, as well as the much publicised massive fish deaths due to an algal bloom along the Darling River near the Menindee Lakes.

"It just goes to show that when we get a week of weather like this, on top of the drought conditions that we've seen right across NSW, that fish kills are something that unfortunately we do experience," Niall Blair said.

It comes after a massive fish death along the Darling River near the Menindee Lakes region.

On January 9 NSW Water Minister Niall Blair inspected the river and the dead fish in a speedboat, but failed to stop to talk to the local community about the issue. About 150 people had gathered at the Menindee boat ramp in the hopes of talking to the NSW Minister for Water Niall Blair.

Due to security concerns the minister opted not to meet with the group. ABC Broken Hill reported on what activists, local residents and Indigenous elders had to say.

Menindee Lakes drained twice in 4 years

The Menindee Lakes have been drained twice in 4 years to deliver water into South Australia for town water and irrigation. But the Menindee Lakes relies on stream flows from the upper catchment in northern NSW and southern Queensland. Water that has not eventuated, partly due to drought conditions but also the landscape water harvesting and excess water extraction for irrigation.

Watch the Project TV special with an interview with grazier Kate McBride on the water crisis in the lower Darling River near Menindee:

The Menindee Lakes have the capacity for 7 years water storage, but were drained twice in the last 4 years says river ambassador Kate McBride. "This is heartbreaking." "It's not drought, unfortunately it is man-made. And I think someone needs to stand up and take accountability for what's happened. We've spoken to a lot of locals already today, and we've seen them crying" - said Tolarno Station farmer Kate McBride.

Barney Stevens, former Secretary of the Darling River Action Group puts it clearly what priorities have been taken and why the Menindee Lakes were drained in this Sydney Morning Op-Ed column: Dead fish in Menindee are about mismanagement not drought

Under the Basin Plan each state had to show water savings. NSW, at the behest of the cotton industry, decided to make its savings by reducing evaporation at Menindee Lakes. A pipeline was built from the Murray to Broken Hill so that there was no need to store 18 months water for Broken Hill. Engineering works are proposed, but in the meantime the best way to save on evaporation is to let the water out of the lakes as soon as possible. The alternative to saving water from evaporation at Menindee Lakes, was to reduce the amount of water going to (cotton) irrigation in northern NSW, along the tributaries of the Darling.

But that would upset the National Party supporters. So we have a situation where the lakes are being emptied quickly and nothing is coming down the river, because it has gone to produce “at least half of last season’s” cotton crop in a horrible drought year.

Listen to Professor Richard Kingsford, Director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales three minutes into this deep dive report by Seven News.

"What's happened this time is essentially history catching up with us. The development we have seen in those catchments in the north, mainly in NSW but also in Queensland, in the Condamine, Balong and Cubbie Station, and building of storages that have taken that water out. So that water is no longer getting down to the Darling as much as it used to.

Presenter: so they are holding the water much further upstream?

"That is Correct. About 50 per cent of the water that used to come in to the Menindee Lakes is no longer getting there. The problem then comes when that water gets very scarce, the blue-green algae builds up in the river system, and we had a cold snap on the weekend that killed the blue-green algae and as it dies it sucks the oxygen out of the water. Thats when you get the death of these fish, from lack of oxygen."

"This problem has been coming for 20 or 30 years."

"The solution is to try to get more water into this river system and that means not taking as much out. The problem there is that is a very difficult decision, and we have supposedly gone through that, but haven't really delivered the amount of water we need."

"The problem is going to persist and get worse, because we have 1400 kilometres of the Darling, and we are talking about only 30 or 40 kms. There is blue-green algae and fish populations up and down it. Knocking out that number of fish is a real problem."

Floodplain water harvesting by agri-business corporations has massively decreased water flow from flood events which impacts the sustainability of flora, fauna, birdlife, and economic returns from less water intensive grazing livestock and cropping farming downstream.

Google Satellite view of water diversion of Culgoa river at Cubie Station in Queensland. Link. Cubie Station has a licence to store 460,000 megalitres of river water. Should they have this much water rights for a water intensive crop such as cotton? Such water siphoning has had a major impact reducing the water flow of this river.

