Murray Darling mismanagement must stop
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Murray Darling mismanagement must stop

It is hard to think of a natural asset more badly managed since European settlement than the Murray Darling basin.

One of the world's most complex and environmentally fragile river systems, it brings water to the heart of an otherwise dry and forbidding landscape.

With a total area of more than a million square kilometres and individual rivers that stretch up to 2,500km, it encompasses large areas of Queensland, NSW, South Australia, Victoria and the ACT.

The basin is home to 80 species of mammals, 62 of which are either extinct or on the way; 55 species of frogs, 18 of which are endangered; 46 species of snakes; five species of tortoises and 34 species of fish, half of which are either threatened or deemed worthy of special conservation efforts.

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These creatures, which contribute greatly to Australia's unique biological diversity, have had to play second fiddle to the needs of a human population obsessed with endless growth for the best part of two centuries.

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A delicate balance, worked out over millions of years and that has supported a web of life different to anything else on the planet, has been broken.

Dramatic video footage and photographs shot at the Menindee Lakes are clear proof that despite the efforts of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the signing of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on November 12, 2012, an environmental disaster is under way.

As many as a million fish, including decades old Murray Cod, are dead as a result of high temperatures, low levels of dissolved oxygen and poor water quality. Sheep, kangaroos and other animals drawn to the parched lakes in search of a drink quickly become mired in bottomless mud and suffer slow and painful deaths.

Coming as it does in the wake of allegations of corruption, water theft and managerial incompetence within the basin in recent years, this disaster proves the MDBA's attempts to balance the needs of the environment, through controversial and highly contested environmental flows, and those of the irrigators have failed abysmally.

While history shows the farmers will always maintain they are being short changed regardless of what allocation they are given, it is clear more water needs to be sent down the river if the eco system is to survive.

If we value this starkly beautiful, but extremely fragile, part of our land we need to reconsider how much water can be devoted to preserving it.

This may involve a re-evaluation of what should be grown. Rice and cotton, two of the current favourites, are some of the thirstiest crops known to man.

The big problem is the extreme difficulty the six governments involved in the area's management have in reaching agreement on anything.

South Australia wants more water at the Murray River mouth. NSW wants more irrigation water and more dams. The ACT wants a limitless water supply to float its never-ending growth spurt. Queensland wants to keep all the water that runs off its mountains and Victoria seems to believe the Murray should be its own exclusive resource.

While the squabbling continues the asset over which everybody is arguing is dying before our eyes.

We have to save the Murray Darling basin system if anybody, including the environment, is to benefit from it.

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