April 2021


Up the river

By Margaret Simons
Up the river

The Darling River near Pooncarie, NSW. © Mark Evans / Getty Images

Hope is running dry in the Murray–Darling Basin

Rachel Strachan served mutton and relish sandwiches to her unusual guest.

It was March 2020. From her verandah, she could see the bright green puddles of what was once the mighty Darling River. In wet seasons, she could tie a boat to the verandah post. It was a long time since that had been possible.

Now, she worried about the white sneakers of her Parisian guest and how they would be dirtied by the planned walk in the dry riverbed, and the exploration of the Menindee Lakes upstream. She took in his trilby hat and his fashionable, round sunglasses.

Strachan was used to welcoming people who wanted to know about the river – how she and other farmers have been forced to abandon productive orchards and vineyards because the water had disappeared. This was just one more, she thought, until halfway through lunch when one of the people accompanying the Parisian said: “You don’t know who he is, do you.” She did not.

Her guest was JR, a world-famous photographer, named in 2018 as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, and known for his giant portraits of ordinary people. He makes the invisible visible, impossible to ignore.

JR was preparing an installation – Homily to Country – for the National Gallery of Victoria’s Triennial exhibition. He later recalled this trip as “driving into a sand road in the middle of nowhere”. The “nowhere” was the lower Darling in far west New South Wales, between the Menindee Lakes and Mildura, near where the giant fish kills of December 2018 brought world attention.

This is the country of Henry Lawson and the drover’s wife, of paddle-steamer histories and grey-nomad adventures. This is where the Rainbow Serpent lives in the waterholes of the riverbed – when there is water.

Now, one year after that encounter, Strachan can look down from her verandah and see a bit of water in the river.

At the beginning of February, the NSW minister for water, the National Party’s Melinda Pavey, put out a self-congratulatory media release talking about how a new rule designed to prevent the first flow after a dry period from being pumped out upstream had resulted in water reaching the town of Wilcannia and the Menindee Lakes.

But by the time it got to Strachan, it was a trickle. She can see what she mildly terms “a fair bit of fish activity”. They are rising to the surface, gasping. The water is deoxygenated and full of toxic blue-green algae.

Once an orchardist, Strachan is now a dryland farmer, growing wheat and barley, and running sheep. Seven years ago, the government told the farmers of this area that they would no longer be guaranteed water for irrigation. Broken Hill, which used to draw its water from the Menindee Lakes, would now be supplied by a new pipeline carrying water from the Murray, making it politically possible to let the lower Darling run dry. The region was being sacrificed to the continuing compromised and shambolic attempts to manage the river.

In 2015, the Barkandji people won native title to this region in one of the biggest land rights claims in Australia’s history – but it is now clear that it didn’t guarantee the water on which their cultural practices depend.

Strachan fears that even the comparatively tiny amount of water needed to keep her sheep alive is not assured. She and her fellow farmers and graziers want a guarantee that there will be 18 months’ supply for the lower Darling in the Menindee Lakes before any upstream irrigators can draw water from the river or harvest the floods.

That’s not going to happen. She is on a stakeholder advisory group, but says it has been “consistently challenged or ignored” by the NSW government. As a result, she and her fellow members have withdrawn from the “tokenistic” consultation.

Strachan has lost optimism. The lower Darling is a place out of reach of political influence. It is invisible except when events such as mass fish kills make headlines. Or when people like JR come to visit.

At the end of February, JR’s giant portraits of Strachan, Indigenous elder Badger Bates and other locals were carried out into the dry lakes and filmed from above by drones. It was like a giant funeral procession. A homage, and a focus for lamentation.

JR could have made a thousand homages to country in the Murray–Darling Basin. There are so many stories attached to our largest river system, and about the attempts to wind back the miscalculations of the past and manage it for the future.

We are rapidly approaching a historic reckoning. Five years from now, in 2026, the effectiveness of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan – implemented by the federally appointed Murray–Darling Basin Authority to “manage the Basin as a whole connected system” and bring it “back to a healthier and sustainable level” – will be reviewed and assessed. Following that, new agreements will need to be forged between communities, states and federal government – if we can manage it.

Many argue that waiting until 2026 is too long. The situation is dire, the Basin Plan already fatally compromised, they say. We need a reset now. The existing political compact is barely holding together as it is.

The Basin Plan is the largest water reform of its kind in the world. It represents modern Australia’s attempts to come to terms with the consequences of invasion and settlement, and the legacy of that most powerful of European dreams: creating gardens in the desert. Significant in itself, the plan is also emblematic of the nation, revealing our strengths and weaknesses, our flawed political system, and the compromises we make to keep our Commonwealth lurching forwards.

