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.
Those verses are from Henry Lawson’s Song of the Darling River, written in 1899 during the worst of the Federation Drought, the words are as relevant today as then. Lawson went to Bourke in 1892 at the behest of J.F. Archibald, editor of the Bulletin, who believed the young writer, then only 25, needed new material and a wider vision. Shortly after his arrival in the developing outback town he met 18-year-old Jim Graham. Over the next year in the outback the pair were inseparable and remained mates for life.
While Lawson was writing for several publications the pair took on many jobs about the town and up and down the river. They went downstream 40 miles to work as rouseabouts in the Toorale shearing shed. Then came an upriver trip on a paddlewheeler which became stranded by falling water levels. The adventurous pair next decided to chance their luck along “the wallaby” and reached Hungerford in Queensland before returning to Bourke. After that it was Sydney for Lawson, with Graham making his way to Narrandera.
It was these experiences and the stories told by those they worked beside and met on their travels that were the basis for much of their poetry, for Graham took up the pen as well. Lawson’s stories of mateship are reflected in The Shearers amongst other works.
The budding bards were to meet again when the NSW Government in 1916 sent Lawson to the new town of Leeton in the developing Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA). Commenced in 1912 and using water from Burrinjuck Dam, one of the original settlers was my grandfather, Charles Pike Sr. He stayed, but by 1916 many other settlers had gone broke and left. To stem the exodus, the government of the day engaged Lawson to write what today would be called public relations copy to encourage further settlement. Because Lawson had been in trouble with the law in relation to non-payment of family maintenance, mostly caused by long bouts of drunkenness, those who appointed him saw another upside to the appointment: enforced sobriety. The whole MIA had been declared alcohol-free, which it remained for over twenty years.
Lawson was set up in a small house that still stands on the outskirts of Leeton and one of his first visitors was Jim Graham, who made moved to the area years before and quickly rode the 18 miles to Narrandera and its six pubs. He returned with sufficient rum and whisky to slake Lawson’s thirst for quite some time. It was at this time my granddad got to know Lawson and, some years later, I would myself meet Jim Graham, then writing as “James Gordon”. He was then well into his seventies and I but a 12-year-old, but I still vividly recall being present in Leeton’s Roxy Theatre when Jim’s book, Under Wide Skies. I still have the copy he signed for me on that night of wonderful poetry.
This is all by way of background to what engendered in this old Bushy a passionate love and understanding of our western rivers and, as readers may have gathered, of bush poetry. It is the platform of experience and local knowledge from which I launch what you will find below — a plan to manage the vital resource of the Darling River in the national interest. Simply put, current stewardship is a mess. The goal must be to nurture this unique resource to the benefit of all who live in this productive area and the creatures with which we share it. Sadly and shamefully, that isn’t happening.
Permanent solutions to present water shortage problems on the Darling system can only be successfully addressed by those who fully understand the river’s history, as depicted by Lawson and Graham, and mindful, too, of present day realities. Let me start by addressing claims that the Darling was previously “a mighty river”, which are quite false. Prior to the building of dams on its tributaries the Darling was ephemeral, a fact hauntingly depicted by Lawson’s words above.
The Darling was discovered and named by Sturt and Hume in their search for pasture during the drought of 1828. While they describe a decent but languid river, they also observed it was so salty their thirsty horses refuse to drink until they found fresher water downstream.
The town of Menindee was established on the banks of the Darling in 1885 complete with pub, store, stockyards and, incredibly, a racecourse, wonderfully depicted in Banjo Patterson’s Old Pardon, the Son of Reprieve. But the proud little town had trouble surviving because, from its inception until 1960, the Darling ran dry at Menindee 48 times. Let me repeat that for the benefit of those who would have you believe water-flow problems are the result of interfering with nature: 48 times in 75 years.
However wise heads in the NSW Government implemented a program of dam-building on the Darling tributaries of the Namoi, Macquarie, Gwydir, Seven, Manilla and, important to note, they built the off-river storage of Menindee Lakes. Since those storages were built the Darling has not only been kept flowing, there has been sufficient water for all who rely on it. Large areas of world-class irrigated agriculture were developed, creating and sustaining prosperous regional communities.
