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Speech by the Australian Conservation Foundation Executive Director to the Saving the Murray River Summit, Goolwa, South Australia, 25 February 2001

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Saving the Murray River

Australian Conservation Foundation Executive Director, Don Henry

February 25, 2001

The Murray River is in deep, deep trouble. I'm not just talking about salinity or water quality here; I'm talking about a once-rich and productive ecosystem that has taken a real hammering over the last 30 or 40 years in particular.

The Murray has already lost nearly half of its native fish species, with most of the rest disappearing fast. Within 50 years we stand to lose fish like the great Murray cod, silver perch and Murray catfish. The Coorong has already lost 90 per cent of its migratory bird species. Most of the Murray's wetlands - many of them listed under the Ramsar Convention for internationally significant wetlands - are dying a slow, incremental death. Murray crayfish can no longer be found at all in South Australia. Crucial river frontage habitats are degraded or absent along much of the river's length. Toxic blooms of blue-green algae are now commonplace, and salt levels in and around the river are rising fast.

The most fundamental problem in the Murray is that it doesn't have enough water.

In 1994, Australian state and Commonwealth Governments agreed to a National Water Policy that required the establishment of environmental flows for all rivers. It's now 2001, and work has barely commenced on the environmental flow needs of Australia's best known river, the Murray. Why? I suspect it's because the problems of the Murray River are seen as too complicated, too expensive, and too politically charged.

As a promising first step, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia now have a process for resolving this environmental flows issue, but we have not yet had a clear statement of political intent to do all that is required to secure these flows.

The recent decision on environmental flows for the Snowy River sets a bold precedent. If the Snowy River is worth a financial commitment of $300 million, how much should we expect to save the Murray?

Australians, including the Murray valley community should expect nothing less than a healthy Murray/Darling River system.

Of course the problems with the Murray River don't begin and end with flows. As the natural drainage system for one-seventh of the continent, many of the river's problems stem from the ways we manage the land. Much of what needs to be done, therefore, involves changing the landscape and using the land in ways that are more in tune with the environment.

We in the ACF have detailed a 10-point recipe for a healthy Murray River.

ACF's Recipe for a Healthy Murray River

1. Establish environmental flows for the river and its wetlands by lowering the Murray Darling 'Cap' (ie: the cap placed on water diversions from the Murray). Typical flows to the sea are now only 20per cent of natural. For this figure to rise, we simply must take less water from the river. 2. Restore the Murray mouth and Lakes & Coorong estuary by removing the barrages and increasing flows. The Lakes evaporate enormous amounts of fresh water. Lets return them to an estuarine system and use the water saved to enhance environmental flows. 3. Protect native fish by installing fish ladders to allow fish to migrate up and downstream. Fish can't swim through concrete. Fish ladders enable fish to migrate naturally up and downstream. 4. Ensure 'warm water' releases at Hume Dam - cold 'bottom water' releases affect fish from breeding for up to 300 kilometres. Requires engineering works. 5. Fence river frontages and restore river bank and flood plain vegetation. Healthy riverbanks and floodplains are vital for river health, providing food and nutrients to the river, as well as habitat for fish and bird breeding. 6. Focus water pollution efforts on improving irrigation drainage systems. (Irrigation drainage systems, constructed to relieve waterlogging and salinity problems, can provide rapid transit of pollutants such as phosphorous to rivers.) 7. Cease land clearing across the Murray Darling Basin. Land clearing is the root cause of both salinity and biodiversity decline. Stopping clearing is the first essential step to halting the decline of our flora and fauna. 8. Address salinity by replanting trees and changing the way we farm. Scientists estimate that many millions of hectares in the Murray Darling Basin will need to be restored to tree cover just to hold the line against salinity. Traditional cropping and grazing practices will need to change too. 9. Create a new, independent and expert Commission for the Murray Darling initiative. Let's take the 'Yes Minister' factor out of the Murray Darling Initiative. 10. Strengthen community input to future decisions affecting the Murray. The only way we'll get lasting and far-reaching change is if the community drives, and owns, the outcomes.

We can turn around the plight of the Murray/Darling, but it won't come cheap.

Last year the ACF teamed up with the National Farmers Federation to produce the landmark report: Repairing the Country. This report quantified our national environmental repair bill at $65 billion over ten years. As a nation it's time we came to appreciate that it's this order of investment that's needed to repair our natural assets, and we deserve nothing less.

In the case of the Murray River, its long lasting health is crucial - not just for agriculture, tourism, fisheries, and precious water supplies - but also as a living icon of our Australian landscape.

We need to think about our vision for the Murray in 50 or 100 years time. As a community, lets work together to map-out a new, ecologically sustainable future for this great river system. Let's commit to being the generation that reforms the Great Murray/Darling River Basin.