Dr Jennifer Marohasy. Presentation to Select Senate Committee at Goolwa. The Basin Plan is a Travesty !

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The following is the Hansard transcript of Dr Marohasy’s presentation.

Dr Jennifer Marohasy: I am a biologist with a Bachelor of Science and a PhD from the University of Queensland. I have published extensively on the Murray-Darling Basin, most recently in the International Journal of Sustainable Development and Planning. I would like to table this paper, which underpins the first submission from the Myth and the Murray group.

I realise some of the senators have just arrived here this morning and have not had an opportunity to look around the Lower Lakes, Murray Mouth and Coorong. I suggest we turn to the fourth page of the first submission from the Myth and the Murray group and have a look at the map and just see where we are in relation to the all-important Murray Mouth, Lower Lakes and Coorong. On this map you can see Goolwa here. We are just on a channel of the main lake system and we are looking across at Hindmarsh Island. We are upstream of the Murray Mouth. In particular, you can see we are upstream of the Goolwa Barrage. The other map that I would like to draw your attention to, which I will be referring to in my opening remarks, is an 1839 map, which I think may be on page 134 of your notes, it was indicated to me, in the back of your folder. This is the very first official map of this region and it was drawn by the official government cartographer in 1839.

The Myth and the Murray group is a collection of individuals who came together in 2011 to share information and lobby for the restoration of the Murray River’s estuary. As the group spokesperson, I would like to begin with a reference to a story told by Albert Karloan from the Yaraldi group of the Ngarrindjeri people. Albert Karloan lived on the eastern shores of Lake Alexandrina over 100 years ago. He was one of the last three Yaraldi youth to undergo full initiation rites in the Lower Murray region. He had authority to speak for country and his knowledge of the Dreamtime stories was recorded by anthropologist Ron Berndt in 1939. This story concerns the Murray Mouth. In particular, Karloan tells how back in the Dreamtime the great hunter Ngurunderi walked across the Murray’s mouth in pursuit of his two runaway wives. If at Tapawal—which is the Yaraldi name for the place where the river enters the sea between the sand dunes—Ngurunderi had waded across, Karloan would have said as much, because earlier in the story he explained that Ngurunderi poled across the lake. So he came down the Murray River proper, which enters Lake Alexandrina at Wellington, and then in the Dreamtime story he poles across the lake, walks around Lake Albert, wades across the long, thin Coorong, and then he walks up west along Encounter Bay. When he gets to the Murray Mouth, he walks across into Wakend territory.

The old Mulloway fisherman from this region tell how, before the barrages were built across the channels that converge on the Murray Mouth, the river would flog down from September until maybe Christmas, filling the lagoon, and then out the mouth. By Christmas, flows had usually slowed and water levels dropped right, right down. So maybe back in the Dreamtime it was that time of year when water levels had dropped right down. After this, with the autumn south-westerlies, the sea would push in and pour in through the mouth and work its way across the lake. Yet all the technical reports that underpin the Basin Plan claim that the Murray River’s mouth closed over for the first time in 1981 and that Lake Alexandrina has always been a freshwater lake. This contradicts the Yaraldi legend, the old fishermen’s stories and also the first official map of this region.

This map, which is on page 4 of our supplementary submission, was the map following Charles Sturt’s first exploration voyage down the Murray, and it clearly shows the headwaters as fresh and most of Lake Alexandrina as brackish. Then you can see that about a quarter to a third of Lake Alexandrina is described as comprising salt water. This map, as I said, was drawn in 1839. Sturt, in his diaries, describes the Murray’s mouth as low beach, perhaps covered in water at high tide. If you look at the coloured version of the map in the supplementary submission from Myth and the Murray, you will see that the Murray Mouth is marked pink. This indicates that it is full of sand. The Murray Mouth was closed over on 12 February 1830. There is a tendency for government-funded technical reports to deny this history and to falsely claim that Lake Alexandrina has always been fresh water, yet here in this first official map we can see that it was an estuary—salt transitioning to brackish transitioning to fresh—and we can see that the Murray Mouth had closed over. In a secular democracy like Australia, public policy should be based on evidence consistent with history. Unfortunately, the Basin Plan, which underpins water reform across Australia, is a document that denies early European history and also denies the Dreamtime stories of the First Australians.

