Opinion: Flooding in the Murray good news for farmers

Posted 16 November 2012

Professor Richard Kingsford

The history of our development of the Murray-Darling Basin is one of constraining and constricting its rivers' flows. Many of the basin's floods are now captured in dams for later constrained release to towns downstream and for irrigation of agricultural crops. In planning the future of the Murray-Darling Basin, fear of letting these floods free again has determined how much water will be released back to the environment. More water - say opponents of higher releases - will mean more flooded towns and farms. But new research we have just completed shows this flooding could actually help agriculture in the basin.

Constraining the river has come at significant environmental cost. The health of rivers and wetlands has declined, salinisation and blue-green algal blooms have spread, and social and economic costs increased. There was significant damage to the Lower Lakes and the Coorong in the last big drought, exacerbated by upstream development of the river.

That's why a basin plan with more water for the rivers is so important.

Before the rivers were constrained, they would go through classic 'boom' and 'bust' periods with large floods punctuated by long dry periods. The floods would naturally spread out across the floodplain, running down the streams that make up the network across the floodplain and supplying the myriad dependent organisms.

Understanding the natural behaviour of rivers is the key to comprehending the current debate about the proposed plan: it is not just a channel but had once-vast floodplains dependent on flooding.

The controversial Murray-Darling Basin Plan will likely be tabled before Parliament rises on November 29. When the Murray-Darling Basin Authority presented the current proposed plan it said only 2,750GL of water could be delivered back to the basin, arguing that constraints stopped larger amounts of water being delivered. These constraints take many forms, all predominantly designed to control the river and its flow. They are administrative, policy-based, legislative and physical.

The physical constraints are mostly dam outlets not big enough to release large environmental flows, and the inundation of bridges, towns and land.

New modelling released in early October showed that if some of these constraints were removed or relaxed, the environmental flows achieved more environmental targets. The result was significantly improved when substantially more environmental flow (3,200 GL) was provided. This flow met almost all the environmental targets, particularly in South Australia which is particularly vulnerable.

But removing many of the constraints will require changes in policy, potentially legislation, and cooperation from recalcitrant eastern states. Battle lines have been drawn on the potentially detrimental impact of environmental flows on bridges, towns and agricultural land, exacerbated if a higher volume of 3,200GL was returned. According to the NSW Primary Industries Minister, this would flood private property, cause river bank erosion and submerge bridges and weirs.

The full impact of environmental flows on infrastructure is not well established. Worse, little to no attention is given to the benefits of flooding. In a new report funded by the Australian Floodplain Association, we at the Australian Wetlands, Rivers and Landscapes Centre investigated the likely maximum impact of environmental flows on land use across the entire basin.

Our analysis showed the majority of the flooding occurred on grazing land: the overwhelmingly largest area of flooding was on about 84% of grazed land in the basin. This type of land benefits enormously from flooding. It recharges groundwater and helps grow the grass on which sheep and cattle feed. Flooded land often commands a premium over non-flooded land.

Graziers have been particularly affected by the regulation of rivers and diversion of water upstream for irrigation. A grazier on the Condamine-Balonne succinctly describes this as the 'transfer of wealth upstream'. Fewer floods have significantly decreased grazing incomes on most of the regulated rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin.

So the environmental flows that will be provided through the Murray-Darling Basin Plan should not be considered just flows for the environment. We identified that areas flooded in national parks and reserves amounted to only a little more than 5% of the wetlands. And our analysis probably represented a maximum impact, as we used the largest flood in a 10-year window, significantly higher than even 3,200 GL would deliver.

However, there will be bridges and properties flooded, and this will need to be addressed. Australia is always repairing roads and bridges, and any vulnerable bridges could easily be flood-proofed. And water authorities could purchase easements of flooded land, compensating affected landholders and allowing environmental flows to naturally flood. Similarly flood defences are well established in Australia around towns. Every flood prone town has levee banks to protect it even from the largest flood. In a recent flood, Charleville on the Warrego River in the northern Murray-Darling Basin escaped major damage because of the well-constructed levee bank around the town.

The proposed basin plan and its environmental flows represent one of the most significant environmental initiatives in Australia's history. This is a chance to redress the problems of the past and restore this mighty river for all Australians. It is important not to limit this vision with relatively small constraints that can be removed. It is time to let the river run more freely and do what it does best naturally - invigorate the river environment and provide ecosystem services - predominantly agriculture - for the people of the river.

Professor Richard Kingsford is director of the Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre at UNSW.

This opinion piece first appeared in The Conversation.

Latest news

Cotton RDC Reach Outcomes

Cotton RDC Reach Outcomes

12 August 2020

Recently published results from the Cotton RDC funded research by UNSW and ANSTO has advanced our knowledge about the importance and impact of groundwater discharge from the Great Artesian Basin into the lower Namoi alluvium (Iverach et al. 2017). The research has also demonstrated that methane has migrated from the underlying coal measures into the Namoi alluvium (Iverach et al. 2020).

Read more…

Floating though the dolines

Floating though the dolines

24 July 2020

Are you a fan of ABC's Conversations with Richard Fidler? Well, you might want to take a listen to this episode of the program with subterranean ecologist Stefan Eberhard.  

Read more…

New questions over Shenhua water modelling

New questions over Shenhua water modelling

24 July 2020

Take a listen to ABC Radio National Breakfast's segment on the controversial $1.5 billion Shenhua thermal coal mine on the New South Wales Liverpool Plains. Research undertaken by UNSW's leading groundwater expert Professor Ian Acworth indicates that the company's water modelling is flawed.

Read more…

Ban on toxic mercury looms in sugar cane farming, but Australia still has a way to go

Ban on toxic mercury looms in sugar cane farming, but Australia still has a way to go

18 July 2020

CWI's Professors Cameron Holley and Darren Sinclair and Australian National University's Professor Simon Haberle and Larissa Schneider recently contributed to The Conversation, discussing federal authorities announcement of "an upcoming ban on mercury-containing pesticide in Australia", highlighting Australia is "one of the last countries in the world to do so, despite overwhelming evidence over more than 60 years that mercury use as fungicide in agriculture is dangerous." 

Read more…

Ancient water to drain from farmland without ongoing joint management

Ancient water to drain from farmland without ongoing joint management

1 July 2020

The management of withdrawals of ground water in the Central West remains an area of hotly-contested debate. Associate Professor of Hydrogeology Bryce Kelly has spent over a decade studying groundwater in the Central West, and has credited groundwater with “saving rural communities from collapse”, but its potential for future drought-proofing depends on how successfully it’s managed. He says current withdrawals “will only be sustainable if the Narromine region gets flooded frequently enough to balance the volume of groundwater extracted."

Read more…