More than a River – The Murray-Darling system and its people

Dermott Brereton: If I was to ask you to name the two best known rivers in Australia, it’s likely that you’d think of the Darling and the Murray Rivers, and in your mind’s eye, you’d picture two beautifully flowing rivers through the countryside, a life blood supply of water that you can always rely on. Well this is the Darling River. Where I am here is 10 metres below the level when it’s full. This is the Murray Mouth. We’ve had to resort to dredging a channel in an attempt to restore flow to the ocean. Where I am now would normally be 15 metres of water. There’d be a very deep channel and a current flowing really strongly out to the mouth of the Murray. Now if there’s a message coming from Mother Nature about this, it is please, don’t take our generous ol’ man river for granted. In less than 200 years, the white settlers have managed to push parts of the Murray-Darling system to the brink of disaster. Although it’s easy to point the finger and lay blame at certain sections of the Murray-Darling community, it’s all of us who should shoulder the blame because as consumers, we buy and use goods that create such a demand for water and we do it without a second thought. The Murray-Darling Basin is a huge food producing area, and without it, the bulk of things in here may not be on the shelves. These are all basin brands – SPC, SunRice, Defiance, Sunbeam, the list goes on. So this rice might have come from Murrumbidgee water, these cotton pants from Darling water and this can of pears from Goulburn water. As for the fresh fruit and vegetables you’re eating, there’s a huge chance they’ve come from Murray-Darling water. Yet we don’t even think about where they come from or who does what to get them to you. Seventy per cent of our continent’s water is used in rural Australia, largely because all Australians demand produce. In turn, that drives the irrigation industry, not to mention a countless number of jobs in the cities all over Australia. So to you in the city who feel the need to finger point towards the country, perhaps you could either suggest new sources of water, or reduce your consumption first. The Murray-Darling Basin puts an estimated $23 billion into the Australian economy every year, but jobs and flow-on make it around $75 billion a year. The bottom line? All Australians are tied to the Murray and tens of millions around the world enjoy its products, and its history and culture are a vital part of being Australian. So we want to show this great river system alongside the problems it faces, and we’ll do it through people who are committed to the Murray. Paul Sinclair: If I took 75 per cent of the blood out of your body now, you’re going to get crook. You can’t take 75 per cent of the water out of the river and expect it to be healthy. Phillip Mansell: You know, we’re the baddies, but we’re providing what they want. People still like eating fresh oranges, people love eating fresh grapes. Henry Jones: It doesn’t matter if there’s a drought in Australia. Every year is a drought down here now. Sixty per cent of the fish are extinct from the area. Warren Lang: Food has always got to be better than watching water flowing out to sea, and that’s why we’re growing what we are. Tony Sharley: Our challenge as Australians is to get the balance right between the amount of water that we use for agriculture, and the amount of water that we’ve got for the environment. Chris Hunter: Taking water off dairy farmers for environmental flows – as an industry, we would be passionately worried about that. Stefano de Pieri: I think it is important that Australians realise that this is the food bowl of the nation. Don Blackmore: Well science is telling us that we’re going to need a massive amount of water to reconnect the flood plain to the river in the lower parts to get a healthy working river. Dermott: These people and many others we’ll meet are an integral part of the Murray-Darling Basin. In showing that, we’ll travel thousands of kilometres through the Basin. But our main focus will be the need to look after the river system. The Murray’s journey to the Southern Ocean here, starts at Kosciuszko National Park, real Man from Snowy River country. The actual source is up here behind me, and it becomes a series of rivulets so you could say, I’m straddling the Murray here. As you’d expect, it looks pristine, doesn’t it? But along the river, it’s the small things we’ve taken for granted or not considered, that are often its biggest threat. Dave Foster: This is what I was talking about, Dermott, the horse poo right next to the stream. It doesn’t take much of this to get into the stream, put parasites like giardia. Giardia was that little beast that got into the Sydney water supply some years ago. Can create a fair bit of havoc. The bank’s here because we haven’t had many brumbies back after the fires, have started to regenerate well. But you can see here where the banks have collapsed, where the edges have been plugged up. Dermott: Hoof prints. Dave Foster: Yep, yep, all that sort of thing. So that’s what horses and cattle do to these pristine streams. Dermott: This is Pilot Creek. It comes in from New South Wales, and this little stream here is from the Victorian side. So technically, where I am standing here right now, this is where the Murray starts.>From here, it heads north and then swings west through some really rugged country. Heading downstream out of the wilderness area, it’s a relatively short trip to the most important water storage on the Murray, Lake Hume. It regulates water that comes essentially from the Australian Alps, and its role in the system is vital. The typical annual flow out of the Murray Mouth is now a quarter of what it was under natural conditions, due to diversion for irrigation and towns. When I first arrived at Lake Hume, it was at 21 per cent of capacity, up from 5 per cent earlier in the year. But normally, it would have been well over 50 per cent at that time. The boat ramps are a pretty good indication of just how empty the lake is when it’s only 21 per cent full. This is one of the more popular launching places, and where I am here now to the water’s edge would probably be about 100 metres. The last time the water came to this spot would have been late in the year 2000. Full or nearly empty, it doesn’t bother 14-year-old Michale Briant. There’s always enough water to practice. It’s an environment so ideal, that Michale’s family came all the way from Perth to let her pursue her dream to be the world trick skiing champion. Michale: Having the Lake Hume at my back door is like terrific, because I can just come out here, slip out here after school, and I can just ski whenever I like. I want to be one of the best in the world. I reckon Albury is going to help me improve, you know, just go that little extra step. Dermott: So it’s about much more than storage. The lake’s recreational benefits tie it strongly to the community in Albury Wodonga, the largest centre on the river. Back in November 1824, it was the crossing point for the first Europeans to see the Murray, explorers Hume and Hovell. They carved their names in separate trees. Hume’s is long since gone, but Hovell’s has stood the test of time. But interestingly enough, Ned Kelly and his gang were often seen in the area. They had a secret place where they used to cross the river, but that secret died along with them. Both places are very close to what is now the Hume Highway, the main road link between Melbourne and Sydney. More people cross the river here than anywhere else, and I reckon that’s why we have such a comfortable feeling that everything’s all right in the river system. People only get glimpses. There’s enough time to see there’s water in the river, then it’s gone. But even with the river low, the thought process is, oh I saw water in there, so everything must be okay. So the perception that the Murray is flowing healthily and productively through the country – that’s pretty hard to change. In the same way, people assume the Hume is full. When it was built, the dam was seen as Australian technology at its best. It was a time when phrases like, turning water into liquid gold, were used to promote the river master plan. If there was no such thing as a dam wall anywhere along the river system here, how would it be different from right now? Don Blackmore: Oh, it would be an absolute disaster for us and everybody else. This river would have stopped running here in February. Zero [water]. Dermott: The Hume epitomises what we’ve done to this river. It prevents damaging floods and conserves water for our use, releasing it year round through these pipes. This is at a cost to the environment. While 500 gigalitres of water has now been committed for environmental flow, experts say we need at least 1500 a year. That’s 50 per cent of the Hume’s capacity, or the equivalent of three Sydney Harbours. One of the effects of the dam has been to drop the water temperature by a difference of up to eight degrees from top to bottom when the reservoir’s full. If the water was taken from up here, that wouldn’t be so bad. But the water’s released from down here where it’s much too cold for our native fish to breed. But those import species like the European carp and redfin, they love it. Combined with the heavier than normal flow that comes from the dam, the habitat for the native fish has been dramatically altered. As a result, between Lake Hume and Albury, there’s no golden perch nor freshwater catfish and virtually no cod. The message of caring for what’s downstream wasn’t lost on Albury Council engineer, Daryl McGregor, and he backed it up with a major contribution to the river community. The Murray had been no more than a drain for the city’s effluent, and Horseshoe Lagoon, an ancient billabong, was a holding pond for sewerage being discharged into the river. Now, it’s been revitalised. Daryl McGregor: In 1998, we drained it and we took out 10,000 kilograms of carp. Since that time, we’ve rehabilitated the pondage and we’ve stocked it with native fish. Dermott: The water that’s piped into Horseshoe Lagoon these days is close to drinking standard and comes from a state-of-the-art treatment plant. Daryl McGregor: Well this water specifically, it came from the Murray River, it’s been used by the community, it’s