Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Now there’s water in Menindee Lakes, what can we do to keep it there?

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Menindee flows
Water flowing into Menindee. Photo: Maryanne Slattery

Maryanne Slattery, Director of water consultancy, Slattery & Johnson for The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper

At long last, the big lakes at Menindee are more than cracked dirt and emu prints. Flows into Menindee have subsided after the March rains in the north this year. The reflection of blue skies and thousands of ducks on the Lakes are a welcome sight for locals and all of us watching from afar. 

Locals have seen the decline of the Barwon-Darling/Baaka and Menindee Lakes for years. They blame governments and upstream irrigators for the worsening state of the river and Lakes. Governments and upstream irrigators, on the other hand, blame drought and climate change, and are pushing the story that the Darling/Baaka is a ‘terrible’ river, a river that often dried up. 

Now, with water in Menindee Lakes, they’d like us to believe that everything is all right again, and that the concerns about the health of the river and Lakes were nothing more than ignorance and conspiracy theories. 

No-one on the Lower Darling/Baaka needs reminding that before this century, the Lakes used to have water most of the time. However, we’ve seen that reverse in the last 20 years. The Lakes were empty three times this century for years at a time. 

Publicly, climate change is blamed for the drop flows in the river. However, government reports state that decreased flows cannot be explained by climate variability alone, and there are likely to be other factors at play, such as increased extraction by upstream irrigation. 

So, while we have a good drop in Menindee, let’s cast our minds back to changes that turned this occasion into a special event. Because whilst what we are seeing now is welcome, it should also be the norm. 

Before the pipeline was built from Wentworth, the NSW Government would embargo extractions upstream when the Menindee Lakes held less than 18 months of critical water supply to Broken Hill. That helped guarantee flows down the river into Menindee. That doesn’t happen anymore. 

The 2012 Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan permitted the extraction of low flows for large-scale irrigation. The same low flows that were meant to be protected for the river and the Lakes.  

Finally, the unchecked growth in floodplain harvesting across the Northern Basin. Floodplain harvesting is unmetered, unlicenced and unregulated, and Governments have never ensured that extractions were within the legal limits set by the 1994 Cap on irrigation diversions. 

All this amounts to less water in the river, at Bourke and Wilcannia, less water flowing into Menindee and further downstream. The reality is, the river used to flow more than 90 percent of the time, with big and frequent flows and water in water holes, even in droughts. It never completely dried up. Now, the low flows that kept the river alive are taken upstream. 

There’s a simple solution, guided by science and law. The level of upstream extraction, including floodplain harvesting, must be returned to the 1994 Cap to restore the low flows in the river.

The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper 8 July 2021

This article appeared in The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper, 8 July 2021.

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