The underlying question of the Basin Plan’s 2026 review will be whether or not it has worked. There is no simple answer.

On the one hand, yes. The architecture of the plan is largely in place. Water has been allocated to the environment, and is being used to keep key wetlands in a better condition than they would be otherwise. On the other hand, in a report undertaken with the Murray–Darling Basin Authority’s cooperation, the Wentworth Group of scientists recently found that, despite $6.7 billion of Commonwealth government expenditure so far, and the recovery of 2100 gigalitres of water for the environment, up to 20 per cent of that water seemed to be missing – a huge discrepancy. The stream flows are not as they should be. The signs of strain are visible throughout the system: bird breeding sites denuded, blue-green algae outbreaks and fish kills.

Where has the water gone? The Basin Authority, the statutory body charged with both implementing and enforcing the Basin Plan on behalf of the states, is investigating. Likely explanations include water theft, floodplain harvesting and the possibility that the original modelling on which the plan was based was wrong. Another possible explanation, advanced by Professor Quentin Grafton, convenor of ANU’s Water Justice Hub, is that government money spent on dubious on-farm efficiency schemes, such as drip irrigation installation, has had the unintended effect of reducing the amount of water that seeps back through the soil and into the rivers. Grafton has claimed that the reduction in so-called return flows could offset, or even entirely cancel out, the water returned to the environment. The Basin Authority, meanwhile, has conducted a review that found any effect was negligible. This finding will continue to be “applied as the best available knowledge” unless “additional science comes forward”.

There are plenty of examples of the plan not surviving contact with reality. The Basin Authority’s chief executive, Phillip Glyde, has described the plan as like a car being rebuilt as it is driven – the knowledge constantly changing, the unintended impacts gradually becoming clear.

To observers, it seems that the Basin Plan’s successes are qualified by the modesty of our ambitions, and the failures sharpened by the devastation of country, heritage and lives.

But it is a kind of success, even a miracle, that we have a plan at all.

Water has always been one of the most troubled issues underlying our federation. Ownership of water was bitterly contested when the founding fathers met in the 1890s to argue over the Constitution. In the end, the decision was made to leave control of the rivers – then used mostly for transportation – to the states. The Commonwealth has power only in as much as the states agree, or, since the Tasmanian Dam case of the 1980s set the precedent, when it acts to enforce international environmental agreements.

The states have managed their differences over the allocation of water through a series of intergovernmental agreements. These have been increasingly dominated by a realisation that far too much water was being extracted for irrigation and the river was dying as a result.

The Murray–Darling Basin Plan had its beginnings during the Howard government, which, during the 1996 to 2010 “millennium drought”, began a program unique in the world in that it allowed for a formal return of water to the river for environmental purposes. The Water Act 2007 established the Murray–Darling Basin Authority and the office of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to manage and use water taken back from irrigation so as to restore the rivers and their wetlands.

It was a pivot in the history of the basin – a landmark piece of legislation – but the ownership of water remained with the states. As a result, the Water Act relied for its constitutional validity on the less-than-adequate Commonwealth powers to force adherence to international environmental treaties – in this case the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

Ever since, trying to rescue the rivers has been like trying to drive in a screw using a hammer. The Water Act prioritises the environment, but the compact on which managing the basin relies has instead delivered endless political compromise.

During the Rudd government, the Basin Authority worked on determining how much water could be taken sustainably, and hence how much should be clawed back for the environment. A guide to the plan, released in 2010, suggested an extra 3000 to 4000 gigalitres of water for the environment was the bare minimum needed to save the river system. That meant cuts of up to 37 per cent to irrigation. The political outcry was intense. Long story short, the Gillard government that followed crumbled under the pressure.

The suggested recovery amount was eroded to 2750 gigalitres. None of the scientists who have reviewed that figure regarded it as consistent with the science, even if the likely impact of climate change was ignored – which it was.

The compromises continued. The plan has been amended several times to further reduce the water to be returned to the environment. In 2017, it was decided that an extra 605 gigalitres of water would be available for consumptive use, thanks to a series of “adjustment mechanism” projects, to be completed by 2024. These projects were meant to save water, or achieve environmental objectives with less water. As well, South Australia secured a promise that an additional 450 gigalitres would flow across its border, also thanks to efficiency projects and better management of the river.

