Australian politics, society & culture

Water Under the Bridge

A Guide to the Murray Darling Basin

Kate Jennings

Long read7900 words
 

Whenever I wanted a dose of crazy, I used to watch Weeds. Same premise as Breaking Bad but, take my word for it, much better. Or Fox News. Wall-to-wall fibs. But now I have the Tea Party mob. Pure essence of crazy. The alternative reality crowd. Or I read the pronouncements of the Australian Greens, who would be endearing in their nutty prelapsarianism if they didn’t have the country by the short and curlies. They seem to want to restore Australia to an Arcadia it never was, or at least return to the ’50s and its 'sustainable’ population, but with good coffee. An alternative reality crowd at the other end of the spectrum.

October 2011
Art Gallery of NSW - 24 September 2011 to 5 February 2012
Meeting Mary Finsterer
Girls’s 'Father, Son, Holy Ghost'
Daniel Nettheim’s The Hunter and Anh Hung Tran’s Norwegian Wood
Meeting Andrew Fraser
John Bell’s 'On Shakespeare'
Alice Neel and Louise Bourgeois
A Correspondence with Clive James
Meeting Meow Meow

Settle down. I insulted the Greens on purpose to get your attention. Green-ish myself. Climate change? Happening. Melting poles, warming oceans. People, do something! But if I’d started by discussing tillage fractures or SER statistics, you would’ve drifted, flipped the page. I also wanted to make a point about insults. If you begin an op-ed piece, as Tim Flannery did in the Age, with “… white Australia’s relationship with the bush has been a kind of rape and pillage”, your subsequent points about biochar as a source of energy or innovations in farming are completely lost on the audience you most want to reach: the rapists and pillagers. Tim, a sweet guy with the best of intentions, is being purposefully provocative to get your attention, a tactic with which, as an old radical, I’m more than familiar, but it’s been overused. Continually peppering Australia with this sort of buckshot means that the bits of lead are hard to excise. And it festers. Oh, how it festers. Metaphors have consequences.

The demonising of farmers has been insidious in the last decade but reached a crescendo this last year when the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s Guide to the Proposed Basin Plan was released all 1118 pages of it with production values as high as a Mercedes-Benz brochure   and a miniscule contingent of angry irrigators – arch-villains du jour – burned copies in Griffith. It was a plan which proposed cutting water in amounts that would’ve, if not outright killed irrigation areas and their towns, at the very least caused them to atrophy. A plan assembled without consultation with farmers and scientists from the areas in question. A plan the government neglected to tell them was only a discussion paper. The actual burning, televised and played whenever the issue comes up, imitated an earlier event at Deniliquin that wasn’t caught on tape. In Griffith, journos all but handed the demonstrators the match. The protest left most of the people who attended the town meeting – 5000 of them – squeamish, but some now admit that at least those ratbags forced the nation to look in their direction.

You know much of this, yet it bears repeating because another plan is due in mid November, and it’s strongly rumoured, despite reassurances that social and economic factors will be taken into account, that we are in for more rural outrage, this one fuelled by political betrayal. This is not a storm in a teacup: two million people live in the basin, which produces 40% of our agriculture. The Murray Darling Basin Authority chieftain, Craig Knowles, a master of political expediency who replaced the hapless Mike Taylor, is already passing the buck by saying that two states, New South Wales and Victoria, are hindering the release of the plan. “The people of Australia expect a partnership,” said Knowles. Yadda yadda yadda.

I fossicked for statements similar to Tim Flannery’s, not the rude comments on blogs – “Eat shit, you moron!” or even “Yadda yadda yadda” – but those by public figures. To Flannery and others such as Barney Foran and George Seddon, the Snowy Mountains Scheme, which was built as a result of debilitating droughts such as the one Australia has just endured, is “delusional” and “ruinous”. And also “a free ride” on taxpayer money for irrigators who have turned the Murray Darling Basin rivers into “saline drains”. Åsa Wahlquist, the former rural correspondent for the Australian, began her book Thirsty Country, published in 2008, by repeating a claim by “water guru” Peter Cullen that we have farmers who “slop on water like they did in the time of the pharaohs”. She follows that up with: “we still value the right to irrigate, no matter how poorly, over the health of our ancient, beautiful, fragile land.” And then there is Don Watson, who likes to say that 30% of farmers are bad farmers. All of these statements are inaccurate or exaggerations – examples of what WH Auden called “the folded lie” in his poem September 1, 1939 – and also unhelpfully judgmental. As for Watson’s claim, I’d answer that 30% of any profession aren’t up to snuff, including bureaucrats and environmental scientists.

