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Murray River mistakes repeated in the northern territory.

At the same time as southern Australia struggles to rescue the Murray and other rivers by clawing back over-allocated water resources for environmental flows, the NT Government is set to implement a scheme that will see all the mistakes made with the Murray repeated in the Daly Basin.

THE DALY IS THE 'BIG RIVER' OF THE TOP END. It's a Heritage River with no major dams or water extraction and thus remains close to its natural state. The 53,000 [km.sup.2] catchment stretches from the ancient, sandstone escarpment of the Arnhem Land Plateau, through lowland forests, floodplains and a network of nationally significant wetlands, all the way to the Timor Sea.

The Daly is unique in the Top End because it never stops flowing, even during the dry-season. An extensive system of aquifers supplies water to the Daly via a number of permanent springs and the dry-season flow comes mostly from groundwater discharge.

The permanent flow supports a variety of aquatic habitats not found in any other NT Rivers. The Daly is home to many rare and fascinating species such as the freshwater sawfish and the sawtooth shark. The surrounding wetlands, woodlands and forest support many migratory bird species. Eight of the nine known species of freshwater turtles in Australia live in the Daly and it's one of the last strongholds of the threatened pig nosed turtle. Indeed, the whole basin comprises intact woodlands and forests, including rare monsoonal rainforests that are rich in native flora and fauna.

As a premier Barramundi fishing river, the Daly supports a growing recreational fishing industry as well as nature based tourism, making a large contribution to the regional economy. Tens of thousands of Australians and international tourists visit the Daly annually to fish for Barramundi, enjoying the wildlife and unspoilt nature.

The Daly is also an important ceremonial tract to the indigenous communities who live there and is replete with sites of cultural significance that are still used extensively by the traditional owners in rituals.

Despite these outstanding natural and cultural values, the NT Government has drawn up plans to expand largescale, irrigated agriculture across some of the 400,000 hectares of healthy river country in the Daly Basin. That's an area 10 times the size of Darwin Harbour!

In southern Australia, governments, businesses and the communities are struggling to safeguard the Murray and other rivers by clawing back over-allocated water resources for environmental flows. At the same time however, the NT Government is offering free water licenses for 10 years to purchasers of sub-divided pastoral stations, along with an upgrade to Freehold title after two years. Likewise, as parts of Australia battle salinity and strive to control the broad scale land clearing that causes it, the NT Government is encouraging land clearing for intensive agriculture.

In the first half of 2003, the NT Government issued permits to clear over 7000 hectares of forests on properties in the Douglas Daly area. This will result in 1.6 million trees being bulldozed in an area that is home to around 350,000 animals including quolls, sugar gliders, possums, bowerbirds, finches and black cockatoos.

Land clearing causes soil erosion that clogs rivers with sediment. This results in water quality decline and destroys the habitat for fish and turtles. Research shows that over eight tonnes of soil could be eroded from every hectare cleared for growing crops.

If the plans proceed, water for irrigation will be pumped directly from the Daly River and from underground aquifers to irrigate crops such as cotton, peanuts and hay. During the dry season, water levels will drop below normal, affecting the breeding cycles for fish and the pig nosed turtles. In the worst-case scenario, the Daly could stop flowing during this period. Genetically modified cotton trials are already underway in Katherine and commercial cotton production could commence in the Daly basin in the next five years.

Fertiliser and pesticide run-off from irrigated agriculture is a major cause of pollution in rivers. In the Daly River, large-scale agriculture would increase the amount of pollution entering the river, especially at the beginning of the wet season. As a result, fish kills are likely to become more common and much more severe.

Aboriginal communities will also be affected by a degraded Daly River system. Many people rely on the water and natural resources from the Daly and have a strong and enduring connection to it. John Daly of the Nganginerri Aboriginal Clan was recently quoted as saying, "We don't want another Murray. They are not looking at the environment and our culture--they are only thinking of the dollar value." And even the dollar profit will be quickly outweighed by the costs of repairing the damage to natural resources as other states in Australia have recently learnt.

Experience from other rivers in Australia shows that fish stocks will decline and natural attractions and amenity value will be degraded if the proposals for large-scale agricultural development in the Daly Basin go ahead. This will have long-term impact on the opportunity to embrace sustainable industries that are consistent with the natural and cultural values of the area.

The Way Forward

The NT government has a responsibility to promote appropriate development and this means protecting natural and cultural values, including rivers like the Daly. Problems in southern Australia caused by large-scale land clearing and irrigation, such as soil erosion, salinity, declining water quality, dropping water levels and loss of wildlife habitat should not be brought to the NT.

To avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, the NT Government should abandon current plans for large-scale, damaging agriculture schemes in the Daly Basin. Instead, it should invest in appropriate, economic development pathways that protect the environment and support sustainable growth industries, including nature-based tourism and recreational fishing industries. We can have healthy, natural landscapes and sustainable rural industries, but we have to find a new way of living with the land.

The alternative is a Daly River suffering the same fate as other iconic rivers around Australia like the Murray, and the loss of one of Australia's best Barramundi fishing destinations.


Write to:

The Honourable Clare Martin

Chief Minister of the Northern Territory

GPO Box 3146

Darwin NT 0801

Ask her to ensure that plans for large-scale irrigation schemes and land clearing do not proceed and that the Northern Territory embarks on a new pathway of appropriate development that does not repeat the mistakes made in other parts of Australia.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Australian Conservation Foundation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:allocation of water resources
Author:Buchan, Arlene
Publication:Habitat Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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