While farmers across NSW and Queensland struggle in the drought, residents in one part of the country are fuming about being inundated with excess water, which they say is wasteful and killing wildlife and the local environment.
The Murray Darling Basin is the largest and most complex river system in Australia and runs from Queensland, through NSW, Victoria and down to South Australia.
It’s the source of life for Australia’s agricultural industries but residents of a small Victorian town, situated along the NSW border, say the local environment is suffering due to large overflows of water forced through a narrow passage of the river system thanks to a complex market of water rights which are snapped up by large multinational companies.
Periodic flooding, both natural and controlled, has been happening in the Barmah National Park for decades, but after a particularly large flood last year, local resident Murray Willaton has been clashing with the myriad of governing bodies that manage the water flow including Parks Victoria, Catchment Management Authority, the Victorian Environmental Water Holder, the Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Corporate, the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), and state and federal governments.
“They won’t tell a normal person the truth,” he says.
In what he describes as “one of the largest cruelty to animals situations Australia has ever seen”, last year’s flooding resulted in the death of countless native wildlife.
“About 100 adult wild horses died from starvation and we lost almost all the spring foals, we had almost 100 kangaroos dying from starvation and we lost a lot of other native animals as well.” The flooding, he said, forced the animals into small areas where there was a lack of food.
“It was disgusting. If you had of done this on your own private property, I could assure you the government authorities would have been there to put you in jail.”
Because there is so many agencies involved, frustrated locals say there is a lack of accountability.
“We’ve tried for a number of years to get to the bottom of this and no matter who you contact they seem to want to blame each other and no one is prepared to take responsibility,” Mr Willaton told Yahoo News Australia.
“It’s not just summer, they normally flood around Melbourne Cup time, which they’ve just done again.”
“You’ve got two types of flooding, you’ve got the water that’s being released to get down to South Australia … and you’ve also got environmental flooding,” Mr Willaton explained.
The latter is designed to help the local environment by providing water that would have naturally occurred without the man-made interference. As Parks Victoria points out, it is “seeks to emulate pre-regulation overflows in order to maintain the health of the wetland system, and the native species that occur there.”
The former is done to send water down to big irrigators like almond farms owned by large corporations. But as water is sent down to South Australia, it spills out over the banks of the narrow Barmah Choke causing lasting issues, locals say. All the while, desperate farmers upstream are praying for rain.
“All we know is the Barmah National Park is being used as basically a channel to supply water to South Australia and that is not what national parks are designed for, we don’t use and abuse the park to supply water to another place,” Mr Willaton said.
The Murray Darling Basin Authority monitors the need for flooding and its ecological impact on the wetlands in the Barmah Forest in Victoria and the adjacent Millewa forest in NSW. In its latest report, it gave the nature reserve an overwhelmingly positive scorecard when assessing vegetation, water birds, fish and other species.
“The Murray–Darling Basin Authority delivers water in the River Murray system in accordance with orders placed by state water agencies,” an MDBA spokesperson told Yahoo. The recent flooding was sending water to other parts of the river system, they confirmed.
“Flows within the river channel at the Barmah Choke was on its way to irrigators further downstream in Victoria and NSW, to meet South Australia entitlement and into Lake Victoria to assist with meeting peak water demand in summer,” the spokesperson said.
In a 60 Minutes story aired last month, Water Minister David Littleproud conceded that the market for water rights in Australia has had unintended consequences when it comes to managing the precious resource.
“The evolution of the this market may have taken us to a place that isn’t in the national interest,” he told the program.
The 60 minutes episode featured a number of furious locals and the MDBA lodged an official complaint this week over the report, claiming it was once sided and contained factual errors.
Wild horses killed over endangered grasslands
Adding to the frustration for Mr Willaton, who is the president of the Barmah Brumby Preservation Group, is plans to cull wild horses in the area. The reason centres on the decline of a distinctive grassy wetland known locally as the Moira grass plains.
According to Parks Victoria, wild horses in the national park have played a key role in destroying the native wetland Moira grass and the agency announced a plan earlier this year to cull or re-home brumbies in the area that eat the grass and contribute to its decline.
“They do eat the grass, I’m not denying that,” Mr Willaton said, but he believes the rapid decline in the Moira grasslands will continue with the current rate of flooding.
“It’s causing thousands of unhealthy red gum trees and giant rushes to grow and expand in the area and they are choking the Moira grasslands, which Parks Victorian and the other authorise openly now admit, after we out the pressure on them.”
In a statement to Yahoo News Australia, Parks Victoria said “the river system and catchment has been modified so extensively that the forest does not get the water it would have done naturally.
“Delivery of water for the environment is critical in keeping waterways and the life within and around them healthy.”
It said about 30 per cent of the Barmah floodplain was inundated in spring 2018 resulting in an “excellent vegetation response”.
Parks Victoria added that any malnourished feral horses are euthanised under strict protocols.
Management of the river system has long been a source of contention, with the South Australian government recently holding a royal commission into the matter. But Barmah residents are calling for their own inquiry into the management of Murray River in their region.
“We’re calling on the federal and Victorian governments to not only hold a Royal Commission into this whole situation,” Mr Willaton said.
“We’re also calling on both governments to put a hold on any plans that have got anything to do … with the Murray River or the Barmah National Park until this absolutely man-made mess is sorted out.”
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