Inside Story

“Preserved for the people for all time”

Is “balanced” development really the best way to manage our inland rivers? Cameron Muir looks at the language that could save or condemn them

Cameron Muir 2 February 2012 3659 words

Above: This “scald” on a former stock route at Macquarie Marshes reveals a wetlands in desperate need of regeneration. Cameron Muir

IN THE summer of 1944 one of Australia’s great environmental reformers toured the Macquarie Marshes, in north-central New South Wales, on horseback. William McKell, the state premier, would have breathed the hot and humid air between tall stands of cumbungi as reeds rustled and cracked against the weight of the horse. He would have emerged from the rushes to find open-water lagoons teeming with herons, spoonbills, pelicans and ducks, all feasting on thirty different species of fish.

McKell was so impressed with the Marshes he declared the crown land in the area a National Fauna Reserve. The Marshes were of world scientific renown, he said, and a vital sanctuary for Australian and northern hemisphere birdlife. They should be preserved for the Australian people, for posterity, for all time.

McKell went back to Sydney and less than two years later steered through parliament the legislation that enabled the construction of the Burrendong Dam – the dam that the NSW Water Conservation & Irrigation Commission said would significantly reduce the size of the Marshes, leaving the waterbirds no option but to “depart to other areas.” McKell even went out to the site of the proposed dam and turned the first sod with a bulldozer.

This was really no surprise, because during the 1941 election campaign McKell had promised to divert the water from the Snowy River inland for irrigation. He had promised to build large dams on the Hunter, Murrumbidgee, Tumut, Lachlan, Darling, Macquarie, Namoi, Gwydir, Peel, Macintyre and Dumaresq rivers. This was the environmental reformer who began the program that would degrade the inland river systems of southeastern Australia.

The genesis of McKell’s dam-building program was the labour movement’s campaign to break up the large pastoral estates accumulated by the “squattocracy” and his own desire to deal with the social and environmental crisis of the 1930s. The plan was to stabilise and repair soil erosion and river degradation, modernise the townships, and increase the populations of existing rural centres by creating small irrigation industries.

For McKell, it was a question of “balance.” In 1943 he leased the Macquarie Marshes reserve to graziers even though reedbeds and bird breeding grounds had already been destroyed by serious overstocking. To prevent further damage, though, the lessees would need to meet strict conditions and a trust would oversee the management of the reserve. For McKell and his land and water bureaucracies it was a matter of reconciling development and environmental protection.

McKell’s minister for lands, John Tully, told parliament the leases would be granted for the duration of the war, and “for a maximum of two years after.” It was important, he said, that “such areas will be preserved to the people for all time.” The following month, in an effort to balance the demands for more land development with the protection of birdlife, McKell announced that the rookeries in those 44,000 acres of wild marshlands would be fenced off.

To counter the effects of the proposed dam McKell pressed the various land and water departments to investigate “whether certain provision could be made to augment the natural water supplies.” This was significant for the Marshes and the water on which they depend, and would become the foundation for the “wildlife allocation,” Australia’s first environmental flow.

The local pastoral landholders were opposed to damming the Macquarie from the start. In 1933, during an inquiry into the plan, a landholder at the Marshes had pressed the government to “leave nature alone.” Downstream landholders knew they would lose their water without compensation. After work on the dam began, birdwatchers, ecologists and conservationists joined in the opposition. In 1953 a contributor to the Land Annual wrote that “on the day the life-giving waters of the Marshes are threatened, men and women on the land in their thousands will rise, as one body, as the birds’ protectors.”

Irrigators, on the other hand, saw the Marshes as unproductive swamps. The national interest was in selling food and cotton to the world, not in preserving birdlife. In 1966, the year before the Burrendong Dam was completed, the Narromine News argued that the Marshes were wild and “unimproved” and farming methods were “rough and ready” and “haphazard.” By contrast, said the newspaper, the large-scale irrigators are “skilful and experienced” and make “scientific use” of water.

The problem with the idea of the “balance of nature” was that it could be used by people who supported environmental protection and wise use of resources – or it could be used by supporters of resource development who wanted to ensure the scales were tipped towards industry.

In 1951 the New Zealand–born chemist and physiologist Sir Stanton Hicks gave a public lecture on soil fertility in which he condemned industrial agriculture for “being at war with nature.” The desire to rid the agricultural field of the vagaries of nature would upset the balance of nature and could have unexpected consequences. “When man, by his intervention, altered this balance,” he said, “the new situation must either be one of equilibrium or imbalance, and the conquest of nature meant imbalance.” Soil erosion was one such consequence, in Hicks’s view. He suggested the new appreciation of ecology might restore the balance.

Others took a different view. An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald argued for more irrigation projects in Australia, commenting that a “lack of foresight throughout the years has prevented our establishing the balance that Nature has failed to provide.” In other words, nature was lacking. Dam-building could provide the balance that Australia’s natural environment so miserably failed to provide.

As the Burrendong dam neared completion, the Water Conservation & Irrigation Commission announced it would allocate 50,000 megalitres per year for the Marshes. Adopting the language of engineering and economics, the Commission described how the “wasteful” river needed to be controlled and new earthworks constructed to make it more “efficient.” Although the regular flow from the dam would be far lower than under natural conditions, it argued, this would be better for the Marshes because it would balance out the variable flows. “With the completion of the Burrendong Dam,” said the Commission, the existence of the Marshes “should be assured for all time.”