Heightening environmental awareness in this way can mobilise some. Others who might agree have heard it all one time too many. They are tired of inaction on global warming but also are weary of the posturing and bullying on both sides of the environmental divide. Still others, hopping mad, will be only too receptive to the claims of climate-change sceptics. In turn, environmentalists and all their causes are thrown overboard. The result is an endless parade of 'you are either for us or agin us' binary pronouncements. No room for complexity or solutions, which Australia needs, unless you are for a Singapore solution and want to outsource everything you regard as vaguely polluting, turning us into a NIMBY nation. Hitching your economic future to China probably isn’t the best idea, either, given its Potemkin cities and rickety banks and usurious shadow ones. Auden again, “the folded lie” stanza in its entirety:

 

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die. 

 

I have a dog in the fight because I come from a long line of rapists and pillagers on both sides of my family. Dry area farmers, horticulturists, rice-growers. On the paternal side, my forebears were British Empire flotsam farming the unfarmable. My father was brought up on a soul-shrivelling soldier–settler farm that had rendered my grandparents almost mute by the time I spent school holidays with them. Straddling a stony ridge, the farm was my grandfather’s reward for serving in the Australian Light Horse Brigade in the Battle of Beersheba. He might have thought he’d gone from one hell to another, the second with erosion gullies deep and wide enough to bury a Melbourne tram, except that his father had walked off a property near the Murray as a result of the Federation drought. He already knew hell. At least the Battle of Beersheba was a victory.

Before the war, my grandfather dug channels with his father for the nascent Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. At the end of the next war, my father went to work for his in-laws on their orchards in the MIA, where my maternal grandfather was a pioneer, arriving in 1915 to take up Farms 13 and 14. The pioneering was repeated in 1963, when my father moved to Coleambally to create a rice farm from what was four surveyor’s pegs. If not appalling hardship, then bloody hard work. We don’t have to mythologise farmers, but don’t disrespect them. We can refrain from condemning them from our armchairs for using European agricultural methods. None were under the illusion they were farming in England. Australia embraced irrigation because of droughts and now, because of another, is rejecting it. Irrigation has saved mankind’s bacon for thousands of years, so before that happens, we all need to do the due diligence that Tim Flannery calls for on carbon pollution. With the rains, we can stop being Henny-Pennys, assess the future less feverishly.

I have another dog in the fight. As I said, I’m Green-ish. Cap and trade – bring it on! It works: the method has rid the Northern Hemisphere of forest-destroying acid rain, with cost to business much less than anticipated. However, that doesn’t mean I have to tick all the boxes in a set of beliefs. It’s possible to be pro-irrigation and anti-fracking. Even Peter Andrews, who brought salinity to attention in Back from the Brink, says that he has nothing against irrigation, just so long as it’s done in the right place. My friends and acquaintances in Griffith and Coleambally are also Green-ish. Some are even members of the Australian Conservation Foundation, or were until the MDBA draft plan crashed into their lives. Farmers – the good ones, Don! – are natural environmentalists. They have to be. And they are computer and science literate; modern agriculture requires it. They are hooked into all media, not just local. They are perfectly capable of seeing Alan Jones as a ratings ambulance-chaser and Lord Monckton as a grand-standing nutter. And more than capable of analysing statistics and dissecting scientific models and knowing when the MDBA is getting it wrong or the ACF is fudging facts. I don’t know about you, but I find it much more painful and troubling when my own side is hypocritical or tells fibs. And then, if I speak up, ostracises me for giving ammunition to the opposition. But, heck, here goes. My favourite pastime is tilting at wind turbines.

My first thought on the draft plan was this: Surely, with climate change destined to bring about food shortages, we would upgrade our irrigation systems, not destroy them. Worldwide resource depletion means rising energy prices; irrigation areas are critical to our national security. Agriculture can’t be concentrated in any one state; the risk needs to be widely spread. Next thought: What country in its right mind would sacrifice a vibrant country town such as Griffith? Ease of transport and economies of scale in farming are causing many towns to gasp and wheeze, but not Griffith. Third thought: How did all of Australia manage overnight to become experts on rice- and cotton-growing?

I call my cousin, Jim Sainty, a barrister and farmer in Griffith. He wasn’t sanguine about rational solutions: “This issue has more hairs on it than my foxy Sal.” That would be Sally, his fox terrier. I ask Ian Geddes, a town solicitor and, like me, descended from farmers, what he would say if he had Water Minister Tony Burke’s ear: “We’ve done much to change our methods of irrigating, and there is more we can do.” Irrigation methods have gone through a revolution. Drip tubing, laser-graded rice bays, recycled run-off water. The drainage channels are empty. The only people, I’m told, who still slop on water are dairy farmers, although I’m also told even they have wised up. But Ian isn’t sanguine, either, because of bloated bureaucracies that block farmer participation and a scrum of competing interests: federal and state governments, catchment authorities, and the various farming and environmental bodies.

