TRAVELLING MAN: John’s colourful houseboat, LEFT, makes a pretty ‘hard-to-miss’ addition to the riverine environment at Wentworth. He has also been known to travel by motorcycle…like riding from Darwin to Mildura. Photo: PAUL MENSCH

By JOHN DOOLEY

HE describes himself as old and decrepit, but John Maher is far from that.

John has just ridden his motorcycle from Darwin to Mildura, and is currently residing on the houseboat he had trucked down from the Northern Territory capital to Wentworth.

John’s on a mission to highlight the poor decision-making of successive governments, which he says is selling this country out while failing to create “big nation-building projects.”

Primary among his concerns is the plight of the Darling River, and the water being harvested in the upper reaches by corporate irrigators.

“All I am trying to do is make a bit of noise about this, and the fact that our Government is selling out our country – the rights of our kids – the ports, the farms and our water,” John said.

“The Darling River is really why I’m in Mildura – there couldn’t be a better time to be making some noise around this vitally important issue. There’s an election due, and the candidates have an opportunity to do something about the issues that are killing the Darling River.

“The Darling River has no water. One of the most concerning things is the foreign ownership of massive water reserves and entitlements like Cubbie Station. The operations of that property are heavily water intensive.”

John’s concerns about big corporate water-rights holders may be well-founded, but they can only take water when it’s there. 

According to Cubbie Station’s website, the last time the station harvested any water was in April 2017. At that time, more than 2GL of Cubbie Station’s river entitlement was left in the river to assist downstream users.

The last time Cubbie diverted a significant amount of water was in September 2016 when 78GL of the 386GL allocation was diverted, and this followed a substantial wet period over eastern Australia, along with major flooding in various Murray-Darling catchments.

John said that many people don’t realise that the water in the Darling at Wentworth, and immediately upstream, is actually Murray River water.

“The first 86kms of the Darling River upstream from Wentworth is actually Murray River water,” he said. “I took my little houseboat 86kms up the Darling last week. That was as far as I could go, it starts to become narrow and shallow from there.” 

John is a strong proponent of Government building big-vision projects like the Snowy River Hydro Scheme, and he mentioned another little-known man-made water supply in Western Australia – Lake Argyle.

“We’ve seen how big projects can be done in this country, and yet, somehow we seem to have lost the vigour and vision to do it these days.

“We had men who worked like ‘Trojans’ on projects like the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and an underground rail network, Lake Argyle and the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme.

“Today we struggle to build a freeway that is wide enough to cope with the traffic.

“If you go across to the Kununurra region of Western Australia, you have Lake Argyle which commenced construction more than 65 years ago. The first stage was commissioned in 1968, and the completed dam opened in 1972.”

Lake Argyle is the biggest man-made freshwater lake in the Southern Hemisphere, and is home to more than 70 islands. Created by the Ord River Dam, it’s classified as an inland sea, and at its peak in the ‘green-season’, Lake Argyle holds a staggering 10.7 billion cubic metres of water at full supply level. 

That’s more than 18 times the size of Sydney Harbour.

“We have droughts – the river stopped flowing when I was here 60 years ago, it stopped raining – but you could dig down in the sand near the water holes and the water would be right there,” John said. “Now I can’t imagine how far down it is – I haven’t been up there.

“We need to bring the water down from up north and it can be done. More than 80 years ago it was suggested that we divert water from the rivers around 

Cairns to Townsville – it’s feasible – you only have to look at the Lake Argyle example.”

John is referring to Dr J.J. Bradfield, famous for his building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In 1933, The Bradfield Scheme proposed an Australian water-diversion scheme – an inland irrigation project that was designed to irrigate and drought-proof much of the western Queensland interior, as well as large areas of South Australia.

Deserts in bloom

This proposal had been inspired some years earlier in 1929, when Dr Bradfield dreamed of turning-back ‘wasteful’ waters to make the deserts of Queensland, New South Wales and South Australian bloom.

However, the Brisbane engineer who designed and supervised the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Story Bridge in Brisbane and Sydney’s underground rail system, couldn’t convince Australia that he was right.

Dr Bradfield’s grand plan centred on the North Queensland rivers of Upper Burdekin, Herbert and the Tully, which he envisaged pouring billions of litres of water through a system of dams, tunnels and conduits to irrigate thousands of square kilometres of Central Australia from Charters Towers to Alice Springs.

When he officially submitted his proposal in 1933, he estimated the cost to be $164million.

Successive studies claimed Dr Bradfield’s vision was faulty, his levels were wrong, he hadn’t allowed for evaporation, and that the engineering techniques necessary were not available – consequently it went nowhere.

John said the Prime Minister’s pledge to spend another $70million on measures aimed at easing the burden on irrigators along the Lower Darling, and preventing more fish-kills, was peace-meal, and wouldn’t avert the plight of the river and the stakeholders along its banks. 

“Half of that is to do photography to look at water flows and putting in meters to measure what water is being taken,” he said.

John’s no stranger to Government over-regulation and poor decision-making. In the early 1990s he had his business interests decimated by high interest rates in an economic failure that then Prime Minister Paul Keating described as the “recession Australia had to have”.

“I was a fisherman and a charter boat operator in Cairns. I owned a fairly big charter boat operation with three ocean-going cruisers,” John said.

“I also ran a stainless-steel manufacturing business until Paul Keating decided that the economy didn’t need people like me to survive in business, and gave us the recession that Australia had to have in the ‘90s.

“His policies and the high interest rates destroyed me – they were tough times. I lost everything. I had a beautiful home on the Esplanade, together with some others I owned, part of Fitzroy Island and a game fishing boat, and it was sold from under us for $3million, which was what we owed on it. 

“Less than a year later, it sold for $35million – I missed out badly.”

Ups and downs

After going through that experience and pretty much losing everything, John moved to Darwin where he ran another charter boat for 10 years. He’s had a few ups and downs in his time on this planet, and before moving to Cairns he ran a successful prawn fishing operation in South Australia.

“I was a commercial Tuna fisherman in South Australia and then I started in the prawning industry, and after 10 years I was well established,” he said. “I had everything – my own plane, a beautiful boat, nice house and a lovely young family. 

“Then the powers-that-be decided that my boat was too big – so they put five other boats into the fishery and not one of them survived for more than three years.”

Changing the subject back to water, John said that another worthwhile water-diversion project would be to pipe ocean water into Lake Eyre.

“We should look at filling Lake Eyre up from the sea. I know it can be done, because I’ve flown over it, and I’ve also raced motorbikes on it,” he said. “It’s 14-feet below sea level, and its only 450km from the sea. Salt water could easily be piped there to fill that lake.

“By doing so, there would be an impact on rainfall across the dry-inland region which would be delivered from the clouds formed from the evaporation and condensation from the lake, which is enormous in size.

“Again, it demonstrates a lack of imagination and determination on the part of successive governments to do anything – where are the visionaries?”