We are all horrified by the sight of thousands of dead fish. No doubt shadow environment minister Tony Burke visiting Menindee on Monday was, too.
We are told by ministers and Cotton Australia that it was the drought, not mismanagement or cotton farming that kills fish. But the truth is that since the imperfect Murray Darling Basin Plan was implemented, the irrigation lobby and their captive politicians have been doing everything in their power to minimise the amount of water going back to the rivers. The idea was that the minimum amount to keep the rivers alive would be allowed to go back in. Well, it was less than the minimum.
Michael Murray from Cotton Australia said “this season’s crop is forecast to be at least half of last season’s”. Maybe he meant “at most half”. Why is any water going to irrigate cotton, an optional annual crop, in a horrific drought year? Why is the priority to maintain as much cotton as possible, rather than to keep the fish breeding stock alive?
The Basin Plan was a great leap forward in protecting the environment. But it had a big hole in it, the Darling River. MDBA officials said the “unregulated” Darling River was too hard for them. In effect they were claiming incompetence. When the Basin Plan was implemented the NSW authorities made sure that the pre-existing rules that allowed irrigators to pump when the river heights rose, were maintained. This allowed them to pump out of environmental flows unless there was an embargo. And embargos were very hard to come by until Four Corners shone the light on the whole mess.