The Murray-Darling Basin Catastrophe

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Featured Image: WC Piguenit Flood in the Darling 1890, Oil on Canvas, 1895, 123 x 199 cm

ORT_Logo  Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 November 2019

The Murray-Darling Basin Catastrophe

Don’t sugarcoat it like that, Kid. Tell her straight. (Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, 1969)

It is long past time for sugarcoating. We should be sick of the obfuscation and lies of politicians, policy makers, agribusiness and other vested interests in the Murray-Darling Basin and of the dodging of responsibility by those with the power to act. It is time to act decently in the interests of the whole community. It is time to tell it straight.

This is not a large dams issue in particular but it should be linked to my three large dams articles Large Dams 1: An Introduction, Large Dams 2: Aswan High Dam, Large Dams 3: Oustees India, and is the reason for my claim to expertise in this area. There are several large dams and many smaller ones involved in the Murray-Darling Basin, but these are not the main cause of the catastrophe. However, because of the current drought, new dams are mooted which will exacerbate the tragedy.

One must mention the Snowy Mountains Scheme (begun in 1949 and finished in 1974) a series of linked dams and tunnels, which was the largest engineering project ever undertaken in Australia and became a national icon. Its purpose was to divert the waters of the Snowy River into the Murray River for agriculture and to provide hydro-electricity. The latter was successful, but the diversion of water for agriculture never really lived up to expectation. One consequence of dams on the Murray River, however, was that it became in effect a series of long pools and never had its scouring pre-colonial flows and overflows. The Murray provides more water than the other rivers in the basin or river system.


The photographs included are part of my involvement in the Murray Darling Basin. They relate exclusively to my favourite areas and are not representative of the basin as a whole. Consequently, the photographs are mostly the semi-arid areas of Western New South Wales around the Darling River. I have other favourite places but not the photographs to go with them. Much of the basin is in the semi-arid zone, but the eastern strip primarily on tablelands receives much higher rainfall.

1 Details of the Murray-Darling Basin

The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia’s largest and most iconic river system and covers over a million square kilometres of southeastern Australia. The basin on the western side of the Great Dividing Range contains Australia’s three longest rivers, the Darling (Barwon) 2740 km, the Murray 2530 km and the Murrumbidgee 1690 km. Much of the northern basin is 800-900 km wide, at its widest the basin extends 1200 km along the Murray Valley. The length of the basin is almost 1200 km from the Warrego River in Queensland, south to the headwaters of the Goulburn River in Victoria.

The basin consists of 22 major catchments or sub-basins. Most of the major rivers flow into either the Murray or the Darling.

The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia’s major food bowl.

Jacques Leslie (cited below) quotes Don Blackmore the Chief Executive of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission from 1990 to 2004 who says the Murray-Darling Basin is as big as Texas and New Mexico or as big as France and Spain. A large part is semi-arid and covers 14% of Australia but contains only 6% of the nation’s run off.

At Menindee an important lakes area on the Darling River (but recently turned into agricultural diversion ponds to be filled and emptied at will), the Darling ceased to flow forty-eight times over a seventy-five year period (with no dams on the river). It is an extreme example of the aridity of the system, particularly out west. Both the Darling and the Murray River were used extensively for river transport in pioneer days. Indeed, the Murray was viewed primarily as a means for transport in 19th century South Australia.

Paddle steamers on the Darling were the main means for transporting wool in the 19th century but because of the intermittent nature of the river the boats were frequently stuck along the river, sometimes for years before sufficient water flowed to complete the trip.

The ratio of maximum to minimum annual flow demonstrates the idea. On the Amazon River it is 1.3 to 1, on the Murray 15 to 1 and on the Darling a massive 4700 to 1.

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