been reclaimed, treated and made safe for beneficial reuse. This is the finished product. Totally natural process to produce it, biological processes from here to the wetlands and reuse is about 24 hours. But you compare that to River Murray water, it’s better quality than is flowing in the River Murray past here at the moment. Dermott: The water now feeds not only plantation forests and other crops, but has reinvigorated the nearby Wonga Wetlands. In turn, they’ve become a very important part of environmental education. Mike Copland: The more that we think about the Murray River and other rivers in the basin, and understand what’s gone wrong with them over the years, this is the generation that’s got to know how to fix things in the future. To do that, they’ve got to understand what the problems are now. Dermott: What about the wetlands for you? What have they taught you? Mike Copland: Look, it’s a wonderful resource for a community, and the fact that Albury Wodonga has this, it’s just the perfect resource for education. Just terrific. Let’s see we got out of that today. Now then we’re going to use a white tray to find our bugs. Why do you think we’re using a white tray? Dermott: That would be for identifying the dark… Mike Copland: There’s the shrimp. There’s your shrimp. Now look, there’s two shrimp. Now the shrimp are great indicators of good water conditions. Daryl McGregor: This is a connected system. We need to look after the whole of the Murray, not look in terms of small sections or whatever. We need to care about the health of the whole system. Dermott: Corowa is pivotal to the Murray story, both geographically and historically. The land area from the source to here makes up just two per cent of the Murray-Darling Basin, but it contributes nearly 40 per cent of the Murray waters. Not only did Corowa host the federation conference of 1893, but also the river rights conference in 1902, using the courthouse and Oddfellows Hall. Most of the VIP delegates stayed here at the Globe Hotel, and apparently on the first night, they feasted out on the balcony. Well it used to have a balcony. You’re going to have to trust me on that one. Back then, this place looked pretty different. It was after a seven year drought and despite interstate rivalry, the one certainty was that delegates didn’t want the river to dry up again, and irrigation needed a guaranteed water supply. Eventually, in 1915 governments ratified an agreement to dam the river and the bulk of the work was completed by 1939. A decline has been on in earnest ever since. Suddenly man was in control and not nature. Consequently, the river’s been pulled in three different directions. The regulated irrigator’s river, tourism and recreation, and the natural environment, the least considered. It’s little wonder the river’s looking so tired now. But the most valuable Corowa conference was in 2002, when government ministers agreed to what’s called the Living Murray Initiative. It’s about what constitutes a healthy working river and what’s needed to achieve that. It’s about protecting the things that the River Murray really means to Australians. It recognises that science is telling us the river is unhealthy, and that the lack of a natural flow of water is the overwhelming reason. That we need to take a first step now and return 500 gigalitres – one Sydney Harbour – to the river. This will benefit important wetlands and forests, and the cost of the water will be met by Government. Heading downstream from Corowa by road, this is the first real look at Lake Mulwala. It divides the twin towns of Yarrawonga in Victoria and Mulwala in New South Wales. There’s a clear reminder of the states’ inability to meet in the middle on management of the river as you cross from one state into another. When the authorities decided to build this bridge, they thought it would be a good idea to start on opposite sides meeting out halfway in the middle. Well it wasn’t exactly engineering perfection, so with a quick redesign, they came up with this dip which we’re in right now to compensate. Fortunately, design changes didn’t apply to the Yarrawonga Weir adjacent. Again, like the Hume Dam, Yarrawonga was seen as a major achievement when finished in 1939. When you think about it, our culture has developed based on a regulated river and not the free flowing river of Aboriginal times, so the real needs of the river environmentally speaking become well and truly secondary, because there’s been no long term ongoing relationship between the river and white settlers. They only saw the river for the first time in the 1800s. Consequently, our river culture is about irrigation and leisure lifestyle, and leisure lifestyle is a huge slice of life at Yarrawonga and Mulwala. The river feeds the lake, the lake feeds the town, and at the centre of it all is the Yarrawonga and Border Golf Club, the largest public access course in Australia – 45 holes. This is one of Australia’s most popular golf destinations, and one of the river’s tourism magnets. So what better way to learn about what it means to have a healthy river than a round of golf with the club’s CEO Rob Dick, local golf pro James McCully, and the man who controls the lake, Colin Fitzpatrick. Rob, how important is the river to the golf course? Rob Dick: The river is enormously important to the golf course. First of all, it takes a lot of water to irrigate 45 holes of golf, and we use approximately 500 megalitres of irrigation water each year. Obviously with the river just behind us here, that facilitates that part of it. Without that, we wouldn’t have the facility we have today. Colin Fitzpatrick: To save the Barmah-Millewa Forest which is a big forest downstream of here, currently we have high rain and inflows into the lake. During the summer months, we’ve got nowhere to put the water in the lake, so we have to tip it in the river and hence we get unseasonal flooding of that forest downstream, which is no good for that forest. Dermott: What might be done in one part of the river to benefit another can raise local community concerns. Here there’s been debate about lowering the lake level so it can hold more water after rain and prevent unseasonal flooding of downstream forests. Colin has an answer to that. Colin Fitzpatrick: If you look down there on the wall, you can actually see where the lake has an operating range already. So you can see by the high water mark, the lake’s actually down – down about 30 centimetres today. So we’re not talking huge amounts. I don’t want people to be fearful that there’s going to be great big mudflats exposed or their quality of life’s going to be lost. Rob Dick: The biggest issue is the whole economy and fibre that the town has been built on and has so successfully been developed on over the last 20 or 30 years may well come to an end. We have an enormous number of skiers that reside in the town and also come to the town. It’s an extremely important part of the town’s culture, to the extent that we’ve held world ski championships here and it’s a fantastic facility and skiers come from all over the world to ski here. Mark Robinson: The ski club alone has over 5000 members and the water skiing facilities up here attract thousands of people per year which generate millions of dollars to the local community. Dermott: For the record, Nerissa Wright is world barefoot champion and her brother Brendan, the youngest member of the Australian team. Land prices are booming around Lake Mulwala, matching many top seaside resorts. While 65 per cent of people who live here are retired, young people are now also being drawn into this community. They’re part of the human equation that must be taken into account when there’s talk of change in the river system. Eighteen holes is enough for these days, but after you run out of golf, you get to come back here to this room which is on course. You get this magnificent big king-size bed to relax on. That’s brilliant. After that, you can look out through the windows over the course that I’ve just hacked up. But if there’s a lucky centre on the Murray, this is it, because Lake Mulwala is a diversion dam. It’s designed to work on gravity and needs to be near full through the irrigation season, or water can’t flow out though outlets like Mulwala Channel on the New South Wales side and the Yarrawonga Main Channel in Victoria. This is the largest irrigation diversion point on the river, and water can travel hundreds of kilometres from here. With enormous benefits to the local leisure industry on one hand and irrigation on the other, it highlights the different demands on the river and how we need to get a balance between them. The weir has harnessed not only the waters of the Murray, but also the Ovens River, probably the cleanest river running into the system. The Ovens Everglades tour is part of the Yarrawonga tourism trail. Even when it’s raining, there’s a magic about it and a message in its story. Bruce, what’s the difference between the Ovens and the other rivers in the region? Bruce Myers: One of the major things with the Ovens is that it’s got a natural flow regime. That means it’s really not regulated at all. It supplies 14 per cent of the Murray’s flow, but it’s only a comparatively short river from where it joins the Murray back to the base of Mount Hotham. So we haven’t got a huge build-up of larger towns there that the actual Murray has on it. It’s not unusual for us to have a metre and a half of water through here. That means that all the land that you can see either side goes under, so it means that people can’t get usage to it, can’t get access to it, your farmers can’t get in to graze it, or if they do put their cattle in there, they’ve got to go out when the heavy rainfall season comes around or there’s the chance of getting – you know, that six inches of rain up in the mountains. Dermott: If you want to get off the boat and have a little wander around, you can find all these amazing things in the bush. Could live in here. Somebody else is. There’s a swallow’s nest in here. I didn’t realise the actual riverbanks were so important to it. The fact that cattle can’t get to it and feed or drink from the water’s edge, erode the embankment. Bruce Myers: We’re starting to come to appreciate them more and more, right throughout our whole river environment. Not many people actually