“The MDBA is a good idea if it’s done right,” Geddes says. Getting it right – there’s the rub. Administering water resources was aggravated when the Murray Darling Basin Authority was created in 2008, replacing the Murray Darling Basin Commission. More than a name change was involved: the farmers were shown the door, along with world-class institutional memory about irrigation. Wayne Meyer, a Natural Resources Science professor at the University of Adelaide, explains: “We were getting somewhere. The great tragedy is that MDBA unlearned or forgot or conveniently put aside the lessons learned with a lot of effort by the MDBC, like the community consultation programs that injected the local influence into the process.”

Meyer, who worked at the Griffith CSIRO before taking up his post at Adelaide University, thinks Griffith folk are “a special bunch”. Cousin Jim remarks on the town’s good fortune: “Griffith was bitten on the arse by the tooth fairy: water, pioneering spirit, immigration.” Anyone who grew up in the area is grateful for its hybrid vigour. The belief in progress is part of our DNA. We embraced science. The CSIRO was an integral part of the our lives, trusted to solve our problems. In my experience, farmers like my father were open to ideas, quick to adapt. An agronomist just had to lean across a fence and suggest a new crop, and my father would give it a whirl. Now and again, he was too open. In the late fifties, someone at the CSIRO suggested installing a solar panel on our roof. Duly done, but the panel was elementary, and we had cold baths for a long time.

Meyer qualifies my memories. He remembers “terse” conversations with Coleambally farmers to persuade them to change their rice-growing methods. Terse because they were being told that they needed clay soil three metres deep to grow rice. A high water table and its attendant salinity convinced doubters, just as the threat of water cuts is now focusing farmers on the benefits of wetlands. Salinity: basin soil is naturally salty, and water brings salt to the surface with clay or sends it down into groundwater or rivers with sandy loam. Salinity management programs have been in effect in many irrigation areas for more than a decade, lowering the salt levels in basin rivers considerably.

My cousin Jim’s father is the botanist Geoff Sainty. Renowned for his expertise on water plants, he has considerable knowledge of wetlands – the boggy bits on farms as well as billabongs, marshes and lakes – and how to restore them. Seventy-seven-years old and irrepressibly curious, he’s about to publish a two-volume 600-page opus titled Plants in Estuaries in South East Australia. While sympathetic to farmers, he is an environmentalist to the core, believing ecological life in the basin can be aided by unblocking the “tribs”: “My interest is in the thousands of unnamed creeks and some of the named ones in all the catchments. The streams need the stock taken off them. The minor farm dams need their capture reduced. The approach should be on a sub-catchment basis. Stop talking about the Murray Darling as if it’s a single entity.”

As is known, the immigrants who supplied the hybrid vigour were Italians. They labored in the cane fields and came south to pick fruit, living in spartan barracks. The MIA farmers lived in equally spartan fibro houses. At Coleambally, farmers raised whole families in the end of sheds. If we were sponging on taxpayer money, we weren’t exactly living a lush life. We had what we needed, but by today’s standards, we were poor. Importantly, though, we felt prosperous. The Italian immigrants liked what they saw and stayed. Today, more than half of Griffith’s population has Italian heritage, a mixture of North and South, largely from Veneto and Calabria. The hybrid vigour continues. The new immigrants are Punjabi Indians, Pacific Islanders and Hazara Afghanis. The town’s three high schools are as mixed as could be, and include a significant Aboriginal population. Griffith High has 200 Tongan and Samoan students alone. Most common names in the phone book: 1. Singh; 2. Sergi; 3. Catanzariti; 4. Smith. The father of multiculturalism, Al Grassby, the defiant mutt who got his start in Griffith, would be pleased.

McWilliam’s was the leading winery in my day. Now it’s Casella, which grosses $300 million exporting Yellowtail, an inexpensive quality vino. Everyone is struggling with a clouded future and the effects of indiscriminate water buybacks, which create the notorious Swiss cheese effect: abandoned properties side by side with functioning ones. Farmers who stay have greater costs, and the water evaporates as it makes its way by empty land. The government claims that nobody is forcing the farmers to sell their water rights, but fear is a mighty motivator, as well as debt accumulated during the drought. But Casella Wines has a different problem. Like many Australian export industries, the company is struggling with the high dollar brought about by the mining boom. It has to compete with equally good Chilean and Argentine wines but ship the product further. Their one advantage is the globally well-known Yellowtail name.

