Practical Management of The Darling River: Ten Steps

Practical Management of
The Darling River:
Ten Steps

by Ron Pike
Jan 2019.

The management of the Darling River and its vast catchment must be vested with ONE authority; not six or seven as is the present case. We can for now call it “The Darling River Authority” (DRA).

  1. The Darling River and its catchment must be removed from the MDB (Murray-Darling Basin) Plan. There never was any need for water from the Darling to be tagged for use in SA. Management of flows in the lower Murray can come from much larger and more reliable sources.
  2. The DRA must be legally bound to manage the water in the Darling system on the following basis.
  3. First priority for available water every year is maintenance of all of river flow in sufficient volume to supply all stock and domestic needs along with all Municipal requirements.In managing the quantum to be held in storage to meet this First Priority, at least two years supply of water must be accounted for in upstream storages, including delivery losses.
  4. Second priority: Sufficient water for existing permanent plantings; that is high security licenses.
  5. Third Priority: Only after First and Second priorities have been assured is consideration to be given to what percentages of licenses can be supplied to annual crop irrigators.
  6. Licenses to irrigate; must be attached to land that can be irrigated and can only be traded within the valley to which they were issued.
  7. All agreements previously entered into that give other authorities rights to water from Menindee Lakes must be rescinded. The Lakes are there to guarantee water for Broken Hill, Menindee and to ensure sufficient flow for the lower Darling in all years. No water from the Darling should be earmarked for the lower Murray because it is not needed. When there is excess water available from the Lakes it should be used to flush the Great Anna branch on an as possible basis.
  8. Filling of licensed off-river storages must only be allowed from flows in excess of the above priorities. These privately owned storages have a place in the practical management of water in the system but need to be monitored to ensure water is only diverted after all other priorities have been met and when approved by DRA.
  9. The pipeline from the Menindee Lakes to Broken Hill needs to be renewed and kept in operational order for all who have relied on it for decades.

Having implemented these practical solutions to overcome the short term problems we should then implement long term plans that will ensure permanent water for the whole region for the foreseeable future by doing the following:

A: Build several weirs along the Darling River creating pools of water around 5 metres deep at the weir and stretching back at least 150 km. These would ensure adequate water for all first priority users as well as recreational facilities and aquatic habitat. Everyone along the river would benefit from always having the water they need and great recreational facilities in a mostly dry environment.

B: Several dam sites have been assessed on tributaries of the Darling which would provide long term additional storage ensuring water in all years. These dams need to be built as soon as possible.

C: Crucial to all of this is implementation of the “The Plan that Works for All” on the Coorong and Lower Lakes. This Plan negates the use of water from the Darling being needed to correct problems in SA.

In summary the present problems are unnecessary and are caused not by under regulation as claimed by the MDBA and Greens but by over regulation flowing from too many entities claiming ownership of water in the Darling system.

This plan could be implemented immediately and at little cost, in stark contrast to the pipeline from Wentworth which will likely become another “White Elephant,” similar to the desalination plants.

The hard part will be getting the politicians to overturn several decades of bad water policy.

The massive Murray-Darling Basin of one million square kilometres, with 77,000 km of river, is home to 2.6 million Australians. It is 14% of Australia’s land mass and produces over 40% of our total agricultural production.

It has for decades produced enough food to feed over 40 million people.

Now because of the MDB Plan and associated State water policy it is dying. If this drought continues, in about 18 months Australia will be importing food and communities across this vast productive area will be depopulating. It may be the biggest mistake ever made by Government in Australia.

Even Henry Lawson back in 1899 in his poem “Song of the Darling River,” recognised what needed to be done on the Darling River:

The skies are brass and the plains are bare,
Death and ruin are everywhere-
And all that is left of the last year’s flood
Is a sickly stream on the grey-black mud.

I have watered the barren land ten leagues wide!
But in vain I have tried, ah! in vain I have tried
To show the sign of the Great All Giver,
The Word to a people: O! lock your river.

Ron Pike
January 2019.

Further Reading:

Water Conservation and Waste in Australia:

3 thoughts on “Practical Management of The Darling River: Ten Steps”

  1. Absolutely loved this read & agreed 100% with what was said. I guess people need to live in these areas to appreciate what this river system has provided for so many, for so long. It’s not just the drought causing the problems it’s the mismanagement.

