The Darling River - Used and Abused?

Submitted: Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 10:40
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Many in the EO community will be familiar with the Darling River region and have possibly toured down the mighty Darling from Bourke to Menindee.

For those that are not aware I want to share the news that a lack of rains in the catchment areas for the Darling River has significantly impacted the water level and flow of the river in recent times. However, I can’t help but feel the creation of weirs and the diversion of water to irrigate agricultural crops, especially cotton, has sapped this might river over a long-period of time.

Mind you this is not a new revelation, but the saying, we reap what we sow comes to mind!

Recently I wrote about the Darling River – A National Treasure in a blog I posted on EO. Perhaps I should have included a by-line in the title (And stop cotton farming upstream).

You can read it here.

I understand the water has now all but stopped flowing at Wilcannia and the residents of Pooncarie in the lower Darling River region will resort to emergency water supplies, which ultimately means trucking water in, within the next few days.

Menindee Lakes has a very low level and this will also impact water supplies to Broken Hill in due course. Apparently the NSW water authority will shut off any flow in this area to ensure a water supply to Broken Hill.

Whilst not putting myself forward nor pigeon holing myself as a greenie, I do pose the question, why do we destroy natural gifts like the Darling River to irrigate crops that should never be grown on the world’s driest continent?

And I get it, a lack of rain is the major problem, but have we made it worse through placing weirs and cotton farms further upstream!

The Menindee Lakes region is a beautiful part of Australia as many will attest, however it is likely a lack of water will have a significant impact on tourism in the Menindee Lakes region this year. Numbers are already down, perhaps understandably so.

Sometimes I ask the question what we can do collectively, other than prayer for rain, if you are inclined.

Maybe the answer simply lies in that we have an awareness of the issue, and if motivated to do so, speak out!

Baz – The Landy
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Reply By: Member - gujimbo - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 12:30

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 12:30
Hi Landy

The river is a sad case , we where up that way (Louth) over easter and no flow at all, green algae starting to bloom didn't even put the kayak in the water.

A vast difference to the Murrumbidgee, it should be called The Darling Drain.


PS cotton and rice $$$$$$ to feed and clothe other nations whilst using our own resources.
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Reply By: Batt's - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 12:34

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 12:34
It will only get worse in areas like and other places around our country with our governments idea that Aus will be doubling our food production in the future to supply more food to overseas countries it will put more pressure on our water supplies and create arguments for those downstream who will lose out because the people upstream will be asking for a guarantee from the government to supply them with x-amount of water annually because they will be under contract to supply x-amount of food products to their customers money talks.
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Follow Up By: Member - Munji - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 13:06

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 13:06
I did the Darling River from Louth to Wentworth last July, came in via Sydney enroute back to WA where I live.
I camped overnight at Trilbie and was very disappointed at the water level and thought how is it that they allow cotton farming in the area.
It is environmental vandalism. This issue should be petitioned big time before it is too late. Other than that I thoroughly enjoyed my trip.
Unfortunately these issues all come about from GREED.
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Reply By: Sigmund - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 13:36

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 13:36
Jarrod Diamond said that Australia doesn't farm the land, it mines it.

We're squandering our future for this year's profit figures.
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Reply By: OBJ - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 14:07

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 14:07
As I always say ... everything we don't like about Australia has been given to us by politicians. This includes dams, weirs, cotton farming on the Darling etc etc ...

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Follow Up By: Sigmund - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 16:54

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 16:54
Politicians at the behest of powerful interest groups.
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Reply By: Member - Mark (Tamworth NSW) - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 14:10

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 14:10
Please check how much water has been voluntarily and non voluntarily taken back from irrigation farmers in recent years, compared to the 1980s and 1990s

There was a major Federal Government review of the Murray-Darling approx. 5 years ago, would be worth reading. If you are going to permit irrigation, the question of whether you let water be extracted near the source, or travel 1500km down an open drain (the Darling) and be subjected to significant irrigation losses before irrigating at Renmark is a difficult assessment.
Cotton by the way is a semi arid plant, like another semi arid plant (wheat) they just grows better with more water.

I don't personally don't have any answers, but there was a significant scientific study undertaken as part of that Federal Government review and the answers probably lie in that. Partisanship and state-state & state-Federal Government tensions aren't help that review be implemented. Probably the best thing we could do is take water away from the states.

If you don't want irrigation, hope you are prepared to give up your wine as that is where the vast majority of Australia's wine grapes are produced (may be labelled as bottled in the Barossa, but it's grown under irrigation). Try explaining the withdrawal of irrigation to the people who either directly or indirectly rely on irrigation. Reduction of irrigation water is one of the reasons that towns like Bourke are in significant decline.

