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River People’s Forum

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A diverse range of views were heard at the River People’s Forum held in Swan Hill on September 2.

From one end of the spectrum to the other – those who were seeking healthy communities, environments and economies, others who seek a pre-regulation utopia, and others who seek wiping out Southern Basin irrigation and communities to use infrastructure to create volumes and durations never seen before.

What do we want our river communities and river to look like? What is the balance between regulated flows and floods and natural ones? Do we want concrete giants like the KP regulators? Nothing was out of bounds.

Dr Bruce Lindsay, Environmental Justice Australia, sang the praises of the South Australian Royal Commission and advocated for more water recovery, a lot more.

“The first and fundamental premise of this legal regime (the Basin Plan) is an environmental statute.

“Balancing other factors, including economic ones, is to occur within that context.

“Responding to the notion or myth that the basin plan was to be about balance, according to triple bottom line accounting, the commissioner of the royal commission referred to the triple bottom line as a very unhealthy slogan,” said Dr Lindsay.

Dr Lindsay went on to say, “If the basin plan had been prepared lawfully and implemented properly, the redistribution from consumptive use to the environment would be more significant and dramatic,” going on to aim at a 5,000 gigalitre water recovery manifesto that would require at least a staggering additional 2,000 gigalitres to be ripped out of rural communities and their environments.

Member for Murray, Helen Dalton MP, spoke of the love communities had for their land and the challenges faced.

“There’s nothing more important for a healthy and sustainable river system.

“I don’t believe the basin plan is for a healthy environment, I believe it has a lot to do with politics.”

Ms Dalton pointed out that if the environment was the priority, authorities could be looking at the many factors effecting the environment that remain unaddressed, like cold water dilution, water quality and the erosion of our mid-Murray river system.

“The other thing that terrifies me is the lack of water quality. We have blue green algae slicks most summers, even when the rivers are full and flowing.”

Concerns have been raised over the correlation between blue green algae and motor neuron disease and sadly, the $2 million to fund this research goes unsupported by governments.

Ms Dalton has ruffled many feathers in her advocacy that NSW ensures floodplain harvesting is brought into line with the 1994 cap on extraction to restore flows to the Darling and all the way to the South Australian environment.

“1994 was the line in the sand as far as cap.

“Every licence and irrigator in the southern basin now operates under the 1994 cap and we have done for decades.

“What we essentially have now is one rule for a small powerful group of irrigators in the north and one for the rest of us in the south.”

The NSW Government is on to its fourth floodplain harvesting regulation attempt after the first three were disallowed, the fourth is yet to pass the Upper House.

Gunbower river advocate, Tuesday Browell, delivered a grounded and passionate speech of the waterways that provide life to the country.

“I cruise the rivers and I watch the river degradation and the slow demise of our waterways, and I feel very frustrated that as a nation of intelligent people, we cannot see what nature needs.”

Ms Browell stayed clear of the ‘gigabattle’, a term she uses to describe the fights over volumes, trading and regulation, instead leaning into her love of river navigation.

“What I can share with you is the situation of navigation on our inland rivers and that of course is a long history.

“Imagine on this river and the next river the hundreds of boats that used to be on here, boats for fishing, boats for moving people, boats for trading goods.

“The business of boating on our river has a history of thousands of years.

“The evidence is there if we look. Between here and Echuca, for instance, there would be at least 1,000 historical sites of scar trees, canoe trees that stand camouflaged in the bush, all hand crafted by skilled traditional shipwrights of the day.

“They’re hardly mentioned or hardly acknowledged. 

“Navigation seems barely considered when committees decree regulation and design infrastructure on inland waters.

“Let’s manage our rivers so they are connected as nature intended.”

Interesting food for thought and a worthwhile exercise. I hope future forums review the dictate on ‘approved’ topics for presenters to discuss and allows elders of our community to ask more than one question.

The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper 8 September 2022

This article appeared in The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper, 8 Seeptember 2022.


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