Accusations of irrigators having a free ride on taxpayer money sound suspiciously like … Tea Party rhetoric. Apart from the fact that farmers work and pay taxes like everyone else, I always thought of the Snowy Mountain Scheme and our channels as coming under the category of public works, amortised over time and paying for themselves in tangible and intangible ways. Balance of trade, that sort of thing. The infrastructure of city life isn’t regarded as a subsidy, but it could be seen as such. Vast swathes of Australian life are subsidised, including the arts, academia and the film industry, because the population is too small to support these activities, or so the reasoning goes. The biggest subsidy in my time were Commonwealth scholarships, the vehicle for so many of us to become the first in our families to go to university.

The development of clean energy just got a whacking huge subsidy in the form of $10 billion for Bob Brown’s CEFC. We urgently need clean energy, but the way to achieve it isn’t clear. In the UK and the US, wind farms are being rejected as noisy and unsightly; in the US, three solar-power companies declared bankruptcy in the last two weeks. Biofuels such as ethanol are proving to be a deal with the devil because they gobble energy as well as forcing up food prices. But humans – tsk, tsk – insist on flicking light switches and driving cars. And turning on their computers to blog about the evils of coal-fired plants, hydro-electricity and nuclear power. We are at the lesser-of-evils stage in our evolution. I hope Bob Brown hires a CEO who can say 'no'. A blue-sky thinker who can read a balance sheet.

A true waste of taxpayers’ money would be to close down an area like Coleambally, acclaimed worldwide for its efficiency. Along with the 3-metre requirement, rice is grown only if the soil requires less than 3 or 4 megalitres of water per hectare to be economically productive. As well, water allocations to rice are suspended in times of drought because it’s an annual crop. Vines and fruit trees, which take years to grow, are categorised as 'high security' and continue to receive enough water to keep them alive, a strategy that saved not just the CIA but all NSW irrigation areas in the drought. I try to imagine what Coleambally would be like if bulldozers filled in the channels and levelled the bays. And I see a bumper crop of Bathurst Burrs and the topsoil heading for Sydney next summer. The farmers, seen as a 'mobile population' by government economists even if they have worked the same land for generations, will set up tents in city backyards.

With the hairs of Jim’s foxy Sal in mind, I set about learning the complexities of the debate. Because I don’t live in Australia, I have the advantage of reading reports in the media with fresh eyes. I knew about the drought in desolating detail because my father still lives in Coleambally. A resident in the old people’s home he helped build, he is out the door first thing every morning to the rain gauge, just as he’s always done. The home’s computer is set to the mesmerising satellite weather map that shows rain moving across Australia in patches of green and blue. The one constant of my father’s life: rain. In Thirsty Country, Åsa Wahlquist claims that irrigators hate rain when in fact they welcome every drop. However, like all farmers, they’d rather it didn’t rain at harvest time.

I became acquainted with the restrictive Water Act, John Howard’s stab at environmental awareness, and the Greens’ intransigence on changing it. The root of the problem: the act mandated that a specific amount of water be returned to rivers for environmental use, meaning allotments for irrigation would be slashed. In the case of Murrumbidgee irrigation areas, such as the MIA and CIA, the figure was a devastating 32%, a figure that is likely to stay the same. Modelling was used to arrive at the percentages, but models are only as good as the data fed into them, and the MDBA data was faulty to an extreme degree. Amongst other snafus, the MDBA didn’t feed in the amounts already achieved through curtailed water usage or cutting waste, which varies widely with catchment areas. Nor were the formulae clear.

I watched the installation of Craig Knowles as head of the Murray Darling Authority at first with relief and then suspicion. He said the right thing to everybody. Knowles might be oleaginous, but I don’t envy him. Labor wants to please suburban Adelaide voters. And the squeakiest wheel in the basin debate has been at the South Australian end. Reading the MDBA tea leaves has become a preoccupation. For example, when Knowles and Tony Burke promised Adelaide voters that they will keep the mouth of the Murray open 90% of the time, can we deduce that they have a hotline to the weather gods? Or do they still intend to take large amounts of water from upstream? Whatever he does, given the constraints of the Water Act, Knowles will have to be Solomonic in his decision-making. Or become the bureaucratic equivalent of Jeffrey Dahmer.

Like the irrigators, I welcomed Tony Windsor’s inquiry into the impact of the Guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Titled Of Drought and Flooding Rain, the report demonstrates an understanding of the issues with an abundance of clarity, commonsense and compassion and, importantly, underlines the basin’s vastness and variability. That a parliamentary committee could produce a document like this at a time of political idiocy is close to a miracle.

