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Rivers in Australia

Updated on January 2, 2015

Australian Rivers are Now Flooding

A local program called 'Landline', which shows on the ABC on Sundays at noon, featured a segment on the state of Australian rivers that shocked me to the core. It was sometime in or around 1994 and I was a student at the Australian National University at the time, which turned out to be opportune for what was about to happen.
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In the footage the focus was mainly on our largest river systems, the Murray and Darling, which link up just before the South Australian border. The Darling flows from way up north in Queensland and provides irrigation to huge land holdings in the western regions of New South Wales. The Murray flows from the Southern Alps and forms the border between New South Wales and Victoria. It also irrigates what is termed Australia's Food Bowl, the Murray Irrigation Area, or MIA. These two previously giant rivers were reduced to little more than a trickle in parts and the flow of water in the Darling had actually ceased, leaving great stretches of water covered in blue green algae and the only source of drinking water for the local wild life. But there was much worse shown.

Since this article was first written the rivers have flooded over and again and brought horrendous hardship, damage and loss of life to some areas. The climate is definitely changing and the first week of January 2014 sees temperatures in some parts of Australia reaching 49.5 degrees so far.

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A carp
A carp

The Disaster in the Rivers was Unfolding

The condition of the wiver was disturbing

As vision was aired of the once great rivers in their then appalling state my blood curdled. It was a wake up call as there had been previously nothing reported on it to my knowledge. But the report showed much worse.

The Murray River was once so wide that an American was heard to exclaim. "In America we would call your creeks rivers and your rivers lakes." So what went wrong?

First there was agriculture, then there came irrigation, politics and finally the so-called European carp, which may in effect be the Asian carp. This pest is now making its presence felt in some Eastern American rivers and has probably already arrived in the Great Lakes. If that is the case you can expect to see something like this in your region.

Photo shows one of the fish, which is almost the size of the man holding it. They lay thousands of eggs and eat those of other fish species. They also feed along the banks of the rivers causing massive erosion and loss of plants. They are mainly bottom feeders and stir up the mud and stuff which then turns the river from blue to brown and virtually deprives other species of oxygen. With their massive growth rate many species of native fish have either become extinct or are on the endangered list.

In the vision on the television they were so thick in parts that it would have been possible to almost walk across the river on their backs. They are inedible as far as locals are concerned and are now in such plague proportions that the rivers have succumbed where they are thickest. Some considerate farmers have fenced off areas of river and put in screens to stop their invasion and this has been successful but all too few are so inclined to spare the time and expense of this action.

Damage to the River Murray

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What Would You Have Done? - If this was happening in your country

Would you do anything within your power to bring attention to the disaster

The Once Beautiful Darling River
The Once Beautiful Darling River

My Rage Demanded Action

This is my country and it is being slaughtered

Hardly had the Landline program ended before my mind was spinning into action. What could I do to reverse this situation? Never one to hold back it was now long ago in the past that my political aspirations had ended, but I still knew how to get action.

Some calls to Landline and the presenter were fruitful in leading me to some other people who likewise had an interest in the river systems. One of these was Joe Baker, the then Environment Minister in the ACT. he was overjoyed at my suggestions of starting something to bring awareness to the rivers' plight. The following day at University I spoke to the head of my Anthropology Department who suggested a colleague of his, a professor in the water and environment faculty. He was also delighted with my proposal.

The next thing was working out a plan to get the thing going. With the Professor's help and support of his department the University loaned a theater for holding a seminar. Then I chased down some speakers, most of whom came from the ANU and were engaged in river programs. With the support of the Student Union I made up some brochures announcing the first seminar and listing a pretty substantial, highly qualified speakers. After press releases and some advertising around the uni and elsewhere the first of a series of these seminars was held.

It was a big success with probably 75 or more people in attendance. Afterward other government funded bodies contacted me and put more resources and help my way. Some student friends agreed to be part of a committee to plan for the following seminars and again the university provided the lecture halls. Newspapers wrote it up and even Landline sent a representative along.

The name for what I was doing became Rivers Australia and we held about 6 seminars in all before a change in government meant reduced funds and the researchers who had been so supported could no longer come to Canberra to be part of it.

Meanwhile I had letters sent to me by governments from all over, including Tasmania and New Zealand, asking me to do the same in their regions. But personal problems and my own university course got in the way of continuing it. Also it was very strenuous as most of the organising work fell on me and so too did much of the cost of phone, advertising and so on. As a student without an income it was a bit much.

