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STANDING COMMITTEE ON RURAL AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORT
10/09/2008
Management of the Murray-Darling Basin system

CHAIR —I welcome Mr Henry Jones, commercial fisherman and member of the Murray River Advisory Board. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Jones —I am a commercial fisherman and I am here on behalf of the environment.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mr Jones. Do you wish to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Mr Jones —Thank you. My family, ladies and gentlemen, have been involved in commercial fishing for six generations, but I am not here as a fisherman; I am here because of my concerns for the environment. I can see it dying before my eyes. I realise it will never be pristine again and it will never receive water that it used to receive.

My argument is based on the fact that the lakes were always fresh water and they need to be retained as fresh water for the good of the environment. We have indisputable proof that the lakes have been freshwater lakes for 99 per cent of the time. History collected since Sturt’s voyage down the Murray, CSIRO algae diatom readings, Ngarrindjeri middens with freshwater mussels, six generations and in excess of 160 years of commercial fishing all prove beyond doubt that these lakes have always been freshwater lakes.

Those at a recent Murray-Darling Basin Commission meeting at Murray Bridge, rallies in Adelaide and at Goolwa have unanimously supported only the freshwater options for the lakes. The salt water and the Wellington weir options were vigorously rejected, as was the twin lakes proposals. Overallocation is seriously affecting the environmental health of the lakes and the Coorong.

To me, it first became noticeable when the Murray mouth closed in April of 1981. We are told it has never happened in 8,000 years and probably much longer. A dredge is working around the clock to keep the mouth open and if it is stopped the mouth would close again within a month. There are many environmental reasons why the mouth should remain open, but none more important than to purge the system of salt and unwanted nutrients.

Not long after the mouth’s closure, two-thirds of the Coorong rapidly died. It became hypersaline, 220 parts per million, the same salt consistency as the Dead Sea. This was the main breeding ground for mullet and flounder and sea bream and a myriad of smaller non-consumptive fish that fed the birds and the fish. The one-third that is being kept alive by fresh tidal movement is changing from estuarine to marine and many different animals such as sharks, stingrays, flathead, garfish, black lip mussel and barnacles are now calling the Coorong home. These are having devastating consequences on native animals.

For instance, barnacles are growing on top of the mottle sand crabs, killing them. Crabs are the main food source for birds and fish. In the lakes from Goolwa to Clayton the water has become so salty that tube worms from the Coorong are growing on freshwater turtles, killing them unless they can be rescued and cleared. The wetlands that are in the lakes are by the far most important environmental factor and the lakes and Coorong are dry and exposed to the elements.

This should be where everything is manufactured. This is the engine room of the whole lakes and Coorong system. This is where food is grown for juveniles, for the adult birds. This is where everything happens, but it is dry and there is nothing there. It is dead. The lakes have made a recovery themselves this year, so the 350 gigalitres that we were calling for to cover the acid sulfate soils is now much less and probably 200 gigalitres would be enough.

So what we need, ladies and gentlemen, is for Minister Penny Wong to purchase about 200 gigalitres of water to be released around January-February so that we can cover the acid sulfate soils and at least the lakes would be safe again next year. Of course, the lakes are about half a metre below sea level.

What we really should be aiming for is to get the river flowing again. If the river does not flow we get two million tonnes of salt coming into the lakes each year. That keeps building up. If we cannot get the river flowing again and washing out the mouth, then we have got a commercial saltworks going on there and it is going to be absolutely devastating.

Senator HEFFERNAN —For clarification, that is 200 gigs net down this end, not where it starts?

Mr Jones —Two hundred gigs down this end.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes.

Mr Jones —That is about all I have got to say, Mr Chairman. I am open to any questions.

Senator HURLEY —As you said, your family have been fishing in that area for many years and it is one of the very sustainable fisheries around South Australia. Is it just in those last few years that you have noticed changes, or have there been changes occurring in climate and the environment over the period of your lifetime?

Mr Jones —You are right. Our fishery is probably the most sustainable in Australia. We have developed the world’s first environmental management plan for whole of fishery. That was some 13 years ago. Last year we received marine stewardship, which is another world first for a multispecies fishery. The commercial fish are okay. The stocks are okay.

As I said, in 1981 the mouth closed for the first time and that was the beginning. That was the beginning. At that stage we had overallocated the river too much and since then allocation has increased by three times. The mouth closed in 1981. It should have been there for everybody to see. We made this terrible mistake. We have overallocated the river. We have got to cut back. But from 1981 on to 1994, I think it was, it increased three times. So we did not learn any lessons.