The town I live in is on an inland river tributary to the Darling, and the river has been very low for the last 2 years, not because of irrigation as there hasn't been any (or hardly any), rather because of multi year below average rainfall.


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Follow Up By: The Landy - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 15:57

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 15:57

Without a doubt, water entitlements have been reduced, but perhaps by far less than many think is required to ensure sustainability.

And there is no doubt, a lack of rainfall is the main contributing factor of being the driest continent on the planet – all acknowledged, here and in my blog!

And this is all about sustainability and striking a balance between the long-term need for the environment, which means allowing the river to flow; albeit at the slow pace it does, versus feeding a growing population.

We can spend much time discussing and debating the financial merits of the water taken to irrigate the “food bowl” of Australia and implications in terms of food supply, or that lovely glass of red wine if we don’t. But we also need to refocus on the environment…


Because the natural environment has needs that can’t be ignored and the irony is if the balance does not swing back in its favour it will impact the very thing that makes this Murray/Darling food bowl area so productive.

And it isn’t just about water; it is about chemicals that have affected the river’s health…

But hey, I’m no greenie in the traditional matted hair and ukulele playing type, mind you each to their own, but I have made these observations of the Darling over many years of touring the area. But these observations have been made for more than half-a-century by far more learned people than me, even if I’m passing a “half-century”.

Ultimately, whether we mere mortals are right or wrong is almost irrelevant, the river will wreak its own revenge in time for the abuse it has suffered.

Thanks for your thoughts…

Baz – The Landy
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Follow Up By: AlbyNSW - Friday, May 01, 2015 at 12:19

Friday, May 01, 2015 at 12:19
You can have all the science and research you want but history has shown that the modern human race and its supposedly intelligent academics are really quite stupid and do not have a grasp on mother nature and how she operates.

You only need to look back in modern history with the problems we now have with introduced species and plants that have come as a result of these "smart people" to see how little we understand.

I am far from being a greenie but have enough common sense to know that we shouldn't mess with nature in these ways as the environment and all it supports it is a complex equation and balancing act that doesn't like us goofy humans interfering with it

We need to look at operating and farming products that are suitable to the natural environment of an area not try and change the conditions to match a commercial opportunity.

It sickens me when I see the fringe areas of Sydney that were traditionally excellent farming land getting chopped up into house lots because of its proximity to CBD

I hear where you are coming from Baz, the Darling is a sad sight to see
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Reply By: Member - Rod N (QLD) - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 14:32

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 14:32
If the reference to cotton growers means Cubby Station, then it should be noted that most of their stored water is from flood water outside of the river which, because of the nature of the terrain with anabranches and multiple channels leading nowhere, would never get back into the river anyway. Sometimes it just might be better to use the water in a half decent climate than let it evaporate in a desert. The Darling and hence the Menindee Lakes are always going to depend on flooding for replenishment. The river must be a certain height before any irrigation is even looked at. The cotton farmers from Brewarrina to Bourke have a very small crop in this year because the river has not reached the required height for them to pump from the river to irrigate the crop.

The only thing that will get the rivers flowing again is rain, a commodity that has been in very short supply in most of the western parts of Qld and NSW.
AnswerID: 553106

Follow Up By: The Landy - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 16:03

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 16:03

Rain, rain is the most needed thing on the driest continent on the planet, for sure!

No, not necessarily a reference to Cubby, but if the cap fits they can wear it. The health of the river has not just degraded through water being diverted for irrigation – chemical leaching from cotton farming has been a significant factor.

Cheers, Baz – The landy
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Follow Up By: Member - mick C (NSW) - Saturday, May 02, 2015 at 20:30

Saturday, May 02, 2015 at 20:30
Cubbie takes most of its water from the Culgoa river above the weir with man made channel that is as big as the river and leads to their storage areas , the balance is from overland harvesting / bunding .
In reference to water leaving the river and never returning , well please spare a thought for the floodplain graziers who lose all this water when it is impounded by overland harvesting or bunding , just so it can be put into storage areas and then have evaporation in the storage areas take its toll and then be used by one farm for its sole benefit , at the expense of floodplain graziers who have their country watered and let the water flow through to their downstream neighbours so they can also gain benefit by water inundation of the floodplains and so on downstream , and therefore sharing a resource to the benefit of many , not just a greedy grab by one farm . The biggest problem is that there is no federal governing body overseeing water sharing plans [ just like road laws , rail gauges etc etc ] . The Murray Basin Plan is a toothless tiger as far as controlling Qld and their water rorts , in the past and now Qld are a law unto themselves , to the detriment of all others on the rivers below the borders . No thought has been given to the floodplain graziers who have had their land devalued by lesser inundations [due to overland harvesting/bunding ] to benefit a few upstream , let alone the long term complete degredation of complete ecological and environmental land systems for a short term economical gain .
How much devastation has been forced on Australia by decisions made by who are getting their pockets lined , or by government people who have been trained in a university by a professor who has never left the campus .This situation is akin to Coal Seam Gas exploitation of high quality farming land , and the destruction of farms aquafiers for the same reason ,Short Term Economic Gains.
As for Bourke / Brewarrina cotton growers they have the same problems as the floodplain graziers -- Upsteam Extractionsin in Qld
One thing that must be kept in context , is that Cubbie may be the biggest , but it is only one player , there are many more who are in Qld who are not a lot smaller and play by the same rules "All for me , bugger all those below me on the river system ".So when Qld 's complete river extractions in the Murray Basin in any given water year are added up , it amounts to many gigalitres that does not have any multiplier effect , right through NSW , VIC, SA and to the ocean
Mick C
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Reply By: Member - john y - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 15:04