appreciate, but those – the stream side vegetation or the riparian vegetation, the grass that goes right down to the edge of the water, that’s important because that’s a natural filter. That’s what catches all the excess nutrients that wash off when it does rain. You catch them back on the land before they get into the water, you’re going to improve the quality of your stream. Dermott: In 2001, the release of the largest environmental water flow in Australia’s history was a bonanza for birds and fish at Barmah Forest. Such flows are the best way we can restore the river’s health and vitality, so natural flooding in 2003 was a bonus. The Murray’s a floodplain river, which means it needs to go outwards as well as flow downstream. Environmentally, we need flooding. It’s vital, and we need it at the right time of the year. So what’s happening here right now in this spring flooding, it’s great. But in general, floodplains are under threat because irrigation demands the water at the wrong time of the year for the natural cycle. They need to be timed to trigger the breeding of plants and animals. For example, red gums release seeds when their trunk is submerged and the seeds are washed to higher ground to take root. The Barmah Forest is a favourite location for fish surveys that help build a profile of the river. On day one, natural resources officers, Matt Jones and John McKenzie lay drum nets in different parts of the forest. Then on day two they use electrofishing to find fish around snags. I don’t mind this kind of fishing. A thousand volts stuns fish that are within a few metres. That’s if they’re there. Our search told the story of fish numbers in the river. Most of our attempts yielded nothing, and in total, amongst about 20 carp, there were a couple of yellowbelly, with the only cod under the last snag of the day. Matt Jones: There we go boys. Dermott: Unreal, look at the size of this fella. Snags are synonymous with the Murray, but countless numbers were taken out to clear the river for navigation. When their role as hiding and breeding places for cod was understood, the removal programs were stopped, and now snags are actually being replaced. Who would have thought that snags are beneficial? Even with the best intentions, we can still muck up the balance of the river. It’s another great example of how we fail to understand the river system. Ten introduced fish species live in the river, but until the mid-1970s, native fish, though in decline, were still dominant. Carp changed all that. They’re enemy number one because they spread at an astonishing rate through the system, laying 500,000 eggs several times a year. These would have to be the luckiest carp in Australia, wouldn’t they? Because by law you have to kill the carp you pull out, but any carp you guys catch for tag and release, they’re very lucky. What about the king? Matt Jones: Yeah, right-o, we’ll get this cod on the… Dermott: The cod is Australia’s largest freshwater fish, weighing up to 113 kilograms. The oldest caught was 47 years old and 1.27 metres long. The species is at least as old as the river itself. Has he got a name yet? Matt Jones: I think we could call him Dermy. Dermott: Hey hang on, you don’t know what sex he is. John McKenzie: Well that doesn’t matter. Matt Jones: Since it’s your fish Dermy, how about you release it. Dermott: Oh yeah, all right. Matt Jones: I think he’s pretty still there, so just give him a kiss if you want. Dermott: I’m not kissing that. Look, don’t forget me. Matt Jones: He should give a quick kick of the tail. Dermott: Hang on, there he goes. Having been in the Barmah Forest, I’m reminded of how we fought to save our wild and untamed rivers like the Gordon and the Franklin in the ’80s in Tasmania. But because the Murray was tamed by weirs for irrigation and navigation, no one seemed to notice that it was in trouble. The deal was done, so to speak. The Murray culture I mentioned earlier didn’t relate to an untamed river or a wild river, so we seem to have rationalised things like cod decline and dead red gums as part of progress and think, she’ll be right. But Barmah Forest may have the last laugh because carp like to breed here and can be left stranded by receding waters. Matt Jones: In conjunction with professional fishermen, a couple of years ago we caught 76 tonnes in about six weeks. So he was quite happy about that and so was Charlie Carp. Dermott: You’re lucky we haven’t invented smellivision yet, because you can’t smell it on that side of the camera. It’s not good in here. It’s not exactly a smorgasbord. In actual fact, they reckon the best way to prepare carp is marinate them for 24 hours, cook them for another 10, and then feed them to the cat on a long handled shovel. Harold, how did you come up on the idea for Charlie Carp? Harold Clapham: All of the persona about the carp is negative, so if we’d come up with a product and called it dogfish fertiliser or something, it would never have worked. So we tried to create something that had an appealing name, was appealing to the consumer and wasn’t entirely negative about the carp. Dermott: I suppose if you do your job too well, you might run yourself out of business. Harold Clapham: If we did that, I don’t think anybody would be unhappy. Dermott: For years, I’ve been coming to the Riverina, one of the more productive parts of the basin. Now, Deniliquin has been hugely dependent on irrigation and it’s prospered enormously on the back of some of their crops. Crops like rice. East of Deniliquin is the huge Berriquin irrigation area, a stronghold of rice growers. Water comes from up to 100 kilometres away via the Mulwala channel. In the face of criticism that rice shouldn’t be grown in Australia, it’s a longstanding irrigation system that rice farmer Warren Lang defends strongly. So it’s ironic that what looks like rice is wheat in a rain-sodden field. Why the wheat? Warren Lang: Well it’s basically last year, we had – because of the low water allocation, we didn’t have enough water to grow the rice. Dermott: Could you still be farming purely based on wheat crops? Warren Lang: I would doubt it really because of – you know, for one, the cost of this land and we bought the land within an irrigation area. Quite frankly, just to grow cereal crop in high productive country like this, we won’t survive. We’ve got the infrastructure here, they’ve encouraged irrigation in this area, encouraged people to settle and make families’ lives here. By eroding the amount of water we can actually use and be irrigation farmers, it’s becoming very difficult. Dermott: What does an unhealthy River Murray mean to you here? Warren Lang: Well I think it – not only to me, but it means to all Australians, that we – we don’t want an unhealthy Murray River and as far as we’re concerned at the top end and in the middle end, I mean it’s been – I think the science is out there now, that it is in quite a healthy state. Dermott: Single-minded or just a belief in what he does, the fact is Warren, his wife Alison and their three daughters live according to the seasons. Allison Lang: Certainly it puts the pressure on financially, because we have budgeted on the rice, so we’ve got through this last year with it. So far have been able to allow them to keep doing their music and things, but if it continues, there are things that will have to be cut back on. We’ve probably cut our holidays back to just camping at the river and things like that. Dermott: The community of Deniliquin lives by the same rules. It’s a rich town, but whether money comes from carp fertiliser or rice, they depend on the common denominator of river water. Kath, running the newsagency would really give you a feel for the mood of Deniliquin. What’s it telling you? Kathy Simpson: The mood is one of serious concern about what the outcomes are going to be on the discussions of water and the future management of water and the environment and the effect of that long term on Deniliquin. I think you could really relate the water in the river to like the blood in your veins. If you haven’t got it, inevitably these communities will die. Dermott: What would be the impact on Deniliquin without rice? Kathy Simpson: It would be very hard to imagine Deniliquin surviving very long without rice. Gerry Lawson: It generates hundreds of millions of dollars in an export sense. It employs more than a thousand people directly and many thousand indirectly. It’s the biggest rice mill in the southern hemisphere. Every business in Deniliquin depends in some way on the wellbeing of this business. Dermott: What sort of water savings can the rice industry make? Gerry Lawson: I think it’s perfectly reasonable for us to expect to make savings of 20 per cent or so over the next 10 years. We recently announced a new variety of rice called Quest that uses 10 per cent less water. Dermott: How do you see the need for an environmental flow? Gerry Lawson: I think it’s very important that there are environmental flows. Where those flows come from is the debate of course. Dermott: Does rice have a viable future if there is more of an environmental flow taken? Gerry Lawson: If sense prevails and there is balance, it’s got an absolutely strong future. Growing rice has never been compulsory. People have only grown it because it returns the way it does. Kathy Simpson: Both sides of the argument are now coming together and I believe that there will be sustainable outcomes for everybody. Gerry Lawson: I find it extraordinary that we’re having a debate about something that feeds tens of millions of people every day. Dermott: The Riverina on the New South Wales side of the river is to rice what the Goulburn Valley on the Victorian side is to dairy. Both know they have to reduce water use to become more efficient and have taken steps to do it. The drought has been severe on dairy farmers, with many having to rely on very expensive dry feed, or send their cows away. Chris Hunter: The current status in the Goulburn Valley of the dairy industry right now is full steam recovery from the toughest year that we have ever had in history of this area. Dermott: Prominent Kyabram dairy farmer Chris Hunter says he and his sensible colleagues are changing. He’s installed auto-irrigation to try for better efficiency. Russell Pell, after watching red gums die in drought, decided that it’s easier to work with