A Dry Argument

Below is my editorial from the February 2019 “Fishotopian” newsletter. To subscribe to these free monthly newsletters from Fishotopia.com, please click here.

Hold on, old girl! A river red gum stands as a last line of defence against erosion on the banks of The Murray, near the South Australian/Victorian border.

A river red gum stands as a last line of defence against erosion on the banks of The Murray, near the SA/VIC border.

Unless you’ve been overseas or off grid for the past few months, you’ll have seen coverage of catastrophic fish kills in outback NSW, especially along the Darling River near Menindee. The scale of this disaster is staggering and difficult for most of us to comprehend. It appears the loss of aquatic life in some stretches of this iconic outback waterway may be close to total. It’ll take decades for native fish populations to recover, assuming they ever do… and that’s a big assumption.

The Darling River holds a special place in my heart. Back in 1980, my first posting as a wet-behind-the-ears schoolteacher was to Bourke, in north western NSW. Here, along the steep banks of the twisting Darling, I discovered the “vision splendid” of Banjo Patterson’s “sunlit plains extended, and at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars”. It was here I first inhaled the intoxicating perfume of that wonderful petrichor that’s released as fat drops of rain smack onto drought-parched plains, and watched the sun slide behind a horizon so staggeringly wide you’d swear you can see the curvature of the earth. On the downside, I also witnessed the mud-sucking peak of a spreading carp plague, and watched the disturbing phenomenon of a river suddenly flowing backwards as giant irrigation pumps fired up to feed cotton crops the size of small European nations. For me, the writing was already on the wall for the mighty Darling, and the story it told was not a happy one.

Starling on the Darling in 1980. A lot of water has flowed around those snags in the past 40 years.

Starling on the Darling in 1980. A lot of water has flowed around those snags in the past 40 years.

The Darling is officially described as a “dryland river” and is characterised by “extreme climatic variability”. It has been that way since well before the first humans of any colour reached its high banks and gazed down in wonder at what must have been a green-tinged artery of life twisting through the baked red plains. Even then, the Paaka or Barka (as it was known to the local Barkindjii people) was an ephemeral watercourse. For every grainy black and white print of cargo-laden paddle steamers plying a broad body of water in the 19th century, there are almost as many images of those same vessels sitting like discarded toys on the cracked bed of a dry river. This was before cotton or rice. Before today’s massive levels of water extraction for irrigation. Before Cubby Station. Before environmental flows or basin plans or political pork barreling.

A paddle steamer stranded in the dry bed of the Darling River near Bourke around the end of the 19th century.

A paddle steamer stranded in the dry bed of the Darling River, near Bourke (NSW), around the end of the 19th century.

Between 1885 and 1960, the Darling at Menindee ceased flowing on at least 45 separate occasions, and during the 1902/03 drought, it didn’t run for 364 days straight.

The natural inhabitants of the river — from the smallest shrimp to the largest cod — adapted to its fickle nature by developing boom-and-bust survival strategies. In the hardest of times, their numbers dwindled to remnant populations in isolated waterholes or tributaries. But as soon as new floods came — often the result of cyclonic rains far to the north — they bred up in massive numbers, quickly re-populating the swollen waters by migrating vast distances up and down the river. This was long the way of things across most of our ancient continent: on land as well as in the water. A recently published 40-year study found that kangaroo numbers on the western plains of NSW varied from 18 million in good years to just five million during drought times. Fluctuations in native fish densities can be even more dramatic. Terra Australis refuses to march to the regimented, relatively predictable routine of European seasons. It lurches instead from bitter poverty to boundless plenty and back again, across a cyclic time frame much older than humanity.

Trouble is, we’ve overlaid our pervasive impact on all of this natural variability and resilience. We’ve introduced thirsty crops and livestock from the other side of the globe, let loose exotic pests, built multiple barriers to hold back rivers and block the migration of fish, sucked water (and baby fish) out and pumped toxins back in. So powerful is our impact on the natural world that we’ve even modified the underlying climate. The combined effect of all of this is a flattening out of the natural peaks and a dramatic deepening of the troughs in those ancient rhythms of boom-and-bust. And now, if you’ll pardon a biblical analogy, we’re reaping what we’ve sown.

While they’re not “100 years old” as some have claimed, mature cod like these represent decades of life… now lost.

While they’re not “100 years old” as some have claimed, mature cod like these represent decades of life… now lost.

It’s not surprising that the latest fish kills have evoked so much raw, visceral emotion amongst Australians. Anger. Outrage. Sadness. I’ve felt all those things myself — often simultaneously — as the shocking story of a river in its death throes unfolds across our screens. It’s human nature to look for someone or something to blame at these times. Drought. Climate change. Irrigators. Big cotton. Politicians. Bureaucrats. And the truth is they’re all partly responsible. But guess what? So are you, and so am I. Our cotton shirts, loaves of bread, rock melons, grapes, steaks and rice don’t just magically materialise on supermarket shelves. They’re grown somewhere on our behalf, using lots and lots of precious water. We are as complicit in their creation as we are in their consumption.

It’s futile looking for one factor or one person to blame for the Menindee fish kills, and equally pointless (in my opinion) to call for an overnight change in the way we live our lives. We like our cotton and our wheat and our rice and our roads and our air conditioners far too much. In fact, we’re addicted to them.

Cotton growing has a lot to answer for... but so do we for willingly consuming the end product.

Cotton growing has a lot to answer for… but so do we for willingly consuming the end product.

Perhaps the best way forward is a gradual modification of habits and a reduction in some of the more obvious excesses of our modern, Western lifestyle? This begins with recognising that many of these excesses are simply not good for us, nor for the planet we depend on for our survival. (As an interesting aside, did you realise that for the first time in human history, we live in age when more people are dying from eating too much than from not having enough to eat? It’s a sobering thought.)

I suspect that incremental change will need to be driven by us — the people. Sadly, our politicians (of all persuasions) have repeatedly shown themselves to be incapable of doing the “vision thing” and looking beyond the next election. We can’t rely on them to fix things, so I reckon we’ll have to force gradual change from the bottom up instead. I’m not talking about unplugging from the power grid tomorrow, growing all your own food, wearing animal skins or living in a cave. I like my creature comforts, too! But we can definitely do a lot better. And if we want to see ecosystems like the Darling River return to even a shadow of their former glory, we’re going to have to do a lot better… Are you up for it?

I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, but I reckon the adoption of the following five-point plan would represent a wonderful starting point:



  1. Immediately establish a Federal Royal Commission to examine the overall management of the Murray/Darling Basin.
  2. Urgently re-assess all existing barriers (weirs, locks, barrages and dams) with an eye to removing or dramatically reducing their impact on fish migration.
  3. Place a moratorium on the granting of new water extraction licences and examine the viability of buying back some of the existing allocation.
  4. Actively prosecute companies or individuals found to be illegally extracting water, and investigate their potential linkages to politicians and bureaucrats.
  5. Mandate the fitting of effective screens on all pump inlets to prevent millions of juvenile fish being sucked from our inland rivers by irrigators.

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