But now everyone acknowledges that the 450 gigalitres for South Australia will not be achieved and, although nobody has yet admitted it, the 605 gigalitres is also very unlikely to be delivered by the series of projects’ 2024 deadline.

In an extraordinary performance before a Senate inquiry last September, the ever pugilistic Minister Pavey insisted that the Water Act would simply have to be changed. As for the Menindee Lakes scheme – an “efficiency scheme” that proposed to save on evaporation by draining the lakes more often – she admitted “we’ve really stuffed this up”, though she diverted blame to the Basin Authority. So low is trust, Pavey acknowledged, that “We want to go back out there, but the communities … have genuinely stopped listening to us.” The scheme, she said “cannot be delivered in [its] current state”.

In theory, if the projects are not completed and the savings not achieved, the Basin Authority can force the water to be found elsewhere, for example through buybacks from irrigators. The Basin Plan’s targets are, after all, part of federal legislation. Instead, quietly and incrementally, the federal government has shuffled away from the commitments – even though the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder says that many floodplains and wetlands won’t be able to be saved until the efficiency projects are in place.

In early 2020, a new federal water minister was appointed: the National Party’s Keith Pitt. He was the latest in a fast-changing cast. It is a near impossible job, and the politically ambitious tend to drop the hot potato as fast as possible.

Pitt announced a “new approach” to the Basin Plan. He ruled out water buybacks, although most independent scientists and economists, including the Productivity Commission, have said this is the best way of clawing back water. Instead, Pitt announced a range of environmental grants for South Australia, to compensate it for the “delay” in the delivery of the 450 gigalitres, as well as more money to help communities struggling with the impacts of water recovery, and for community-driven projects to improve the health of rivers and wetlands.

Another of Pitt’s early actions was to appoint Sir Angus Houston, former Chief of the Defence Force and one of the most respected people in Australian public life, as chair to the Basin Authority. Interviewed for this article, Houston gave the impression of a man still getting to grips with the scale of the task, and the implication that, as he readily acknowledged, things will only get harder and the power to tackle the problems is limited.

To call the Murray–Darling Basin Authority an authority was really a misnomer, Houston said. “It is more of a facilitator … we do our best to deliver the plan.” He was referring to the fact that the states hold most of the power. Houston acknowledged the failure to deliver the 450 gigalitres to South Australia, and the doubts about the 605 gigalitres from infrastructure and efficiency schemes being achieved. The attitude of Minister Pitt, he said, was to nevertheless run “full steam ahead”, pushing as hard as possible to achieve the savings before the projects’ 2024 deadline.

The federal government is trying to ride over the issues and maintain momentum as the same problems grow. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the contradictions could tear apart the coalition between the National and Liberal parties.

Pitt has branded Houston’s job as being to regain trust, because everyone acknowledges that this is entirely missing. In the Murray–Darling Basin, states hate on states, upstream hates on downstream, crop growers hate on other crops, and everyone is cynical about government.

Why did Houston take the job? “I like a challenge. And I think I can help.” Before he accepted the post it had been vacant for a time – probably because nobody was courageous enough to take it on.

As the 2026 reckoning of the entire Basin Plan approaches, there is a lot going on.

After missing deadlines, NSW has now lodged its key regional water-resource plans, which are the brass tacks of the Basin Plan’s operation. The Basin Authority is currently assessing these plans for compliance, and that is likely to be a long, thorny process. Sources say that NSW’s biggest resource plans are unlikely to be approved in their present form. Two, including one covering the Lachlan River, have already been withdrawn for amendment. Officially, the Basin Authority says there is nothing unusual in this. A member of an authority advisory group is less diplomatic: the water-resource plans, they say, “are a joke. They will not be approved without big changes.”

Meanwhile, NSW and Queensland are also beginning to attempt to measure and regulate what Dr Emma Carmody, special counsel for the Environmental Defenders Office legal centre, has described to a Senate inquiry as the “heart of darkness” of Murray–Darling management: floodplain harvesting. This is one of the great unknowns of the basin. In the wet seasons of the north, the floodplains fill with water and landholders capture it with levees and storages, some of them stretching for kilometres – private inland seas.

In theory, the amount of water taken through floodplain harvesting was counted in the Basin Plan – but it had never been measured or regulated. The original plan made the educated guess that floodplain harvesting accounted for about 210 gigalitres of water. That is now regarded as a massive underestimate.

From July this year, NSW will start to measure and license floodplain harvesting, in theory pegging it back to the levels of take that existed in 1994. But there are good reasons to doubt that this will be done.