nature than against. His property fronts the Goulburn River, and some of the practices of other dairy farmers he finds destructive. Russell Pell: One of the banks is totally overgrazed and it’s got a bit of a history for overgrazing. It hasn’t happened overnight. You can imagine cattle running up and down those banks over the other side there, and each time they run up and down, they loosen some of the dirt and next time the flow comes up, bingo, it’s into the stream and that’s why you have a high clay content in the water. What we’re really looking for is a good riparian zone like this one here where we’re standing on, that actually works as a filter. So what we’re really trying to do here is encourage farmers to actually fence off the riparian zone and actually manage them better. Dermott: So Chris, you can operate the whole farm from here? Chris Hunter: Yes. Example, this wheel here, here’s the water wheel just outside the house. I can click on open. Dermott: So we could walk outside in the next minute or so and that water wheel would be in operation. Chris Hunter: Marvellous. It excites me as a dairy farmer. Dermott: Beautiful. Chris Hunter: Because it’s all about growing grass, Dermy, and I love doing that. Dermott: So this is what you programmed through just a couple of minutes ago for when walked out here? Chris Hunter: Yes and so we timed it right, but probably Dermy, the most exciting thing is any time – that can be done while we’re doing other things. So it’s labour efficient, but more importantly it’s water efficient, and that wheel is measuring the amount of water that we’re taking from the commission. Expensive though, Dermy. It hits the hip pocket, but that’s what we’ve got to do. Russell Pell: These trees out here in front here that we’re looking at now, I’m really quite concerned about them because it’s seven years since they’ve had a decent drink. Now it’s probably one of the things that’s really made me look at the way we’re farming and what we’re trying to do now is perhaps come back more with nature and extend our watering seasons and leave that real harsh stuff alone. Chris Hunger: So Dermy, we’re here seven k’s from the computer where we were in the office at the house. So all this water has been delivered from drainage from my farm and from the community drains, saved it from going into the Murray River, so there’s a wonderful advantage here for the community for nutrient removal from the Murray system. – Blue-green algae – you know about that Dermy, don’t you?
– Dermott: Yep. Chris Hunter: Difficult for fish to live in. No good for human consumption. So the nutrient is stored in here, used on our pastures, and we get benefit from the nutrient. So – and of course, this dam was built five years ago with government incentives, so government are doing wonderful things to aid us as dairy farmers to become more efficient with water and to use water more wisely. Russell Pell: Because it doesn’t make sense to me to be watering a whole lot of green stuff during the middle of our really hot time during the year. Dermott: Against the seasonal… Russell Pell: Against the season. Just go with the flow. Chris Hunter: But one of the big issues we have is a system that’s been put in and it’s old and a bit rundown. In the cities they look after transport, roads, buildings, they don’t let them run down. There’s a lot of leakage, seepage – evaporation’s a big issue too, I know. But there are structures that need to be repaired. Russell Pell: If you’re looking a long way out, the environment comes first, but it’s not as simple as that because in the long run, you have to make a choice whether you want food or whether you want a really pristine environment. So it’ll be a balancing act. Chris Hunter: The health of the river and farming – there’s a fine line between environment and productivity on agriculture. There is a future and I’m passionate about that and I’ll be here and my son will be here for a long time. Dermott: For too long it’s been too easy to make the farmers the heavies, saying they use too much water. But in Melbourne for example, less than one per cent of the water used is recycled so we can’t be too precious about it. In fact we have the highest per capita water consumption of any country. Quite simply, we can’t let it continue. Echuca is a gem of a town and the closest point on the river to Melbourne. With a main street that’s subject to heritage controls, its historic value can’t be overestimated, but at its heart is the tourist precinct and the restored Port of Echuca. Just when it seemed the historic town could be left only with memories, the paddle steamer Pevensey starred in the television series All the Rivers Run, and in the mid-1980s, Echuca was reborn. The wharf was once over a kilometre long. Its height reflects the extremes of river levels. Flood measurements show just how things can change here. 1916 was one of the worst, but in 1870, it’s said a massive flood outdid the flow of the mighty Nile. Echuca was the greatest inland port in Australia and part of our first real inland transport network. Even today, travelling the river is a journey through time. Life seems to slow down once you’re on the river. Graham Trist: It’s a beautiful old boat. It’s a powerful boat. It was used as a passenger boat actually up at Murray Downs and Swan Hill there originally. Then it became a tow steamer for the Murray River saw mills. It could tow four or five barges loaded with about 120 tonnes of logs on each barge. Dermott: Along the system, river boats pulled in wherever they were flagged down. They’d call wherever the dog barked and if it didn’t bark, they’d call in to see why not. Graham Trist: In the old days it would have thought this was a really good river without the locks and weirs and reservoirs to control the levels, they didn’t have much water and plus they had plenty of snow in Melbourne and rainfall. Depending on the season, they’d have been laid up for several months. Dermott: River boat activity peaked in the 1870s and ’80s when nearly 100 steamers worked the system. The paddle steamer Adelaide and many others are reminders of a special era, one that ended after the drought of 1914-1915, when the Murray simply didn’t flow. For paddle steamers, the writing was on the wall. Rail took over, and by the 1930s, the river boats were reduced mainly to commuter tourist services. We have a desire to think fondly of life the way it was at the peak of the river trade, but it’s estimated 15 billion trees were felled for use as paddle steamer fuel and saw milling along the Murray-Darling system. Environmental protection wasn’t high on the agenda. No one wants to see a healthy Murray system more than conservationists Tim Fisher and Paul Sinclair. Tim Fisher: So this is it, mate? Paul Sinclair: Yeah, this is where I grew up, but there’s a few trees over there that the old man planted and a few old black box… Dermott: Paul need go no further than the former family farm and adjacent properties to see classic land care problems that are facing the Murray-Darling Basin today. Tim Fisher: Has this changed in your lifetime? Paul Sinclair: Look, a lot of paddocks out over here, I can remember them as being pasture, straight pasture. Now they’re getting those little bushes in at the – a sign of the salt coming up. I mean the green grass looks great, but look at the trees dying over here. There’s no future in it. Everybody loses from this sort of situation and we’re running out of time basically. We need to get something done. Dermott: Gunbower Forest near Kerang is listed to be one of the first beneficiaries of environmental flows, if it lasts that long. It’s in a sorry state and Paul and Tim have taken advantage of any opportunity to publicise its plight. Tim Fisher: This forest is used to having a drink nearly every year. It hasn’t had a decent drink in 10 years and unless we get a flood up to this area in the next few months or year, then you’re going to see most of those trees that are still barely alive keel over and die. Paul Sinclair: When this sort of forest starts keeling over, it means a whole lot of other things under it are also struggling really, really badly. Dermott: The sad truth is few red gums have been allowed to grow old. To put it in perspective, this rarity in Gunbower Forest probably started its life when Henry VIII was on the throne of England, and now it’s dying of thirst. Tim Fisher: That’s tragic. That’s just criminal neglect. Paul Sinclair: We need to think of the river not as something that starts high in the mountain and then runs out at the Murray Mouth. It actually moves laterally like a lung. You know, it’s natural movement is actually up out of its channel and onto the floodplain which is its supermarket, which are these forests. Then it brings back all these goodies back into the main channel. So these forests are – they might be the lungs of the river, the river’s the heart. You can’t have a lung without a heart, you can’t have a heart without a lung. You can’t condemn people really for being so focussed on their patch of the river. Skippers a hundred years ago used to scoff at farmers who thought the river started just above their farm and ended just below. But it’s a big river, you know? Very few people get to travel down the length of it. Tim Fisher: It’s easy to sit up in the Murrumbidgee or in the Goulburn and not ever have to think about what’s happening at the Murray Mouth. Paul Sinclair: At this time, we need to start trying to interconnect these little patches to see it not just as an isolated spot but as an interconnected system. Dermott: I hate to say it, but most city-dwelling Australians may as well live in Manchester or New York for all they know about what’s happening out here. People just don’t understand how we’ve tortured this river, mostly unintentionally. It’s going to take a lot of hard work to keep this river healthy and maintain a reasonable production level from the Murray-Darling Basin. We’re still learning to live in Australia’s skin. In Southern Queensland, the Condamine-Balonne system is one of many that contributes to what becomes the Darling River. There are 36 weirs along a watercourse that fluctuates dramatically with drought and flood, and around them, the signs of degradation and high nutrient run-off from where there was once a vast network of