Friday, 4 July 2008


I have spent some considerable time on this blog going on about our water problems here in South Australia which have been highlighted by, but not caused by, the recent drought. I was hoping to put it out of my mind for a few months over winter but we are having a very dry winter and today, as I got out of my car after returning from the market, with some lovely stories to tell, I saw that once again, my fennel is drooping. It is July and the soil should be saturated but no, down where these old fennel have their deep roots, it is as dry as a desert.

Still, this is not enough to bring the fire back into my belly about this whole water issue...but....oh yes, there is a big but....there was a meeting of all the political leaders of Australia, yesterday, in Canberra, the unknown capital of Australia, and the hot topic was water. It should have seen some practical solutions going into place; after all we have had this problem surfacing and resurfacing like a festering wound for over 30 years, gradually sapping the life out of our food production areas in favour of mining and manufacturing. It should have actually been an update on progress made, but again it was a talk-fest and a re-shuffling of money into projects for many years into the future which will no doubt be another government's problem to implement. It was a bickering session between state governments and involved the quoting of laws and rules and even of the constitution itself but nowhere was there anything....anything concrete for South Australia. A $600,000,000 injection of funds from federal to SA state funds was claimed as a win for us....but the project?? The details?? The solutions?? The extra water?? Not a bloody thing; just another feasibility study into pumping water to the farmers of the Lower Lakes from Tailem bend but not to the lakes themselves.

This was all on the radio this morning from early morning and is still going now and people - real people, like me, people who can see solutions and are irate and furious, are slowly getting to a point where even old cadgers and normally mild-mannered women are on the radio incensed, almost with murder in their voices, that nothing is being done by those that could do something. Even to this point I could have just turned it off and spent the day in my vegetable garden, illegally watering my fennel, but two words were read out on the news from a recent scientific report that made me stop the car and write them down - our whole lower lakes fresh water system will succumb to ECOLOGICAL COLLAPSE if they do not get water by November.

When I think of ecological collapse I think of nuclear disasters like Hiroshima and Chernabol, or massive oil spills like the Exon Valdez, or the melting of polar ice-caps - all places distant in both miles and culture. But this time ecological collapse is less than 100km from my home.

Ecological collapse of an entire river and lake system that I have spent years holidaying on and even teaching sailing on, in tune with the natural wonder of the bird life and the winds and the dozens of intricate channels weaving their reedy magic between little islands. I have canoed there and sailed there and camped there and I have worked there, month after month, for several years, with teenagers, teaching them about my love of it all and how to see it as a way to gain self-confidence and self-respect and to respect life itself. I have wonderful photos and memories of a place that now faces death, through lack of a decent plan.

As the water dries up and recedes from what was once the shore, it eventually causes a phenomenon which I have not read enough about to explain here, but the upshot of it is that the lake bed becomes a sulphuric acid pit and all life is extinguished, with little hope of recovery for thousands of years, if ever, even with the addition of water. So much has the water receded already that crops are being grown, temporarily, where once we used to moor the boats that I used to teach sailing.

OK, you say, get the water to it by November. All very well, even if they let enough water down the river today, which is basically what all the arguing was about between the politicians, it takes months to get here! We are talking about a darn long river that the water has to flow down to get here - the Murray - and it flows so slowly that it would only just make it, maybe, if we opened all the floodgates right now! And these lakes are big - at least 30km across - that's a lot of water. This is because all the available water is 2 or 3 states away - thousands and thousands of slow, meandering waterways away and it might as well be a million miles away for all the collaboration that goes on between the states. Along the way communities take water as allocated by entitlements issued by governments over the last hundred years, until more water has been allocated for irrigation than the sum total of all the water in the river. Now that's smart! Not having any overseeing body, the states just kept on selling licenses. An unsustainable system has turned into a disaster. Even if water was allowed to flow down, all these communtities would have the right to take some and then still there wouldn't be enough to reach these dying lakes.