  2. Section 6. is very important. Restricting ownership of water to the actual consumers of the water prevents speculators from increasing prices when the consumers are desperate.

    About ten years ago, the ABC Landline program mentioned that American author Annie Proulx was worried because Texas water was owned by New Yorkers.

  3. I agree that the Darling should be seen as a separate to the Murray and it should be acknowledged that unlike the Murray, except for small upland areas in NE-NSW and along the Border Rivers, there are few reliable sources of runoff for the Darling i.e. where runoff is assured in 50% to 75% of years. Episodicity (occasional years of very high flows) cannot be depended on to maintain the system and the idea that water should be foregone in seasons or years that are wet in order to stabilise flows or create perennial flow regimes in dry years is oversold and misleading.

    The Darling was not naturally a perennial stream. Occasional high-flow flushes the system, but the natural flow regime in most years was little or no flow, especially in the lower Darling. The reason for this is that most of the landscape (>95%) hardly ever generates runoff and potential evaporation rates increase exponentially as rainfall declines below about 800 mm/year. Given that most evaporation occurs in summer, the amount of rain needed to contribute runoff is very high, it needs to be widespread and before generating runoff the first 100 mm or so simply fills the antecedent accumulated deficit. I’m amused that commentators (and Commissioners Royal) don’t understand these issues.

    Very high rates of potential evaporation along the length of the river and low gradients mean it’s impossible to store water on-river. Not only is there not much reliable runoff to play with, storing water incurs large surface area to water depth ratios and much of the water will simply disappear.

    The other problem is cyclic salt. Evaporation leaves salt behind, which will accumulate and damage water suppliers into the future. Irregular flushing removes salt, while trapping water in storages will collect it. Storage has been talked about before (do a search on Trove) but sensibly rejected. In the medium to long term it would be a disaster for the river and its water-dependent communities. Storage is only possible in deflation depressions like Menindee where there is some natural depth and shelter from wind ( However, many so-called lakes are already too salty to consider as fresh-water storages.

    I agree that it is ridiculous to trade water between say the upper-Darling or the Macquarie River valley and the Murray. Getting a parcel of water through the system (called shepherding) requires that it is ‘topped-up’ along the way (to make up for leakage and evaporation) and by the time it gets to where it is going the original water probably doesn’t exist. If it’s going to SA, most of it is actually drawn from the upper-Murray (Hume dam) or storages in Victoria for example, so why bother pretending that it comes from somewhere in Queensland. I don’t know that it actually happens, but it is also illogical to trade water ‘up-hill’.

    All the statistics don’t mean a thing to the river. The adjacent catchment of Lake Eyre covers a greater area than the MDB (and is much bigger compared to the catchment of the Darling). The fact that somebody worked out on the back of an envelope that it feeds 40 million people or whatever (plus or minus 20 million) makes no difference. The river is not ‘dying’ any more than Lake Eyre ‘dies’ for decades at a time between floods. Emotive expressions get in the way of understanding what is going on and leads to non-solutions that potentially make the perceived problem worse.

    Episodicity (periodocity) and low rainfall reliability is the biggest problem for the Darling. The second insurmountable problem is high potential evaporation and the third is cyclic-salt. (The fourth is ignorance – the failure to understand the issues.)

    If rainfall (more correctly runoff) is not predictable from year-to-year (which is the case), lengthy periods of low- or no-flow like has happened in the past is inevitable going forward. Water-harvesting at Bourke is over stated as a problem – except in exceptionally wet years, that water is not destined to reach the Coorong.

    Before planning or pushing for storages along the river, grab hold of some data and scare youselves about just how much water is lost directly as a result of evaporation between say Bourke (altitude about 100 m) and Wentworth (altitude about 40 m). A 60 m fall along a river length of >1000 km doesn’t leave much room for storage either, does it?

    Finally, a lot of good, hard-working and knowledgeable people have worked on various facets of understanding and optimising the value of catchments within the MDB. Most possible on-ground works (including on-river storage) have been thoroughly researched and evaluated at some time or another. Reinventing or ignoring the reams of stuff in various archives and libraries is not the way forward.

    The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a scam of epic proportions that I’m unable to comment on now.


    Bill Johnston

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