by Troy Whitford,
Dr Troy Whitford is a Lecturer in History in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Charles Sturt University
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The proposed cuts to water allocations featured in the Guide to the Murray Basin Plan are detrimental to rural communities and the agricultural sector.  While debate surrounds the impact of the proposed Basin Plan, little attention is given to the methodology used to calculate the volumes of water that are required to restore natural flows to the Basin’;s river system.  Whereas historical inquiry has been central to the development of the Basin Plan, the historical methodology used is insufficient to make an informed decision regarding water allocations.

The recently released Guide to the Murray Basin Plan acknowledges that history has a role in attempting to assess the hydrological character of the Murray Darling Basin.  The Guide outlines that historical data is best able to assist in making considerations regarding environmental flows and water requirements. Historical data is used to establish a benchmark for sustainable diversion limits – that is, limits to how much water is needed to ensure a steady flow of water throughout the river system.

The Murray Darling Basin Authority had taken the CSIRO’;s recommendation that in order to understand water availability in the Basin it must adopt a full historical record as a means to set the benchmark.  In drafting a guide to the Basin Plan, the Murray Darling Basin Authority has settled on climate conditions between 1895-2009 as the basis for calculating sustainable diversion limits.  The historical data relied upon by the Murray Darling Basin Authority uses rainfall statistics and the impacts of water infrastructure developments such as dams and irrigation.  The Guide highlights the extremities of climate conditions over the last 110 years highlighting the Federation drought, the 1914-15 drought, the World War II drought, the 1965-68 drought, the 1982-83 drought, the El Nino effect 1991-1995 and, finally, the severe drought over the last decade.  Interestingly, the Guide to the Murray Basin Plan does not take into account the substantial and record breaking amount of rain which fell during 2010. Using its historical data of the last 110 years, the report suggests that rainfall is becoming less frequent and agriculture along with climate change may have had a negative impact on the natural flows of the river systems in the Murray Darling Basin.

While using history as an evidence base to make policy regarding water resources is a sound approach, the method adopted by the Murray Darling Basin Authority is somewhat narrow and superficial.  Absent from the historical analysis is an attempt to understand the conditions of the rivers prior to 1895.  Certainly, accurate rainfall data is difficult to obtain prior to Federation and the establishment of the Bureau of Meteorology in 1906, but there are other historical accounts which also can provide an understanding of river conditions and environmental flows.  Through examining primary source material generated during the colonial period it is possible to suggest that perhaps the river system within the Murray Darling Basin always has been contentious and unreliable and that the river flows always have been uneven.

Explorer Charles Sturt’;s own account of the Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers in the 1820s indicated that water levels varied dramatically. He observed the Murrumbidgee River as harbouring rapids and shallow in places.  On leaving the Murrumbidgee and entering the Murray River, Sturt was disappointed to find that the mouth of the Murray River did not enter smoothly into Bass Strait but rather ended into a sand bar which separated the river from the sea.  It is probable that Sturt witnessed the same flaccid flow at the mouth of the Murray as we do today.

Evidence on the conditions of the river system also can be found in the work of Historian G.L Buxton in his history The Riverina 1861-1891. Using newspaper reports during the period 1861-1891, Buxton indicates that there were often difficulties at the Murray mouth and season fluctuations in river levels proved difficult for steam boats to traverse the rivers.  He also noted what appeared to be a drought in 1868 when farm machinery could not be ferried up river any further than Echuca.  Buxton also highlights that 1870 was a record year for rain and that there were better seasons throughout the 1870s and 1880s, which suggests cyclical changes in rainfall and consequently cyclical changes in river water levels.

There is without doubt more source material from other explorers and writers which also would contribute to understanding the flows of the river system in the Murray Darling Basin.  Most certainly, the accounts of Sturt and the writings of Buxton are not conclusive enough to make policy or opinion regarding water resources and the natural flow of the Basin’;s river system – but nor is historical data collection over a period of 110 years.  What is required is a more substantial historical analysis which uses a greater time period and adopts a range of source material.  Using additional sources like the observations of explorers and the actions of early graziers, for example, can provide a more robust historical inquiry better suited to understanding the river system.  The current historical methodology featured in the Guide to the Murray Basin Plan is inadequate considering what is at stake.

Citation: Troy Whitford, A Wider View of History is required to Understand the Murray Darling Basin. Australian Policy and History. October 2010.


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