 

The Murray-Darling Basin covers over one million square kilometres of southeast Australia, 14 per cent of the country. It extends from just north of Carnarvon in Queensland to Goolwa in South Australia and just south of Creswick and Kilmore in Victoria. It comprises 23 river valleys with climactic conditions ranging from rainforest regions, to mallee country, inland sub-tropical to arid and semi- arid land of the far west. The north is characterised by semi-arid and ephemeral river systems while the south is known for highly-regulated river systems fed from the Australian Alps.


In other words, enough with the extrapolating. The MDBA was egregiously guilty of this in the draft plan, projecting from 14 environmental asset sites to all 2442 such sites. And stop megaphoning to the media findings from a corner of a marsh and applying them to the whole 1 million square kilometres. Given the variety of catchment areas and the see-sawing extremes of Australian weather, the Windsor report questions the wisdom of the draft plan’s focus on “end of system flow” i.e. the volume of water arriving at the Murray mouth. He also asked that “non-strategic water buybacks” – the government buying water rights higgledy-piggledy without a plan for utilising them – be stopped because of the damage they are doing to communities. Hasn’t happened. According to the Griffith Area News, the buybacks are estimated to have stripped about 800 jobs and $100 million from the local economy so far. The government has easily sidestepped Windsor’s request because non-strategic buybacks were not defined. The report is qualitative, not quantitative.

The Windsor report tasked the MDBA to be more responsive to proactive sellers when towns won’t crumble and high-yield crops vanish. A good example of pro-active sellers are the farmers of Nimmie-Ciara, who for two years have been asking the Commonwealth to buy their area, returning a substantial amount of water to the environment. Poor sods have been beating their heads against a brick wall. Theirs is a grain-growing irrigation area between Hay and Balranald, and the socioeconomic effect of the sale would be far less than in the MIA. The government is no doubt calculating that the Nimmie-Ciara farmers will eventually give up and sell them their water rights, which would be cheaper than buying the area holus-bolus. Death by unconscionable attrition.

The Nimmie-Ciara story was brought to my attention by Paul Pierotti of Caesars, a Griffith furniture store. Paul was the first to state the blindingly obvious: townspeople suffer when water is cut, not just farmers. When we spoke, Paul’s pride in his family, store and town was transparent – a pride that humbled me. Paul wonders why the farmers haven’t been able to broadcast their message. The failure is not for want of trying, but because environmental groups have firm control of the “narrative”. The “mighty Murray coursing with lifeblood” is infinitely more interesting than agriculture, seen as dull if it’s seen at all. This lack of allure was captured by Philip Larkin in a single line: I deal with farmers, things like dips and seed. Add to that the trust many place in the Greens, thinking them benign, on the side of the angels.

I discuss the “narrative” with Andrew Gregson, CEO at NSW Irrigators’ Council. He informs me of a new element in it: Big Irrigation. Supposedly it’s like Big Tobacco. Andrew employs 3 people, the ACF employs 60. Big Enviro? Once ideas get hold, no matter how erroneous, they have a life of their own. In discussing language with Andrew, I suggest we have a moratorium on the word “sustainability”. He says he’d like the same to happen to “environment”. These are words that have come to mean everything and nothing. Piffle words. Perhaps if we were to stop using them, new pathways in the brain would open so we can think creatively about solutions, using specifics and not befogging generalities. 

One key ingredient in the “narrative” are statistics. The more of them I read over the last year, the more they seemed downright hinky. Take a piece in the Canberra Times website by Kelly O’Shanassy, chief executive of Environment Victoria. Published on 22 July, the piece is an op-ed, but I came across numerous items in the national media with identical statistics. Distressingly, many were obviously press releases dressed up as articles, with no evidence of fact-checking. Australian newspapers and the ABC are short of money, I was told when I questioned this practice, and editors have no alternative but to plug the holes with PR material.

Although an editor most likely came up with O’Shanassy’s headline, it is typically alarmist: 'Last chance to pull Murray-Darling Back from the Brink.' The gist of her argument is that we have allowed one season of rain to wipe out memory of the drought. And we must not forget “the howls of self-interested outrage by a small number of irrigators, the irrigator lobby, and irrigator agribusiness, who mounted a campaign to have the Basin Plan thrown out.” O’Shanassy claims that in the last century water consumption for irrigation in the Murray Darling Basin “skyrocketed” by 500%. She could’ve put any percentage because irrigation was negligible 100 years ago. Why not 1000%, for maximum impact? This is followed by the assertion that “4000 dams and weirs were built”. She must have counted every farm dam as well as river structures. I started to wonder about the rest of her statistics. The next is important because it’s a prominent element in the media daisy chain: “Ninety percent of floodplain wetlands in the Basin are gone.” The figure only applies to a South Australian south-eastern region, a finding that was reported orally at a conference by Professor Stuart Bunn and drafted incorrectly into a government document, and which he has since tried to correct. She finishes with the contention that rigorous science is being sidelined, and yet she is guilty of sidelining herself. The ACF, the go-to source for environmental statistics, can also be fingered as a culprit.