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 15:04
I seem to recall that some years ago an engineering project was suggested which would see the diversion of a Queensland fast flowing river into the Darling system which would go a long way to help solve the problem and help the downstream S.A. irrigators. My hazy recollection is that the proposition was feasible but far too costly and barely given much serious consideration.
Given the success of the Snowy Project perhaps a scheme such as the one above could be revisited {if feasible} as a national infrastructure scheme. Perhaps it would have been a worthy substitute to the cash giveaway ,pink batts schemes etc.

And for the sake of National equality a similar scheme was also mooted for W.A using water from the Kimberley'
In both instances I believe there was little local environmental impact in the river diversions.
Perhaps someone can provide further info on the proposals. Regardsjohn y
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Follow Up By: Member - Howard (ACT) - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 15:55

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 15:55
unfortunately australia will never again see an infrastructure program like the snowy scheme .Australia is now too much a nanny state and the imposts of the likes of enviromental impact studies and oh&s issues make such projectseither unachievable or uneconomic.

also its not only the big inland rivers that are at low levels. we have double frontage to the Boorowa river before it joins the Lachlan River (below Wyangla dam) which then joins the Murrumbidgee and it has not run for several months now and is only a series of fastly dryingup waterholes and this in what is surposed to be a 26 inch rainfall area. no large scale irrigation on the river either and the only weir above us is for the town water supply.
there is sure nothing going downstream for irrigation from this river.
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Follow Up By: Member -Dodger - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 16:12

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 16:12
Unfortunately Howard has hit the nail on the head.
Our current crop of Politicians can only see to their next election and FAIL to make these sort of decisions that would enhance our country.
I used to have a handle on life, but it broke.

Cheers Dodg.

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Follow Up By: The Landy - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 16:24

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 16:24
To Dodgers point – it only happens because we have an apathetic electorate that allows it to happen.

I think there is great merit in the government investing in infrastructure with a long-term view. It creates employment, provides for the future and can be funded by debt through the issuance of government bonds at the lowest historical interest rates Australia has ever had.

However, politicians’ can’t see past the next election or voters their hip-pocket…

Cheers’ Baz – The Landy
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Follow Up By: Alan S (WA) - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 20:53

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 20:53

I agree, votera want their problems solved now and their hip pocket filled now, not in years to come. No point pollies even thinking long term any more
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Follow Up By: Member - mick C (NSW) - Saturday, May 02, 2015 at 20:49

Saturday, May 02, 2015 at 20:49
I live at the bottom of the Lachlan river where the Lachlan flows into the Murrumbidgee , I wish that happened on some sort of regular basis, the last time water flowed from the Lachlan to the Bidgee was in 2011 when 200mm rain fell in 48 hours and overland water went south . The big environmental flow in 2012 was not enough to link the rivers up , so the overriding factor-- not enough rain to wet catchments, to fill dams , to allow rivers to flow , to allow floodplains and wetlands to be replenished and the ecological and environmental cycles to be healthy
Mick C
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Reply By: Notso - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 15:43

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 15:43
Back in the "good old days" late 1800s and early 1900s the paddles steamers travelled the mighty Darling. But even then it was quite often dry and unnavigable. The paddle steamers would just sit in the mud till the next flood down the Darling let them head wherever they were going.

Way back in the 1930s John Bradfield(Of Sydney Harbour Bridge fame) proposed a scheme a bit like the Snowy. He wanted to divert the excess flows of 3 of the large East Coast rivers back through the Divide and into the Darling system. This would make it a permanent system and the area would be even more productive.
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Follow Up By: The Landy - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 16:07

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 16:07
Without doubt this was truly the case.

Also in times of flood they were also able to navigate up channels that would never have been possible without a flood event to deliver goods and pick-up produce from properties that were situated some distance from the main river.

