Australia's rank river embodies land-use dilemma


Blue-Green Algae in Murray River Think of the landscape and you think of its smell. In South Australia, the Murray winds through dry, flat land on its last dawdle to the sea. In summer the air smells spicy — of baked eucalypt, and of river water.

Last summer, the smell changed. You could say that it turned rank, except that the Murray is always a bit rank, in the fashion of big brown rivers. Kerouac described the Mississippi as 'the great, rank river', and Huckleberry Finn smelt its earthiness: 'It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn't ever feel like talking loud, and it wasn't often that we laughed, only a little kind of low chuckle.'

But the Murray is half a world away from this and, to most Australians, more foreign. We feel more at home with Kerouac and Huck's river than we do with our own. When the smell of our river changed, it was the difference between rank and fetid. The new smell was musty; sinister. It rose to meet you in the evening, when the overhead sprinklers were switched on in the fruit orchards. It rose out of the sink when you washed your dishes. The smell covered you when you were in the shower.

The Murray water, pumped straight from the river, was poisoned by an overgrowth of blue-green algae. Outbreaks of the algae are nothing new; they have happened every hot summer for some years. Blue-green algae grow in still, warm water with high nutrient levels. The Murray, once an unreliable and faster-moving beast, has been tamed and slowed by locks and weirs so as to provide a reliable source of irrigation water. Irrigation run off, fertilisers, cattle droppings and human sewage draining to the river have enormously increased nutrient levels ...

Algae, of course, are only the most visible and topical symptoms of damage to the river system. Salinity is old news. It is caused by rising groundwater dissolving the salts locked in the soils and bringing them to the surface. Since Europeans cleared native trees and replaced them with shallow-rooted perennial crops, the groundwater has been rising fast.

Drive north from Melbourne on the Calder highway and you will see, as you approach Mildura, the frighteningly acne-like scars in the Mallee, where the soil looks greasy and nothing will grow but salt bush. Water tables in areas such as Shepparton are rising so fast that up to half the land now used to grow fruit will be unusable-poisoned by salt-within 25 years ...

Near Kerang, in Victoria, large areas of land are already 'retired', for the simple reason that they are so saline that nothing will grow. The bureaucrats do not admit in plain terms that these lands are unfarmable. They talk about them being suitable for 'salt-tolerant agriculture'. The scientists at the CSIRO and state agriculture departments are still working on what that might mean, with research concentrating on breeding salt-tolerant grasses that can be used for cattle fodder.

But although it is easy to talk about 'retiring' land and changing land use, for the communities along the river and the landowners whose way of life depends on farming, it can be an impossibly hard option. Such adjustment, even over 30 years, would be traumatic to the local communities and the national economy ...

Fruit growers and dairy farmers could, theoretically, become foresters. Our region is heading for a wood-fibre shortage into the next century, so timber will become a high-income earner. And, as well as making money, trees can benefit the soil. They act as solar powered pumps, lowering the water table and combating salinity.

But the problem is that it takes 10 years for a tree to grow to the point at which it will earn the farmer an income, and in the present economic climate there is no way Australia could either give up the export income from fruit growing, or support the farmers while we waited for the trees to grow. As one dairy farmer put it to me: 'Show me a way to live in the meantime, and I'd plant trees. You don't have to get out to milk trees twice a day.'

In fact, even small changes in land use are almost impossible to achieve, and at present, in spite of the rhetoric and in spite of the blue-green algal threat, there is little hope that governments will be able to summon up the necessary political will.

In his [recent] environmental statement, Paul Keating called the Murray-Darling a 'real and symbolic artery'. The metaphor is a cliché when applied to rivers, yet it is right for the Murray. It is our lifeline and our drain, a great vessel, with capillaries of pipes running to and from it, carrying water to our gardens, our crops and our cities, and discharging our wastes so they can be carried sluggishly out of the interior to the sea.

Although sentiment is growing, the bonds that tie most Australians to the inland are still mainly economic.

