Our Darling River in a Land of “Droughts and Flooding Rains”

I do not class myself as a “greenie” (a person who campaigns for protection of the environment) but my environmental conscious was pricked when in the last two days two separate news items brought home to me the need for urgent action. I felt obliged to write this blog.

The first item was the latest Australian Story on the ABC called “Cry Me a River” about the plight of the Darling River at Menindee near Broken Hill. The current situation along our once darling river (without capitals) is a result of Government authority decision-making, emanating from the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, in conjunction with the current severe drought conditions.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority was established after the millennium drought, regarded as our worst ever drought. The Basin Plan 2012 was prepared under the Water Act 2007 by the Authority. The following is an excerpt from the Plan:

“5.02      Objectives and outcome for Basin Plan as a whole

(1)       The objectives for the Basin Plan …

(2)       The outcome for the Basin Plan as a whole is a healthy and working Murray‑Darling Basin that includes:

(a)       communities with sufficient and reliable water supplies that are fit for a range of intended purposes, including domestic, recreational and cultural use; and

(b)      productive and resilient water-dependent industries, and communities with confidence in their long‑term future; and

(c)       healthy and resilient ecosystems with rivers and creeks regularly connected to their floodplains and, ultimately, the ocean.”

On 24 December 2018, WaterNSW noted on their website that:

“A Red Alert level warning (high alert) for blue-green algae has been issued for the Darling River at Louth and Trevallyn, located in the Far West region.

Both sites are located upstream of the Menindee Lake system where multiple Red Alerts are already in place.”

As we know, the situation resulted in three major fish kills that occurred in the Darling River near Menindee in December 2018 and January 2019. The resultants Royal Commission into the Murray-Darling river system has found that river allocations were driven by politics, and called for a complete overhaul of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It argued that a scientific approach must be taken in determining how much water should be returned to the environment. (new.com.au on 1 Feb 2019)

As the champion of the Australian Story, a young Kate McBride indicated that all the decisions and actions were apparently quite legal but asked the question of whether they were moral. Irrespective there was undoubtedly a failure here in regard to the “outcome[s] for the Basin Plan” and it is only hoped that as a community and nation we can do something about this matter.

The Darling River is of special significance for me because my great-grandfather, Henry Harrison Briscoe lived and worked around Wilcannia from the 1870s. Later with his family he spent several years at other places along its banks like Louth and Bourke. Paddle steamers used had the Darling for river trade (except in drought times) until about 1880 when more reliable roads and railways were established. The river played a significant role in opening up the outback.

During a recent visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales a painting by William Charles Piguenit caught my eye. Painted in 1895 it is called The flood in the Darling 1890, depicting when the town of Bourke was submerged by floodwaters. I understand that despite the current drought there will more than likely be other floods on the Darling, but the difference between the scene in this painting and the present reality was striking.
“The flood in the Darling 1890” by W C Piguenit (Art Gallery of New South Wales)

The Darling will never again be as navigable as it was in those early days, but it still has important social, economic and environmental contributions to make, and on which many rely. I hope we can learn to love our darling river again.

The second item was the United Nations report on the decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems, but maybe more about that later…

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