Austin Evans, the senior operations engineer at the Coleambally Irrigation Cooperative, painstakingly tracked down the source of the wetlands figure, not to prove it wrong but because he found it so alarming. When I first spoke to him, he was out in the field measuring a wetlands plume. He sent his findings to Arlene Harriss-Buchan, the ACF spokeswoman who has the MDB beat. He pointed out another error on their website’s river facts and figures page: “We remove around 11,500 gigalitres (1 gigalitre is roughly equal to 500 Olympic swimming pools) of water from the Murray and Darling Rivers per year, of its average total of about 14,000 gigalitres.” In fact, 10,940 gigalitres is diverted out of a total of 32,780. A gross error. However, it’s still on the ACF’ river facts and figures page. The wetlands figure was corrected but has appeared again in a new posting. None of this is to deny that the rivers of the Murray Darling Basin aren’t taxed or that wetlands haven’t disappeared or salinity isn’t a problem, as everyone to whom I spoke would agree. But false figures aggravate raw feelings and distort decision-making.

I call Arlene Harriss-Buchan. She is ubiquitous in the MDB debate, a biochemist with experience in patent law but now an “environmental scientist”. The names of these scientists are rarely preceded by their field of study. Rubber-stamped with the credential “environmental scientist”, they expound on anything you care to place under the umbrella of the environment. Like computers, they suffer from function creep.

The ACF has a mantric solution to the basin’s ailments: Water has been taken away and let’s put it back to make the rivers sweet. However, at the risk of sounding as simplistic as the ACF, you could argue that this achieves only two things. First, Adelaide is assured of a supply of fresh water. In good years, Adelaide gets a substantial amount its water from the lakes at the Murray mouth. If you are cynical, you might conclude that the scientific priority that the MDBA puts on “end of system flow” stems from this fact. Second, the carp will be happy. Deliriously happy. All those extra football fields of water!

The carp: The rivers are chockers with them. An invasive species, they breed like that notorious early scourge rabbits and infest the rivers in plague numbers, obliterating native fish and water plants. Unlike rabbits, we can’t see carp, nor has the long-term effect of their ravening on river ecology been researched. Making a virtue of necessity, carp-fishing is now an industry, with the catch churned into fertiliser, although, illogically, fishery officials want to close it down, citing protection of native fish. “If the government can’t do anything about the carp,” Geoff Sainty grouses, “how can it fix irrigation?” He explains that flooding, likely to increase with expanded environmental flows, will wreck crops, roads and bridges but also allow carp, which spawn in wetlands, to migrate back to watercourses.

When we speak, Arlene Harriss-Buchan opens with a well-rehearsed statement: “We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get this right, to put the environment and the economy on a sustainable footing, and the science is critical in understanding what that means and informing what the trade-offs will be … this is a one-off shot. We can’t compromise in a scientific understanding of where we are going.”

I want to know why she insists that we have a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” or “one-off shot”, phrases now embedded in the nation’s “narrative”. Her answer is direct: “Because we have the money.” She is referring to the $12.9 billion Water for the Future program. Part of the money is dedicated to water buybacks, which have proceeded apace. The other part, infrastructure spending, is moving slowly because the government wants to avoid cock-ups like the BER program or the insulation scheme. Fair enough. Unfortunately, the infrastructure money is being cannibalised to pay for administrative costs for programs normally funded from general budgets.

But having the money is no reason in itself to do anything, I suggest. Harriss-Buchan chides me: “You have to understand that the drought brought us to our knees. The Coorong and the Lower Lakes were a second-to-midnight off being written off. Used and abused beyond any capacity to recover. Terminal. We have to get it right before another drought hits. The Murray mouth closed up because of the drought. We had to keep it open using two dredgers.” She becomes heated, even though she has often been quoted in the press as saying we must not let emotion overwhelm science.

Dredging is routine at the mouths of rivers, either to remove deposits from winter storms or sediment from upstream, so I fail to understand the fuss, but as she’s mentioned the Murray mouth, I proceed to the five barrages – nearly 8 kilometres of concrete – that plug the estuary, separating the Coorong from the Lower Lakes and preventing tidal flows. The support by environmentalists for keeping the barrages is baffling because one of their supposed aims is to restore the estuary to health. To many, the hypocrisy is galling, making the barrages symbolic of the entire mess.

