One man's river odyssey in drought-stricken Australia

Posted: 8 August 2007

Rain has been falling in South East Australia, filling reservoirs and recharging the water table, but but the worst drought on record still has a firm hold in southern Queensland, central New South Wales and South Australia - so no rain has fallen in the Murray-River catchment. Here Don Alcock tells the story of one man's travels along that river system in a bid to investigate the causes of this crisis, including climate change.

At an age when many are looking forward to retirement, 54-year-old Steve Posselt has embarked on a gruelling physical challenge that's not for the faint-hearted. Steve is trying to kayak from Brisbane to Adelaide, a distance over 6,000 kilometres, via the Murray Darling River system, in an effort to draw attention to the effects of climate change on this parched environment. The trouble is there's no water.

Murray-Darling catchment area.
Murray-Darling catchment area.
Murray-Darling catchment area.
In Australia's worst drought for over 100 years, this vast river system is struggling to survive. Lack of rain, over-allocation of water to irrigators, poor planning and a drying climate have reduced the upper reaches of this vast river system to a mere trickle. During the past year, flows into the Murray-Darling Basin have been the lowest on record. Climate scientists say this is just a sample of what's to come because of global warming.

Steve knows this means walking for at least half of his six-month trip. Strapped to his chest is a harness; behind a long yellow kayak being towed on wheels. Steve's his epic journey will cross four states, pass countless farms and intersect many country towns. He will walk, paddle and sometimes carry his kayak along the Brisbane, Bremer, Condamine, Balonne, Darling and Murray rivers.

Hard slog

He knows the first half of the journey is mostly a hard slog on foot - apart from a few sections, all the rivers have run dry - but that hasn't daunted his spirit. Sustained by bananas, camp food and a few beers each evening, Steve averages 30 kilometres a day. His kayak's custom-built drop-down wheels, mounted at each end, are holding up well.

Steve on highway near St George
Steve on highway near St George
Steve on outback highway near St George.
Steve says his journey aims to highlight the effects of global warming on water availability, especially in the Murray-Darling basin. At towns and in schools, on farms and in pubs, he takes time to stop and talk to people about how they're coping with a drying climate. "I'm here to learn," he says, "I'm not here to preach."

Not everyone agrees with Steve's message. Robert Buchan, mayor of Balonne Shire, has lived and worked in the region since 1948. He says: "There are a lot of extremists around regarding climate change. We're just living with a prolonged drought. Most people around here think the climate is more cyclical."

Bush consensus Steve's not surprised by this bush consensus. For the past month he's talked to plenty of farmers about climate, drought and water allocation issues. "Most of the older people I've talked to so far say our climate is just following a cycle."

Despite heading a Queensland climate change group for the Australian Water Association and having more than 30 years experience in the water industry, Steve says he won't be pushing his views onto people he meets during his trip. "I really want to listen. I want to hear what local people have to say because I think they're usually the ones with the answers. No farmer sets out to be unsustainable. Most are trying hard to adjust to less water under difficult circumstances."

Dry Darling River
Dry Darling River
Dry Darling River.
Everyone in Australia knows of the mighty Darling, the nation's longest river. Songs have been written about it, ballads have been penned on its banks, and fortunes made from its waters. Now, as its upper reaches whither, an environmental debate rages about irrigation rights from its flows.

Water harvesting Here, the number one issue on people's minds is water harvesting from its tributary, the Condamine River, which turns south-west from Roma, changing its name to the Balonne as it flows through the cotton and coolibah country around St George and Dirranbandi.

This is a region that boasts Australia's biggest collection of privately owned dams and vast irrigation water storages known as 'ring tanks' which cover an estimated 40,000 hectares. One well known cotton farm, Cubbie Station with its massive 400 gigalitre capacity dam, stands out among all others, having divided politicians, land managers, conservationists and scientists for years.

Following several decades of controversy over water allocations to farming from the upper Darling River system, the Queensland government recently published a draft water plan for the Condamine-Balonne River. After three years of consultation, the plan outlines new arrangements for trading water, managing floodplain flows, operating weirs and protecting ecosystem health. It's garnered considerable support.

Irrigation systems

If Steve has a personal opinion about using water for cotton farming, he remains quiet in front of his St George audience. By the banks of the depleted Balonne, in a town fortunate to be supplied with fresh water by an 1100 metre deep artesian bore, fifth generation farmer Jeff Moon voices his concerns about how the media portrays farmers and irrigators as the bad guys.

"The thing that worries all of us is the media giving the wrong idea about what's really going on here. It makes out we're ruining the river system, that we're environmental vandals. This couldn't be further from the truth. We're doing the best we can. Most people support the draft water plan. The river is our lifeblood."

The farmers stress the Balonne River is relatively healthy, well managed, and their irrigation systems and water harvesting practices are efficient. There's even a regional website called Smartrivers to promote scientific reports, ecosystem health monitoring and best practice guidelines for cotton farming.

While sections of the river system may be in good shape, overall the Murray-Darling is severely threatened, which is taking a drastic toll on the lives of many Australian's. State and federal governments are under pressure to act. Early in 2007 the federal government outlined plans for a $10 billion plan to improve water efficiency and address over-allocation for the region. The controversial plan means taking over many water rights from the states.

Security plan

The water security plan involves improving irrigation methods, upgrading on-farm irrigation technology, capping surface and groundwater use, setting up new governance arrangements, undertaking major engineering works at several wetlands, and restoring the Great Artesian Basin. It also means a shift in power to the federal government which wants to take control of the Murray Darling River. One state, Victoria, is fighting the proposal and wants to manage the problem itself.

While river politics is being hotly debated between governments and industry Steve continues to discuss water conservation issues with local communities, as he slowly walks and paddles south toward Adelaide. "This river system is critical for Australia's future," he says. "We've got to get it right."

(Copyright:Don Alcock, August 2007)

Follow Steve's progress down the Murray-Darling at: www.kayak4earth.com.au

Factfile: The Murray-Darling Basin covers one-seventh of Australia and produces 40 per cent of its agricultural produce. It is Australia's food bowl, where 70 per cent of irrigation takes place and 42 per cent of farm land is located. It is fed by 408,000 kilometres of rivers.

Australia's average rainfall is 455 millimetres. Half of the rainfall lands on just a quarter of the land area, a fringe around the eastern and northern coasts. Only 6 per cen of rain falls in the Murray-Darling Basin.

11,500 gigalitres (one gigalitre is rougly equal to 500 Olympic swimming pools) of water is removed from the Murray and Darling Rivers per year, of its average total of about 14,000 gigalitres. Irrigation accounts for 95 per cent of the water used. Along about 1,000 kilometres of Murray riverbank and floodplain thousands of river red gums are dying from lack of water. Natural flooding once regularly soaked these trees. It is estimated that 50 - 80 per cent of wetlands in the Basin have been destroyed.

The reduction in the flooding of the floodplains has devastated native fish and bird populations. Native fish populations have fallen to 10 per cent of their original numbers. Numbers of native cod have declined by 30 per cent in the last 50 years.

There are 30 dams and 3,500 weirs in the Murray-Darling Basin. Less than 20 per cent of its capacity now flows out of the River Murray mouth.

Murray Darling River Facts provided by the Australian Conservation Foundation.

See also www.abc.net.au/water/for the water forum/news updates from ABC.