In that time two-thirds of the Coorong died. It is an absolute shame to see the way this magnificent wilderness is. It used to be alive with birds and fish and a real wilderness and now it is dead. It is like a desert: same salt consistency as the Dead Sea. It has not happened in the last five minutes; it has been happening since 1981 at least. That is when I have noticed it anyway.

Senator HURLEY —Where are you fishing now? I know you are not here as a fisherman, but where are you fishing?

Mr Jones —I am fishing in the lakes. My main area is Lake Alexandrina.

Senator HEFFERNAN —What sort of fish?

Mr Jones —We have about 12 different varieties of fish that we catch. In the lakes we catch golden perch, redfin, carp and bony bream. The redfin and the carp are introduced species, so we can catch as many as we like without doing any damage to the native species. In the Coorong we catch mulloway, black bream, flounder, mullet and a number of other species. We have about 12 species we can catch altogether. On the ocean beach just outside the Murray mouth we catch cockles. That is the most valuable part of our fishery. We sell cockles for human consumption now rather than recreational bait.

Senator HURLEY —Mr Jones, our committee’s problem is that there are other areas of the Murray that have similar problems. Certainly there is a problem with allocation. We have this significant problem: if you say you acquire water in a temporary allocation, then you impact on the higher reaches of the Murray and it is possible that next year we still need a similar amount of water coming down.

Mr Jones —I understand. I have been part of talking to people from interstate, coaches coming down, learning about our area, and I learn about their problems. I know there is not enough water for everybody. It is a very serious position. But, on the other hand, the lakes and Coorong are on the point of collapse. You are talking about letting salt water in. If you let salt water in, that is just like an atomic bomb. It just kills everything and then the environment has got to start from scratch. We are talking about drastic measures that are going to absolutely change the whole environment from the way that it has been for at least 8,000—

Senator HEFFERNAN —So if we don’t let the salt in, do you agree with the other option of planting it out et cetera—liming—if there is no water; if Mother Nature has turned the tap off and it doesn’t rain this summer and it doesn’t rain next winter?

Mr Jones —Have you talked about the lime? I know you talked to Professor Fitzpatrick, but you are talking metres of lime over a vast area.

Senator HEFFERNAN —We were not told. We asked the scientists this morning.

Mr Jones —I do not know whether that is practical, Senator Heffernan.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, it may not be.

Mr Jones —But I do go along with planting some sort of vegetation on there. If that is going to help, that would be great. That would be an easy option. The lake has made a remarkable recovery itself. We have got three or four tributaries that flow from the eastern Mount Lofty Ranges and we have had a wet winter, especially in July and August. So from minus 0.5 earlier on, I think it was, it is up to minus 0.2, maybe minus 0.1. It has made a remarkable recovery by itself, so we do not need heaps of water. But when the evaporation starts again around January-February, we do need some water coming down to keep that acid sulfate soil covered. If we do not do that, the position is that it could completely collapse.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —Mr Jones, you are member of the Murray River Advisory Board. Is that right?

Mr Jones —Yes.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —How much consultation has the advisory board had with state and federal governments and the respective departments in terms of trying to come up with an emergency solution to this problem, but also in terms of identifying that we are quickly approaching a point of no return?

Mr Jones —I think they are doing their best, quite frankly. I think they are trying to let the public know. The public are not hearing what they want to hear. All we hear is death and destruction, and there is never any good news. In relation to the area of the lakes and the Coorong, people are on an absolute knife edge. If you go to a dinner party, what do you talk about? Goddamn water: that is all you talk about. It is just in our brain and it is driving people crazy. There is no good news. I believe that both governments are doing their best to get the message across. I certainly get the message, possibly because I am on these committees. Maybe the general public, who do not go to these meetings, are not hearing enough.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —What do you think is the roadblock? Why has it not been until September 2008 that we are sitting around this room discussing what is now an emergency? Why have we got to this point?

Senator HEFFERNAN —Because it hasn’t rained!

Mr Jones —You tell me about it! I have been saying exactly what I am saying here since 1981. I could see what was happening since 1981. I am also on two committees in the Murray-Darling Basin Commission—the community reference group and the native fish strategy group—and I have been pushing this message for as long as I can and I have been yelling and screaming and getting a bad name all over Australia, and it is only now that people are starting to listen and it is only because we are in such a disastrous state.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —What is the roadblock, though? Is it about needing to reallocate? I am not saying that that is a simple thing to do at all. If we did not know already, we have definitely learnt over the last two days that dealing with the overallocation issue and restructuring the way the system is managed is far more complex than something that we can throw together in the next 30 days.

But this is not new information. Why do you think it is now that we have got to the point where it is such a crisis and we have not been able to address this problem over a longer period of time? Is there something that we should be doing? Is there something simple that we can be doing today, or has it got to the point now where no solution is simple: it is all too complex and therefore in the too-hard basket?

