Murray-Darling future grim, says report

Murray River

The Murray River in South Australia, well below the waterline.

Credit: iStockphoto

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The wetland habitats, particularly in the Lower Lakes and Coorong regions, are now drying out beyond the point of saving, and in the future will receive even further reduced flood volumes at increasingly sparse intervals.

"The drought has highlighted how far we've pushed some of these ecosystems…but even when the drought breaks there's going to be an ongoing challenge to provide secure, safe water in a healthy environment unless we make some changes," said lead author of the Project's report, Tom Hatton, Director of the CSIRO's Water for a Healthy Country Flagship in NSW.

His team's research also finds groundwater is being used at an unsustainable rate in many areas of the Basin.

The good news, however, is that the report clearly outlines the most critical areas and issues in the Basin that require attention: "[I]t's absolutely something that is fundamental for us to be able to go forward as a nation and plan a reallocation of water to our rivers," said John Williams, from the NSW Natural Resources Commission.

Ken Mathews, CEO of the National Water Commission in Canberra, agrees. "In the past Australia hasn't managed the Murray-Darling system as well as we could because we haven't properly understood its capacity, its hydrology, the connection between surface flows and groundwater, and the aggregate effects of drought, floods and climate change - as well as the varying demands of each state and territory for its water," he said.

"We now have this information and that's critical to properly managing a river system that supplies at least 40 per cent of Australia's agricultural production. We can now better understand the possible effects of climate change on water availability in the Basin and plan for its impacts."

The findings can be used to guide future government policy on Basin water use, and have prompted the similar analysis of some of Australia's other major river systems, he said.

So far the Rudd Government has committed $3.1 billion towards buying back water rights from willing irrigators in order to return any available water to the Basin's rivers and wetlands. It has also allocated funding towards Basin projects "that improve water efficiency and use, and assist irrigation communities to adjust to a future with less water," said Wong, who anticipates the Sustainable Yields Project to influence the development of a new Basin-wide plan, scheduled for 2011.

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