Harriss-Buchan’s response: “The barrages were put in place in 1915 in response to large-scale extraction of water upstream. The lakes have always been fresh water as a matter of historical fact, and their flow kept the mouth open 90% of the time. With the extraction, not enough water was flowing out, so the barrages were put in to keep the sea out.”

Erroneous history, selective science. The barrages were put in place from 1915 to 1940 at the behest of dairy farmers wanting to irrigate their pastures. Before the barrages, the sea had the nasty habit of intruding into the Lower Lakes and even further up the Murray. Upstream allocations were indeed used as a reason as early as the turn of the century to install the barrages, even though irrigation in the basin was hardly on a large scale. The real problem was the shallowness and natural patchy salinity of the lakes. Also, their wide surface area meant their meager depth was aggravated by evaporation.

The dairy farmers were opposed by fishermen whose livelihood depended on mulloway, a saltwater species. “The barrages were completed and sealed in February 1940,” writes Jennifer Marohasy in the Australian, “and that year the mulloway tried to come in but were defeated, thrashing against the Goolwa barrage on each tide … the barrages reduced the size of the estuary by 89% and flows to the Murray mouth by 75%. We are left with freshwater lakes full of carp instead of an estuary with mulloway, crabs, waders and the biodiversity that comes when there is natural mixing of fresh and salt waters.”

Jennifer Marohasy is a prominent climate-change sceptic, so her work on the barrages is dismissed out of hand. (We could also dismiss anything from the Wentworth Group because it is funded by the World Wildlife Fund, which could bias findings.) Responding to Marohasy’s article, Harriss-Buchan argues that scientific understanding of the area is being denied, citing sediment cores that go back to the Ice Age and reveal evidence of freshwater and not saltwater species. This is disingenuous, if not risible. Rivers change their course all the time, much less over 7000 years. Others have found microfossils that indicate the opposite. Both are possible in that stupendous time frame.

When I mention Coleambally and the multiplying for-sale signs on houses, Harriss-Buchan brings up the dairy farms in the Lower Lakes area, which totalled 23 before the drought, now down to three. She says the other farms perished because the level of the lakes was too low for pumping. Given her insistence that science is critical, I question the wisdom of having the dairy farms there in the first place. I had sought out Wayne Meyer specifically because he knew about soil, its suitability for irrigation. “With hindsight,” he said, “putting irrigation where regional ground waters were being discharged wasn’t smart.” His two examples were the Barr Creek area in Northern Victoria and the dairy farms in the “trench” of the Murray. “The reclaimed swamp areas at the bottom of the Murray are the last place to put irrigation,” he continues. “You are forever battling with the salt from the discharge. The community at Murray Bridge is depressed because you can’t generate enough economic activity there to sustain it.” An objective point of view, but also an heretical one.

The declining Murray mouth communities are featured on the ACF website to persuade people to sign a petition to support the proposed MDBA water cuts. It’s not hard to understand why thriving upstream irrigators see themselves as unnecessarily penalised, a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Harriss-Buchan is having none of this. “I don’t want to turn communities against each other,” she insists. “When times get tough people look after their own and throw stones over the fence and say 'I’m a better performer than you.' The fault lies with the state governments who handed out too many water allocations.” The state governments aren’t blameless, but the MDBA and the ACF and other environmental groups have already turned communities against each other.

I speak next to Warren Muirhead. A retired Griffith CSIRO scientist, he was one of many who made a submission to the MDBA this last year despite endemic “reform fatigue.” He argues for new efforts to reproduce natural conditions: “We can fill the billabongs by managing them better. No research has been done in this area. It can be done by gravity. Some can be done by using existing irrigation channels.” Or by unblocking the “tribs”. Like Geoff Sainty, Muirhead is most ardent when he starts talking about species preservation.

We turn to the question of the flow to the sea. “No water at all would be coming down in a drought without the Snowy dams,” he observes. We are both perplexed by the vitriol directed at the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Muirhead reminds me that the scheme provides the national electricity market with a sizeable amount of renewable energy. Sixty-seven percent, to be exact. “More importantly,” he points out, “it’s power that can be brought onto the grid quickly in the summer when demand is high. Water is one of the best ways of storing energy.” More heresy. The dams irrevocably changed the Snowy River watershed – programs are underway to restore it, if only partially – but follow that reasoning and you arrive at Sydney irrevocably changing the ecology of the harbour, ditto with Melbourne and the Yarra, and so on with all our cities and their rivers.

Muirhead also brings up Barr Creek as an example of a badly sited irrigation area. “They cleared the tablelands, aggravating the salinity,” he explains in his quiet way. “The combination of the elevation and a big sand bed means a large slug of salt is pushed toward the Murray. We can’t do much about it because of the clearing of the tablelands, but if we reduced irrigation in that area it would help the river. From Echuca on down the Murray, the salt discharges increase.”