We can go and buy plastic or steel rainwater tanks and install kilometres of plastic tubes for dripper systems but this is a far bigger problem, as you can now see, than a small city like Adelaide and a few tanks of rainwater can solve. I don't want to write about solutions now or go into any more detail, but ecological disasters on this scale are not something we should be having in Australia. What is equally as distressing is the fact that this will cause many local communities to collapse and affect every single person in South Australia and eventually cost us all heartache as we struggle with the aftermath for generations to come.



Pattie Baker said...

Kate; This is truly awful. If you are a journalist reading this, please encourage your media outlet, or media outlets with which you are affiliated, to cover this story. Bloggers, get the word out. The world needs to know the severity of this.

Unknown said...

Kate, Nero fiddles whilst Rome burns. Typical politicians, full of hot air as usual. I grew up on the Murray in Loxton, and remember floods most years, and a very healthy waterway. My how things have changed. I visited Loxton a year ago, and the river was hardly flowing at all. And all of those dead river red gums. It made me cry that we have been so stupid not to care for this mighty lifeblood of our country. I hope it is not too late to save it.


Anonymous said...

Eeew. There is that panic in me again. I asked the question of my MP regarding WHEN SA would get the water for the Murray and still have had no response even after twice following up... seems when the question is too tough to answer there is no need to respond. How rude.. surely these people are human enough to see that my request for an answer is more than just a request for the MPs to do their job but as humans in our society they hold a position of some influence and should feel duty bound to prioritise with urgency. As you say these issues have been apparent for years... who can be held accountable for inaction when there is no recovery?

Unknown said...

I'm afraid that in a few decades, the water problems world-wide are going to be catastrophic! I live in the USA, in the state of Kentucky and we have had a summer drought for the past 2 years - put nothing like your pix show!

me said...


I can see why you are so upset, its so infuriating when nobody listens.
Kate I read a quote yesterday I think it was from pattie's blog it read Be the change you want to see in the world. From what I have read from your writing you are passionate about your beliefs There must be something you can start for others to join so you can stand together and be heard.
I will be thinking about you and if you decide there is something you can start just yell if you need some help
good luck

Anonymous said...

This is really a horrible problem for you, and I can imagine even if a solution is somehow found now it's bound to return next year anyway.

Here we have 'the opposite' problem in a way. The more water we use from the tap, the more that has to be pumped out of the ground, which in turn causes the country to sink. Since we are below sea level anyway, the faster we sink the more water has to be pumped out to sea to keep us dry, and you guessed it -- this also makes us sink faster. With rising seas putting increasing pressure on the sea dikes, the situation is not sustainable and within a century the country is expected to be largely under water.

This is the main reason everyone with a garden is under a lot of pressure to only use collected rainwater, since we get a lot of rain here anyway.

Do you collect rainwater or gray water for your garden?

Such a simple system won't take you through an entire dry season, but if your house has gutters with down spouts, a diverter can be installed for a single barrel for a total cost around US$100 (or much less if you can scavenge used materials for it). At least then you would have some water for your fennel in times like this.

Anonymous said...

A few facts to think about :

The lower lakes were originally connected to the sea. The system was an estuary. It was not fresh. The Coorong and Lake Alexandrina were fed not just by river water but by sea water coming in with the tides.Salt water could go up as far as Blancheton. And so could Mulloway. Eels ( elvers) came up the river to seek fresh water in the river system. Lots of sea water species bred in the lakes. Lots of fresh water species went down stream also for part of their breeding cycles. There are no eels now in the Murray Darling system or Mulloway or many other species. An entire ecology was wrecked.

This ended in the 1940's when 5 solid barrages were built to keep out the sea water so that the lake water would be not be contaminated by sea water. All the sea water species were excluded and many are now close to extinct because of this and over fishing. ( Ask any old timer fisher person if you do not believe me. After all I'm from Victoria not SA )

And then of course farmers and towns started pumping that fresh water out of the lakes to use in irrigation and town supply. Eg. Vines at Langhorne Creek and Dairying at Wellington. Towns like Murray Bridge, Mannum, Blanchetown, Tailem Bend

Now there is a drought and no flow down the Murray. No fresh water. The lakes are shallow so the water evaporates fast.. And the Sulfur acidic lake bottom is now exposed to air and that creates sulfuric acid and kills whatever has survived so far.