Halting the damage to the Murray-Darling basin is essential to our financial survival; yet it may be that it is impossible to stop the damage without also causing critical economic damage. The Murray-Darling is the symbol of the conundrums Europeans created when they first moved from the coast to settle the inland, and a symbol of Australia's fragile sense of nationhood. Clinging to the fringes of the continent, we still act like foreigners. We are not yet at home in the interior.


Margaret SimonsMargaret Simons is a freelance journalist and author. Her most recent work includes The Content Makers: Understanding the Future of the Australian Media and Faith, Money and Power: What the Religious Revival Means for Politics. Simons was a 2007 Walkley Awards finalist for her essay Buried in the Labyrinth, published by Griffith Review.
Image: Murray-Darling Basin Commission.





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Existing comments

We do still seem to act like foreigners in a land we don't understand. We are slow learners. As if the damage to the Murray is not enough, we now face the mind boggling stupidity of the Brumby government extracing water from the Goulburn, essentially a Murray feeder stream, to support the water profligate ways of the city. Water in the Goulburn-Murray catchment belongs to that catchment and the people who live in it. Is there not a moral issue here?
Do not catchments have rights?

Jim Bowler | 20 February 2008  

The assertion that Australians "feel more at home with Kerouac's and Huck's river" (referring to the Mississippi) than with the Murray is weird to say the least. I'm sure my indigenous friends would agree with me.

Sadly the article is chronically anthropocentric, ignoring the horrific loss of biodiversity and destruction of non human life and critical habitat throughout the Basin's bio-region

The article dwells on the ecomomic value of the Basin's ecosystem, but that is what caused the problem in the first place.

Visit the Resource page of the Catholic Earthcare Australia website to download a beautiful work from theologian Denis Edwards called "The Gift of Water". This pastoral letter endorsed by 11 Catholic bishops of the Murray-Darling Basin says it all. Treat yourself to these profound 3,000 words on the importance of a healthy Murray. Then endeavour to put the words into action.

col brown | 20 February 2008  

New gov't - plenty of huff but no puff about the all important murray. Penny wong says too busy to visit lower lakes to see tragic devastation. Albanese at press club doesn't give it a mention. Airports roads cities etc. But not this great river.

BRIAN.MARTIN | 20 February 2008  

"It may be that it is impossible to stop the damage without also causing critical economic damage." This sounds like free-marketeer rationale. In a people-centred economics that factors in social externalities (costs and benefits to society) and longterm sustainability of the basin's agricultural and pastoral lands, the case for keeping water flows up in the Murray-Darling and assisting the people living there, if necessary over several years, to move to sustainable agriculture or forestry is clear. Governments have no credibility while they continue to pour scarce water into huge cotton and rice farms to the detriment of small farmers. It is about what sort of rural society we want to sustain in Australia for the future when the oil runs dry - but is anybody in government thinking in these terms? I think not.

tony kevin | 20 February 2008  

I wanted to add - 'The Gift of Water' is a lovely text (with photos and boxed subtexts) well worth reading in full and printing out to keep. An inspiration. Click here to read it.

Tony Kevin | 21 February 2008  

I agree with Col Brown. When are we going to cast off our obsession with "the pathos of the human", as Tom Berry calls it, and start taking the earth, water, animals and plants seriously. When will we learn that irrigation is a curse in Australia, that we can't feed 70 million people via exports. That enlightened economic historian, Sir Keith Hancock, highlighted the dangers of irrigation as early as the 1950s. And I have no confidence that the present Labor government will really do anything. They are as addicted to the neo-rationalist position as their predecessors. They simply don't take the environment seriosuly.

Paul Collins | 21 February 2008  

Paul Collins reminds me of some thinking that I did as a teenager, when I asked myself if I could determine any rhyme or reason behind the 10 Commandments. At the time, I concluded that, irrespective of how the people came by their Commandments, they formed a pretty fair ethical code for a society of Bronze Age peasant farmers.
Three millenia later, our technology has extended our impact on our life support system (aka planet Earth). We need to expand our Commandments to recognise the value of non-human life.

David Arthur | 30 April 2008  

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