The COAG agreement for the Murray-Darling basin is being lauded by business and the communities that will benefit from the significant water projects. I’m not about to argue that better water-business is not needed; it is, but there is much more that needs to be done.

While the water businesses are looking forward to a much needed boost we have conservationists and researchers bemoaning another missed opportunity. There is a lot of money being allocated to redress some of the stupidities of the past — but what about the river itself?

The ecological condition of the river has not only changed it has deteriorated to an extent where experts are saying we may lose some of its iconic features. We have seen ecological disasters in other countries. We can be nice to ourselves and say that the Murray-Darling is not an ecological disaster on the scale of the Aral Sea or the Mesopotamian marshes, but do we really know? Are we really looking at the ecology in a way that will enable us to avert a (further) disaster? Are we pushing the river towards a tipping point that will take us into irreversible ecological change?

Or have we already done this? Take the Lower Lakes for example. Or the wider acid sulfate problems. Or our ability to supply environmental flows when and where we need them? We have been told that we may need to make choices about which parts of the river we will save. What does this really mean for the river — the entire river and its catchment? The river is the sum of its parts, but once we separate the parts can we then add them together and restore the river? This is what we are being told we may need to do.

Has the COAG agreement really done anything to alleviate the condition of the river? We can not expect one agreement to change things overnight. The business changes will take time to have an impact. What we need now is an approach to restore the river — to rebuild the resilience of the river and keep us away from the tipping points? We also need to know what the tipping points are and to keep us away from the terrible situation of chopping the river into parts and abandoning some of these. If we do this we no longer have a real river. Ecologically its stupid. Socially it’s surely a disaster.

The new authority will have its work cut out for it — the business and social issues are huge. Alongside this we need a stronger commitment to an ecological future of the entire river covering the components and the process that keep it working and healthy and the services that it provides, largely cost-free, but seemingly not valued. The science will need to look forward — what scenarios will the river face and what responses are needed to ensure we have the river we want? There are many options and not much time.

We have an excellent science base in this country – and we know our river well enough to know that we have not treated it very well. It’s ecologically unhealthy. The new authority needs to take our knowledge and use this to construct an ecological future for our river — a future that restores the health of the river. Constructing the future will be wrought with uncertainty and surprises — the river has a mind of its own. We still have a lot to learn about its ecology and the services it provides to our society. We need to live with the uncertainties as we extend our understanding of the river and ourselves and allow the river to live. It’s too late to let the river run free but we can step back from the death warrant.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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