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Ten points to rescuing the Murray: the excitement around the Olympics and the Centenary of Federation has shown that Australians love to get behind a big idea. And no idea is bigger -- and no project more timely -- than saving the artery of the east, the Murray River. As Stuart Blanch explains, ACF's Ten Point Plan sets out the steps needed to revive this wasting waterway.

THERE'S BEEN A LOT of excitement around projects such as the Olympics, the Centenary of Federation and Alice-to-Darwin railway, but it's important to remember that events of national importance aren't always about medals, flags and engineering.

Rescuing our most important waterway, the Murray River, should be a national event all Australians can get behind.

Poor water quality and unhealthy rivers concern farmers and rural communities, not just aquatic life.

Rising salinity threatens industry and domestic water supplies in Adelaide, as well as poisoning wetlands.

Declining fish stocks affect the hundreds of thousands of anglers and campers who flock to the Murray's banks every holiday, in addition to having an impact upon the ecosystem of this Australian icon.

ACF's Ten-Point Plan for the Murray addresses ten key actions needed to turn around the decline in the health of the river.

The first five actions address how we manage our rivers, while the latter five actions discuss changes in the way we manage our lands and farms and institutions.

1. More water

Only 20 percent of the Murray's natural flows reach the sea, and many floodplains go many years between good drinks.

Progress on the interstate Murray environmental flows process has been slow. Its great test will come in September at the meeting of the council of state and federal ministers that coordinate flow management.

Federal Environment Minister Robert Hill sought but was refused an environmental allocation for the degraded Murray estuary at the March meeting.

Scientists have told us that we need to return several times the volume of Sydney Harbour to the Murray.

New South Wales and Victoria need to reduce the amount of water diverted for irrigation from the Murray and its tributaries, such as the Murrumbidgee and Goulburn Rivers, to deliver these flows.

2. Healthier estuary

The mouth of the Murray is in poor shape -- in fact only seven percent of the area is in a natural state.

The five barrages that stop seawater and marine life entering the estuary are a luxury we can no longer afford. Their removal will not be easy but they are the key to restoring the estuary.

The precious freshwater lost through evaporation every year from Lakes Alexandrina and Albert -- equivalent to the volume of Sydney Harbour, 492,000 megalitres -- could be added to the extra environmental flows.

The water users who currently pump freshwater from the lakes would be served more efficiently through a system of pipes. Tourism, local towns, commercial fishers, anglers and nature lovers would all be winners from a healthy estuary.

3. From lakes to rivers

The Murray has 14 large dams and many smaller weirs., while 4,000 weirs clutter the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin.

The warning signs from converting rivers into series of lakes are obvious. In NSW and Victoria a third of the native fish species in the Murray and its tributaries are threatened with extinction.

We need to take a long hard look at how we can reduce the impacts of weirs. This may include leaving weirs open for longer, removing them altogether, or building fish ladders on weir walls.

4. Greening the riverbanks

Too many riverbanks are over-grazed and trampled by stock. Loss of vegetation cover causes erosion and poor water quality. Without good shade river waters can heat up so much that aquatic life suffers. Fencing sensitive riverbanks and providing alternative water sources is already happening in some places, but needs to happen across the Basin.

5. Thawing the waters

A fish is not a polar bear. Over half of the 30 big dams in the Basin release water which is so cold that it can stop native fish from breeding. Other aquatic life suffers, too. To bring back the habitats we will need to warm to a basin-wide investment program.

6. Halt land clearing

Stopping broad-scale land clearing in the north of the Basin is crucial to safeguarding the long-term future of its rivers. Southern experience has seen salinity, poor water quality and land degradation affecting the natural environment, agricultural productivity and rural towns and roads. Queensland and NSW must halt broad scale land clearing.

7. Green the land

Further south we need to undertake enormous revegetation schemes to restore balance to water cycles to tackle salinity. CSIRO estimates that we may need to revegetate up to 80 percent of our catchments. Deep-rooted native perennial plants and crops need to replace shallow-rooted annual crops to capture water before it can release salt slugs buried in the soil.

8. Retraining our shame drains

Many irrigation areas rely on draining water and salt from farm areas. Rivers and wetlands are often at the receiving end and are polluted with phosphorus, pesticides, sediments and salt. These contaminants cannot be allowed to reach our rivers and wetlands. A program of reducing pollutant inputs, vegetating drains and using artificial wetland treatments is necessary.

9. Good advice, not parochial device

The Murray-Darling Basin Commission is made up of senior bureaucrats from the state and Federal governments. The advice they provide to their ministers can become hamstrung by political agendas and interstate bickering, with progress towards rescuing the Murray squashed.

We need to have a greater level of independence and scientific credibility as the basis for decision making. These decisions need to be accountable against clear environmental targets.

The current Commission framework has been found wanting and needs a breath of fresh air. This could form a central basis for reviewing the outdated water sharing agreement that currently guides how states share the Murray's waters.

10. Informed catchments

Farming practices are improving in many areas across the Basin, but this needs to continue at a greater rate. Community ownership is the key to achieving better rivers and catchments, particularly as we face the tough decisions ahead.

Rescuing the Murray River is a project of national importance and requires funding equal to the task.

Implementing ACF's Ten Point Plan will, in the next couple of decades, require significant investments from both public and private sources.

River and catchment management projects have made a good start and the National Action Plan on Salinity is welcome but needs more resources and better delivery mechanisms

At a time when the nation's leaders are looking for projects to celebrate the Centenary of Federation, we need look no further than the degraded Murray.

Dr Stuart Blanch is ACF's Healthy Rivers Campaign Coordinator
COPYRIGHT 2001 Australian Conservation Foundation
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Australian Conservation Foundation
Author:Blanch, Stuart
Publication:Habitat Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2001
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