wetlands. More often than not though, along their length, they look like this. Waiting for the next flush of water. It’s an environment cotton-grower Leith Boully has lived with nearly all her life. Leith Boully: Where I’m standing today is in the Condamine River, more than 2000 kilometres from the mouth of the Murray. Between here and the mouth, there are many communities who rely on this river, many individuals who rely on it for production and as a beautiful place to visit. What links us all together is the mouth of the Murray, because that’s the one outlet for this basin. It’s the one place where salt can be discharged. Dermott: The Condamine-Balonne runs through much of Southern Queensland’s cotton country. Home to places like Cubbie Station near Dirranbandi. This is the largest irrigation property in Australia when there’s enough water. The dams here can hold nearly as much as Sydney Harbour. Leith Boully: Obviously these storages have an impact on the river system, because they’re taking water that would have flowed down the rivers. Water resource development can’t happen in this way in the future, because for the most part, we’ve fully allocated the resources that we have. But neither can we blame those people who’ve taken up the allocations in the past, because government encouraged them to develop and they were fully within the law. It’s obvious. We’re going to have to acquire water from irrigators. The only fair way to do this is to buy that water back. Look, cotton’s just an outcome of the way that I manage a whole lot of natural resources. The way I manage my land and water is really important to me and I believe I’ve got a personal responsibility to make sure that I produce cotton or any other commodity in a way that preserves the integrity of those resources. Dermott: As you enter the Darling proper and head downstream towards Bourke, you’re reminded of how long this system has been important. The simple stonefish traps at Brewarrina are thought to be one of the oldest manmade structures on Earth. The region is steeped in Aboriginal history, legend and folklore. It’s red earth country, exemplified by landmarks like Mount Oxley near Bourke, so it’s easy to accept the idea that it’s the last place you’d expect to grow fruit. But water on the red soil does wonders and delivers an advantage of an earlier growing season, and that’s what encouraged the Mansell family to come here 14 years ago. It started a great relationship between family and town, bringing much needed employment to locals. The Mansell’s dedication to the top end of the Darling led them to building the Jandra as a tourist attraction, but hard times meant they had to sell it. With the Darling an integral part of their lives, water was barely an issue for the Mansell family in late 2001, and things looked rosy. Then drought hit. The Darling dried up and suddenly, they were vulnerable. But the town rallied and gave part of their domestic allocation to the Mansells so they could continue to irrigate. Ruth Mansell: We had been struggling, town was already struggling, and just that cooperative approach that – yeah, they felt they could give us a hand and help out the town as well, and that they were prepared to sacrifice something to be part of the solution. Dermott: Despite the town’s help, Phillip Mansell’s lost over 80 per cent of his crop. Phillip Mansell: The one in my right hand here, it’s nice smooth skin fruit. It’s quite soft and juicy. This one here, it’s just been moisture stressed and just with the sun impact on it, it’s got sun burnt and it just hasn’t been able to keep up with the moisture lost from the fruit. This fruit’s unmarketable. One of the big things here, we are on an unregulated stretch of the Darling River, so there is no release from government storages for what we do here. The flows in the river are dependent upon the rains, so the variability coming down the river can be huge. In the big picture, the Darling can bear it for what we’re doing for the horticultural side of things, with efficiency of irrigation, yes it can bear it. Leith Boully: It doesn’t matter whether you grow fruit or cotton along the Darling. What’s really important is that we get the allocation of the water resources right, and make sure that there’s a proper balance between the environment and agriculture, and that we make sure that we’re growing those crops on land that’s suitable to grow them. Phillip Mansell: We’re the baddies, but we’re providing what they want. People still like eating fresh oranges. They’ll still choose the blemish-free piece of fruit before they’ll choose the fruit which has got a blemish on it, because it’s been grown in a climate which is wet, which people think we usually grow these crops in those climates, the consumers still wants the fruit which is grown in a good dry climate. Wally Mitchell: Dermott, I’m very proud of what the people of Bourke have done for the Mansells, giving them part of their domestic water, going without themselves. That’s what Darling River people are like. That’s why I love it out here. Dermott: Because it runs through low rainfall areas, the Darling can lose more by evaporation than it receives from tributaries. Wally Mitchell: You break that whole background down, yeah. Well this a typical dry season flow. It’s pretty low there now, but it’s still flowing, and it’s healthy, the water you can drink it. But by contrast, behind us on the bridge, the marks indicate different river levels. 1988 was a fairly moderate flood. The yellow one above that is 12 metres deeper than the river is here now, 400,000 swimming pools going past here every day for a period of two months. Dermott: Apart from Bourke, population 3500, the Darling is essentially a river of hamlets, like Louth. In between are huge stations like Kallara, mini-communities in their own right, supplying faraway cities, but where owners like Jan McClure are finding the need to diversify. Jan McClure: Hello Dermott, how are you? Dermott: Very well, thank you. Jan McClure: Good, would you like me to show you where you’re staying? Dermott: Lead the way. Jan McClure: Dermott, this is where our guests stay. I hope you’ll enjoy staying here. Dermott: Why did you start farm stays? Jan McClure: Well with the recession, wool prices and everything being at such a low, we had a unique opportunity here on the river to diversify and it’s worked very well. People love to come down here and use the boat, sail on the river. Dermott: Bit of fishing as well? Jan McClure: Yes, yes they like that and they can join in most of the station activities. We like them to feel that they are visitors, not tourists. Dermott: Because of drought conditions, the lambs in this mob were the first born in the area for two seasons. That’s great fun. I don’t know how I’d handle staying out here for 10 hours a day doing that, but that is great fun for while I’m doing it now. Let’s stay here a bit longer actually, I want to have another crack at it. When they’ve mustered all the sheep and the likes, do they get to shear? Jan McClure: Yes. Would you like to shear? Dermott: Yeah, but you’re not going to make me wear one of those singlets, are you? Jan McClure: Oh yes I am, that’s part of the deal. Male: Not bad. Very good, very good. Dermott: Thanks for that. Male: We’ll get him next year. Dermott: Yeah, when’s the next season? I took my boat ride too, but instead of fishing invited Wally and Jan’s son Justin along to talk about the challenge of living on an unregulated river. Justin McClure: It’s an event river. It has been. Always has been. When it runs, it runs. We’re weired here, but in normal circumstances, this river would be dry. Wally Mitchell: We drain water from as far away as Chincilla and Warwick, and when they get rain, we get a river. Our weirs in the Darling are only holding up this body of water. We need to increase those logically another three metres, you’ve still got all of that bank. That would sustain a large body of water and protect it from evaporation by the timber you see on it, and that’s the logical storage for long term progress in the river. Justin McClure: Dermott I guess this is our – this is our life. This river is our lifeline. But the bottom line is it’s got to be sustainable, and if we haven’t got a river, we haven’t got anything. Dermott Brereton: Well I’m glad I brought you here because this is the Tilpa Hotel. It’s a classic outback pub. This is the downtown sector of the McClure empire. There’s thousands of messages from people who have passed through or locals as well who have written them on the walls. Mike, what’s the history of the Tilpa hotel? Ta. Michael McInerney: It’s one of only two of the original bush pubs still in existence. The rest have either been closed down or burnt down. In the early days it was served by the paddle steamers, later by Cobb and Co. If it wasn’t here, there wouldn’t be a Tilpa. Dermott: She’s pretty dry now. How many times have you seen it totally dry? Michael McInerney: Oh, it’s been dry several times that I know of, but the period from last October through to April when it stopped flowing for six months, is the longest period that it’s ever… Dermott: Bad as ever. Michael McInerney: …been as bad as that. Dermott: Who signs the walls? Michael McInerney: Anybody who travels to Tilpa for $2 as a donation to the Flying Doctor Service, they sign their name on the wall. Dermott: Now Mark behind the bar has armed me with a Texta and he said find a spot and write on it, but that’s easier said than done. The only thing I can come up with is this little spot here. On the rare occasions it rains in Broken Hill, it generally pours, creating instant fast flowing rivers. They usually dry up just as quickly. Remote as it is, Broken Hill is just on the western edge of the Murray-Darling Basin, but the sandy desert streams aren’t its main source of water. That comes from Menindee Lakes fed by the Darling River, 110 kilometres to the west. Now we’re about to drive into Lake Menindee. The lake is bone dry, and in fact, where we are here right now, normally we’d be standing ankle deep in water when the lake is full. The lake is bone dry because the water that was in here was required to service Adelaide. There’s no more water coming into the lake. It’ll remain this way as long as the Darling only has a trickle going through it. The lake’s