The Channel country
Longreach is part of the Channel country and the Lake Eyre Basin. It's threatened by the Queensland government who want to add irrigation and mining to the Channel country.PT4M37S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2fb51 620 349 March 1, 2013
The health of the Mithaka people fluctuates with the ebb and flow of the rivers through their arid outback country.
''All our stories either start or end at those waterholes,'' traditional owner Scott Gorringe says.
''When those rivers are healthy, so are we. When they're low - and not much water is flowing - so are we.
Richard Kingsford … the rivers are the arteries that feed Lake Eyre's ''heart''. Photo: Jacky Ghossein
''Those rivers are us.''
Gorringe, now 51, grew up on the desert flood plains bordered by Cooper Creek to the east and the Diamantina River to the west in the vast Channel Country that spans four states and ultimately empties into Lake Eyre in South Australia.
''It was the best fun,'' he said. ''We'd do a lot of fishing on country. Dad was head stockman out on those properties [around Birdsville].
Lake Eyre conference in Longreach
Scott, Lorraine and George Gorringe Mithika people from the channel country in Longreach. Photo: Jacky Ghossein
''We used to go mustering with him and sleep under the stars.''
In between, he would earn a bit of extra cash ''doggin'' - hunting dingoes for the bounty on their heads.
''We'd go and get the dingo pups and that was a way to feed ourselves and get money,'' Gorringe says.
But a looming threat to the haphazard network of channels criss-crossing the gibber plains of Lake Eyre Basin drew Gorringe to Longreach in Queensland's central west this week. Along with almost 100 scientists, cattle graziers, environmentalists and politicians, Gorringe fears plans mooted by the state government to allow irrigators and miners to tap into the region's occasional but revitalising floodwaters will spell the death of one of the world's last unregulated river systems.
''Irrigation is probably one of the challenges,'' he said. ''[But] the biggest challenge we're going to face is through the mining industry, like coal seam gas, which destroys not only the water on top but underneath as well. There's no excess water in these systems. What we get is what we need.''
Almost 20 years on from a successful alliance forged at Channel Country heartland, Windorah, and driven by similar concerns - that irrigation could suck the desert rivers dry - the same interest groups are joining forces again.
David Brook, an organic beef farmer based at Birdsville with 16,000 head of cattle grazing across a staggering 12,950 square kilometres of Queensland land, is an elder statesman of the sunshine state's outback and describes himself as apolitical.
But there is little that impresses him about plans to allocate even small portions of the Lake Eyre Basin resources to irrigators or miners.
''Floods are a critical part of the seasonal influences,'' said Brook, the chairman of OBE Organic.
''Sometimes, you don't get much rain but a little bit of flood fills the waterholes.''
Annual rainfall in Brook's part of the world on Queensland's lower western edge is lucky to top 180mm.
There was simply no water to spare, he said. And any allocations to irrigators would sound the death knell for graziers who, like Brook's family, have worked the land for generations.
''If there's no water, there's no business,'' he said. ''If there was any scale of irrigation upstream, it would spell the end, but it would be a slow death.''
The Georgina and Diamantina river systems, along with the Cooper Creek basin, are afforded considerable protection from both mining and irrigation through declarations under Queensland's controversial Wild Rivers laws.
But the legislation and its application to the Lake Eyre Basin are a legacy of the previous Labor government and the new regime headed by Premier Campbell Newman wants change.
Brook agreed the 2005 Wild Rivers Act needed tidying up but supported its central goal of preservation - one under which his industry is also protected. ''I think it needs a bit of tweaking around the edges and in that respect I'm not opposed that the government will have a look at it,'' he said. ''We don't think it's too far off the best model.''
But Queensland's Liberal National Party government has indicated it will not stand for a Lake Eyre Basin quarantined from new business.
The Mines and Natural Resources Minister, Andrew Cripps, started talking last year about ''striking an effective balance'' between river protection and sustainable development for miners and farmers.