Mr Jones —I have said all the way along that the answer is simple. We have a whole heap of people, especially from interstate, who try to make it more complicated than it is because they get benefit out of taking a long time to solve the problems. I honestly believe that the solution is quite simple: just buy back the water, put it in the river and make the river flow again, and then whatever is left over can be divided up for irrigation or whatever. I do not care what crops they grow. As long as it is profitable for Australia, it is good.

But for Christ’s sake, make the river sustainable and make it run again so that we can wash the millions of tonnes of salt that it is gathering up out to sea, like it has been doing for thousands of years.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —In terms of buying back water, are you advocating for compulsory acquisition?

Mr Jones —No, certainly not.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —How do you go about that, when we know that only 10 per cent of the current funding put aside for buybacks has been taken?

Mr Jones —I told you I was on the Murray-Darling community reference group, and they have a proposal to purchase 500 gigalitres of water—The Living Murray program—which has been on the books for goddamn three years. Last year they decided that they would try buying water, and they found they could buy it. After three years, they just got into the habit of buying water. We are not treating it urgently enough. The solution is simple: all we have to do is buy the water back and put it in the river.

Senator HEFFERNAN —In the meantime, Mother Nature has taken 3,000 gigs out of the system while we are trying to buy 500.

Mr Jones —Are you saying in the drought?

Senator HEFFERNAN —The last three years, whether or not it is a drought. I do not give a rat’s what has caused it. What are we going to do about it? While we are trying to buy 500, we have lost 3,000 from the system by Mother Nature.

Mr Jones —How come they found they could buy it? After three years of inactivity—

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is why we have the problem now.

Mr Jones —they said, ‘We’re going to have a three-month trial period of buying water.’ They bought the bloody water in a month.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Entitlement or allocation? They have bought entitlement, which is peeing in the wind.

Mr Jones —Yes, I know. A lot of is paper water, you are right.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Let’s get to the truth: it is garbage! They did not buy water, they bought entitlement. When are we going to get to it? When are you going to get to the fact that Mother Nature is going to take half the bloody run-off out of the Murray-Darling? What are we going to do about it? If the sea rises half a metre, it is going to be inundated from the sea anyhow.

Mr Jones —So what are you saying?

Senator HEFFERNAN —I don’t know! I do not know what the answer is, but you ought to face reality.

Mr Jones —Are you saying we should allow the river to not flow?

Senator HEFFERNAN —No. As you disproportionately take water from the run-off, which is a three to one equation at the present time from rainfall, you absolutely have a disproportionate return to the freight factor of the river, so that the actual water that is available for use becomes sweet bugger-all. If the science is right—

Mr Jones —So you are throwing your hands up in the air and saying it cannot be fixed?

Senator HEFFERNAN —No, I am not. I have obviously said—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —Senator Heffernan, there is no need to shout.

Senator HEFFERNAN —that we actually have to take some of this work to the north but in the meantime in the south we have to face up to the fact that what has happened in the last few years might be the way it is going to be for all time. If it is going to be the way it is for all time, then if the sea rises a metre—and the trams here could well be ferries—the lakes could well be permanently sea water. I have seen the world mapping on the various degrees of change in the climate, and it is pretty scary.

Mr Jones —I understand the drought.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The water that your organisation bought back was not actually returned to the system. They bought entitlement, a lot of it, which was just a percentage of the water available rather than water.

Mr Jones —I understand the drought and I understand we are talking about climate change but, for God’s sake, if we are going to throw our hands up in the air—

Senator HEFFERNAN —We are not throwing our hands up in the air.

Mr Jones —You are!

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is why we are here.

Mr Jones —If you are going to throw your hands up in the air and say, ‘We can’t fix this problem, we can’t let the river run,’ then the human race is on a slippery slide to oblivion. There is no doubt about it. We are going downhill. If we cannot save the environment, then we are going downhill into nothing.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG —Just to recap, you are advocating that we purchase an allocation or a share specifically permanently for the environment, for the river; not just the water that we need to get ourselves through this next summer period but in order to ensure that we allocate from hereon in water specifically for the environmental flows of the river.

Mr Jones —There have to be two stages. As he says, we are in a serious condition now. There is not enough water to go around. The main objective right now is to save the lakes from complete disaster, so we just need a little bit of water to tide us over. But in the long term surely the option is to buy water back so that we can get the river running again.

CHAIR —Mr Jones, are you talking about spending part of our budget on buying permanent water acquisition?

Mr Jones —In the long term, yes, but not in the short term. In the short term we can buy carry-over water or anything that we can get to go down the river quickly.

CHAIR —So you are suggesting part of the budget should be spent on permanent water acquisitions for the temporary market. Is that what you are saying?