a second home to Broken Hill-based artist, Roxanne Minchin, lake’s deputy manager Barry Philp, and fisherman Geoff Looney. Roxanne Minchin: I have never seen anything like this in my entire life. I’ve been painting this area for 28 years. This is the first time I’ve ever seen it so desolate. Dermott: Geoff, this is meant to be one of the more popular spots for fishing for the local guys? Geoff Looney: Yeah, most surely along these trees you’d catch a lot of fish. Dermott: What type of fish do they catch along here? Geoff Looney: Mainly golden perch and… Dermott: Plenty of them? Geoff Looney: Yeah, a lot of golden perch in the system. It’s pretty good for perch. Dermott: Barry, it’s pretty big and it’s pretty bare. How long it is going to take to fill it? Barry Philp: Probably three, three to four years to fill up again. All depends how much rainfall we have up in the upper catchment. Dermott: Roxanne, as an artist, you would draw a fair bit of inspiration from these types of lakes? Roxanne Minchin: This is my main inspiration. It’s my signature tune, I suppose you could say, and when I paint my trees, you only see half of what we’re seeing now because the water level is normally so high. Wally Mitchell: See we have a situation a Menindee Lakes built in the ’40s – a good idea but badly done. Very shallow lakes, 130,000 acres of surface area, evaporating at two metres a year, so you’re losing a massive amount of that in evaporation, but more importantly, you’re leaving behind the salts and the sediments and only pure water’s evaporating off. So you’re creating problems for the South Australian people. Roxanne Minchin: Our water is undrinkable at this stage. I’ve lost most of my gardens through the salinity and it just shouldn’t be happening. Our water has not been looked after properly. Dermott: The main upstream storage for Adelaide is Lake Victoria, near the South Australian border. At peak irrigation times when there’s heavy dependence on the Murray, Adelaide could be drinking Darling water. That puts even more strain on the outback river. I reckon if I took a great big runner off the top of that bank up there, I reckon I could jump the Darling River here. I’m not going to – I might later when the cameras aren’t rolling – but in how many countries of the world could you say you’ve jumped their longest river. If that doesn’t make us think about the value of water, I don’t know what will. It’s not all that unusual. You could have done it quite a few times over the years. But hopefully the drought has made us think about the health of our rivers, the delicate nature and balance of the systems, and of them as a source of water. It’s an indication of just how dramatically things can change out here. The area where the Darling meets the Murray is known as Sunraysia. It’s centred around Wentworth and Mildura and based on lots of sunshine and water, both for irrigation and tourism. Increasingly, food has developed as a theme in Mildura with the old paddle steamer, Avoca, now a floating restaurant in the latest of a series of attractions. The weir at Mildura holds back water for one of the world’s most productive food bowls. It was here in the late 1800s that George and William Chaffey introduced irrigation and ensured a transformation from red earth country. Their vision for Mildura was as a temperance settlement built around the Grand Hotel. It started life as the Coffee Palace, and developed as the place where both the city and outback came to stay. It’s still a meeting place but, as the food reputation of Mildura has developed, perhaps it’s better known for the restaurants of television chef Stefano de Pieri. The most famous is called Stefano’s, and food critics rank it among Australia’s best. It was the ideal place to meet with him and three other locals who have a major interest in the river’s health. Stefano de Pieri: After all, Mildura is really the food bowl of Victoria, if not, of a large part of Australia. Kathy Keeble: We need to assess every kilolitre we take out of that river and what we do with it, why we take it out, what we use it for. Look at alternatives, so can we not use water for some things. Col Thompson: We’ve been irrigating now for some 100 years. I think there’s an expectation out there that we can change all this overnight. We can’t. Arron Wood: We look at placing blame all the time, we don’t move forward. What we should be looking at now is saying okay, farmers have always operated on best case information. No one wants to do bad by the environment. I mean until 10 years ago, Queensland Government was paying incentives to clear land. Stefano de Pieri: The government has to find money. All levels of government. Money is found in emergencies for – say for the recent conflict with Iraq. It was thought politically that it had to be done and the money was found. Col Thompson: We tend to be focussing a little bit at the moment on saying, we just put more water back and agricultural production back into the river and we’ll solve all the problems. I don’t think we will solve all the problems by doing that. You think of the waste water that must go out of Melbourne and Sydney that is just lost to everybody. That orange is probably one of the best oranges you’ll get anywhere in the world. The climate, the soil, the water here is all conducive to the perfect production of citrus fruits. Healthy agriculture equates to a healthy community. This show’s been going for some 120 years, it’s going from strength to strength, and that rotates around the healthy rural community, a lot of which rotates around a healthy working river. Arron Wood: Having grown up on Kings Billabong on the banks of the mighty Murray, I’ve gone from seeing – you know, being able to put my feet in the water and being able to see my feet in knee deep water to being able to see my hand just below the surface because it’s muddied up and that sort of stuff. What I’m doing is kneeling on pipes that are over 100 years old and it represents the way we’ve seen the river. Since 1891 in fact, when the Chaffeys first settled this region, we’ve been sucking water out of the river, and we continue to do it with the new pump side over here. That is the way we’ve seen the river. We’ve seen it as a resource to be used. It eventually comes back to education and that is changing the way we view, use and perceive our natural environment. We’ve really got to change the way we look at these things. So the big issue about this water debate is it isn’t just sitting in an office and putting a stroke of a pen through megalitres of water and saying, these people get it and these people don’t. It really does need to be about the human angle, and offering appropriate compensation if we have to make wide sweeping change. We can’t just take people’s livelihoods away. Stefano de Pieri: You can’t continue to base your food and the food that everyone uses on cheap water. A pool – a swimming pool – an Olympic pool of water, for the price of a packet of cigarettes. Hey, where are we going? So somebody along the line has to readjust this. Dermott: All that food you’re talking about from the local area gives you a real chance, now that you’ve got the wonderful name of the restaurant, to really showcase it all. Stefano de Pieri: Yes, and of course for the cooks, people like myself, the challenge is to reinterpret the food. So I hope that in the end, we will have a Mildura-specific cuisine. Maybe that will take a lot more chefs than me, but in time. Dermott: You’ll be able to take the name Mildura like they did with Champagne. Stefano de Pieri: Wouldn’t that be good for Australia. Kathy Keeble: We’re currently putting in large dams to capture our wastewater and re-treat it, with the use of – back in our processes in our winery, and maybe water our vineyards with it as well. Dermott: For one litre of wine, how much water do you need to produce it? Wayne Folkenberg: At the moment, we produce or use around three to four litres of water for every litre of wine we make, and that is not probably something to be proud of, but it’s something we’re working towards to reduce. Jim Kirkpatrick: In our wine-making process, we’ve reduced our water consumption significantly, and in our packaging area where we are now, we’ve changed our process from rinsing all of the bottles with water to rinsing with a gas. Dermott: Exactly what amount of water savings does that mean? Jim Kirkpatrick: We’ve actually only used 59 per cent of our allocation. So a significant saving there which is standing us in good stead for the difficult times and for the future. Dermott: Do you think the greater population of Australia really understand this issue? Stefano de Pieri: There has been a situation as I see it in this country, where for too long people have lived in the cities happily without properly realising where their food has come from, at what cost in a total sense, both to the environment and to the farmer. Arron Wood: You know what the quickest way to fix that is? This has been bandied about for some time now and that’s an environmental levy. It’s the scary word tax… Col Thompson: Arron, I absolutely agree with you. I think we should have an environmental levy, but politically – and if you’ve only got to ask the last Victorian Government, it was very, very unpalatable. The challenge for society out there today is that we maintain and increase and promote and see development take place in these areas, and yet also do the same for the river. Dermott: The stretch of river between Mildura and Renmark is perhaps the most remote of the river. It’s got a real isolated feeling to it. It’s quite beautiful just to see nothing but the nature as you go along either side of the boat. The best way to see it is on a boat, and the best boat to get for this type of journey – one of these. A big houseboat. To operate the boat is pretty simple. If I can do it, anyone can do it. You’ve got all the gear in front of you here, you can even see where everyone is. All people out the back on the swim deck. Wendy Steltzer: This section is just inside of South Australia and another 13 kilometres from the South Australian New South Wales border. As you can see, the river is very, very wide here, so it had easy access for paddle steamers and barges to pass through, and very, very deep. Dermott: Wendy Steltzer and her husband Barry have