Rivers Are The Lifeblood of a Country

They are not there to be used and abused in ways that oppose nature

They also are very sensitive environmental systems

If they are destroyed or altered the results can be devastating to life

From Dry Dirt to a River Again - The Darling River gets some water in it

How Much Do You Care About Your Rivers? - Do you ever think of them in terms of a living thing?

Do you care about your river systems?

The Damage is Permanent

There is no going back

During the late 19th Century the man who would become Australia's Prime Minister, had a vision for the desert mallee region of north western Victoria. He pictured it could be settled through irrigation and a trip to the USA brought him in contact with the Chaffee brothers, who had done a similar irrigation scheme in California. He did not realise, however, the vast difference between the two location or appreciate the extremely spasmodic rainfall and dry conditions of the area he was contemplating irrigating.

He brought the brothers to Australia to help implement his scheme but things went horribly wrong and they had to declare bankruptcy. "A Royal Commission was established to investigate the failures of the irrigation schemes. In the report issued in 1896 it found that the schemes had been built on wishful thinking rather than realistic costs estimates, and that as constituted they could never operate profitably"

A private landholder, Samuel McCaughey, constructed 320 kilometers of irrigation channel to water 182 square kilometers of land. It started a rush to develop large scale irrigatioin in the region. By 1907 work had begun on the Burrinjuck Dam on the Murrumbidgeee River, near Tumut, and farms quickly sprang up soon after.

During the late 1940s a scheme was devised to dam the headwaters of the Murray River and the Snowy, another superb river system. The Snowy was to be diverted back through the mountain and to emerge and flow into the Murray to allow more irrigation and insure a continuous flow. The Alpine region involved is the highest point on the Australian continent and the scheme involved build some 5 or more huge dams and a massive Hydro Electric Scheme.

It all sounded great at the time and when it was completed, thanks to the migrant who poured in to be part of the work force, it was heralded as a miracle. A man made marvel. Now the farms could open up and men returning from the Second World War were encouraged to settle around the Murray and become agriculturalists. Many had no idea about farming or orchard management. Huge swathes of .land was cleared to make way for the enterprise.

Trees were felled everywhere, animals struggled for survival as their habitats disappeared. Irrigation rights were handed out like lollies and the non professional farmers got stuck in.

Carp is All They Catch Now - Once it was Murray Cod

ATypical Dam
ATypical Dam

Resources were grossly Overstretched.

Dam after dam was built along the Murray, Darling systems, although most of them are called 'weirs, over the next fifty years or so. The land seemed to cope and the region became famous as Australia's food bowl.

Large scale orchards along the Murray in the MIA produced beautiful fruits and wines were also possible. But then something else moved into the region which may have devastated it irreversibly. The hungry crops of rice, cotton and water trading commenced and the big boys in cotton and rice bought up water rights from their smaller counter-parts. The river was overstretched and ever more channels, many of them illegal, were being dug into land where salt was now appearing.

The trees that were felled to make way for the crops were natural pumps and they also took salt way down into the ground. Without these trees the salt kept rising and so did the water table. At one of my seminars a farmer from the region explained that springs were now all over his land and was making it impossible to farm. Most of it was going under water and machinery could not operate in those conditions.

Grazing was also taking place right to the waters edge, or into the riparian zone, which is that very sensitive barrier between land and river where a lot of animals come to feed, including the playpus. Animals also require pesticides and sheep dip and drenches were leeching into the water from thousands of properties along both the Murray and Darling rivers, but mostly the latter. As the cattle trod down the riparian zones the banks of the rivers disappear and the cattle wander into the river to defaecate and urinate.

Farmers hit back by planting trees, such as the weeping willow, which animals could not feed on and so there was most animal and fish loss. By the time the carp arrived there was already so much damage to the rivers that they found them just to their liking and began breeding in earnest.

Because of the 10 years of drought and the major catastrophe of no water for irrigation there is very little food now coming from the MIA> Australia, which once produced magnificent rice and large crops of cotton in the region is now reduced to importing it from places like Thailand.

Goodbye Murrary and Darling River Basin - Its beyond recovery in our lifetime

Are You Worried About What is Happening Here? - Are you prepared to do anything to help your rivers?

Even when rivers look healthy and there is lots of water man is changing nature to the point that they will eventually fail. What we depend on for food is being taken from us.

Does what you see on this site shock you?