Healthy estuaries pulse with the tides. They are alive. In the case of the Murray River, the tide was stopped when the Goolwa Barrage was sealed to inflows of salt water on 5 February 1940, yet the very existence of these enormous structures, the barrages, is not mentioned in the Basin Plan. The barrages are not mentioned in the Basin Plan. There is one instance of the word ‘barrage’ in an appendix; I think it may be appendix 4. But the very existence of 6.7 kilometres of barrage, which stops the tide, is denied. Which people, in which country, could claim to care about a river system and to be focused on environmental flows and yet deny the existence of the barrages? Before the barrages, during periods of extended drought, the entire lagoon would fill with sea water. In 1914-15, the Southern Ocean pushed in, and right up at Wellington there are reports of dolphins, sharks in Lake Albert, and even pygmy whales. Of course, these sea creatures would now be blocked by the barrages, which are not mentioned in the Basin Plan.

The Myth and the Murray group asks that the Senate select committee recommend the restoration of the Murray River’s natural estuary, that the tide return and that the Southern Ocean push in each autumn and for longer periods during drought. This would truly represent a return of natural environmental flows. This would give some dignity back to the Murray River. Thank you.

CHAIR: Several submissions have argued that the barrages were introduced or implemented as a way of preserving the lakes’ freshwater status in the face of extractions for irrigation. It is argued that the lakes would be fresh except for upstream irrigation. What is your view on that?

Dr Marohasy: That is false. It again denies history. The first report proposing locks near the Murray mouth was actually tabled in 1890 by the then South Australian Engineer-in-Chief, Alex B Moncrieff. This was to stop the inflows of seawater during autumn. This report pre-dates the development of irrigation in the Basin. If I could just give a brief history. The first proposed irrigation schemes in the Basin, the first proposed scheme on the Goulburn River, was actually abandoned in 1891. The scheme of the Chaffey Brothers at Renmark collapsed in 1894. There was no actual significant impact from upstream diversions until 1925, yet in 1902 the wool-washing industry that was starting then at Raukkan was actually put out of business because the seawater came right into the lakes during the federation drought, in 1902, pre-dating the successful development of irrigation upstream. Again, in 1914-15 this lake was filled with seawater, again pre-dating the development of upstream irrigation.

CHAIR: How much fresh water do you consider is adequate for the maintenance of a healthy river? How much should be returned to ensure a healthy lakes system?

Dr Marohasy: It is interesting because that figure, supposedly based on the best scientific evidence, has varied. Back in 1999 computer models suggested 730 gigalitres per year, based on 2,000 megalitres per day. We were told this report was the best scientific advice. In 2002, not so many years later, we were told 1,500 gigalitres was needed to keep the Murray mouth open. In March 2013, soon after the Basin Plan was signed off, Minister Tony Burke said that 3,200 gigalitres was the best scientific advice. Every time they run these models they come up with a higher figure and never once are they held accountable for the previous figure and never once is there any attempt to reconcile the discrepancies in this best scientific evidence, which is totally based on output from computer simulation modelling. If I had time I would quote from a 1990 report by Andy Close that explains why they went to computer simulation modelling rather than using real-world data.

CHAIR: You would acknowledge, wouldn’t you, that if it were not for irrigation there would be more water reaching the lower lakes?

Dr Marohasy: Not necessarily. Once upon a time the Murray tumbled down from the mountains and then flooded out across the Riverina. It never followed a narrow channel. Many of you would have heard of Peter Andrews, famous for his natural sequence farming. He talks about how the rivers, before European settlement, hardly ever made it to the sea. He said: ‘The water stayed in country and it kept good. We’ve got to learn to spread the water out. Use it where it falls. Take its energy and destructive force away, slow it down and let it fill country while cleaning and draining it in its own complex way. Slowly, if there is any left to flow into the ocean, that will be good.’ That is more or less a quote from Peter Andrews. As I said, he is renowned for his natural sequence farming and for restoring land within the basin.

CHAIR: Your submission argues in favour of opening the barrages. That would require a major shift in public thinking and would be contrary to a number of submissions from people we will be hearing from today. They have operated for 75 years, and various communities around the lakes—industry and agriculture—now rely on fresh water in lakes. How would you deal with those objections?

