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Murray River - Dying a Slow Death


After meandering for more than 2,500 kilometres through a massive catchment taking in three states, the mighty Murray River finally empties into the ocean near Goolwa in South Australia.

Drawing water from New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, Australia's biggest river has long been a part of Australia's national identity. But all is not well with the Murray. Usually a raging torrent, notorious for many drowning tragedies over the years, the river mouth has been reduced to a mere trickle and seems certain to be closed completely by silting.

Seen from the air, the photo shows a huge sandbar closing in on the Murray Mouth, almost stopping tidal movements. (Photo courtesy of the Adelaide Advertiser, 10th March 2000).

The poor state of river flows is put down to the influence of the El Nino climatic effect as well as a serious shortage of rainfall in the upper catchment is having a dramatic impact on flows downstream. Rain that falls in the upper catchment of the Murray-Darling system in southern Queensland can take months to find its way to the sea.

With big irrigation demands upstream, there is not sufficient water currently available to allow releases through the barrage system to keep the channel open across the wide expanse of beach just south of Goolwa. If it finally does close - and that is the prediction - it will not be the first time.

In 1981, bulldozers had to be brought in to slice a channel to the sea to enable the pounding surf and treacherous currents of the wild Ocean Coast to do the rest. So, while closure of the mouth is not a completely new phenomenon, serious concerns are being aired about the impact of any long-term closure.

The worry is that with the Coorong closed off, evaporation would see salinity levels increase, dramatically affecting the substantial commercial fishery and the unique ecology of the internationally acclaimed Coorong. The problems at the mouth have prompted the South Australian Government to re-establish the Murray Mouth Advisory Commission which has been looking at remedies, including possible dredging.

First created at the time of the 1981 closure, the commission is looking into the cost-benefits of dredging and is drawing on experience from interstate where sand blockages have occurred.


The waters of the Coorong are home to a range of migratory birds which travel enormous distances to escape the northern hemisphere winter. About 50 species of small wading birds inhabit or visit the area. Some, like the red-headed stint and the curlew sandpiper, travel huge distances from northern Siberia. Another important species often sighted there is the endangered orange-bellied parrot from south-west Tasmania, now said to number fewer than 200 birds worldwide.

Other species, like the banded stilt, can be seen there one day in numbers but not the next. It is endemic to Australia and leaves en masse for the far-north when inland water sources such as Lake Eyre fill with flood waters. The Coorong and lower Murray lakes are rated as a wetland of international significance. The area is quite unique. A system of barrages completed in 1940 prevents salty water from tainting the freshwater upstream and helps maintain sufficient water depth for popular sporting and leisure pursuits such as skiing and sailing.


The tourism industry is also feeling the pinch from the problems on the lowest section of the river. Daily cruises which normally extend right to the mouth are being cut short and it is the mouth of the Murray and the unrelenting lines of breakers that most want the see.

Many people will remember the Coorong, its wild natural environment and its superb colonies of pelicans as a result of one of the South Australian Film Corporation's earliest productions, Storm Boy - based on the novel by Colin Thiele. It was the story of a boy who left Adelaide after his mother died to go and live with his fisherman father, a virtual recluse whoose home was a tiny ramshackle shack near the Murray mouth.

Storm Boy befriended a young Aboriginal and one of the local pelicans, which he named Mr Percival. Together they explored the Coorong waterways and the traditions and lifestyles of the two Aboriginal groups - the Tanganae and Yaraldi peoples - who are the traditional owners of the Coorong and Hindmarsh Island-Goolwa area.

Shown on the right is a view from Hindmarsh Island ferry crossing Lower Murray River which is to be spanned by controversial bridge.

The drawn-out legal fight over the Hindmarsh Island Bridge at Goolwa, a project strongly opposed by Aboriginal people based on the area's importance to them, is well documented. The famed but ill-fated "Secret Women's Business" has given rise to the male species developing its own agenda of "Secret Men's Business". Anything that men wish to keep secret from women is now a days classified as "Secret Men's Business ! Equality and Equal Opportunity is alive and well in South Australia !


The Coorong is one of the oldest commercial fisheries in South Australia and is still reknown as one of the best locations in Australia to catch the highly rated mulloway, probably better known among fish-and-chip shop eaters as butterfish.

The experience rates highly among anglers whether they claim their prized fish or not and they keep coming back. One method used by professional fishers involves feeding long lines out the mouth on the swirling currents of the outgoing tide. Others in search of the legendary mulloway literally risk their lives by wading out onto sandbars which form in the surf line to chance their luck casting baits and lures.

Some time ago, an angler lost his life, drowning when he was swept from his feet into deep, fast-flowing water. Colleagues and fellow fishers were powerless to save him.


The Murray River itself seems to have joined the Save the Murray campaign. The threatened blocking of the Murray Mouth is perfectly timed to demonstrate the river's ongoing crisis. The latest word from Goolwa is that the mouth will stay open - just. There are no flows to maintain a channel, it'll only be kept open by the rising and falling of the sea tides. Unless there are unseasonal rains somewhere in the catchment, there won't be any flow let through the Goolwa barrages until mid-winter at the earliest.