That was until management of the system was recently spread across many bureaucracies, most running agendas at odds with the practical use of this vital resource. These bureaucracies have often wasted stored water for so-called environmental purposes, and by giving control of our stored water to speculators and green groups they have allowed extractions beyond license limits. These actions have left the river dry and those who rely on it angry and demanding solutions. Naturally and predictably, so-called environmentalists prefer to ignore such mismanagement and blame climate change, which they will tell you is reducing rainfall and increasing drought frequency. Before any realistic solution can be pursued these claims need to be discarded for the rubbish they are.
Calls for a Royal Commission, as some have demanded, would likely result in a further and costly delay in setting things right and, to be frank, there is no guarantee of an outcome in the national interest. Such an inquiry would be deluged with reams of bureaucratic obfuscation and, inevitably, spurious submissions from the richly funded green lobby. By my reckoning the likelihood is that the resulting recommendations would make the present mess even worse.
What follows is my blueprint for preserving the river and the communities that depend on it. It is the result of years of assessing the history, potential and practical options available, and it is driven by a fundamental analysis that identifies multiple management regimes emanating from several governments as a root cause.
As a first step the management of the Darling and its catchment must be vested with a single authority, not the many and overlapping bureaucracies, as is the case with the present and clearly failing regime.
I would call this management entity the ‘Darling River Authority’ (DRA) and it would be rather like the Tennessee Valley Authority in US. As the Americans have so ably demonstrated in that previously denuded landscape, practical and coherent management of run-off water must always be done on a “whole of valley” approach.
The next step is to remove the Darling River and its catchment from the disastrous and counter-productive MDB Plan. There never was any need for water from the Darling to be tagged for use in South Australia. Management of flows in the lower Murray should come from much larger and more reliable sources within the Murray Valley.
The DRA I picture would be legally bound to manage the water in the Darling system on the following basis.
- First priority: If we are to have available water every year, the maintenance of all-of-river flow in sufficient volume to supply all stock and domestic needs, along with all municipal requirements, is key. At least two years’ supply of water must be accounted for in upstream storages, with delivery losses factored into the calculation.
- Second priority: Sufficient water for existing permanent plantings — “high security licenses”, mostly for fruit trees and vines.
- Third Priority: Only after first and second priorities have been assured should consideration to be given to what percentages of licenses can be supplied to annual crop irrigators.
- Licenses to irrigate; must be attached to land that can be irrigated and must only be traded within the valley to which they were issued.
- The filling of licensed off-river storages must only be allowed from flows in excess of the above priorities’ requirements. 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.
Further, all previous agreements that give other authorities rights to water from Menindee Lakes must be rescinded. The Lakes were built to guarantee water for Broken Hill and 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 Anabranch on an as-possible basis. The pipeline from 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 instigate long-term plans that will ensure permanent water for the whole region for the foreseeable future.
To achieve this we need to build several weirs along the Darling, creating pools of around five metres deep at the weirs’ walls and stretching back at least 150 kms in total. These would ensure permanent and 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 an otherwise dry environment.
Next, we must build new dams at already assessed sites on Darling tributaries which are presently non-permanent. Building these would provide long-term surety of water supply to those living along these watercourses while also providing additional storage for the system, thus guaranteeing water in all years.
In summary, the present problems are unnecessary, unacceptable and are caused not by under-regulation, as claimed by the MDBA and Greens, but by over-regulation arising from too many entities claiming ownership and regulatory control. This plan could be implemented immediately and at little cost, in stark contrast with the pipeline from Wentworth to Broken Hill, now under construction, which will likely become another white elephant, a waste of money akin to the fortunes squandered on desalination plants.
The hard part will be getting the politicians to overturn several decades of bad water policy, a longed-for event that would require politicians and governments to recognise the present situation is caused by their bad management in fostering overlapping bureaucratic regulation. Until that happens, it will be as Lawson predicted:
“And the land grows old and the people never
Will see the worth of the Darling River.”
when it could be, as Lawson continued:
“I want fair homes on my lonely ways,
‘A people’s love and a people’s praise—
‘And rosy children to dive and swim—
‘And fair girls’ feet in my rippling brim;
‘And cool, green forests and gardens ever’—
Oh, this is the hymn of the Darling River.”
Ron Pike is a water consultant and third-generation irrigation farmer