We turn to arguments that are developed for good scientific reasons and then misused by environmentalists. “Virtual water is brought up all the time as a reason not to irrigate,” says Muirhead. “The ACF putting a value on water in this way – it’s airy-fairy stuff. Needs to be challenged.” He is referring to the water calculated by scientists to grow plants, useful in measuring productivity. In Thirsty Country, Åsa Wahlquist reduces our dairy exports in one year to the water that went into making them and then says “the driest inhabited country” in the world is “putting 5.5 million litres of water in a boat and waving it goodbye”. Muirhead explains the fallacy: crops and pasture require approximately the same amount of water, whether from irrigation or rain. So is Wahlquist saying we shouldn’t export any food? Following this reasoning, we shouldn’t export anything at all. Indeed, I should have been knocked on the head at birth because I exported myself to New York. With climate change, we need to be visionaries, but we also need to follow arguments through to their logical conclusions.

In parting, Muirhead reflects on his lifetime of work: “I thought I was doing something to improve science. But it’s all been obliterated by these irrational arguments.” His sadness has stayed with me.

David Merrylees is a farmer who managed to insert himself in the “narrative” with three restrained and well-reasoned blogs on ABC’s Drum. And then the floods came and he abandoned writing; too busy keeping his pumps chugging. A “fourth-generation irrigator and proud of it”, he came close to walking off his farm during the drought, which is on the Murrumbidgee near Carrathool. Trained as an engineer, Merrylees worked as a river operator when it was the MDBC. Like all the younger farmers and townspeople I consulted, he is laconic, razor-sharp, mild of manner, community-minded and culturally adventurous. Canberra broadcaster Genevieve Jacobs told me that her husband was more up on world affairs than she was because he had a radio installed in his tractor cab: Radio National from daybreak to sunset. For his part, Merrylees is an accomplished photographer, twittering about it while on the tractor. I ask him how he is feeling now that a year has passed since his Drum blogs: “It’s a dog’s breakfast. Every cynicism is confirmed. The state of politics in Australia is sickening. They will say anything at all if their polling suggests it’s the way to go and then say the opposite shortly after and manufacture the most transparent mishmash of lies to justify the about-face.” Frustration has eaten away even his mild manner.

The worst thing that could happen is that the MDBA implements a plan that does irreparable damage to productive irrigation communities. Equally bad would be for the “transparent mishmash of lies” to cause a collapse in confidence and nothing be done. Wayne Meyer: “Irrigation is important. There has been a revolution in agriculture. Minimum tilling, sophisticated machinery. Fantastic improvements. But energy costs are going up, which will change things. We can’t keep dumping energy into farming to improve it. The next revolution will be about farming-to-land capability. That means finding those places in the landscape, even within paddocks, that are more responsive to farming and are more productive. Farmers are really thinking about this and adapting.”

What are the remedies? Changes should be made carefully, sub-catchment by sub-catchment, scientists working with farmers. Unblock the tributaries. Irrigation areas that have systems that are too antiquated and inefficient to update should be retired, as well as those where the soil isn’t productive or fighting salinity is impossible, even with technical intervention. Some of these areas acknowledge their aging infrastructure or the intractability of their problems and are already shutting down their channels. The disconnection of surface water from groundwater needs to be addressed, as does the chasm between city and rural water; currently both are treated as if they were separate issues. The ACF and similar groups need their feet held to the fire over their emotional language and scientific distortions; the damage to the trust in science and the larger Green cause alone is inestimable. And take out the barrages and create a functioning Murray River estuary with tidal flows that scour and revitalise. This last week the ACF began arguing that the Coorong and the Lower Lakes will be destroyed by salinity if the barrages are removed. Work out for yourself the illogic of this, the folded lie. 

More than anything, I wish that Greens and farmers could make common cause, as they are over coal-seam gas. How the irrigation issue is resolved, Sal’s many hairs notwithstanding, will determine Australia’s future. We got where we are because irrigation allowed population growth. But growth seems to be what’s at question, along with hybrid vigour. The false binary here is prosperity versus survival; both are possible. I wish also I could get Tim Flannery to sit down with Geoff Sainty and Warren Muirhead to make common cause on saving species; they are as ardent as Tim and also have racked up a few more years of wisdom on the subject. Alas – forgive the pun – too much water has passed under the bridge.

External links:

The Windsor Inquiry http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/ra/murraydarling/report.htm

Gavin Atkins’s riparian restitution parody http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/let-the-tank-stream-run-free/story-e6frg6zo-1225971753823

TophersUnpopularView http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrzTfLmbrJ4

Murray Facts http://www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2011/09/20/3321132.htm