Australia’s shameful failure exposed
For centuries, the Murray-Darling Basin has been the lifeblood of Australia, providing food and clean drinking water to millions of Australians and bolstering our economy to the tune of $24 billion annually.
But today, the river system is a sorry shadow of its former self. Many tributaries have run dry and the main waterway is dangerously diminished and contaminated with algal blooms, such as the blue-green ones responsible for the January deaths of one million fish.
Farms and towns along the waterways are at breaking point, drowning in dust with livestock and wildlife dropping dead from starvation and thirst.
So how did it come to this? Last year's Murray-Darling Basin royal commission pointed the finger at the very people entrusted with protecting the crucial river system - politicians and officials at the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA).
Maryanne Slattery witnessed some of this "gross negligence" first-hand as the director of environmental water policy at the MDBA. After years of battling political interference in the agency, she walked away and blew the whistle.
"It was just really clear that the government wasn't interested in protecting environmental water," she tells news.com.au.
"Water that was purchased by the Commonwealth (at the expense of taxpayers) can be legally extracted by irrigators. That's a $3 billion portfolio that we've bought to put more water back in the river and it can be taken by irrigators.
"After several years of pushing what I was supposed to be doing, which was my job - to find policies to protect environmental water - it was really clear that government didn't want that to happen."
Maryanne isn't the only one who thinks political agendas are interfering in MDBA policy.
CSIRO scientists also claim they were pushed into skewing the outcome of a report crucial to deciding the river's future.
"This act of intellectual suppression was the outcome of scientists succumbing to the temptation of advocacy for environmental flows. In the end the clear contradictions between the published evidence and the advocated interpretation has diminished credibility in the science behind the Basin Plan and acted to fuel discontent in those affected by water reallocations," the CSIRO wrote.
The MDBA denies wrongdoing, saying it was doing everything it could to protect future of the river and the towns that depend on it, and that Australia was in fact leading the world in developing environmental protections for the waterway.
"Australia is the first nation in the world to legislate to change the balance of water use in a major river basin in favour of the environment. The Basin Plan is seeking to deliver 3200GL of benefits to the environment by 2024," a spokesman told news.com.au.
"To date over 2100GL of water has been recovered for the environment … As at 31 January, 2019, more than 8848 gigalitres of Commonwealth environmental water has been delivered to rivers, wetlands and flood plains across the Murray-Darling Basin."
But an Australian National University study claims the federal government has grossly exaggerated the amount of water being returned to the system via water savings.
"You've got a Murray Darling Basin Authority making claims that there's all this increase in stream flows yet they actually haven't done the work that's necessary to work to find that out," study leader Professor R Quentin Grafton said.
The South Australian government, located at the lowest extremity of the Murray Darling, was the first to launch an investigation into the declining state of this 130-million-year-old river system.
In response, the Turnbull Government took the conspicuous step of filing an injunction to prevent past and present employees of the Murray Darling Basin Authority from being forced to testify.
"It's completely arrogant but also shows there's also a hell of a lot more that needs to be uncovered," Maryanne says.
Maryanne spent two days giving evidence during the royal commission into water theft along the Murray Darling and told news.com.au her organisation had gone as far as trying to "dodgy up the numbers" to prevent water flowing downstream from the industrial-scale irrigators and cotton farmers at the head of the Murray Darling.
"We've tried every single creative accounting and engineering solution we can think of to try to figure out how we can use less water for the environment, to try and figure out how to dodgy up the numbers to say we've got water when we haven't," she says.
"But there's been nothing in my view that's creative or clever in what we do for communities and people."
A Murray Darling Basin Authority spokesman said it was "aware of concerns" and had responded by including new rules to regulate the flow of water in the "unregulated Northern Rivers" at the head of the Murray Darling where industrial scale cotton operations flourish.
"NSW has now amended its Water Management Act to allow for active management of flows in the unregulated Northern Rivers, to allow environmental water to be left in stream for environmental purposes," the spokesman said.
