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The Murray-Darling Basin

Politicians, farmers and greenies are all part of a three-way brawl over the Murray-Darling Basin. So what's all the fuss about?

The parched Murray-Darling Basin

The rivers of the Murray-Darling system are drying out.

Credit: iStockphoto

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What's so special about the Murray-Darling Basin?

The Basin spans one seventh of our country, covering the Australian Capital Territory, large areas of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, and a small portion of South Australia.

It is home to our three largest rivers and over 30,000 wetland habitats, 15 listed under the Ramsar Convention as Wetlands of International Importance. It also plays host to a huge number of native plants and animals, many endangered.

Sixty seven per cent of the Basin's land is used for growing around 40 per cent of the nation's crops and livestock, hence the name "food-bowl of Australia". It also serves as the main source of drinking water for over three million Australians.

So what's the problem?

Lack of water is the broad, overarching concern. The Basin is parched due to almost a decade of harsh drought, the increasing effects of climate change, as well as poor water management.

When water is available in the river system, its flow is hampered by the Basin's 30 dams and 3,500 weirs.
Because of this, many regions of the Basin - the Coorong and Lower Lakes in particular - are drying out past the point of saving.

The problems are also threatening $9 billion of agricultural income. States that have control of the water have the opportunity to grow and make more money.

What are we going to do?

Short of praying and dancing for more rain, there are still solutions.

All farmers in the region own "water rights", which allow a stipulated quantity of water to be taken from the rivers for irrigation each year. The Federal Government is in the process of buying back many of these allocations from willing farmers. These buybacks are on behalf of the environment, meaning when it does rain, the rivers will be able to flow.

State governments are also pitching in, and the Murray Darling Basin Authority has been established to make sure the system doesn't reach this state again.

Anything else?

A restoration plan for the entire Basin is being devised, which will include stricter limits on water use. But it will not be ready until 2011, and some say it could be a case of too little, too late.

Other proposed remedies include releasing water from upstream dams (though with public dams barely meeting essential human needs at less than one quarter full, the water simply isn't there to give), and, as a last resort, flooding the lower regions with seawater to breathe some sort of life into the area.

So why don't we get on with it?

The strain on the Basin has also become quite political.

Queensland, for example, allowed irrigators to take a record amount of water from the system in the past year (twice the volume of Sydney Harbour), while other states operated on tight restrictions. This has led to much blame-placing and finger-pointing.

Victoria is also a focal point of tensions, refusing to lift tight restrictions on water trading which, according to the Australian Conservation Foundation, are keeping more than 7.3 billion litres of water from flowing through the system.

What can I do?

Reduce your own water use. Even if you don't take water directly from the Basin's rivers, do your bit to protect the water that's closest to you - the momentum for change starts everywhere.

Most importantly, have a voice. Show your local member of parliament that you care about the Basin and its rivers by having a chat or writing a letter.

Where can I read more?

The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority
Also check out G's news article on the latest findings about the health of the Basin here.