Water researchers Maryanne Slattery and Bill Johnson, acting on behalf of a collection of local governments, Indigenous organisations and southern basin irrigators, recently used satellite technology to map the growth in on-farm storages since 1994. They found these had increased by 142 per cent, from a total capacity of 574 gigalitres in 1993–94, to 1395 gigalitres in 2020.

Slattery and Johnson’s report included a map plotting the farm dams, which cover the river valleys of northern NSW like a thick rash. They also believe the NSW government’s claim that floodplain harvesting would be limited to 1994 levels is unsubstantiated: “There has been no external verification of this claim and the documentation of the Cap models has been withheld from public scrutiny.” The floodplain harvesting licences, once issued, will be compensatable. So, if a future government needs to claw back more water, irrigators will have to be paid out – arguably for water they should never have taken in the first place.

Throughout 2019 and 2020, Melinda Pavey and fellow National NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro were threatening to withdraw from the Basin Plan. It was a populist move, designed to shore up their party’s support. Now, under Keith Pitt’s “new approach”, NSW is in theory still on board but simultaneously undermining some of the fundamentals of the plan that has been backed by the federal National Party. (Both Pitt’s and Pavey’s offices did not respond to interview requests.)

If the National Party is compromised, the other parties are also culpable. The Liberal Party has been content to leave water policy almost entirely to its Coalition partner. The Labor Party takes pot shots without making its own position clear.

The real scrutiny has therefore come from minor parties and independents – including South Australian independent Senator Rex Patrick and, in NSW, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, which could equally be called the water party. Its successes have been on the back of fury at the National Party’s management of the issue.

Roy Butler is the Shooters and Fishers member for the NSW state electorate of Barwon, which takes in much of the lower Darling. He is in the unusual position, for a politician in a First World nation, of representing people who regularly run out of drinking water. Butler recently told the NSW parliament that water tasting is a big part of his job, and he could describe the quality in every part of his electorate.

There are town-water treatment plants running on bore water, but still delivering water well below WHO standards for salinity. There are towns treating water so infested with blue-green algae that it would otherwise be lethal to drink, and too often, Butler said, there is no water at all, and towns are dependent on it being trucked in.

Butler knows the river intimately. He has campaigned for the restoration of the rock weirs that used to slow the flow through the Darling, helping fish to survive the dries. The weirs were blasted out in the early days, to aid the passage of paddle-steamers. He has managed to have their heritage significance recognised, but there’s no clear plan to restore them. Both Liberal and Labor NSW politicians acknowledge that Butler is a candidate any party wanting to win votes in rural Australia would be glad to have. He says he will deal with the Nationals, but he also works closely with the Greens. “I will deal with anyone who is prepared to deal with water problems honestly,” he says.

Butler and his colleague Helen Dalton won Barwon and the adjacent seat of Murray from the National Party at the 2019 NSW election, sending shockwaves through Coalition politics. The Shooters and Fishers Party was supported by southern irrigators, who believed the National Party was favouring its northern cotton-growing funders at their expense.

Now, the battle is going federal. Riverina-based irrigator and former chief executive of Glencore Chris Brooks has announced he will support four candidates in government-held seats at the next federal election, including National Party leader Michael McCormack’s seat of Riverina. Brooks himself is considering running for Farrer, currently held by Liberal Sussan Ley, whom ABC election analyst Antony Green described as being under “considerable threat”.

The National Party’s response so far has been to hitch its political wagon to a promise to build new dams. In NSW, Pavey has promised to expand the Wyangala Dam, on the Lachlan River, and to build new dams at Dungowan (to secure water supply for Tamworth) and further north on the Mole River. Pavey speaks about the dams as though they are a certainty. Federally, McCormack backs her up: “I intend to be known as the Nationals leader who builds dams.”

The problem is that the dams are a nonsense. The business case doesn’t stack up, and they probably would be of no help for hard-pressed irrigators. As opponents are quick to point out, dams do not make it rain. In theory, they can help to manage water supply through the dry – but not if the water isn’t there in the first place. In the case of Wyangala Dam, it has rarely been full since it was last extended in 1971, meaning a further extension would unlikely have any effect.

Nor is the National Party’s base united in support of the dams. In submissions to an inquiry into their feasibility, currently under way in the NSW parliament, the NSW Farmers Association said the Wyangala proposal had “all the elements of a quick political fix … landowners directly impacted by this decision were not consulted prior to a public announcement that the project was ‘shovel ready’. Details of the proposal, an environmental impact study and benefit-cost analysis … have not been made available for comment. This is not how we would expect a democratically elected government to behave and could be a case of misfeasance.” The farmers instead wanted money spent on combatting soil erosion and upgrading roads.