It could be 18 months before there's enough water to provide a decent flush. The strangled Murray estuary is a sorry sight that highlights the poor health of the Murray-Darling system, just when the rest of the country is starting to take notice. The river has been dying a slow death for more than 100 years and there have been warnings about its future for at least 40 years. With all its problems washing downstream into South Australia, and Adelaide relying on it for water supplies, this State was always going to take the lead on the issue.

The unified front we are seeing now is extraordinary. It is difficult to think of any other issue that would see media campaigns, Government, Opposition, conservationists and farmers all arguing the same case. Put simply, everyone wants more water in the river. And because of the way it dilutes the salt and other pollutants in the system, more water means cleaner water. But no matter how much agreement there is in South Australia, nothing can happen unless we get the eastern States and the Federal Government onside.

And that is where the real breakthrough came earlier this year. The words and actions of Federal Environment Minister, Senator Robert Hill, are the best news for the Murray since the floods of the mid 1970s. The Environmental Impact Statement he has commissioned will help decide exactly how much water needs to be sent down the Murray, not just to sustain the irrigators, homes and industries it supplies, but to keep the river in good health as well.

Hill is already being attacked in Sydney and Melbourne for unfairly backing his home State. But he is standing firm, saying that when it comes to the Murray, South Australia's interests and the national interest are as one. So the enthusiasm and courage he is showing in the fight for the Murray is encouraging. The issue has been thrown into the national spotlight mainly because of the political battle over a much smaller river, the Snowy. It too is dying, mainly because of the large amounts of its flow now diverted west into the Murray by the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

An Independent MP, Craig Ingram, was elected into the Victorian Parliament at the last election on a campaign to save the Snowy. The new Victorian Labor Government relies on Ingram for its survival and has promised to deliver more water for the Snowy. The Victorian and New South Wales Governments say they can save enough Murray water through improved irrigation practices to give the Snowy the extra flow it needs, without reducing flows to South Australia. What Hill has dared to say, is that the outlook for the Murray is so grim that it might be in the national interest to send any water saved down the Murray. In other words, preserving existing Murray flows isn't good enough.

We need more water in the river and if it's a choice between the Snowy and the Murray, the Murray has to win. We keep hearing the Snowy's flows are only one per cent of historic levels. That's a misleading figure. The diversions of the Snowy Mountains Scheme mean the river receives only one per cent of the water it used to from its headwater area high in the Australian Alps. But it is still topped up by other tributaries, so that flows at the mouth are 52 per cent of historic levels. By comparison, flows at the Murray Mouth are only 20 per cent.

So, in simple flow terms, the Snowy is two-and-a-half times better off than the Murray. Also, the Murray is infinitely more important to the nation in economic and environmental terms. Ideally, of course, we should attempt to save both rivers. But, as all water users need to understand, it is a finite resource. Managing river systems is all about juggling competing demands. If South Australia is to get more water down the Murray, it has to come from somewhere.

Realistically that means it has to come from eastern States irrigators, which means it won't be easy. At least now, finally, South Australia's demands are being heard in Canberra.

The Battle

From an SA perspective, South Australia's newly appointed Water Resources Minister Mark Brindal has vowed to get tough on polluters and inefficient River Murray irrigators. Mr Brindal has also foreshadowed tougher laws to help improve the health of the country's biggest waterway. Mr Brindal has said he will not tolerate continued environmental abuse of the Murray. "To allow inefficient septic systems and other spillages into a waterway as vital as the Murray borders on criminal neglect," Mr Brindal said.

He warned Australians had an obligation to ensure that as a nation it did not "squander the resource" that was the Murray. Mr Brindal said the key issues to be tackled immediately were increased flows, efficient use of water and pollution in the river. "It is not a sewer, it is not a drain", adding that there was not enough water coming into the Murray-Darling system, yet NSW and Victoria wanted more water diverted back into the Snowy River system for their own use.

THE flow of the once mighty Murray River into the sea has slowed to a trickle and is expected to cease altogether for only the second time since European settlement, highlighting the growing problem of poor water management upstream. Unfortunately, from the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, it has been stated that no intervention was planned to prevent the blockage, despite the monumental change that has narrowed the river's mouth from 300m wide a year ago to just dismal 4m recently.

Murray Mouth - 1980
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Murray Mouth - 1982
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Murray Mouth - 1984
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Murray Mouth - 1988
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Murray Mouth - 1993
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Murray Mouth - 1997
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After five or six months of low flows, there's an enormous amount of sand in the Goolwa channel and really the timing of closure now is just a matter of wind and tidal action. There's certainly no water within the river system now to flush it, so it's just left up to the tide. The NSW Government had been called upon for the second year running by the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council to explain why irrigators had drawn too much water from the Barwon-Darling River.

Presently, the only options available are to dredge the mouth of the Murray or bulldoze the sand islands that have built up in channels around the outlet. The amount of salt in the river at Mannum, where Adelaide draws its drinking water, has exceeded the international standard 10 per cent of the time. To significantly reduce the salt hazard would require a change in agricultural systems beyond anything Australia had ever imagined. We're talking an area of 25 million hectares - that scale of change is something we have not had to contemplate in this country before.

South Australian Water Resources Minister Mark Brindal said the mouth was a vital indication of the river's condition. The failure for the second year running by NSW irrigators to meet diversion limits from the Barwon-Darling River was disappointing, he said. South Australia will stand up to the other states over water diversion breaches.

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