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River decisions ‘not the wisest’

Friday, 8th February, 2019

(From left) MDBA CEO Phillip Glyde, Federal MP Mark Coulton and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack facing the locals at Maiden’s Hotel in Menindee yesterday. PICTURE: Craig Brealey (From left) MDBA CEO Phillip Glyde, Federal MP Mark Coulton and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack facing the locals at Maiden’s Hotel in Menindee yesterday. PICTURE: Craig Brealey

By Craig Brealey

After seven years and $8 billion spent on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, in the Darling River yesterday Murray Cod were being pulled from the water, put in a truck and driven across the state to try and save their lives.

While the Deputy Prime Minister and the CEO of the MDBA were heading to Menindee for a public meeting, NSW Fisheries staff were netting about 20 of the river giants suffocating in the weir pool and putting them in water tanks for the 756km journey to a native fish breeding farm in Narrandera.

Locals said the cod were so weakened and stressed they would probably die before they got there.

At the meeting in Maiden’s Hotel, people gave a civil welcome to Deputy PM Michael McCormack, MDBA boss Phillip Glyde and local federal MP Mark Coulton  but none of them could offer any hope that the river would soon flow again.

Midway through the meeting, half the crowd of about 50 people got up and left.

“We came here in good faith,” said Mr McCormack at the start.

“The fact is the government can’t make it rain.”

He did however admit that “not the wisest decisions” had been made, and that included NSW allowing the 480 gigalitre drought reserve in the Menindee Lakes to be drained in 2017.

That decision, and the unnecessary emptying of the lakes four times in 11 years, had helped create the conditions that eventually caused the death of millions of native fish in December and January.

Menindee woman Rita Parker stated the other big factor: cotton farms on the Darling’s tributaries. 

“Local people know more about the lakes and the river system. It’s top heavy with irrigators,” Mrs Parker told the visitors.

“Here we are having to bathe babies in bottled water,” she said.

“We have been treated like we are dirt. We have no local government representation on the Darling River so most of this rubbish could go on.”

Thousands of litres of spring water have been donated to Menindee and Wilcannia by people from around the nation but none has come from government, nor was any offered yesterday.

McCormack replied that the Commonwealth and NSW had given the Central Darling Shire Council $1 million and that was helping the council pay for carting treated water to river dwellers at Menindee and the lower Darling.

He also defended growing cotton on the Darling’s tributaries.

“The cotton industry hasn’t had a water allocation and they’re growing one per cent of what they would normally grow in a good season. It’s very dry in the catchment where it hasn’t rained for seven years.”

Mark Hutton from Darling River Action Group said what was happening on the river now was nothing new, just much worse.

“The lakes were drained in 2004, 2012, 2016 and 2017,” Mr Hutton said. 

“We thought you could not possibly be that stupid as to do it again. It looks to us like you took that as a challenge.”

Mr Glyde said the Menindee Lakes System was completed in the 1960s and much had changed since then, including the climate.

“There is a lot more development upstream,” he said. “The rules have to change and the way we manage the Menindee Lakes have to change.

“There is less water upstream and we have to manage the lakes better.”

But changing the management rules would require the agreement of the Basin States, Mr Glyde said.

“You don’t turn around 100 years of over-allocation (in an instant). 

“The Basin Plan started in 2012 and we have until 2024 to implement it. 

“In that 12 years the government is putting back 20 per cent of the water that used to be for agriculture.

“Menindee Lakes will take years (to fix) and that requires the agreement of SA, NSW, Victoria and everyone else.”

Barry Stone said he would like to see the actual Basin Plan to know if Menindee had a future.

“Where is this plan? Will you put it online?,” he asked.

“We have lost 1200 jobs in Menindee and you have killed our river. Do we stay here (until 2024) or get up and leave?”

Barkindji Elder, Badger Bates, drew great applause when he asked this:

“You are supposed to be the experts but you have not answered this question: What are you going to do to fix the problem?

“For 60 years it worked good. Let the Barka flow.”

Mr Glyde: “That’s what the plan’s all about.”

Mr McCormack: “Everybody wants the best outcome for their community. We need to work through it.”

It was at this point that half that people decamped and the meeting petered out.

Afterwards Mr McCormack and Mr Coulton took questions from journalists but Mr Glyde was absent.

They were asked if the federal government would put an embargo on irrigators pumping from the Darling’s tributaries in Queensland in order put a flow down the river.

Mr McCormack said the water from all the record-breaking floods had not made it to the catchment.

“It’s a long way from where the Darling could benefit,” he said.

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