Bitter Harvest: The Legacy of the Snowy Mountains Scheme

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Politics and water are intimately related in Australia, the driest inhabited continent. For example, after a close election, Victoria now has a minority ALP government, supported by rural independents. One of these, Craig Ingram, gained his seat on the basis of a single issue — restoring some of the flow of the Snowy River. Steve Bracks, the new Premier, has committed his administration to gaining an annual release of 28% of the pre-1967 flow from the headwaters of the river, up from the pitiful 1% currently released from Jindabyne Dam.

The proposed amount is 330 billion litres — equivalent to less than 5% of the capacity of Vicoria’s Port Phillip Bay. Yet the plan for the diversion of a tiny fraction of Australia’s water resources has provoked an instant political conflict between State governments and between Victoria and the Federal Government. Authorities have finally been forced to admit that the Murray-Darling river system is in a desperate condition. In its 1999 Salinity Audit, the Murray-Darling Basin Management Commission (MDBMC) details the current damage and projected devastation due to over-irrigation and poor dryland farming methods. Unusually for a government document, the report uses words like “dire,” “alarming” and “salinity threat.” A quote from the report illustrates why: “The rise of salinity in the landscape is symptomatic of current land uses, which have taken the place of natural systems, resulting in a massive hydrological imbalance that will take up to several hundred years to stabilise.”

Saltier than the sea. The scope of the disaster is staggering. Salinity is described in terms of electrical conductivity units (EC). Water salinity of more than 700 EC is unsuitable for irrigating most horticultural crops, and 800 EC is the accepted maximum level for domestic supplies in larger towns and cities. Sea water is usually around 45,000 EC. At Barr Creek, in Victoria’s Kerang region, the water salinity is 60,000 EC. The Avoca and Loddon rivers run at over 4,000 EC, and a number of northern NSW streams are above the 800 EC level. The water supply of Adelaide, capital of South Australia, is predicted to be regularly undrinkable in the next ten years. Part of the reason for this is that groundwater at 50,000 EC is entering the Murray downstream of Euston.

In Victoria’s Shepparton region, a 23 metre rise in the water table over the last decade is known as the “underground flood.” The MDBMC reports that by 2010, all irrigation areas in the southern part of the Basin will have water tables at or within two metres of the surface. Urban centres are not immune. Already 60% of the NSW rural city of Wagga Wagga is so badly salt affected that roads, buildings and pipelines are crumbling, and even salt tolerant grasses will not grow.

Australia’s “food basket.” This is how the MDBMC describes the Murray-Darling Basin, adding that “it is much more than that, as its agricultural output makes a major contribution to the national economy.” The Basin is 14% of the continent’s land area and contains almost all of its significant rivers. According to the latest statistics (1991/92), the Basin produces 41% of the total value of Australia’s agricultural production. Crops range from grasses like wheat, barley and rice to peas, beans and other pulses, cereals such as maize and sorghum, extensive fruit tree orchards, cotton, wine grapes, market gardens and herbs. Its products account for between 40 and 95% of total national production for each commodity. Without the Basin, forage such as lucerne and feed grains for cattle would have to be imported, and the agricultural export industry — except for herd animals, dairy products, sugar cane and some tropical fruits — would have to cease so that domestic requirements could be met.

A Sunburnt Country. As Dorothea McKellar’s famous poem points out, much of the Australian land mass is desert or semi-desert. Evaporation far exceeds rainfall in most areas, including the Basin. For millions of years, the weathering of rocks and the action of plants have combined with the high evaporation rate to store salts in the subsoils and groundwater system. The natural vegetation is well adapted to the conditions. Annual flowers and grasses require only one good cloudburst to germinate. Perennial plants are deep-rooted, tapping the relatively abundant subsurface water and keeping the water table well buried.

After European invasion, huge tracts of country were cleared of native vegetation. Irrigation ditches were dug to divert scant river flows to the farms. Wheat and barley can be grown as dryland crops, relying on seasonal rains — if they arrive. But most other crops require constant water. In any case, neither form of cultivation is suitable in the Basin. Dense plantings of shallow-rooted crops like wheat soon “pull” the water table towards the surface. Irrigation saturates the soil, producing the same effect. When the water table reaches within two metres of the surface, plants are poisoned, and osmosis, a chemical transfer process, rapidly delivers the saline water to the top. Salt pans then spread like cancer across the landscape. In the Basin, more than five million tonnes of salt is brought to the surface each year.