National Royal Commission called for

The NSW Aboriginal Land Council has joined calls for a national Royal Commission in to the Murray Darling Basin Plan. Chair of the Council Roy Ah-See met with Menindee members on the back of recent fish kills, reports ABC Broken Hill:

Landscape Harvesting of water

Let's go back to that seminal Four Corners investigation that was aired in July 2017: Pumped: Who's benefitting from the billions spent on the Murray-Darling? and especially that section on landscape harvesting of water for storage in Northern NSW:


They're mind boggling. They'll take your breath away.

You're driving along, you drive for kilometres and there's just walls of storage.

There are farms across this part of Northern New South Wales, that have dams that can hold a sizable proportion of Sydney Harbour.

LINTON BESSER: These storages are owned by a company called Webster Limited.

On this one farm, they have five of them, holding a combined 30-billion-litres of water drawn from the Barwon-Darling.

There used to be a host of smaller irrigators up and down this river system.

But since the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was signed, there's been huge consolidation.

Now, just two big players own 70 per cent of the water in this river.

One of them - Webster Ltd - now owns more water than anyone else in this country outside the federal government. It's a portfolio worth about $300 million.

Webster is chaired by corporate raider Chris Corrigan, famous for busting waterfront unions 20 years ago.

The company - which trades on the securities exchange - plans to grow cotton in a good year and to make even more money in drought by selling its water at a profit to farmers willing to pay.

18 months after this investigative report there are a couple of water theft cases proceeding, but the regulations about water extraction and water trading still stand. Nothing has been effectively done in providing the environmental flows as promised.

Profit and greed continue to drive water regulation and management to the detriment of people, farmers and the environment in the lower Darling system.

ABC Lateline story on landscape scale water harvesting for storage on the Macintyre River near Goondiwindi in Queensland.

Barnaby Joyce boasts of supporting northern irrigators at expense of river system

Former Federal Water Minister National Party MP Barnaby Joyce at a pub stop in Shepparton was proud that he had given more water to irrigators to "stop the Greenies":

“We have taken water, put it back into agriculture, so we could look after you and make sure we don’t have the greenies running the show basically sending you out the back door, and that was a hard ask,” said Joyce, neglecting the many communities and farming enterprises downstream that rely on water flow, as reported in the Guardian - Barnaby Joyce says he gave water back to irrigators to stop 'greenies'.

Bandaid solutions offered for fish recovery

The response by the Federal Minister for Water David Littleproud has been underwhelming. He has promised $5 million from Murray Darling Basin Authority funds for fish recovery and replenishment. But this is a pure band aid solution that will not stem the huge ecological problems.

It should be noted that the Murray Darling Basin Authority shelved its native fish strategy in 2012 . The sustainable rivers audit program was also closed after New South Wales pulled 60% of its funding from a basinwide program to monitor the health of fish in the river. Read more at the Guardian - Murray-Darling fish kill: authority shelved fish health strategy in 2013.

NSW Labor leader Michael Daley and opposition water spokesman Chris Minns have called for a special commission of inquiry into the "ecological catastrophe" of the Darling River, according to the Age: NSW Labor demands water management inquiry after massive fish kill.

The situation is so bad that the Berejiklian government will start installing aerators to increase oxygen levels and try to keep vital stocks of native fish alive.

Nine of the aerator machines will be installed "as a temporary measure" to help fish populations survive the brutal combination of low river flows, algal blooms and severe heatwaves.

Professor Kingsford called the program what it is: "It's a band aid." he said. "They'll do a little bit for a little while. It still leaves a lot of river that's been affected."

A repetition of fish deaths is likely unless water flow can be restored says Labor's water spokesman Chris Minns

"If the NSW Government refuses to focus on returning low and medium flows to the river it doesn’t matter how many fish they return to the Darling this environmental disaster will happen again," Mr Minns said. "It’s time [Minister] Blair acknowledged this disaster is as a result of his mismanagement of the waterway and start returning flows to the Darling," he said.