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Me with some of the Researchers at the Seminar
Me with some of the Researchers at the Seminar

It Was a Supreme Effort to Bring Attention to the Rivers

But it was doomed to fail

Rivers Australia was doomed to fail because a change in government saw funds dry up for research and the new Federal government under John Howard had no concept of environmental strategies.

One of the worst things I uncovered was that the man in charge of the Murray Darling System, when these seminars were staged, was earning a huge sum but he had no concept of what to do to save the rivers. That's the way politics works. You just don't upset the applecart. Its not your concern when you won't be around long enough to have to face the mess you left behind. Besides Big Business wants things to continue the way they are because their companies are making huge profits. That's what I faced.

Well, look at it now. Those companies are either extinct or struggling to survive. But there are other companies making billions, such as Gunns in Tasmania, by logging the forests, building and running paper mills with their discharge straight into the rivers, and chipping the timber for Japan whose hunger for wood chips is insatiable. It was told to me that the chips are used to manufacture forming for footings for buildings, and so on The very forests that once produced the rain for the south of Australia have shrunk to the point where many of them are barely existent. Still logging is a protected industry in this country.

We Won't Get Another Chance At Fixing This

The men who first devastated this land are long gone

The Upper reaches of the Murray are returning to the desert they were before

But now there are no trees to keep the river flowing

Now the Landscape is becoming as empty as the brains of those who did this

Still images from Dreamstime - click here

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© 2010 norma-holt

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    • profile image

      Stonecutter 6 years ago

      It is a sad day when money overrides the future of our children, whether in Australia or another part of the world. There are some places that may not have reached the point that has been described in this lens but I would hope that somehow they would look at what has happened here and be able to take a lesson from it before it is too late for them.

    • ChrisDay LM profile image

      ChrisDay LM 6 years ago

      Your work, although stalled, is a testimony to your insight, energy and virtue. Of course, it does not just apply to Australia!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      A very topical lens and very important to Australia to get this river system healthy again. Lets hope its not too late.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Well said about the pollution and the dirt being thrown in our life protecting rivers. I cannot imagine human beings to be so selfish but it is a fact; oceans and rivers are live examples on how humans are exploiting them for their selfish motives.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Well said about the pollution and the dirt being thrown in our life protecting rivers. I cannot imagine human beings to be so selfish but it is a fact; oceans and rivers are live examples on how humans are exploiting them for their selfish motives.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I don't get it ~ we trade out environments for someone making money! I feel sad to the pit of my stomach. Very well done and thank you for your time and efforts in making a difference in our world. For some reason, I thought or hoped Australia had it more together in this area.

    • MargoPArrowsmith profile image

      MargoPArrowsmith 6 years ago

      Sad, but important, thanks

    • Mrmakingusmile LM profile image

      Mrmakingusmile LM 6 years ago

      Making people aware is the key to action. Thanks for making me smile.

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 6 years ago from Central Florida

      Your activism is commendable. My aunt was able to get appointed to the water board in Texas to try fighting big business' grip on the water resources. She is a big advocate for wildlife and healthy rivers. More people need to step up on these issues.

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 6 years ago from UK

      Great work at raising awareness. Rivers are such a valuable part of the ecosystem and now that we all know the harm that intensive farming and industry can do there is no excuse to hide from the truth. You can be proud that you cared enough to take action.

    • KarenTBTEN profile image

      KarenTBTEN 6 years ago

      This is a very informative piece about an issue that can't really be swept aside. SquidAngel blessings.

    • HorseAndPony LM profile image

      HorseAndPony LM 7 years ago

      We are very concerned about the rivers everywhere. We do everything we can to support the rivers and other water ways near us and fund projects for those that are not. So, many people say they care but very few will do what is necessary to protect. I hope this will change. Great topic.

    • profile image

      Geeve 7 years ago

      Another 5* lens about an issue that everyone should act upon. Well done.

    • hayleylou lm profile image

      hayleylou lm 7 years ago

      This lens is really informative. It's such a shame that they would not continue to give funds. Well done for what you did and 5 stars for a well deserving lens.

    • profile image

      RinchenChodron 7 years ago

      Good for you for the work you did. This will serve you well in your life and the life of your country. This is a sad tale. We all need to be aware of what we are leaving to the next 7 generations! Fabulous site - 5 Stars.

    • dezwards profile image

      dezwards 7 years ago

      Interesting stuff! Once again lack of Government funding stops worthwhile causes! Well done for your efforts though.