The Dying Rivers of Western New South Wales

David Cook — 17 October 2019
Water use in cotton farming and one of the worst droughts in recent history are combining to quickly drain the Darling River of its last drops.

Far western NSW has a lot to offer the keen traveler. From the forested delights of the Warrumbungles to the parched deserts around Broken Hill and down to the deeply significant archaeological treasures of Lake Mungo, there is more than enough to keep the keenest camper trailer tourist on the road for years. 

It’s a treasure house of travel built upon the natural environment, upon the wonders bestowed by the natural evolution of the landscape and the organisms which have adapted to its unique façade. Except that the very heartbeat of its life — the mighty Darling River — is dying, if it’s not already dead. 

The river drains an area of 250,000 square kilometres and when there is water flowing in the system, the historical level of discharge measured at Menindee Lakes is 102 cubic metres per second, just south-east of Broken Hill.

One of the biggest issues facing the river is the very low slope of the land, which falls, along the Darling’s 1472km length, by just 3cm for every two kilometres. This makes for very sluggish flow even at times of flood and a propensity for fallen timber to remain where it drops, creating snags and blockages which further impede flow.

While water levels have historically been highly variable, there has always been a reasonable level of water in the river. The town of Wilcannia, on the highway to Broken Hill, grew because it had near permanent levels of water sufficient for it to become a major river port, where the produce of the local region could be shipped and supplies dropped off. Just five months ago this writer walked across the bed of the Darling River at Wilcannia, with only a handful off stagnant pools visible up or down stream.

There are many reasons for this disaster, not all of them very obvious.

Firstly, there is the drought, which many are calling the worst in modern times. This has left many major population centres now close to sole dependence on artesian water resources and there are grave concerns about how long that can last. It’s resulted in alarmingly low levels of water in dams and reservoirs, and dead and dying flora and fauna across the landscape. This writer had a friend living on a bushland property north of Glen Innes, in northern NSW, describe his home as akin to living in the trenches of the First World War, with the smell of rotting flesh and dead animals everywhere he goes, and huge old growth trees — for example, apple gums with trunks of a metre and half in diameter — rapidly dying around him.

“Last year we had forty per cent of our average annual rainfall,” he said. “So far this year we’ve had twenty per cent of what we’d normally have had to this point.”

Add to this the impacts of human habitation and the desire to sustain intensive agricultural practices and you have a recipe for disaster. And that’s just what we’ve got.

Chief among those agricultural activities that comes in for more than its share of criticism is cotton farming.

Farmers have chosen to plant cotton because it gives them the highest return. 

“No other crop comes anywhere near it,” said one Moree cotton farmer in a recent newspaper interview. The average cotton farm employs six people in times when water is available, ensuring the survival of small communities wherever it is prevalent.

Cotton, globally, is grown on only 2.5 per cent of agricultural land but it consumes 16 per cent of all pesticides and 6.8 per cent of all herbicides. These chemicals result in pest resistance and high levels of chemicals in adjacent waterways and ground water. This is compounded by high levels of water usage, which can create problems with soil salinity.

Cotton Australia CEO Adam Kay recently claimed that the cotton industry in Australia is a world leader in its minimal use of pesticides and water, with a reduction in pesticide use by 90 per cent over the past 25 years and a reduction in water use by 40 per cent.

Greens senator Sarah Hanson Young claims it’s the corporatisation of the cotton industry which has created much of the problem, with large financial interests wielding excess power and influence at the expense of smaller farmers and communities.

Certainly cotton farmers cite a lack of regulatory oversight over the past decade. Despite the fact that there have been some serious court cases over issues of water theft or over-use, the industry claims that there has been a stark lack of inspections to regulate water usage. One cited a case where he had to pay for the use of a plane to film illegal water structures taking too much water before authorities would act on an often reported case.

Sadly, the barrage of criticism directed at the industry appears to have had no effect on people’s willingness to plant cotton. Trevor Wright, the owner of most of the infrastructure in the small town of William Creek, on the western side of Lake Eyre, recently told this writer that there was a strong push to permit the growth of cotton in the Channel Country in far western Queensland, whenever water flows permit it. 

Wright has taken strong exception to the cotton industry intruding into what he and many others call the world’s last untouched river system. He claims that such an intrusion would result in the death of the entire ecosystem that sustains life into and throughout Lake Eyre.

There appears to be no simple answer, other than to efficiently regulate the amount of water which can be taken from any of our waterways. If that imposes limits on the amount of cotton, or any other crop, then so be it. You can’t grow anything if there is no water. 

Climate change, whether you believe it is man-made or not, is imposing an ever-drier climate on Australia, so we can expect more and deeper droughts. If we want to have any water courses left in our inland then we must become even more efficient in our irrigation systems, or else give up our way of life in those areas.


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