"Anything else is a distraction." reported the Sydney Morning Herald: 'Won't die wondering': NSW to deploy aerators to keep fish stocks live.

Water crisis will exacerbate as rainfall declines with climate change

The water and environmental problems in the Murray Darling Basin will only exacerbate with climate change.

The Wentworth Group of Scientists, that include water, ecology and climate scientists, provided a succinct summary of future climate projections in the November 2017 report on Review of Water Reform in the Murray-Darling Basin.

"Winter rainfall and streamflow in the southern Basin have declined since the mid-1990s and the Basin has warmed by around a degree since 1910. The Basin is likely to experience significant changes in water availability due to human-caused climate change, particularly in the southern Basin where annual rainfall is projected to change by -11 to +5% by 2030. Any reduction in precipitation is likely to have significant impacts on water flows in rivers, in some cases driving a threefold reduction in runoff, with implications for water recovery under the Basin Plan."

2018 was a drought year with Rainfall percentages for Murray Darling Basin at 289.5mm, 41% below the mean, 7th lowest in records; lowest since 2006, as reported by the Buraeu of Meteorology. Just add landscape harvesting and storage of water in the upper basin, ongoing water mismanagement and water theft on top of poor rainfall and this equals an ecological crisis.

Update 16 January: Long term decline of birdlife

Michael Pascoe has written an article for the New Daily on the long term decline of birdlife as part of the water mismanagement of wetlands along the Murray Darling system: The other Murray-Darling wildlife disaster – it’s what you don’t see

Update 16 January: Water bureacrats refusing responsibility

Water bureacrats are refusing to take responsibility for the mass fish die-off event, according to this Sydney Morning Herald report: Bureaucrats refuse responsibility for 'ecological disaster' on river.

Chief of the Murray Darling Basin Authority Phillip Glyde is trying to justify poor decisions in retrospect.

Mr Glyde said Menindee Lakes held water volume equivalent to about four times that in Sydney Harbour – one-quarter of which evaporated each year – and "if we don’t use it we lose it".

He said even with the benefit of hindsight, he believed the authority made "the right call".

"At the time when we were making decisions, guided by the rules of the states, we would have probably made the same sort of decisions we’ve made now. I don’t think [advance knowledge of the fish kill] would have changed anything," he said.

Phillip Glyde says one-quarter of Menindee Lakes evaporates each year – "if we don’t use it we lose it" but Evaporation is not an environmental loss as it increases atmospheric moisture to cool the local environment and can stimulate local rainfall. The actions in releasing this quantity of water in such frequency is to dry out the wetlands and decimate local species.

We are not talking only about fish kill here - they are just the most pbvious, but also the decline of other riparian species and birdlife from the decimation of riverine and wetland environments.

The MDBA has failed to put in place real time transparent water usage data collection and monitoring, failed to regulate water theft and large scale landscape water harvesting in upper portions of the basin. It needs a full corruption investigation of why the bureacrats have failed to properly administer a plan to ensure adequate environmental flows and periodic health assessment of river and species health.

A special commission of enquiry that the Labor opposition has promised if it wins government in state elections in March is urgently needed. But a Federal Royal Commission is also needed into administration of the current Murray Darling Basin Plan.

According to a tweet by Mark Plackett, "Phillip Glyde forgets managing flows was part of Community consultation by @MD_Basin_Auth and drying out was NEVER to occur and should resign #menindeelakes"

Professor Richard Kingsford has published an article: The catastrophic fish kill on the Darling River– decades in the making.

He identifies the clear problem as "Over the long term, nearly half of the average annual river flow (44-47%) at Menindee is taken out upstream, mainly for irrigation. The Darling River is now experiencing ‘river droughts’ much more severe and prolonged than ‘droughts’ measured in rainfall. The river stops flowing more often and for longer than it used to. This drives more blue-green algal blooms and other river degradation."

Last year the Labor Party supported the Government in the Senate "not to grant the Darling River an additional 70 GL a year of flow under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, on the recommendation of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority."

