THE Darling River, Australia’s longest, runs 2740km through outback New South Wales, joining the Murray River at the famous ‘town on  two rivers’ – Wentworth.

An integral part of the Murray-Darling Basin, the Darling River system is fed primarily from the summer rains of southern Queensland, and after making its way south to meet the Murray, the two rivers continue their journey as the Murray River to Lake Alexandrina in South Australia and into the Southern Ocean.
It’s what happens to the Darling along the way that is a hot topic of discussion with so many of the stakeholders who are dependent upon it for their livelihood.

Torlano Station owner, Rob McBride, is a passionate campaigner for fairness to be put back into the water management of the system, which he says is broken.

More than that, Rob maintains that a flood was literally ‘stolen’ from the river earlier this year, when water from the Northern Basin was diverted to other interests in the upper reaches of the Darling River.

He refers to the river that runs through his family’s property near Pooncarie, as the ‘Darling – Barka’, the latter being the Indigenous Barkindji people’s name for the Darling River.

Rivers must run

“I guess my point is that we really need to make sure that the flows come down the Darling-Barka River as they have for centuries in the past.
Instead of allowing our flood plain and the Menindee Lakes to be filled, one industry that takes 80 percent of the water from the catchment – which was shown by The Australian Institute think tank’s report – has effectively destroyed the whole integrity of the river system.” 

The ‘flood’ that Rob refers to was water from heavy rains in southern Queensland, that began making its way into the Darling-Barka system earlier this year, only to allegedly be ‘siphoned off’, before it could make its way to the lower Darling.

“Now that flood should have covered the flood plains of the whole Darling-Barka and filled the Menindee Lakes,” he said. 

“Therefore, nothing of value came down the river, except a 400 gigalitre amount of water, which went into the Menindee Lakes, which when full, can hold about 2000 gigalitres.

“So for the first time in our history, a flood that should have provided water throughout the system, virtually vanished before it reached us.”

Rob said that when the Menindee Lakes are full, there is almost eight years supply of water for the Darling, which could sustain South Australia’s needs and free up the water entitlements of the irrigators on the Murray River system.

He levels his criticism squarely at the National Party, saying that at both State and Federal level, they have held the Liberal Party over a barrel for more than eight years.

“To a large degree, it could be argued that in no way does the National Party actually support farmers and irrigators anymore, except the cotton industry, because at every turn, they have changed the laws to favour over extraction and destruction of the river system,” Rob said.

A total disregard

“With the NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey raising the embargoes on extraction, for the first time in our country’s history, it showed the total disregard for the river system and every other Australian.”

Rob claims that: “Everything is being sacrificed for cotton”.

“You can’t eat it, and it’s potentially unsustainable in the fragile ecosystem of the Murray-Darling Basin,” he said.

“What has been proven by the Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party (SFFP, is that Minister Pavey raised the embargoes based on the notion that damage was going to be caused to the irrigators on the flood plains.

“It’s been proven from Helen Dalton’s (SFFP Member for Murray) investigation, that Melinda Pavey rang up the irrigators four days after she made this assertion and asked them to clarify that this was in fact the case. 

“Now this is madness. If people build on flood plains − it’s a flood plain − it’s supposed to flood. To raise the embargoes based on that is the most absurd argument in our country’s history. Water has to fall on the flood plains to get into the river!” 

Rob contends that the Minister’s decision to raise the embargoes was done because the cotton industry wanted all of the water.

“The cotton industry wanted all of the water to stay in the Northern Basin and at the end of the day, they basically stole the flood – only 400 gigs ever made it down the river system,” he said.

“So there are a couple of questions that we need to ask of the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA). 

“Why have they done nothing to protect the integrity of the river system?

And, how much water fell in the catchment area? 

“Under ‘Data Cube’ the MDBA have had the technology for five years to record all rainfall events and where the rain fell.

“Why have no figures been made available as to how much water was taken in the Northern Basin during that rain event?

“They can see real time imagery of water falling, how much water falls and how much people take out of the river systems.”

First in line

Rob said that throughout history, the rivers and the environment have always come first except on this occasion and accuses the National Party of fundamentally not caring about farmers as sustainable irrigators.

“Every sustainable irrigator on the Murray is being crucified because the Menindee Lakes are empty and that’s why the $750million claim against the MDBA is taking place by the southern irrigators ,” he said.

In February 2019, it was reported that a group of nine Murray irrigators had lodged a class action in the Supreme Court of New South Wales against the MDBA, claiming its negligent water management has caused them severe financial losses totalling $750million.

The group claims the negligence of the MDBA meant 850,000 megalitres of water from Murray River dams was wasted rather than allocated to their properties.

The claimants met with the MDBA and has data that they have been collecting for some time outlining the water they claim the MDBA has wasted by running high river flows through the Barmah Choke.

Their claim says that it was about 850,000 megalitres, which was their allocation, and those losses were credited to their account even though they were incurred sending the water down the river.

They further claim that the only reason the MDBA needed to send a massive amount down the river is because the MDBA drained the Menindee Lakes from a flood two years ago, which was also unnecessary and bad management.

Forty percent of the water that comes down through the whole MDB system comes down through the Darling. 

“The Menindee Lakes were drained twice in four years – the cotton industry want the water up in the catchment area, they don’t want water in the Menindee Lakes and it’s the New South Wales Government’s policy to decommission the Menindee Lakes,” Rob said.

“It’s the greatest wetland south of Kakadu and they want to destroy it.

“Eighty percent of the Golden perch and up to 50 percent of our Murray cod throughout history have come out of the Menindee Lakes for the whole Murray Darling Basin system.”

Mr McBride said that we could be on the precipice of seeing the three greatest species of Australian native fish being intentionally destroyed.

“It’s a disgrace. Australia has never seen such an intentional destruction of the river systems there must be a Federal Royal Commission,” he said.

“What is the cost of 100 million dead fish? That’s the number that I believe − and I have spoken to experts − that died, not by nature, but rather at the hand of greed.”