Thursday 30 October, 2008
ARTICLE by PAUL MYERS
TOORALE and the DARLING
The joint purchase in September by the federal and NSW governments of Toorale Station in outback NSW has been shown to be the sham and public relations stunt it always was.
Not only did the Minister for Water and Climate Change Penny Wong admit in Monday’s Four Corners program that she didn’t know the identity of Toorale’s owners in the pre-purchase negotiations, it also emerged that the Commonwealth provided most of the funds for the $24 million acquisition “sight unseen”.
And after suggesting in immediate post-sale comments that 20 gigalitres a year would be returned to the Darling River as a result of the purchase, neither Senator Wong nor anyone else can now quantify the benefit.
Buyer, beware. Nobody ever buys a rural property of any size, let alone one for $24 million, without at least several inspections and a lot of questions – except, it seems, taxpayers. And when it comes to water, that was apparently intrinsically valued in the Toorale sale at about half the property’s price, you want to be doubly sure that what you expect is what you get.
The shambolic and hasty manner in which the federal and NSW governments acquired Toorale is bad enough. But worse, it has effectively killed any chance of achieving broad public understanding of the real problems affecting Australia’s inland rivers, and how they should be tackled.
The sale may well have convinced the public that similar acquisitions of farmland and/or irrigation water can restore health to inland rivers. But in most cases, buybacks will deliver only a trickle of additional water to the environment, because irrigators can access water only when there are significant and prescribed flows in a river after heavy rain.
This is certainly the case with Toorale, which has several thousand hectares developed for cotton, but not a boll of which has been harvested for several years because there hasn’t been enough water available from the Darling and Warrego rivers to support a crop.
So while the drought continues, the payback to taxpayers from the Toorale purchase will be nil. It will still be nil even if there is moderated rainfall, and only minor benefits during floods because a lot of water stays out on flood plains and only some returns to the river from whence it came.
Mother Nature – not governments, environmentalists, irrigators or anyone else – determine whether rivers flow or dry up. It may be too simplistic for some, but 99 percent of the problems on the Darling and other rivers are caused by lack of precipitation, the variability of rainfall, and evaporation. It has been that way for millennia, and always will be.
The Murray, Darling and most, if not all, of Australia’s inland rivers have been dry several times during white settlement, and often beforehand.
The Murray, for example, stopped flowing in 1850 and for six months during the “Federation drought” of 1902 before there was any real human intervention. But Australia’s greatest river has continued to flow during this drought – the worst since white settlement – because water has been stored and subsequently released from Hume and Dartmouth dams.
The Darling is a microcosm of the Murray, with only 12 percent of its bigger brother’s average flow. The Darling flows strongly after a big rain, or otherwise not much at all. Irrigators – mostly cotton farms – on its route are strictly controlled, can take water only when the river reaches prescribed flows at various points, and in a normal year access about six percent of the river’s entire volume of water.
Most of the Darling’s much-maligned cotton growers have produced only one or two crops this decade. The lion’s share of these properties – 97pc in Toorale’s case – is devoted to grazing. This is far from a profligate, raping and pillaging of the river mentality.
It also makes a mockery of the apparent intention of the new owners to pull down the main dam – and perhaps other small dams – on the Warrego (which meets the Darling on the station) that were built in the late 1880s by the architect of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme, Sir Samuel McCaughey, to prevent water being wasted during peak flows.
Like many smaller inland rivers, the Warrego flows only occasionally, usually about once a year. McCaughey designed a system that allowed excess water from the river to spill across Toorale’s floodplains. There are four-foot diameter pipes in Toorale’s dams on the Warrego to allow smaller flows to pass straight through to the Darling.
If the Toorale purchase was a blueprint for fixing the problems of Australia’s inland rivers, we can be sure that a lasting solution will never be found.