An immediate short term solution that should be implemented as rapidly as possible:

"Buying back at least 70 GL a year of flow for the river from willing irrigators upstream is essential. Protecting flows down the length of the river is mandatory."

Update 17 January: Smell of political corruption and mismanagement

Michelle Pini, in an editorial in Independent Australia (17 January), highlighted the excessive purchase agreements for water from some irrigators way above market rates, and the smell of political corruption and mismanagement from Federal National Party politicians. EDITORIAL: Something stinks in the Coalition and it's not just dead fish

Greens call for Royal Commissions and immediate water buy-back and release

The Greens spokeperson on water and Murray Darling Basin issues Senator Sarah Hanson Young issued a media statement on 14th January calling for an immediate buy back of water to release as environmental flow, and establish a Federal Royal Commission.

“Today, I’m writing to the Water Minister David Littleproud asking him to lift the ban on water buy backs immediately so water can be secured for the river to avoid further environmental collapse. Buying back water is the most economically efficient and environmentally effective way to restore the river and help stem the damage done to the environment,” Australian Greens environment and water spokesperson Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said.

“We know millions more fish could die within the next few months. This ecosystem is in collapse because there is not enough water going to the environment. The Minister should fix this, or he should go.

“This is a man-made problem caused by the mismanagement and incompetence of Barnaby Joyce and the Liberal National Party. Barnaby Joyce crowed about stopping water buybacks, ensuring water meant for the environment went to big corporate irrigators.

“While the environment goes without, the cotton industry continues to profit. We need a Royal Commission into the mismanagement and over extraction of water in the Murray Darling Basin.

“Putting fish back in the river is not going to work when there is not enough water. The Murray Darling Basin is a living ecosystem crying out for urgent relief – which means putting the environment, and our river communities ahead of the cotton industry.

“The Liberal National Government has failed the river while there is plenty of water in the storage dams of big cotton irrigators upstream.”

Update 19 January
Australia Institute says water mismanagement by NSW Government culpable for fish kill, not drought

The Guardian reveals in its article - Damning Murray-Darling report says NSW 'well behind' on water-sharing plans - on 16 January that:

NSW has failed to submit even first drafts of 12 of of its 20 required plans, including those for major rivers such as the Barwon Darling, the Lower Darling, the Namoi and the Murrumbidgee.

Instead, NSW is operating its rivers under old plans, which have not been accredited.

In particular, the 2012 Barwon Darling water-sharing plan has come in for heavy criticism because it allows irrigators to pump during low and medium flows.

The Australia Institute have researched and published a paper on the fish kill and the Murray Darling water management: A fish kill QandA Questions, answers and dead fish in the Menindee Lakes.

In the media release the blaming of the fish kill and poor water flows is refuted, with the blame being clearly put on the mismanagement of water by the NSW government and Murray Darling Basin Authority.

“It is clear what has caused the Darling River fish kill - mismanagement and repeated policy failure,” said Maryanne Slattery, Senior Water Researcher at The Australia Institute.

“To blame the fish kill on the drought is a cop-out, it is because water releases were made from the Lakes when this simply shouldn’t have happened.

“It’s time to stop passing the buck. The Prime Minister blames the drought, the NSW Water Minister blames the Commonwealth, upstream blames downstream, and downstream blames upstream.

“While the MDBA has joined the drought blame band-wagon, their own research shows that water is just not getting to the Lakes outside of major floods. This can’t be explained by climate and is most likely to be extractions for irrigation.”

“What every Australian needs to understand is that this is an ecological catastrophe created by the governments implementing the Murray Darling Basin Plan.” said Rob McBride, sheep grazier near Menindee who featured in the fish death video now viewed over 5 million times.

”This confirms what our Barkandji people and others living along the Baaka/Darling river have long known: we are being made to pay the price for over-allocation of water upstream,” said Badger Bates, local Barkandji elder.