made the old customs house the base for their houseboat operation. Wendy Steltzer: They had to collect duty only coming into South Australia, so they paid duty on things like Chinese cooks were a lot of money, and contraband of course, alcohol and things like that. Sheep, wool, all sorts of things that were brought into South Australia. Dermott: So we continued downstream to lock six. It’s easy to forget that while the river looks full, it’s being held up by a series of weirs, with the levels on each side differing by an average of just over three metres. Lock six is where what’s known as the Chowilla Flood Plain begins. Nearly 40 years ago, the South Australian government wanted to build a dam here. It would have been extraordinarily destructive. Protests led by fruit grower and hydrologist Jack Seekamp stopped it in what is considered the most important conservation decision made on the Murray. Paul Sinclair: Jack’s been a phenomenon for the Murray. He tells stories about people who would cross the street to avoid talking to him because they didn’t like the stand he was taking in opposing the Chowilla Dam. Now we know it would have been an absolute bloody disaster, and he’s seen as a visionary by those same people who crossed the street. Dermott: Well Jack this peg here, this marker stone, is the boundary end of the Chowilla Dam. Jack Seekamp: Yes, this is the survey mark that was put in way back in the ’60s and the line of the dam would have stretched from here to that mast that you can see on the far side of the cliffs over there. Something over four kilometres I think. And from there on down, nearly as far as Renmark would have been a water desert with no water, white salt blistering on the surface of the ground and the dead skeletons sticking up above it. Unfortunately, it’s heading in the same direction of desolation now.>From here, it doesn’t look too bad, but there are an awful lot of dead trees down there. Dermott: Why? Jack Seekamp: Because we’re not allowed to have floods. Not allowed to have floods. Engineers and politicians are absolutely terrified of being seen to make a flood because someone might be inconvenienced and they might be sued. Each time there’s a flood or a high river comes down, the engineers boast, we have successfully mitigated the peak… Dermott Brereton: Yeah. Jack Seekamp: …and I say don’t do that. Hold her back. When the dams are full, open the gates and say, look out, here she comes. For sure, some of the shacks at Morgan would get flooded, but a flood through here does nothing but good. Dermott: Had it not been for Jack Seekamp, our houseboat could have been operating on a massive useless salt-filled lake. Can you imagine how it would have devastated the river? That brings us to the problems for boating and the pressure on the river from boating. Things like fuel pollution and wastewater. Barry Steltzer: What they’re experimenting with now is catching your grey water and working on a filtration system… Wendy Steltzer: Yeah. Barry Steltzer: …so that all of the water is collected, filtered and then returned to the river. Dermott: So at the moment that goes straight into the river? Barry Steltzer: At the moment, yes. Dermott: Luxury on the Murray has come at a price, but if all boating industry operators are like Barry and Wendy, they know they have to face the problem head on in order to preserve a leisure lifestyle that’s also big business. It will come at a cost, and as with fruit, wool or forests, it will have to be borne by all of us. But then, if being around a healthy river is special, being on it is even more so. The trouble is that in this remote stretch of river especially, it’s only occasional patches of old drowned red gums that even remind you the river’s health is in limbo. How do we beat the problem of fuel pollution? Barry Steltzer: All our houseboats have got four stroke motors. They’re virtually pollution free, very economical and very quiet. Dermott: So where does the responsibility lie? Wendy Steltzer: It starts with the owners, managers, and it goes right down to the people that hire houseboats.>From rubbish to fuel pollution to how much wood they take, and it all boils back to common sense. That can start at school level. Barry Steltzer: I think all houseboat owners and hirers et cetera have tried to do the right thing. The river is our lifeblood… Wendy Steltzer: Yeah. Barry Steltzer: …It’s the lifeblood of three states. We have to protect it. Dermott: The weirs are like a series of steps in the river. Numbers start from the bottom end. So five is downstream from six. Bob Bonner is lockmaster for both. Bob what would we be seeing here if we didn’t have a weir? Bob Bonner: Well, at the moment, the way the water’s been, this out here would be just a pool of puddles. You wouldn’t be able to – the farmers wouldn’t be able to water their stock or there wouldn’t be any vegetable growing, the pumps would be out of water. This up here, your river traffic wouldn’t be able to move. It’d create a bit of havoc I think. Dermott: For over 60 years, lockmasters have been proud of keeping water levels consistent, but variation’s just what the river must have. That’s been behind the success of Banrock Station a little further downstream. Out of having major problems with salinity in the Riverland are coming some answers, a lot of them, from here. Ten years ago, this was nothing but degraded farmland and trying to change it was considered a radical decision. Now it’s the country’s largest wine and ecotourism complex. The first step was to restore the wetlands and now, of 1700 hectares, 1400 are devoted to environmental management and 300 are under vines. Tony Sharley: So to learn about the environment… Dermott: The transition is because of this man, Tony Sharley. His energy and passion drive Banrock, and his story is one of the Murray’s most impressive. Tony Sharley: …okay, into a national park. I think the biggest lesson is that, you know, it’s very doable. We’ve got the knowledge out there as to how to restore landscapes. We really just need to apply it. Companies like ours can actually develop state-of-the-art vineyards that use water wisely and it gives us a fantastic point of difference with our wines too, in that, here’s a wine company producing a bottled product and giving consumers the opportunity to support something that is restoring the Australian landscape. When the weirs were built on the River Murray in 1925, that first – forced water to flow into our wetland and because it raised the surface water on the floodplain, the water table rose as well, bringing salt up, and it killed many of these box trees that were just around the edge or the margin of the wetland. Today, we’ve recreated these spring floods so that now every year we get a big pulse of water coming through the wetlands system here. It flushes salt and it creates the ideal environment for the germination of both box and red gum seedlings. The bulrush zone itself is around about 100 metres thick, whereas 10 years ago when we started this project, it was just a very, very narrow band that had been affected severely by grazing and by salt. The boardwalk enables people to get up close and personal with wildlife. We’ve now got nearly 20,000 people a year who are coming and taking these walks. So while they’re actually on the boardwalk, it takes them into, four bird viewing hides. They can actually see birds on the water, as well as seeing this lovely wetland landscape. By giving people access to them, they can start to value them, and that’s all part of helping to save the River Murray. This region had a history of very wasteful irrigation practices which led to poor quality in the vineyard. This device here has really revolutionised water use in our vineyards. It’s enabled us to know exactly how much moisture is in the soil at any one time, and that’s really halved vineyard water use in the Riverland. That’s giving us better quality fruit, but it’s also protecting the river system, in that there is virtually no drainage going back to the river system today. Dermott: Renmark is the unofficial capital of the Riverland. It’s a heavily irrigated stretch of the Murray, about 250 kilometres long from Renmark to Morgan, with places like Berri and Loxton in between. Like Sunraysia, the Riverland’s all about irrigation and the magical transformation of parched bushland into a fruit growing bonanza. But a time bomb’s been ticking beneath the surface. Peter Forward: This is the now badly degraded Ramco Lagoon area. It’s been degraded by the impacts of irrigation just up the hill here, with the consequence that the water in the lagoon here exceeds the salinity of seawater in summertime. This seepage water here is a mixture of ruefully low salinity drainage water from the irrigation district mixed in with deep groundwater. This is quite typical to me, the problems in the Riverland. Dermott: But despite what a lot of people think, salinity in the Murray is at its most acceptable level for years, thanks to salt interception schemes like the one Peter manages. There’s 78 pumps like this in the Riverland. They don’t look like much, but together they prevent about 3000 tonnes of salt a week from reaching the river. The pumps take the salt water 20 kilometres away to a place called Stockyard Plains. Far enough away to stop leakage back to the river for at least 100 years. Peter Forward: There are literally hundreds of thousands of birds living out there, so the basin’s developing its own ecology and it’s been quite fantastic to see. We’ve had the sea grass develop out here, small snail shells. I guess the whole point about this area is that we’re taking water from – saltwater from where it’s causing most damage, near the river, and putting it inland where it’s causing less damage. So while you see dead trees out there, it’s all part of this compromise. The other measures such as reducing irrigation drainage, improve the efficiency of irrigation, they will all help, but the benefits of those really won’t be seen for quite some decades. In the meantime, these salt interception schemes are the frontline in the war against salinity. Dermott: The river at Morgan 40 kilometres away is seen as a benchmark site for measuring long term salinity, but even though levels have fallen here consistently in recent years, about 300 semitrailer loads of salt flow past the wharf every day. The difficulty is that many of the changes that turn a healthy river into a dying river are imperceptible. They take place over such long spans of time, that few people notice them. It’s deceiving and hides the ongoing dilemma. In the early days, Morgan was the key port on the river in South Australia, but almost the only evidence is this stone morgue set up on the riverbank for the easy transferral of bodies from upstream during the paddle steamer era. The plaque outside tells the tale of a Royal Navy surveyor by the name of Harvey. Now Harvey was involved with the construction of the morgue, and on its completion, he joked about who might be the first person to use it. Ironically, Harvey drowned the next day and he, the poor old soul, because the first person. We’ve been following the river predominantly west, north-west, and it’s here at Morgan in the bend in the river behind me where the Murray takes a sharp turn to the south, almost 90 degrees.