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Dying for a drink: red gums get rescue package.

THE MIGHTY Murray has been slowly succumbing to thirst for years--it loses more than three quarters of its natural flow to water extraction for irrigation alone. In recent years, drought has robbed the river of even more of the vital flows it needs to stay healthy. The Living Murray Initiative looked promising, but too slow in returning one drop of water to the river, a River Red Gum rescue package at least delivered a drink to the thirsty River Red Gums.

The Living Murray Initiative was created by the Commonwealth and State governments to manage the Murray catchment area. In 2003, the Living Murray Initiative suggested a solution to the Murray's problems. $500 million was put forward to return 500 billion litres of water to the Murray.

That sounds like a lot, but in fact it is about a third of what the scientists say is required to have a moderate chance of returning the river to health. And despite these measures, the Murray is still in crisis.

The Living Murray Initiative focuses on six iconic sites along the river:

* Barmah-Millewa Forest (NSW)

* Gunbower and Koondrook-Perricoota Forests (NSW)

* Hattah Lakes (VIC)

* Chowilla Floodplain (SA)

* Murray Mouth, Coorong and Lower Lakes (SA)

* River Murray Channel (NSW, SA, VIC)

In the Coorong wetlands, where the much loved children's book Storm Boy was set, things are looking dire. Research released in September showed that the pelicans made famous in Storm Boy have not bred in Coorong--once Australia's largest pelican breeding colony--for four years. Salinity levels there are three times the level of seawater. 12 species of fish have disappeared from the area and wetland bird numbers have collapsed.

So what's the problem? "Two years on, not a single drop of real water has been returned to the river," explains Rivers and Water campaigner Dr Arlene Buchan.

This is because recovery efforts have concentrated on infrastructure projects, such as better pipelines and engineering improvements, to recover water for the river. ACF agrees that these projects are important, but on their own they are not enough. The reasons are two familiar words: time and money.

* Time: Building pipelines is a slow process, meaning considerable delays between adopting the measure and seeing real water returned to the river. That's time severely stressed ecosystems like the Coorong and River Red Gum wetlands may not have to spare.

* Money: The most cost effective infrastructure options have already been identified, so any further infrastructure projects would be very expensive.

"It was looking like it might take years for the Living Murray Initiative to return real water to the Murray--and that's time the stressed river system simply doesn't have," Dr Buchan explains.

All sections of the Murray have been feeling the pinch, but our River Red Gums were suffering badly from lack of water. Recent research showed that 75% of Red Gums, along one thousand kilometres of the Murray, were stressed and dying.

With the Murray still in crisis and current plans clearly not moving fast enough, ACF had to act. A Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council meeting was convened to discuss the progress of the Living Murray 'First Step'.

ACF urged that water be bought straight away so that real water could be returned to the Murray before it was too late. This is the most cost effective and efficient way to water the river before it runs out of time, ACF insisted.

Disappointingly, the ministerial council did not approve the necessary water purchases.

In a significant win for ACF, however, our call for emergency watering of the stressed River Red Gums was answered. A rescue package to provide emergency water to a number of desperately dry Red Gum wetlands along the river in NSW, Victoria and South Australia was approved.

This stopgap measure, called the River Red Gum Rescue package, meant that several major stakeholders including the Commonwealth and Victorian governments cooperated to ensure a flow of 20 billion litres of water was released as an emergency measure to water 4,700 hectares of stressed Red Gums.

The water is still a win for the river. "This rescue package will breathe some life back into severely stressed Red Gum wetlands along the banks of the Murray and we're delighted," says Dr Buchan. "But ACF intends to keep fighting to complete the job of restoring our Mighty Murray to health."

You can learn more about ACF's work to save the Murray at www.acfonline.org.au/rivers
STRESSED MURRAY: FAST FACTS

Litres of water approved to flow
under the Living Murray Initiative: 500 billion

Litres of water needed to have
some chance to return the river to
health at least: 1500 billion

Litres of real water that have flowed
so far from the Living Murray Initiative
infrastructure projects 0

Percentage of River Red Gums stressed or dying 75%

Curlew Sandpiper in the Coorong (1980s) 40,000

Curlew Sandpipers in the Coorong today 2,000
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Title Annotation:murray river
Author:Coote, Cathy
Publication:Habitat Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Words:815
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