Meanwhile, Peel Valley irrigators – those meant to be helped by Dungowan Dam – told the inquiry that they had had no information about future ownership and operation of the dam, including any possible increases in charges for water. They questioned whether the dam was the best way to spend money.

The Basin Authority, meanwhile, pointed out that the upgrading and building of new dams would necessitate a rewriting of NSW’s just-lodged and not yet approved water resource plans: “Any improved reliability of supply to some users may have to be offset by the State through the reduction in reliability to some other classes of users.”

To add to all that, the Productivity Commission recently released a report on national water policy that warned public expenditure on dams was unlikely to be justified.

A senior member of the NSW government interviewed for this article predicted the dams would not be funded, and that they were “just populist rubbish by the National Party … It’s the Nationals coming up with simple unworkable solutions to very complex problems.”

Yet the federal government has co-funded the dams’ early planning and feasibility studies. If the dams don’t go ahead, McCormack’s credibility will be in tatters, and the National Party will wear the political cost.

If they do go ahead, the Basin Plan will be fundamentally compromised, and the Morrison government’s credibility wrecked with everyone who understands the nature of the problem. There would also likely be pressure for yet more changes to the Water Act and the Basin Plan, causing revolt among the downstream irrigators, fury from traditional owners who will see key cultural sites go underwater, and horror from environmentalists over the resulting damage.

Angus Houston declines to comment on this nascent political crisis. Talking politics is not his job, he says. But he is aware of, and impressed by, the Productivity Commission report and its cautions on dams. “The suggestion they’ve made is that to build dams would not be an economic way ahead,” he says. “So that’s something new that must now come into the consideration.”

Meanwhile, Senator Rex Patrick says that if dam-inspired changes to the Basin Plan come before parliament, the Senate crossbench is most unlikely to support them. Labor’s attitude is not yet clear.

There are some upsides to the progress of the Basin Plan. Allegations of widespread water theft aired on the ABC’s Four Corners in 2017 have resulted in charges being laid against the people identified, together with at least 15 other prosecutions. High-technology water meters, in use for years in the southern basin, are being rolled out across the north. This scheme is running late but the meters should end most water theft.

The NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption investigated the state’s water bureaucracy and found no evidence to support allegations of corruption, but it did identify a systemic bias in favour of irrigators, in a “misguided effort to redress a perceived imbalance caused by the Basin Plan’s prioritisation of the environment’s needs”.

As water researcher Maryanne Slattery puts it, “The thing I got from the ICAC report is that there were no brown paper bags of cash changing hands, but we didn’t need that to be happening because the culture of the department meant they just favour the irrigators anyway.”

Meanwhile, former federal police commissioner Mick Keelty – the much vaunted “top cop” of the basin – resigned as the federally appointed inspector-general of Murray–Darling Basin Resources at the end of last year, without explanation. He did not respond to requests for an interview. Keelty has been replaced by Troy Grant, a former NSW National Party minister. It’s an appointment that Senator Rex Patrick likens to having the fox look after the henhouse.

So many problems, so many compromises. Yet all of them are rendered close to irrelevant by climate change.

When the Basin Plan was devised, climate change wasn’t included in the modelling. If it had been, the implications would quite probably have torn apart the fragile political compact. Now, the issue can no longer be fudged.

Last December, the Basin Authority released a paper outlining a series of six “plausible” future climate scenarios, in preparation for a summit of basin leaders that was held in mid March. The worst-case scenario was a decrease in mean river flows of up to 70 per cent – a catastrophe for farmers and the environment, making all the advances made so far close to irrelevant.

More likely was a decrease of at least 20 per cent, combined with longer and increasingly severe droughts.

Can the plan survive? Can our political system cope?

It is no surprise, given the history of endless compromise and half-truths from government, that a lack of trust underlies almost every problem in water politics.

Angus Houston recalls his early days in the air force, flying a helicopter over the northern basin in 1974 to deliver flood relief, and working out of Broken Hill with the flying doctor service. The people of the basin made a lasting impression on him. “Now I am too old to fly a helicopter,” he says. “I thought I could help in this way.”

He has been on a lot of “look and listen tours” of the basin. The first thing you do when you work with people is you form a constructive relationship … over time, you build trust … And beyond that, if you maintain that trust, you gain immense influence.”