Cheers, Baz – The Landy
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Follow Up By: Member - Mark (Tamworth NSW) - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 17:31

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 17:31

In a flood you could certainly get a paddle boat up channels you normally couldn't. But I think it's a stretch to say they used to pick up goods from those properties when the river was flooded, as it was only wool picked up, with shearing once a year and Qld/ northern NSW flooding not predictable enough. (Flooding was more predictable on the Murray from snow melt)
Bit like predicting when you can paddle a canoe down the Warburton to lake Eyre when there weren't any of those river height stations which you could look up in a flash as you now can on the internet.
GM Cotton now uses probably 1/5th or less the amount of chemicals than 15 years ago.

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Follow Up By: The Landy - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 18:08

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 18:08

On floods, I'll accept that as I wasn't asserting it was the "norm" - far from it, but , where it was possible I guess it occurred.

And isn't it great chemical usage has been reduced! A positive step in resetting the balance...

Cheers, Baz - The Landy
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Follow Up By: Member - john y - Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 20:11

Thursday, Apr 30, 2015 at 20:11
Thanks Baz for original post and others for their contributions as they are all food for thought .Perhaps it is true that under our current political landscape with minorities wielding their influence we will never be known as the clever nation. Pity really as there is so much that could be achieved,the nation is being "spun out' rather than being run with the focus on what is best for our collective futures. We owe our future generations more. Regardsjohn y
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Reply By: TTD1 - Friday, May 01, 2015 at 08:11

Friday, May 01, 2015 at 08:11
Having lived and worked in that area in the 70s and 80s we saw floods and droughts. The older generation used to talk of the drought of 1902 where the rabbits ate the bark off all the trees, then a succession of floods and droughts and in 1982 you could walk across the Darling in most parts.
The Menindee water control system was built in 1959 to harness floods an utilise water that would run out to sea and use that to create jobs for ailing country centres.
I agree with Marks comments to a point and direct you too an article in this weeks Stock Journal by Alisha Fogedn.
The Murray Darling system was in flood in late 2013 and the lake system was full yet the MDWA directed that the lake water be used and the flooded rivers be allowed to run out to sea.
The bickering between States is the biggest threat to the Darling river system.
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Follow Up By: The Landy - Friday, May 01, 2015 at 10:17

Friday, May 01, 2015 at 10:17
Without doubt this has been a political issue for a long-time that has actually seen a Royal Commission in the past. The purchase of Toorale in 2008, at the convergence of the Warrego and Darling Rivers, by the Federal Government of the day was a politicised process.

Mind you, based on the reading I have done on this subject, that purchase returned a substantial amount of water to the Darling River system by once again allowing flood waters from the Warrego into the Darling River and in turn the Murray-Darling basin.

The theme and point I am making in this thread and in my blog has been that the Darling River is either “feast or famine – dry, somewhere in between, or flooded”. Given this is the case my question is similar to that of many people.

Why do we allow water to be drawn from this fragile system to grow irrigated crops? Should the river be allowed to simply flow unimpeded, as slowly as that might be depending on rains, or lack thereof, in the catchment areas?

No easy answers, personally I try to look at these issues through a variety on lenses, one of those being what is actually best for the environment.

The more I travel Australia and see just how much natural beauty and natural resources Australia has - minerals, river systems to name two, the more I find myself asking the question as to whether we have the balance right – exploitation of our natural resources versus protecting our environment.

I don’t believe either is mutually exclusive, but getting the balance right is an imperative!

Being a risk versus reward person, I ask the question;

Is the reward from the short-term benefit of growing irrigated agriculture crops, that may not be “best suited” in this region taking all factors into account, versus the risk to our environment and potential negative impacts from contaminants entering it from irrigated crop growing worth it? And that is before taking the actual water usage into account.

The time-line I am looking at is counted in decades, not what happened this year, last year, or potentially next year…

What is our responsibility to future generations, to indigenous Australian’s who have an important and possibly spiritual connection to these lands?

But as indicated previously, nature is powerful when it comes to correcting abuse; it might take a long time but like the sun rising in the east, it will surely come!

Thanks for your input, open discussion and debate is always a key ingredient to understanding the issue and getting the right outcomes…

As always, I have an open mind!

Cheers, Baz – The Landy
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Follow Up By: The Landy - Friday, May 01, 2015 at 11:46

Friday, May 01, 2015 at 11:46
Menindee Lakes face dry future - Stock Journal
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Reply By: Member - Ian M21 - Friday, May 01, 2015 at 14:48

Friday, May 01, 2015 at 14:48
Weirs keep the towns supplied and cotton is not grown when there is no water available!
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