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Living Lightly column

Let’s celebrate our rivers together

By Jonathon Howard

World Rivers Day, the last Saturday in September, is a celebration of waterways, striving to increase public stewardship of rivers around the world.

There is good reason to celebrate the Murray, the lifeblood of our region. It produces much of Australia’s wool, cotton, wheat, sheep, cattle, dairy, rice, wine, and vegetables.

It also supplies stock, industrial and domestic water, provides tourism and recreation, and gives local communities a ‘sense of place’. The benefits of a healthy river system are enjoyed by the whole community.

Unfortunately, this unrelenting drought is afflicting the basin. There is no doubt severe hardship is being felt by farmers and farming communities. It is critical they have the support they need to get back on their feet and build their resilience.

I have heard suggestions and seen demonstrations suggesting that the solution is to “Pause the Plan”. But I wonder if the way we monitor, evaluate, and police the plan is the problem?

Take flood harvesting – the Emu Swamp dam which is proposed for Stanthorpe (a community severely affected by drought) will hold 10.5 gigalitres, yet floodplain harvesting and storages along the Darling can hold up to 50GL.

However, this water is not accounted for by authorities. It means in our highly variable river system, people can take the cream off the top and not return it when needed – no wonder there are fish kills in Menindee.

It also means there is “no money in the bank”. So with dry weather expected to continue, many experts are suggesting there will be more fish kills this summer.

I suspect we will also see algal blooms again, which can impact the water provided to towns and stock, as well as impacting recreational activities like swimming, fishing, and tourism.

However World River Day is not about being glum. We need to change and urge our water planners to give equal consideration to downstream users so that the southern irrigators are not impacted by what is happening up north.

We also need to value the contribution of non-irrigation communities and other water dependent industries such as tourism, recreational and fishing.

Valuing all the benefits of our river, and letting the diversity of voices be heard will encourage improved stewardship of the lifeblood of our region.