Dr Marohasy: The reality is that $125 million was spent during the millennium drought to ensure that there is piped water available for domestic, stock and industry use. Those industries and domestic users around the Lower Lakes are no longer dependent on pumping from the lakes for those critical uses. What we would be saving, come drought, we could guarantee that the lakes would be full of water next drought because they could be full of sea water, and it would be sea water that would be evaporating come the next drought. The Lower Lakes evaporates in the vicinity of 1,000 gigalitres each year, so we would be losing 1,000 gigalitres of sea water rather than 1,000 gigalitres of fresh water.

CHAIR: Just to understand that, what would be required to allow the lakes to become estuarine? Could you just do it by removing the barrages?

Dr Marohasy:  I know the Basin Plan is all about adaptive management, so let us get the best minds thinking about the best ways to adaptively manage the barrages. In the first instance, one should be looking at the Mundoo Barrage, because right back, the famous surveyor-general of South Australia, Goyder, said that if you want scouring of the Murray Mouth, if you want to keep the mouth open, then make sure we have a clear channel through the Mundoo channel. What did the South Australian government do? It blocked it. That was the first of the channels to be blocked, because it is the Mundoo channel that can give significant inflows directly into Lake Alexandrina proper. It is even possible—I have seen plans where you could open the Mundoo channel and get sea water during drought into the lake proper, but you could even potentially keep this Goolwa region fresh. I know there are plans that talk about that.

CHAIR: The Coorong, which is outside the barrages, is classified as estuarine currently, as I understand it. I think there is an expectation that the Coorong will be fed by fresh water coming down the river. Has it always been the case that it has been fed by fresh water coming down the river?

Dr Marohasy: The Coorong was historically fed by inflows from the south-east of South Australia, not the Murray River or Lower Lakes. There was some flow, but predominantly the flow came from the south-east of South Australia. For senators unfamiliar with this area—I know we have a senator here from Tasmania—we are talking about a region about half the size of Tasmania to the east of the Coorong which historically was swamp. For half the year, it was covered in water. George Woodroffe Goyder explored that area in 1864 and he suggested that it actually be drained. So they started digging drains and that drainage program that started in 1863 continued to 1975. Some studies suggest that that has taken 4,000 gigalitres of fresh water that once flowed from the south-east into the Coorong, down the Coorong and then out the Murray Mouth, completely out of the system. What those drains did was redirect that water, so now it goes straight out to sea. So 4,000 gigalitres of water is now going straight out to sea—water which once flowed into the Coorong—down the Coorong and then out the Murray Mouth. What happened was that drainage programs drained the underground aquifers. I can explain in further detail about the aquifers, how we come up with that 4,000-gigalitre figure and the geology of that region, if we have time or you would like clarification.

CHAIR:There is one final question I just forgot that I had intended to ask you. There is an assertion in other submissions that lower river flows will not flush two million tonnes of salt out of the Murray Mouth annually. How do you respond to that?

Dr Marohasy:I am suggesting that, if we return the estuary, we would celebrate some return of saltwater inflows from the Southern Ocean. We need an estuary that receives inflows from the river, and a healthy functioning estuary would receive inflows from the ocean—salty water from the ocean. In the case of the Lower Murray and this region, those inflows historically came in during autumn and worked their way across the lake in years of low flow. In years of high flow, they were pushed back. An estuary is a dynamic system. You have fresh water coming in and sea water coming in. It is a transition zone.

Senator DAY:I just have a quick one: so you are saying that the barrages were built to keep the sea water out, not the fresh water in?

Dr Marohasy: That is correct. The very first report talked about the need for the barrages. It was tabled in 1890 by the South Australian engineering chief and it was specifically about stopping inflows of sea water during autumn when you get those big south-westerlies.

Senator DAY: I just wanted to confirm that. This inquiry is into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan which, as we know, was formulated during the millennium drought. In hindsight, do you think that the impact that that has had since then was—and I know hindsight is a beautiful thing. But do you think some of the conclusions that were drawn during then would now be viable, if we had our time again, given what we know now since the breaking of the drought?

Dr Marohasy: What we do know is that when the drought broke, even without all those buybacks, Lake Alexandrina filled. Just here, a little upstream at Clayton Bay, the jetties and the lake bed were exposed during the drought. Come the floods—and, boy, when it floods in the Murray-Darling does it flood—Lake Alexandrina filled right up, the barrages were open and the fresh water went right out to sea.

