This fish kill is a tragedy – but it is no sur­prise

The Guardian Australia - - News - Quentin Grafton, Emma Car­mody, Matthew Colloff and John Wil­liams

Any­one who has seen the video of rot­ting fish along a 20-kilo­me­tre reach of the Dar­ling River near Menindee Lakes in New South Wales must won­der how we got to this point.

We wit­ness grown men cry­ing over dead Mur­ray Cod – one of Aus­tralia’s iconic fresh­wa­ter fish species – killed by in­suf­fi­cient oxy­gen in the water.

Yet our lead­ers run away from what is re­ally hap­pen­ing and write me­dia state­ments that fail to an­swer the real ques­tions. The chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Mur­ray-Dar­ling Basin Author­ity (MDBA) that over­sees the Basin Plan and who is sup­posed to man­age that river sys­tem, plays the blame game.

Sadly it’s like 1991 again when the Dar­ling River suf­fered from an al­gal bloom so dev­as­tat­ing it prompted gov­ern­ments to re­think water man­age­ment. That led to the Na­tional Water Ini­tia­tive and, even­tu­ally, the 2012 Basin Plan. It was a plan that was sup­posed to “fix the Basin”.

This dev­as­tat­ing fish kill is yet an­other wake up call to our lead­ers: blue-green al­gae out­breaks, dead fish and dy­ing rivers are not sim­ply caused by the drought.

They are hap­pen­ing be­cause we are ex­tract­ing too much water from our rivers; fail­ing to set lim­its on ex­trac­tion that take into ac­count cli­mate change; al­low­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal water to be legally pumped; fail­ing to in­tro­duce suf­fi­cient mea­sures to pro­tect water qual­ity; and emp­ty­ing the Menindee Lakes more fre­quently than is eco­log­i­cally safe.

Add a pro­longed pe­riod with­out rain­fall to the equa­tion and it’s a time bomb wait­ing to hap­pen.

This cur­rent tragedy was pre­dicted and is no sur­prise. The river is like a piggy bank, if you keep tak­ing money out with­out sav­ing for the fu­ture you end up bank­rupt – and just when you need it the most. At this time of drought, good water man­age­ment en­sures the re­silience of rivers’ aquatic ecosys­tems. Clearly this has not hap­pened along the Dar­ling River.

Some 1,200 bil­lion litres of water were ex­tracted for ir­ri­ga­tion in 2014-15 in the North­ern Basin (ac­cord­ing to the lat­est data avail­able) yet only a tiny frac­tion, or about 35 bil­lion litres, ac­tu­ally ar­rived at Bourke from up­stream in the past year.

This is about a fail­ure of water re­form and a dere­lic­tion of duty – the drought is sim­ply the straw that broke the camel’s back.

This is about how gov­ern­ments have failed to gov­ern and to pro­tect the com­mon good of the peo­ple they were elected to serve.

The Mur­ray-Dar­ling Basin Royal Com­mis­sion, es­tab­lished in South Aus­tralia to in­ves­ti­gate the op­er­a­tions and ef­fec­tive­ness of the Basin Plan, will re­port next month. But its Se­nior Coun­sel, Richard Beasley SC, has al­ready con­cluded: “The im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Basin Plan has been marred by mal­ad­min­is­tra­tion. By that I mean mis­man­age­ment by those in charge of the task in the Basin Author­ity, its ex­ec­u­tives and its board, and the con­se­quent mis­man­age­ment of huge amounts of pub­lic funds.”

Lim­its on water ex­trac­tion, water qual­ity mea­sures, and the le­gal ex­trac­tion of en­vi­ron­men­tal water are cur­rently gov­erned by Basin state laws.

The le­gal regime in New South Wales has failed the Dar­ling, Lower Dar­ling, and Menindee Lakes on all three counts. Un­der the state’s laws, rel­e­vant water qual­ity pro­vi­sions are largely non-bind­ing and poorly im­ple­mented while em­bar­goes on the pump­ing of en­vi­ron­men­tal water may only be im­posed at the dis­cre­tion of the min­is­ter (which rarely oc­curs).

