For an 800km stretch of river people are advised not to enter the water, drink untreated water or bathe in water drawn from the river. Boiling the water does not inactivate toxins. These are the warnings for a river that has not reached the sea for over three years and is so toxic you cannot even wash your face in it.

Which third world nation is so badly abusing their natural resources that they think it is okay to turn a mighty river into what sounds like a stagnant drain? Don’t they understand the importance of a healthy environment and the need to look after something as valuable as a river system? Where will they get their precious clean water from? These poor ignorant people need to make some serious changes.

This river is the Murray. Similar warnings are in place for the lower Darling and the Murrumbidgee.

WHEN DID THIS BECOME OKAY IN AUSTRALIA?

The excuse that comes to mind is the drought. On Tuesday April 7 the Murray Darling Basin Authority released its drought update. It states that the inflow for the period January to March of this year was the lowest in the 117 years of records. The story gets worse. The update goes on to say that the inflow for the last three years is only 46% of the previous three year minimum which was back in the mid 1940’s.

However the drought is only half the story. The update also states that there is 4,100 gigalitres of water held in public storages across the Basin. A check of the Authority’s weekly update shows that in the Murray and Lower Darling alone over 870 gigalitres have been extracted in the nine months since July last year.

Last Tuesday the Authority also released an announcement on the Autumn watering of the Murray Darling “icon sites”. Less than four and a half gigalitres of water is going to be shared amongst the ‘icon’ sites across the Basin. Who knows what will happen to all the other wetlands, floodplains and forests of the Basin which are so badly in need of a drink.

In November last year the Council of Australian Governments released a report on the progress with environmental water recovery in the Murray-Darling Basin. In the four years between June 2004 and September 2008 a total of 177.3 gigalitres has been recovered for the environment.

Most of us have no comprehension of how much water is in a gigalitre. Even so, it is easy to see that there is something very wrong.

The next excuse is to blame the irrigators. An irrigator is somebody who takes water out of our rivers to grow our food. We expect top quality produce at the lowest price possible. The irrigator is just a cog in the supply chain, just like the truck driver or the guy that lays the fruit out in the supermarket. The large majority of irrigators comply with a set of rules for how much water they can take. These rules are set by the governments we voted into power.

If we no longer want this national treasure to be little more than a toxic open drain we need to reset the system. We need to ensure we have enough water to keep the river, floodplains and wetlands healthy and use what is left to grow more produce with less water. The potential impacts of climate change underline the need to make this adjustment sooner rather than later so that we are in a position to manage out future in a more proactive way then praying for rain.

Resetting the systems sounds like a massive task yet we already have two of the three parts in place. There is $12.8 billion dollars in the Federal Governments’ Water for the Future Program, we have the legislation in place to get the job done. The only piece missing seems to be the political will both at the State and Federal level. There is a lot of talk about getting things done but the figures and the algal bloom don’t lie.

Peter Cullen was one of Australia’s greatest water experts. Before he died he said, “I have always felt knowledge was better than ignorance, and we should try knowledge in this country because ignorance hasn’t got us very far.”

It seems we are finding it hard to change our habits.

This article was originally published on the Australian Science Media Centre’s Science blog.

Peter Fray

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