Senator DAY: On water speculation and water trading, we have heard a lot of evidence about that. Hopefully we will have some recommendations in our final report about that. That was not my question. My question is to Dr Marohasy about carp. We have heard a lot about the proliferation of carp and how in a natural state during a drought native species of fish migrate to other places and survive whereas the carp die. But by maintaining artificial environments, carp continue to proliferate. We used to catch carp off the jetty when we were kids at Walker Flat. In your submission you mention carp a little bit. I would like to hear a little bit more about that.

Dr Marohasy: The fish strategy explained that the European carp, which are a pest species, can make up an estimated 60 to 90 per cent total fish biomass at many sites. I understand that is even higher down here in the Lower Lakes. In fact, there is a Charlie Carp industry that has built up around the harvesting of this pest species in the Lower Lakes. If the lakes became estuarine, unfortunately that industry would go out of business but, hey, we would have a return of higher value fish and better fishing fish and native fish including the mulloway, for example. We would be rid, simply by letting the sea water in, of the carp in the Lower Lakes and we would have a return of the mulloway. Of course the mulloway fishery was decimated, totally decimated when the barrages were sealed in 1914.

CHAIR: You discussed in your submission how native fish are in decline. The suggestion is that this is due to an inadequate environmental flow. What is your response to that?

Dr Marohasy:  I am actually quite concerned that the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder is claiming that there is a need for increased environmental flow to improve native fish numbers. He has got a new plan, the Basin Plan. This plan, when it comes to the management of fish, seems to ignore 30 years of taxpayer funded research going right back to the 1980s that clearly concluded—and it was written into the Living Murray report—that cold water pollution was the major problem in the Murrumbidgee and Murray rivers preventing a full recovery of species like Murray cod. Rather than addressing this issue of cold water pollution, for example, over $100 million of taxpayer money was spent on the Native Fish Strategy for the Murray-Darling Basin from 2003 to 2013. That strategy said the most cost-effective, tangible, achievable, easiest thing to do right away—that was back in 2003—was retrofitting of the Hume Dam with multilevel outlets and also including artificial de-stratification of the water in the dam. It was suggested that could be done for as little as $5 million. That investment was never made. All these years later, that plan ran its course. It ignored some of the key recommendations and key initial objectives totally forgotten in the Basin Plan. Instead we have got a new Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder with yet another plan, this time focusing on the amounts of water. It really is time key institutions were held accountable for their past plans. There needs to be an audit of that Native Fish Strategy. I think there was $150 million spent on that strategy yet they could not put any money to addressing this issue of cold water pollution abatement, which, at the beginning, we were told was the easiest issue to address—a travesty.

Senator SIMMS: I want to clarify, Dr Marohasy, your position on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. You support the plan; is that right?

Dr Marohasy: No I do not.

Senator SIMMS: Do you want to see the plan removed?

Dr Marohasy: The Basin Plan is meant to be about restoring the environment and environmental plans. The Basin Plan is a disgrace. It is a travesty. It ignores the first thing that you should look at when you are fixing a river—that is, you should restore the estuary. There is nothing in the Basin Plan about restoring the estuary. There should be something in the Basin Plan about the estuary. There is not even mention of the barrages in the Basin Plan. On the issue of cold water pollution, it ignores 30 years of fisheries research; it ignores the objectives of the original Native Fish Strategy for the Murray-Darling Basin complaint 2003-2013.

Senator SIMMS: We have cleared up your view on the plan, thank you.

Dr Marohasy: It is a disgrace to this nation

Senator SIMMS: Just to make it clear then, what you are advocating for is an alternative to that status quo. Is it a return to the industry? What do you see as a long-term solution if not the plan?

Dr Marohasy: I would start by looking at the most degraded system within the Murray-Darling and it is Lake Alexandrina undoubtedly—full of carp. Yet the Basin Plan says that in periods of drought and more generally, the priority is to get fresh water down to this artificially perched freshwater—may I suggest—duck pond, vast duck pond. It is the size of Port Phillip Bay yet there is very natural environment here either under the water or above or surrounding. Yet the Basin Plan—$10 billion of taxpayer money—is supposedly about that restoring the natural environment of the Murray-Darling Basin. In fact there is less water now for upstream wetlands that actually do have fantastic ecological values, where people have worked hard over countless years to get rid of the carp. There is less water for those wetlands because more water is coming down here. The carp problem could easily be fixed here by restoring the estuary.

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