Mr Jones —Yes.

CHAIR —If the drought conditions continue for another few years, do you seriously expect that we should sacrifice the permanent environmental benefits for this program basin-wide?

Mr Jones —You are in the very dubious position of saying the lakes can either survive or not; the Coorong can either go or not. You have to make the decision.

CHAIR —I do not think it is a dubious position. The whole Murray-Darling Basin is in crisis. We understand that this inquiry is certainly focusing on the Coorong and the Lower Lakes, but I think it is important that we get a feel for where you are coming from.

SENATE STANDING COMMITTEE ON RURAL AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORT TURN 36

Mr Jones —I am saying that, sure, there is a shortage of water—lots of people need it, it has to be divided around—but that the lakes need around 200 gigalitres of water from January through to February to cover up the acid sulfate soils when it is at its most dangerous.

[4.25 pm]

CHAIR —We understand that. The problem that we have—and that we have heard from various stakeholders—is that it is a case of: do we rob Peter to pay Paul? As I was saying earlier on, there is no simple solution.

Mr Jones —Absolutely not.

CHAIR —This is what we are struggling with and we have to decipher it and try to put it together.

Senator FISHER —Mr Jones, you talk about the environmental needs of the lakes. We heard earlier from Professor Young, who also expressed a view on a national perspective, that a share should be given to the environment. What is your view of his plan in that respect, if you are familiar with it?

Mr Jones —I am not sure of his exact plan. But for years, even on this River Murray Advisory Board that I am on, we have got an allocation. Last year I think the irrigators got 32 per cent; the environment got nothing. Every time there is an allocation, they say, ‘There’s not enough to do any good for the environment, so we’ll give it to the irrigators.’

Senator HEFFERNAN —That is the environment in South Australia?

Mr Jones —Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The government can fix that in South Australia.

Mr Jones —That is not good enough. I believe that, whenever there is an allocation, we must take the environment into consideration; it must get a share.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Hear, hear!

Mr Jones —It must get a reasonable share of the water.

Senator FISHER —That certainly seems to be Professor Young’s view as well. If Premier Rann refers his powers, as he allegedly suggests he is going to do, then that would be open to the federal government to do. Mr Jones, my further question is around the so-called human critical needs that seem to be given a status and a demand on water that eclipses all others—for example, a take-out from the Menindee Lakes for Adelaide based on so-called human critical need. I have two questions of you in respect to that. Firstly, have you had it defined for you by any of the powers that be—federal or state governments or their agencies—what critical human need is and, if so, what is it? Secondly, how do you think those human critical needs stack up against what I presume you would say are the human critical needs of the Lower Lakes and Coorong?

Mr Jones —The critical human needs are important and necessary to keep Adelaide, with one million people, going. But if we do not take into consideration that the environment needs critical water too, then we have got no future. We honestly have not got a future. If we cannot realise that the environment is as critical as human needs, then we are on a slide down to—

Senator FISHER —So you would equate human critical needs—whatever they are supposed to mean—with environmental needs, would you?

Mr Jones —Yes, I would. I believe that they go together; they go hand in hand.

Senator HEFFERNAN —To give a little concession, if you knew that it was going to rain the year after next, you could actually send it one way, and not to the environment. I agree with you most definitely, in a long-term plan, you have absolutely got to service the environment. I do not think any sensible person will dispute protection of the environment, which is an argument all the way up the system to the back of Queensland.

Senator FISHER —Essentially, a share of what is available.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Mike Young has got some pretty sensible proposals, as did Don Blackmore yesterday. But this is trying to define whether we have got a one-year problem or a 50-year problem. If we have got a 50-year problem, there is no question that we are absolutely going to have to reconfigure and redefine the whole system. There is no doubt about that.

Mr Jones —You are right. But what are we going to do? This is the first time this has happened; this has never happened before to a situation like this. Are we going to throw our hands in the air and say, ‘Let it run. We’re not going to give it any water. We’re just going to let it take its place’? It is too important for us to leave it as—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Part of the answer to that has surely got to be taking the punt on what is going to happen with the weather next year, because you could fix it this year and completely destroy the system next year if it does not rain.

Mr Jones —That is in the hands of the gods. I believe that one good year in the lakes and Coorong and in the Murray-Darling Basin would fix our problem; one good year.

Senator HEFFERNAN —All we need is a 56.

Mr Jones —I have heard other experts say it is two or three years.

Senator HEFFERNAN —A 56 we need.

Mr Jones —Not quite as big as that. The way that the lake has recovered this year with local rains, I believe that one good year will enable us to get back to some normality.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Mr Jones.

Mr Jones —Thank you.

[4.31 pm]