>From here, she’s all downhill to the mouth. It’s here you’ll find the Murray Princess. She’s designed to travel upstream through the locks if the river’s high enough, but when I was on board, she couldn’t even get through lock one, so additional flows would be good for business. Ray Weedon: There are times where we do actually touch bottom. That’s normal for a riverboat. That’s why we’re flat-bottomed. However, even 1.1 metres is too much at the moment in some regions. Dermott: A stretch of the Murray covered by the Princess through the Nildottie Cliffs region is amongst the most spectacular, but even here there are reminders of how much water is taken for irrigation. Ray Weedon: The Murray-Darling Basin has thousands of kilometres of open canals and channels. We lose too much water in seepage and evaporation. Probably too late for this generation. Hopefully the next generation will do a better job of it. Dermott: As passengers from the Princess find out, life must have been pretty good for the Ngaut Ngaut Aboriginal people in nature’s larder. They met on top of the cliffs, then had the plains, the river and even honeybee nests in between providing food. Female: All they had to do was climb up there, stick their hands in there and they’ve got themselves a feed of honey. Dermott: Rock art shows that even dolphins were found here. Cess Rigney: Dolphins are known to be able to survive hundreds of miles in the freshwater, as long as they can get back to that salt next king or high tide. The river was vital to the Ngaut Ngaut people, the Nagarakee. This end of the river’s dying and we’ve got to have something done pretty quick to make it a bit healthier than what it is nowadays. Dermott: The town of Mannum just over 80 kilometres from Adelaide is the widest part of the river, and known for being home to the Murray Princess, the point of the river from which Adelaide takes its precious water, and the scene of spectacular flooding over the years. In the 1950s, the flooding even became a tourist attraction. The guardian of the bottom end of the river is the delightful heritage town of Goolwa. Goolwa’s the easiest stepping off point for Lake Alexandrina, the barrages and the Murray Mouth. Every day for 40 years, I’m going to bring you some bad luck, maybe. The domain of river custodians like fisherman Henry Jones and Aboriginal elder Tom Trevorrow. Tom Trevorrow: Good walk. It’s good bush walk through here to look at some of our native bushland. Okay children, as you can see here, one of our big inland lagoons, and it’s got… Dermott: Tom runs an interpretive centre called Camp Coorong. According to him, the wetlands have been in drought for almost 60 years. The Coorong is a long narrow waterway east of the Murray Mouth. Along with Lake Alexandrina, it’s the end of the line, and where the problems of the river really come into focus. These days, fishermen like Henry have given into the inevitable. Carp have taken over here as well, so that’s mainly what this fourth generation fisherman catches, along with golden perch. What’s our chance of pulling up a Murray cod? Henry Jones: No chance in the world. I haven’t seen a cod in this area for 15 years, but the carp are – blame for everything. However they’re actually a symptom of what we’re doing to the river. If we can get environmental flows and get the river running again, then there wouldn’t be the problem with the carp. Dermott: What’s the worst case scenario if you don’t get those flows through? Henry Jones: It’s major fish kills. We’ve seen silver perch, catfish, a Congolese, yabbies, blackfish, purple spotted gudgeon, pygmy perch, all gone from the area. The native fish have gone down about 60 per cent. Dermott: Fair gathering of pelicans there Henry. Henry Jones: Whilst they’re here, we know there’s not much fish anywhere else. Dermott: So if you get here and they’re not here… Henry Jones: We know that there’s fish somewhere else. So we find the pelicans and then we find the fish. So they use us and we use them. Tom Trevorrow: We bring them all the way down here to the tail end of the Coorong and we’re able to bring them over the sand dunes here to the beach, so they can get a full view of the Coorong and understand how everything is connected. With a lot of the children that come, it has an impact on them, to get them out of a city environment and get them out onto the land, and they develop an understanding of what the land is and how important it is to us. Dermott: This goes on for 90 kilometres. Henry Jones: Yeah, it goes on right down here to 90 kilometres and two thirds of it is now dead down at – because we don’t get enough water over the barrage and we’ve got fishermen still alive who can remember when that was the best place to fish, well up the Coorong. Now the only fish you get there are little hardyheads. Tom Trevorrow: For many, many years now, this area has been known as the end of the Coorong, but the Coorong and the waters used to connect right through to the southeast area. Neville Gollan: I remember this as a boy, when there was about five foot of water through here. My mum and some of my aunties have told me when they were catching yabbies – freshwater yabbies – this was all freshwater running all the way down just this side of Kingston. But once they put up the barrage, it took everything away. Henry Jones: It’s not only the fish, it’s the little crustaceans. Especially over in the freshwater, there’s a little spiral snail, and that used to feed the wigeon and the bluegill murloc and the murloc and now they’re gone from the area because that food source is gone. We know it’s never going to get back to the way it was, to the pristine conditions, but at least we can save something for future generations. Dermott: The barrages were built to prevent seawater from the mouth entering the river, so the Coorong has been deprived of consistent freshwater flows since they were constructed in 1940. The Murray-Darling Basin Commission is exploring options for restoration of the lower lakes, and debate is even centred on removal of the barrages. Henry Jones: Now without the environmental flows coming down and the amount of volume of water coming down, without these barrages, we’d change the environment even more than we have already. Dermott: The colour difference between this side and that side – blue to brown – it’s really pronounced. Why is that? Henry Jones: Well you’ve got the saltwater on the Coorong side, but on the freshwater side, it’s full of nutrients and a lot of algae in it and salt, so it’s just coloured up into a soup pretty well. The water’s got to be allowed to escape and to be able to be cleaned out and freshened up. Neville Gollan: Before the barrages were put up, sharks went up to Mannum, stingray, Mulloway. Tom Trevorrow: Today the pelicans, have to leave their island, fly all the way down the Coorong to the northern lagoon, to try and find a feed of fish and to bring back for their young. Dermott: Only a strong flow can keep the mouth open. Well Henry, what do you think when you see this part of your world? Henry Jones: Oh mate, I’m disgusted and really disappointed. Just to remember what it was just 20 years ago. We’re talking 15 metres of water out there. We’re talking a mouth that was 200 metres to a half a kilometre wide, and now look at it now. You can drive a vehicle over nearly all of it. Tom Trevorrow: The land is slowly dying. The river is dying. The Coorong is dying, and the Murray Mouth is closing. Henry Jones: You can walk across it every year right about February through to April. Neville Gollan: The best thing that can – I think – that could happen for the river is to let it flow out to the locks, open it out, let out the germs. Dermott: As we come down the river, you see all those people who have a care for the river, that they really want to get their area right first. How do we educate them to what’s going on here? Henry Jones: I’d like to think that we could bring a lot of them down here and just show them what’s going on down here. Show them the devastation. Neville Gollan: Come and sit down and talk with us and get it firsthand. That would be the best, for the Government to come and talk with us. But they don’t. Henry Jones: Show them that if we don’t get this mouth open, then the problem is going to work its way up the river. Neville Gollan: It’s like the words in the olden times, when our word wasn’t good enough. Dermott: As I stand here at the bottom end of the Murray at Lake Alexandrina, I think of the countless dead trees from salinity that I’ve seen, and wonder if they can ever be regrown. I think about the result of chemicals and wonder if we can ever do without them. I think about the farmers without enough water to purely farm. I think about the fishermen catching feral species out of the water, and it makes me wonder, will the Murray cod ever be king of his domain again? There is only so much we can put into a television program. Please make it your business to go to the website and find out more. But this generous old man River Murray has been giving to us for countless years, most selflessly in the last 100 or so. It’s time we gave some water back, but there’s no easy solution. It’s going to be a long hard slog. In the end, it’s the people that’ll make a difference. People like you.

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