To this end, the government convened a panel of agricultural business representatives, scientists, local government councillors, graziers and Aboriginal people to advise it on a new set of rules for the basin's main water sources. The panel is due to report to government at the end of this month.
In the meantime, two of its members - Longreach grazier Angus Emmott and Professor Richard Kingsford, an environmental scientist and Lake Eyre expert at the University of NSW - joined the chorus of voices at Longreach this week to demand even greater protection of the river systems - Cooper Creek and the Georgina and Diamantina rivers.
Emmott warned the basin and its Channel Country could be the next Murray Darling-style battle for scarce water resources.
''These are the last major desert rivers on earth that aren't seriously compromised,'' he said.
''These rivers are so healthy and they support healthy societies and healthy industries. If we start developing them, we're going to go the way of the Murray Darling.''
The conference communique, The Lake Eyre Basin Rivers Declaration, called for all forms of irrigation and mining to be prohibited in the basin under specific legislation that would override all other laws.
Copies of the declaration were sent to Newman, the federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, and the South Australian Premier, Jay Weatherill.
Bruce Scott, the federal Nationals MP for Maranoa in western Queensland, threw his support behind the conference message, while his state party colleague, Vaughan Johnson, publicly vowed to stand up for his beliefs - and damn the consequences.
''It [irrigation] will be an absolute trashing of one of the most iconic natural water systems of the world,'' says Johnson, who has represented the area since 1989.
But Cripps says the LNP gave an election commitment to review and replace the Wild River declarations in western Queensland.
''I've asked them to keep an open mind about the possibility of small-scale irrigation in those rivers,'' he told the ABC this week. ''We think it's important to give new economic opportunities that will create jobs and a future for local communities in western Queensland and that's the reason why I've asked them to keep an open mind about small-scale irrigation.''
Cripps announced this week it will open three areas of ''greenfield'' land totalling 2364 square kilometres in north-west Queensland to mining exploration.
"We are committed to encouraging exploration in greenfield sites to support a strong and robust Queensland resources industry and the jobs and economic benefits it delivers," he said.
Australia's ''dead heart'', at 9690 square kilometres, is covered in a white blanket of salt when it sits dry under South Australia's baking sun.
In unspectacular years - one in every two on average - one or more of the rivers that empty into Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre (renamed to include its Aboriginal name late last year) will deposit enough water to cover at least part of the lake's surface. This occurred in 2009 and 2010.
But on the rare occasions it floods properly, Lake Eyre is able to support an abundance of life.
Two decades ago, 100,000 pelicans raised 90,000 chicks on the lake, Kingsford said.
They were among an estimated more than half a million birds that flocked to the inland sea in 1990.
From microscopic organisms to fish, crustaceans and waterbirds, Lake Eyre transforms the country's harsh interior and nurtures them all in the ''boom and bust'' cycle of its flood-driven life blood - the rivers upstream that feed it.
''Sometimes we think of it as almost a circulation system where Lake Eyre is the heart, but the arteries and veins go down into it and it just doesn't survive without them,'' Kingsford said.
''As it starts to dry off the wildflowers pop up and then you've got a whole range of small mammals capitalising on the flooding.''
In an open letter to Newman this week, a group of Windorah locals expressed their dismay at any plans to change the status quo.
''We have lived in this beautiful landscape with our families for generations,'' the residents wrote.
''As you know, this part of Australia is treasured nationally and internationally as an iconic region famous for its pioneers, sustainable grazing operations and, increasingly, as a once-in-a-lifetime tourist destination, especially following the flooding of Lake Eyre.
''It is also one of the world's last great desert river systems that has not been ruined by mining or irrigation.''
Their sentiments are what economists call the ''non-use value'', Brook said.
''The pride they have in Australia for maintaining an environment like this in the face of a world where they're poisoning the rivers.''
Photographer Jacky Ghossein was flown to the region courtesy of PEW Charitable Trusts.