In his final 734-page report about the management of the river, South Australian royal commissioner Bret Walker concluded that successive governments and agencies were guilty of "gross negligence" and maladministration "contrary to the law" in their handling of the river.
Among the more galling findings were that MDBA officials had joked about the amount of water that should be allowed to flow downstream, saying the figure should "have a two in front".
The amount was eventually set at 2750 gigalitres, down from the 3980 gigalitres recommended in the original Murray Darling Basin Plan - a figure already considered the bare minimum in order to maintain the health of the river.
The findings from the royal commission were validation for the many towns and small-time farmers along the Murray Darling whose lives had been up-ended. But validation, at least at this point, doesn't pay bills, repair communities or put livelihoods back together.
"These weren't mistakes. This was a strategic plan by an industry and potentially a foreign nation to gain total sovereignty over our river system," says Rob McBride, who runs the Tolarno Sheep Station near Menindee in the lower Murray-Darling with his daughter, Kate. He holds a giant, dead Murray cod in a video of the fish kill that went viral.
"The problem is, under the Darling system there's so few of us out here," he says. "In the 600km journey from Menindee to Pooncarie there are 38 families and there's no one to protect people in the cities.
"We've really got to get to the people in the cities and say do you understand your food supply is under total strain, we can't feed you if we can't water our stock. Sustainable irrigators on the Murray Darling and sustainable farmers on the Murray Darling will collapse under this catastrophic destruction of the river system."
A JOURNEY TO THE DRY RIVERBED
Last September I fired up my '97 Ford Panel Van and drove 11 hours to see the devastation at towns like Menindee, Wilcannia and Broken Hill for myself.
This was months before the putrid state of the river produced a million dead fish but the writing was already on the wall. Emus and kangaroos were dropping dead of thirst and a mysterious parasite. Blue-green algae had infiltrated large sections of the Darling River.
The remarkable inland oasis that was Menindee Lake, which had previously held more water than Sydney Harbour, was bone dry. Several other lakes in the area had either run dry or were on their last legs.
Menindee's water supply, which was being pumped out of the carcass-riddled dregs of the lake system, was brown, "stank of death", and sometimes caused locals to break out in rashes.
"Every time I read something (about it) the anger comes right up but you just say, 'What can you do?' 'Cos they won't listen to you," Catherine Cox, 65, told me as she packed up sandwiches at the Sunset Strip Community Centre on the outskirts of Menindee.
"The cotton people have been allowed to buy (water) back from people along the river. They've obviously got the rights to the water and we haven't and we just gotta let them do what they do because poor people don't have the money to buy the water."
Further along, at Wilcannia, the situation was more dire. The town is made up of 70 per cent indigenous people and has among the lowest life expectancy in the country (36.7 years for men and 42.5 for women).
Baakantji elder Badger Bates, who grew up in a tin humpy on the outskirts of the town, says the health of his people is directly tied to the health of the river. When it deteriorates, so do they.
"It's destroying us; not only us black people, the white people too. It's destroying everyone's life. Even you take the station people, it's destroying their life. They gotta sell out and go from where their old grandfather worked on the station. It's destroying history - black history, white history, Chinese, everyone that lived on the river. It's destroying history," he tells me.
But extinguishing country towns and small-time farming operations along the river might just be the plan, according to another former director of environmental water policy at the MDBA, Bill Jonson.
"The saying is get big or get out," he says. "There's an aggregation in a lot of places. What you see where there is big money is you see an industrialisation. That what it seems to be," he says.
"As they industrialise and get bigger they move close to the source. That's more reliable and although Menindee was originally built to foster economic development in the west - as you can see it was a thriving little town - but it's died and no one has paid any attention. If you look at Bourke, it used to be a big horticultural centre. What happens to the little guys? They just do whatever they can."
Jed Smith is a freelance journalist. Continue the conversation @Jed_J_Smith