Fools’ Paradise. Rising water tables and salination were first noticed in South Australia in the 1890s. By the 1920s, the Murrumbidgee Irrigation scheme was under stress, and railway operators across the Basin had to haul water for their steam locomotives because local supplies had become too corrosive.

Despite these early warnings, the idea that the desert could be transformed by diverting east-flowing rivers continued to be pushed by business and farming lobbies. In 1949 one of the world’s largest water diversion schemes was begun. The Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme choked off the Snowy River by impounding its headwaters, to be used for irrigation and hydroelectric power stations to the west.

Since 1967, when the Jindabyne Dam was finished, the Snowy has been totally compromised. It is now abundantly clear that the vast Murray-Darling Basin has also been compromised. This is despite the fact that by the time the Snowy Mountains Scheme opened, the effects of irrigation-induced damage were already obvious.

However, sensible, planned agriculture is bad for the bottom line. The valves were opened, the dollars flowed, and the expense to the community was ignored. Apart from the capital cost of repairing the damage, the ongoing cost is about $250 million per year, and rising. Added to this must be the considerable cost to the Snowy River communities, whose once magnificent watercourse is now an algae-choked ditch.

Damn the profiteers — and Dam them, too! The crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin needs urgent remedies, paid for out of the profits of agribusiness. Every filthy rich parasite in the country — Kerry Packer, the Murdoch family, John Elliot etc — has interests in the region. Their political lobbying has kept the irrigation madness flowing and the Snowy thirsty, and they have made billions in profits by destroying the environment and threatening the viability of the country’s most important agricultural region.

The local communities struggling with the disaster are best placed to solve it. The historically incompetent MDBMC should be thanked for its one constructive contribution, the 1999 Salinity Audit, and then replaced by a management authority elected by the workers and farmers of the Basin. What is then needed is a further audit —of the local and country-wide social and economic effects of a drastic reduction in Basin output.

Rational Ecology, not Economic Rationalism. Growing rice and cotton in the desert is stupid. Rice is a tropical grass, and cotton is notoriously thirsty. The MDBMC reports that the Basin uses 75% of the country’s irrigation water and that rice uses most of this. The rice fields also leak 200,000 million litres of wasted water, half of the excess groundwater in southern NSW. Rice should be grown in the tropics where there is usually an abundant natural water supply. In the arid Murray-Darling Basin, the rice industry should be shut down and small farmers compensated. Ditto the cotton industry. Everywhere the water table is high, irrigation must be curtailed, and the farming communities supported, socially and economically.

As Craig Ingram argues in The Age of 22 December 1999, dryland mismanagement has to stop, and it might be time to say goodbye to inappropriate cultivation. The most ecologically sustainable method of lowering the water table is to plant deep-rooted crops, specifically salt tolerant trees. It is essential that excess water is pumped from the ground. Forestry is the most economically viable option for small farmers needing an alternative source of income.

The current drainage and groundwater pumping programs need to be expanded, creating a salt extraction industry which would provide employment. The treated water could be used to flush saline streams. However there’s so much salt that it may also be necessary to pipe saline water directly into the ocean.

The diversion of water for the Murray-Darling Basin from the Snowy headwaters has to stop immediately. The Snowy Mountains Scheme needs a radical overhaul to restore the river systems to their original flow patterns. Managed in an environmentally sensitive manner, the proposed connection of the Tasmanian Hydro System to the national electricity grid will more than compensate for the loss of the 10% contribution from the Scheme’s turbines.

The Jindabyne Dam delivers its reluctant flow to the Snowy River via a 50 centimetre pipe — the size of a suburban water main. The dam wall needs major modifications to permit the 28% flow proposed by Bracks and Ingram. The Mowamba River, the Snowy’s first tributary downstream of the dam, contributes approximately one-fifth of Jindabyne’s capacity via an aqueduct. Removing this connection would be an easy first step in restoring an intermittent, natural flow to what was Australia’s wildest river.

Managed by big business and its political hacks, the ecological damage to the Murray-Darling Basin will increase exponentially. Managed by elected representatives, this crisis could be a model for how ordinary working people can rise to the challenge of putting right what capitalism has spoiled.

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