The im­me­di­ate trig­ger for the fish kill was in­ad­e­quate stream flows which caused sur­face water to stop mix­ing with the cooler bot­tom layer. Water heated up rapidly to over 30 de­grees and then lost its oxy­gen – the warmer the water, the less dis­solved oxy­gen that fish need to sur­vive.

The fish kill fea­tured in the video that has gone vi­ral around the world is not even the first in the last month. Be­fore Christ­mas, an­other dev­as­tat­ing event wiped out some 10,000 fish. Yet, if there had been reg­u­lar care­fully co­or­di­nated water-qual­ity as­sess­ment it would have shown the se­quence of events that led to this catas­tro­phe.

And this has hap­pened be­fore. Ecol­o­gists who in­ves­ti­gated the 2004 fish kill on the Lower Dar­ling River rec­om­mended im­proved water qual­ity mon­i­tor­ing and ad­e­quate stor­age at Menindee Lakes for down­stream re­leases so as to im­prove water qual­ity. Yet the agen­cies re­spon­si­ble failed to act on this ad­vice.

What makes the tragedy even worse is that Menindee Lakes is be­lieved to be an im­por­tant spawn­ing area for Mur­ray cod and golden perch. As the fish from the lat­est kill de­cay, the sub­stances they re­lease will con­trib­ute to poor water qual­ity down­stream, stor­ing up eco­log­i­cal prob­lems for the fu­ture.

Those in charge of water man­age­ment in the Basin were told what would hap­pen as far back as 2010, and that the prob­lem would get worse un­less less water was ex­tracted from rivers. They were also told what they should do to stop it from hap­pen­ing.

As cer­tain parts of the Basin Plan come into force, ju­ris­dic­tion over some of the causes iden­ti­fied above will shift to the Com­mon­wealth. How­ever, with­out some changes, it won’t get bet­ter.

So what is the solution? For a start, the Water Act 2007 should be amended to im­prove gov­er­nance ar­range­ments and re­duce the pos­si­bil­ity of con­flicts of in­ter­est un­der­min­ing the law­ful man­age­ment of Basin water re­sources.

Next, the Basin Plan should be amended to in­crease re­cov­ery of water for the en­vi­ron­ment, aug­ment ac­tual stream flows, and buf­fer against the im­pacts of cli­mate change. Full ac­count­ing of where water goes in the Basin, in­clud­ing re­turn flows from farm­ers’ fields, must oc­cur, while con­tro­ver­sial changes to the man­age­ment of the Menindee Lakes need to be re­con­sid­ered. Any water in­fra­struc­ture projects that are claimed to de­liver the equiv­a­lent of in­creased stream flows should be sub­ject to rig­or­ous cost-ben­e­fit anal­y­sis to en­sure they de­liver a net pos­i­tive pub­lic ben­e­fit.

“Water re­source plans” for each catch­ment, which come into force within the next year or so, must also in­clude rules to main­tain suf­fi­cient flows and water qual­ity, and to pro­tect en­vi­ron­men­tal water from le­gal pump­ing.

The Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity Dic­tionary named “toxic” as the 2018 word of the year. Its choice re­flects our times and de­scribes both our de­te­ri­o­rat­ing state of the Basin and the fail­ures of those who we elect and ap­point to po­si­tions of author­ity.

Yet these de­ci­sion-mak­ers carry on as if all is go­ing ac­cord­ing to plan. How toxic is that?

This what orig­i­nally pub­lished on the Asia and the Pa­cific Pol­icy So­ci­ety’s pol­icy fo­rum.

This is about how gov­ern­ments have failed to gov­ern and to pro­tect the com­mon good of the peo­ple.

The river is like a piggy bank, if you keep tak­ing money out with­out sav­ing for the fu­ture you end up bank­rupt – and just when you need it themost. Pho­to­graph: Mike Bow­ers for the Guardian

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