The Basin Authority has been accused of many things – most powerfully, a royal commission in South Australia in 2019 concluded that the implementation of the authority’s Basin Plan was illegal and unconstitutional because the environmental imperatives in the Water Act had been compromised for reasons of political expediency. The Basin Authority responded that its decisions were based on the best available science at the time.

Houston resists invitations to comment on that history, but reiterates that in today’s Basin Authority, all the decisions are made “in accord with the science”. He adds, though, that scientists can disagree – and some interest groups will advance a version of the evidence that best suits their interests. But, he says, “I have seen no evidence of maladministration in the authority,” which is “absolutely trying to do the best to balance the often competing interests … And, you know, it’s incredibly complex.”

The Basin Authority recently completed one of its five-yearly reports. Houston says, “I would submit that there’s more good than bad that has come out of the plan.” Before the Basin Plan, the river system was on a path to destruction. Now, he points out, water has flowed the length of the Murray and reached the sea every year, even in drought: “That’s something to celebrate.”

And it is. The condition of the mouth is a key indicator. As South Australians are fond of observing, river systems die from the mouth upwards. But as the condition of the lower Darling – or the Narran Lakes, or the Macquarie Marshes – testifies, the mouth is not the only measure.

As for floodplain harvesting, Houston pronounces himself confident that the NSW and Queensland governments will “regulate the floodplains effectively and in an impartial, fair way”.

At the same time, it is clear the immensity of the challenges weigh heavily on him. He recalls a recent visit to the Macquarie Marshes, in northern NSW, and stories of farmers’ life crises too distressing to publish. He appreciated the beauty of the environment, but was told how the birdlife, once abundant, has been gutted and may never recover. The Macquarie Marshes and the Narran Lakes are both so hard hit by drought and water shortage that some think the seed stock for bird breeding will never recover. Another important breeding area, in the lower Lachlan, is one of those threatened should the National Party’s dam-building plans proceed.

The Basin Plan is an exemplar of the dilemma of democracy – written large on the land and the lives of the people. How do you make big, historical changes when there can only be losers? How do you gain the consent of the governed?

Michael Spencer was the founding chair of the International Alliance for Water Stewardship, a non-government organisation committed to strategic and sustainable management of water resources, and is now a research fellow at Monash University. The core problem, he says, is that the plan has been imposed – done to the people of the basin, rather than with them. As a result, the communities have never been charged with finding their own solutions. Water is seen as the government’s problem and “when you ignore people, they turn to populist solutions”.

Doing it differently – turning the problem back to the communities to solve – would be very difficult, Spencer acknowledges. It would mean a complete change of attitude from the water bureaucrats and government. But, he says, if you put people in a room and presented them with the problem, they would have to own it – and commit to the solutions, rather than see them as something imposed and therefore more likely to be resisted or undermined.

There are some signs that the people of the basin are picking up this challenge. The Basin Authority’s March climate change summit – a bringing together of local leaders without necessarily having a solution to impose – was one sign of a changed approach. And people are beginning to take matters into their own hands. In February, water consultant Bill Johnson told the Senate inquiry that people in the basin were now listening less to government and more to each other – travelling upstream and downstream to understand the problems of the basin as a whole. While researching this essay, I heard about a trip from South Australian irrigators to NSW’s Riverina, and a cautious but amicable meeting with irrigators who only a few months ago were cursing the need to send any water at all over the South Australian border.

These are perhaps the thin strands of hope.

The portraits JR took in the lower Darling a year ago now hang as stained-glass windows in a cathedral-like structure in the gardens of the National Gallery of Victoria. The people of the lower Darling stare down, iconic yet particular, stolid yet vulnerable.

Rachel Strachan is there in her sleeveless cotton shirt and frayed denim shorts, socks rolled over battered boots, her hands by her sides with the fingers slightly splayed – as though itching for something to do. Her neighbour, Alan Whyte, is shown with a petrol can in hand and a giant bonfire behind. He was burning his ploughed-up vines and fruit trees. Badger Bates is there, also framed in flame, his gaze direct, accusing and bottomlessly sad.

And so the jalopy of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan lurches on – the car being rebuilt as it is being driven, the political storms gathering and the capacity to ride through them fast running out.

By 2026, we have to hope we will be able to move on together with fewer lies, into a harder future.

Margaret Simons

Margaret Simons is an author, journalist and journalism academic. She has written numerous books, articles and essays, including the Quarterly Essay Cry Me a River: The Tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin.


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Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality