Last week the stars aligned, the heavens opened and upon rays of golden light came a contingent of politicians and bureaucrats to witness what the current water policy decisions are doing to our economy, food producers and environment.
The attendance of such dignitaries was less to do with heavenly intervention, but mainly blood, sweat and tears by those who tirelessly advocate to end the government sanctioned destruction.
Central Murray Environmental Floodplain Group hosted Federal Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia, Keith Pitt, Senator Bridget McKenzie and Member for Mallee, Dr Anne Webster. Along for the day was also Andrew Reynolds, Executive Director of River Management at the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and Lyn O’Connell, Deputy Secretary Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.
After the initial introduction in Gunbower, the party, flanked by Australian Federal Police officers, travelled to the property of John Toll. John runs a mixed sheep and cropping enterprise on 800 hectares and takes an integrated approach to agriculture and the environment. Planting over 40,000 trees over the past 20 years, not only are they a source of feed and shelter for the sheep but they also provide a wonderful habitat for native wildlife including birds, snakes, lizards, ants and bugs. Bird watchers have documented 45 different species of birds.
John spoke of the important role water plays to the whole farm, from production to ecosystem function.
Second stop was the historic Gunbower Estate homestead. Mal Johnson led the group along the majestic Gunbower Creek. Mal grew up on the property and has seen many changes over the years. Under the current management, Mal has witnessed the creek eroding, taking areas that had been revegetated. Silt, aquatic weeds, tree poisoning and a lack of listening to local wisdom was also conveyed.
An educational look at the factors affecting dairy farmers was next. Jodie Hay presented a powerful message on how water reform has impacted the dairy industry and the toll it has on community and the broader environment. Jody’s crystal-clear communication was rein-forced by a look at the wastewater settling ponds behind the dairy, the ponds were teaming with birdlife. Five species of ducks, swans, and spoonbills all happily enjoying the broader ‘environment’.
The tour then headed downstream following the Gunbower Creek to the Hipwell Regulator. The regulator is utilised in delivering environmental water to the Gunbower Forest. Geoff Wakeman raised questions regarding the literature and objectives for the water programs. Information released by departments appear at odds with the historical and geographical realities of the area. Other factors including the water delivery limitations, explosion of the weed burden in the forest, lack of fish connectivity and water quality were also raised.
Fish trapping conducted on the site during environmental water events caught 5,000 young carp every hour entering the Gunbower Creek from the forest.
After a quick stop at the Gateway Information Centre for morning tea the group headed out to Reedy Lagoon. Aunty Esther Kirby spoke of the values the forest held for the Barapa Barapa people. From burial grounds, food sources and spiritual significance, Aunty Esther spoke passionately about water being for the land and the people, not for trading by foreign investors.
Frank Trezise, local farmer, also echoed the significance of Reedy Lagoon, Gunbower Forest, the Murray and the Gunbower Creek. Frank spoke of his family history in the region and the importance of watching nature for signals or indicators of health. Frank had a collection of photographs to show of the changes to the area.
It was sadly at this point Minister Pitt had to leave the tour to take part in parliamentary duties, as the bus tour headed for Koondrook. Then Senator McKenzie’s car followed Minister Pitt instead of the bus, leaving the tour two politicians down.
The bus wound its way through Gunbower Forest showing Black Swamp, where saplings have taken over, and the five ways intersection where there is a stark comparison between the artificial flooded and non-flooded forest areas, with non-flooded having significantly more life.
The final destination of the day was the entrance to the Guttrum Forest. Here Skeeta Verhey and Steve Thomas spoke of the importance the forest had to them. Steve described the forest as their backyard and something that locals were passionate about protecting and wanted it managed holistically. Weeds, fire risk, salinity, access, and the Victorian Floodplain Restoration Project were all flagged as concerns.
The Murray and the current erosion crisis were the final talking points; a $13 billion plan to ‘save the Murray’ destroying the river, erosion at a rate far greater than the last 100 years of river regulation. A river is a living, breathing ecosystem, not a drain, a water plan that dries out our mid Murray Floodplains and forces more water downstream at any cost.
The messages on the day were powerful and authentic, from a broad cross section of the community.
To fix this mess will take more than money and grandstanding, it will take leadership, wisdom, humility, common sense and working for the betterment of all Australians, not always qualities associated with politics.
This article appeared in The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper, 11 March 2021.