So what to do ?

There's a drought on. A major drought. I live in the Mt Lofty Ranges. We've had just 25% of our normal rain in 6 months of the year. The same applies for most of Victoria and NSW. There is bugger all fresh water in the system to re- flood the lakes with fresh water. Dartmouth Dam has 15%. Lake Hume has 8%. Lake Victoria has 13%.

Some water is being held back at the Mennindie Lakes in NSW. It's 40% full because of heavy rains last February in Qld. It's being stored there in the expectation that it will be needed by Adelaide and the towns of South Australia, next Summer as the drought continues ( Because of Climate Change ? Probably ! )

Meanwhile there is sea water just on the other side of the Barrages which could be used to flood the Coorong, Lake Albert and Lake Alexandrina. Opening the barrages would restore the system to what it was before the barrages were built and allow the ecology to start to recover & survive long enough till the next flood comes down the river.

But that means that irrigation would have to stop. They would be out of business. So the irrigators are fighting opening the barrages.They want 'their' fresh water being stolen from them by NSW. They want fresh water to be released down the river from the Menindee lakes. And that puts at risk Adelaide's supply next Summer - which you use to water your garden Kate..

So what do I say: Simple flood the lakes with sea water. Save what can be saved of the ecology; stop the acid sulfate process. Accept the lesson from Mother nature. And just maybe put some funds into compensation for the irrigators who would out of business.


Anonymous said...

It is all very thought provoking but who will be making these required changes? Much of the industry in SA is unregulated and wasteful of our water resources yet those of us who choose to avoid eating mass produced replicas of food and reduce our carbon footprint by producing home grown healthy foods.. are being made to suffer the consequences of climate change with no thought of compensation. Why does it always fall on those who are putting in the effort to put in even more and make the sacrifices required. Why can't it be seen as obvious that we have the right to feed our families and friends if we have the skills to do so. It is a skill which has been lost... no wonder. Look at how we encourage our kids of today to sit indoors using all the electricity they want... movies, games, all things electronic... not many would even know how to grow cucumbers.. let alone know what they are called. Why does the government allow so many new developements and yet what good is a rain water tank unless people actually use them? Surely the real issue is the fact that too many people have no idea where their food comes from nor do they care. Our children need to be taught in schools how to feed themselves efficiently and take better care than we have of what is available to all... or should be. Industry which takes from the environment but does not have a sound eco policy should not exist.

Greg W said...

I agree with Tina, 100%. Mankind’s short-sighted policies, or lack of any policy at all, is cutting our own throats by forcing nature to bend to our will. We have to regulate industry to work with nature and not just use it until it has dried up. If it means reduced profits some years then so be it, because so many other people depend on those resources as well. It will require a massive mindset change and South Australia is a prime example of this current wrong-headed thinking going to the extreme. Nature gave us estuaries for a very good reason, whether we chose to understand them or not and we now see the consequences of disrupting them. Florida’s estuaries are being rebuilt after a near destruction of many habitats. I can only hope and pray that Australian politicians start thinking with their heads instead of leading with their wallets in time to save your area.

Kate said...

Yes Bill. The only solution now we have got this far is to let in the seawater. At least it will stop this horrific acid problem . Do you think it will happen in time? Can those thick-headed cretins who run our state actually do something so radical as letting the river revert to its natural state?? I wonder and I wait, like you and Tina and everyone else who lives here....

bipolar spouse vt said...

Have they ever been able to move that fast or intelligently? I am sorry that you are all in this horrid mess. What a disaster this is going to be if nothing is done. I would hope that they can see the "forest for the trees" so to speak and ignore the politics of big money. Maybe if the USA people get in touch with our legislators they could put some pressure on your turtles - I have one that actually listens and moves amazingly. I'll call him Monday - he is in the Senate. We'll see if he can make a few calls. Bless you in the meantime. I hope something happens in time to help.
Laurie - in Vermont (vtfarma)