BEFORE you even catch a glimpse of the Darling River at Menindee, it’s clear something isn’t right.
The putrid smell of dead fish hangs in the air, much to the disgust of the townspeople whose homes are on the river.
At the Menindee town boat ramp on Wednesday morning, where a throng of frustrated people were waiting for NSW Fisheries and Regional Water Minister Niall Blair, some of the fish carcasses were washed up at the water’s edge.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen the fish kills like this but we’ve been living with this disaster for years and years and we’ve been fighting this disaster for years and years,” Menindee resident Karen Page said.
Even fisheries officers from the NSW Department of Primary Industries say it’s one of the worst kills they have ever seen – more than a million fish, mostly native Murray cod, golden perch and bony bream.
Darling River communities downstream of Bourke have been crying foul about management of their river for years but it has taken images of the dead fish, some believed to be more than 80 years old, to thrust the issue into the national spotlight.
“Some people spend 30 years trying to catch metre-plus fish,” Sunraysia recreational angler Braeden Lampard said.
“They spend their whole recreational life trying to catch that one fish and then to see hundreds of thousands of good-sized Murray cod dying, it just breaks their heart.”
Fierce debate has erupted about just what, or who, is to blame for the environmental disaster unfolding on the river.
The Menindee community, which saw its lakes fill just two years ago, is finding the government line about drought very hard to swallow.
“It’s not about the drought – it’s about the management and the releases of the water out of the lakes,” Rob Gregory, head of Menindee’s tourism association, said.
“Certainly management needs to change there.”
The NSW Government was quick to point out this week the decision to release water from the Menindee Lakes in 2016 and 2017, so soon after the Darling began flowing again, wasn’t theirs.
Under a long-standing agreement between the NSW, Victorian, South Australian and Federal governments, water in the lakes becomes a shared Murray-Darling Basin resource once levels reach 640 gigalitres.
“That’s the rules and that’s Canberra’s decision,” Mr Blair said.
“These are all the things that a lot of people are dismissing – those releases have had other benefits for the environment.
“And the irony is some of those water releases have seen some of the best fish breeding events that we’ve seen for a very long time.”
The other culprit, in the eyes of the Menindee community, environmentalists and many politicians, are upstream irrigators given perceived favourable treatment by the NSW Government.
“It’s people upstream that always get what they want,” one farmer told Mr Blair at Menindee this week.
The minister replied that it “depends on who you’re speaking to”.
Cotton Australia general manager Michael Murray yesterday said his industry was “very tired about being the whipping boy for all the problems that are being brought on by this crippling drought”.
WaterNSW executive manager of asset operations Adrian Langdon said evaporation made it “very hard to store water at the (Menindee) Lakes”.
“I know people don’t want to say it’s a drought but there’s very little irrigation water going on up north,” Mr Langdon said.
“The only water we’ve got up there is really what was captured in the storages in ’16-17.
“They filled at the same time Menindee Lakes filled and they’re draining at the same time.”
The evaporation argument, as NSW Nationals MP Kevin Humphries noted last year, doesn’t cut through in the state’s far west.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan, designed to restore the river system to health by reducing the amount of water used for irrigation and urban consumption and increasing environmental flows, will be a $13 billion investment.
Some of that money is slated to be spent on reconfiguring the Menindee Lakes, so larger volumes of water can be released when inflows arrive.
Proponents say the project will contribute 106 gigalitres towards the Murray-Darling Basin Plan’s water recovery target by reducing the amount lost to evaporation.
Despite the government and MDBA insisting the changes will be beneficial for native fish (the Menindee Lakes have been identified as critical to the life cycle of golden perch), recreational anglers and ecologists are concerned the changes will disrupt basin-wide populations.
“It’s clear water is still being taken,” Professor Mike Young, research chair in water and environmental policy at the University of Adelaide, said.
“If no water had been taken, other than for domestic purposes, would it (the fish kill) have happened? I think that depends on how the flow is managed.”
Professor Young – one of the architects of the unbundling of water from land and the development of Australia’s trading system for water rights – said the MDBA needed to set minimum daily “hands-off” flow requirements for every reach of the river.
“You’d have (a gauge) at every town and sometimes between towns at places that are well known and easy to monitor and see,” Prof Young said.
Minimum flow requirements could realistically be incorporated into water resource plans, to be accredited by the MDBA this year, he said, suggesting they be instituted alongside a ban on any unmetered extraction starting from the very next irrigation season.
“We might not agree to the numbers that would be in place but at least we would have regulation of the concept,” Prof Young said, adding reforms should go further.
He said basin water ministers’ power over the MDBA should be limited to appointing the authority’s members, similar to the Reserve Bank model of governance.
“It’s lessons like this (fish kill) that reveal the last round of reforms that need to take place,” he said.
This story appears in Friday's Sunraysia Daily, 11/1/2019. To subscribe to our Digital Edition, click here