“What’s worse is that on top of the impact on the Menindee and the Lower Darling itself, the mismanagement of the Menindee lakes system impacts the water availability for growers in the NSW Murray, left with no water to grow this year’s crop,” said Ms Slattery.

That last point is significant for Victorian and Riverina agricultural producers.

The holders of NSW General Security water holders currently have a zero water allocation. If Menindee had not been drained, it is possible that more crops could have been grown in the NSW Murray. This part of the basin produces crops that undergo substantial processing in the region, such as wineries and dairy. Rice is a major crop in the region, but the minimal rice crop has been blamed for the loss of 100 jobs at the SunRice and Leeton mill in Deniliquin. It is possible that the management of Menindee Lakes has contributed to some of these job losses by the:
  • - non-environmental releases from Menindee Lakes that were made during unregulated flows and therefore surplus to South Australia’s needs (up to approximately 300GL);
  • - reduced inflows into Menindee Lakes, thereby reducing its capacity as a resource for the Southern system and supply to South Australia; and
  • - needing to wet the dry lake beds in Menindee Lakes before it could refill in late 2016, using up to approximately 300GL.

Here are the conclusions of the report:
The fish kill at Menindee lakes has led to a lot of further questions that should be answered:
  • 1. Why were non-environmental releases made from Menindee Lakes when there were unregulated flows at the South Australia border?
  • 2. Was the decision to make non-environmental releases from Menindee lakes during unregulated flows at the South Australian border taken to the Basin Officials Committee for approval?
  • 3. Did the NSW government raise concerns with the MDBA about release from Menindee lakes at any time?
  • 4. Did the Independent River Operations Review Group’s annual review of Murray-Darling Basin River Operations report on the non-environmental releases from Menindee lakes during unregulated flows at the South Australian border, and if not, why not?
  • 5. What is the impact on the reliability of Murray entitlements, and NSW Murray General Security entitlements, in particular, if the non-environmental releases from Menindee lakes during unregulated flows at the South Australian border had not been made?
  • There should be an examination of the policy settings with regard to:

    • 1. whether the level of extraction in the Northern Basin, particularly with respect to floodplain harvesting, is sustainable?
    • 2. how to manage Menindee lakes in a future with less inflows in the small to medium flow range?
    • 3. whether the past practice of managing lakes to minimise evaporation is still relevant if the lakes will dry more often and require more water to refill?
    Finally, transparency and accountability is required if there is any chance for governments and water agencies to restore confidence in the implementation of the Basin Plan:
  • 6. All decisions of the Basin Officials Committee should be made public;
  • 7. The annual reviews of the River Murray Operations by the Independent River Operations Review Group should be made public;
  • 8. The annual reports of the River Murray Operations by the River Murray Operations should be made public;
  • 9. The size and location of all private storages in the Northern Basin should be made public, along with actual storage levels; and
  • 10. A genuinely independent assessment and quantification of the causes of the reduction on low and medium flows in the Barwon-Darling should be completed as soon as possible and made publicly available.

Read the media release: New Research: Darling River fish kill caused by river mismanagement with a link to the report.

Want to help? start by signing some petitions

This is a failure of bureacracy but also the Federal and NSW Governments.

  • We need a national royal commission into the Murray Darling Basin Plan
  • We need upgraded environmental protection laws at the Federal level
  • We need regular independent assessments of ecological health of the river system, and for advice to be acted upon.
  • We need a Federal anti-corruption investigation into corporate lobbying and the role of politicians in perverting outcomes
  • We also need a change in Government for NSW and Federally to bring about the above changes.

Over the next few months NSW electors and then all of us in Australia will get a say at elections. Petitions for Federal Government action:

Petitions addressed to NSW Premier and State Water Minister

Background and articles on the science

Want to get a handle on the Murray Darling water management and environmental science?

Read the Wentworth Group of Scientists ongoing publications on the management of the Murray Darling Basin. These scientists have consistently argued for better regulation, oversight and accountability of water extraction, and increased environmental flows. A good place to start is to read the key findings of the November 2017 report on Review of Water Reform in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Recent The Conversation science journalism reports:

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