McKell’s trust was never established, the breeding grounds weren’t fenced, the leases weren’t revoked until grazing was banned in the nature reserve in 1990, the use of the wildlife allocation wasn’t permitted until 1982, and the first substantial environmental flow didn’t occur until the year 2000. Conservation biologist Richard Kingsford and his team found that by 1993 the flooded area and reedbeds had shrunk by up to fifty per cent and waterbird populations were in decline. McKell’s trinity of soil, water and forests bureaucracies had failed to integrate the management of environment and had institutionalised the split between production and protection. Almost sixty years after his promise to preserve iconic river ecosystems like the Macquarie Marshes for all time, we’re still talking about how to save the rivers.

FROM the Greek philosophers of classical antiquity to natural theologians in the sixteenth century, the idea of the balance of nature was a fundamental metaphor for understanding how the living world worked. All forms of life were in harmony and were interdependent. If one species suddenly expanded its population, a chain of events would occur to bring it back into balance. But when Darwin and Wallace described the lives of organisms as a struggle for existence, balance became something that was unique and precarious. Order in nature could be disturbed, and the consequences could be dire.

In the days before the Murray–Darling Basin Authority released its Guide to the proposed Basin Plan in late 2010, “balance” still seemed to be the key objective for every campaigner and commentator. The head of the National Irrigators’ Council, Danny O’Brien, demanded that the federal minister, Tony Burke, commit to altering the plan if it did not “balance the needs of the environment with those of food production and regional communities.” Following the release of the Guide, a host of industry lobbyists, including the National Farmers’ Federation, AgForce and the Ricegrowers’ Association, criticised the reductions recommended by scientists and called for a balanced plan.

Supporters of the water buybacks also wanted balance. Arlene Harriss-Buchan from the Australian Conservation Foundation told ABC News that the plan needed to “properly rebalance water sharing between the environment and irrigators.” The Murray–Darling Basin Authority said its mission was to “redress the imbalance” between environmental needs and current extraction limits, and declared that the consequences of not “restoring the balance” could be severe.

Not long after, the federal government appointed former NSW minister Craig Knowles as head of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority. He thought balance was a good guide too. At his first media conference Knowles pledged to “work on a balanced approach… I’m there to listen to get a balanced solution. Common sense, practical, balanced solutions.” He assured irrigators “we’ll work together, and we'll do it to achieve a balanced approach. A balance between environmental, social and economic outcomes.” Just in case any irrigators missed the media conference, he would tour rural Australia to give them “a chance to understand very clearly, very clearly that my agenda is a balanced approach.” His hit rate averaged one balance per minute.

Industry lobby groups, environmental groups and the Murray–Darling Basin Authority were using rhetoric that treats the environment, society and economy as if they are separate – that it’s either/or, that one cancels the other, that it’s a choice between production and protection. They were talking as if there’s a knob you simply turn to the desired level between environment and society. Balance is so indeterminate it’s meaningless for guiding the way we live and work with our rivers. Everyone has his or her own idea of what is balanced. The ecological reality becomes sidelined.

Not long before, I’d heard a bloke from the Murray–Darling Basin Authority give a talk hinting at what might be in the Guide and why it was necessary. I was in an audience of environmental managers, researchers and rural landholders. He gave a short history of river management in Australia that went something like this: For much of the twentieth century, governments responded to droughts by setting up royal commissions, and new dams usually resulted; then, from the 1980s, when the first Basin-wide institutions were formed, we embarked on the reform era.

There were sniggers and light laughter and a few nodding heads around the hall. It was encouraging to hear an enthusiastic voice from the Authority, and the rest of the talk was fine, but it was disappointing to hear such a superficial and misleading account of history.

According to this feel-good story of river degradation, people in the past didn’t hold environmental values, didn’t care about wetlands, and didn’t understand the consequences of their actions. What happened to the rivers was inevitable. But our generation, more enlightened, does care about the environment and the role it plays in economic production. We value wetlands for the “ecosystem services” they provide, as places of beauty, and for their own sake.

This account doesn’t grant the people of the past capacity for intelligence or folly. It doesn’t allow for inconsistency and disagreement. Debates over irrigation and environmental protection in the so-called “development” era were just as divided and hard-fought as they are now. Perhaps more so. Everyone escapes judgement. It’s feel-good because it says things were bad in the past but we’re better now. They did that but we’re doing this. The Authority is not part of the legacy of natural resource management, but a reforming saviour.

In her 1999 Boyer Lectures, Inga Clendinnen called this type of history a “nursery” version. It is stripped of awkwardness and messiness, and is deployed to support the institution or group that’s telling the story.

The irrigator’s lobbyists have their nursery version too: it involves irrigators as stewards of the land, irrigators feeding the world. Throughout the Murray–Darling debate the Australian Ricegrowers’ Association invoked global hunger as a reason not to proceed with proposed reductions in water extraction limits. It claimed that Australian rice feeds forty million people every day (except in 2007–08, when drought slashed allocations and ricegrowers decided they could make more money selling water than growing rice). In a lean year, given the size of Australia’s rice harvest, that daily meal for forty million people would barely cover a fifty cent coin; even in its bumper years, Australian rice accounts for less than half a per cent of global production.

Confronted by the complexity and turmoil of society, according to Clendinnen, the nursery version of history makes babies out of its followers. We’ve seen plenty of that in this debate. Clendinnen argued that to maintain functioning civil societies we need true histories with all their lumpiness.

In William McKell’s story, we are confronted with a serving of lumpy history. McKell’s dam-building agenda in 1941 was not about greening the interior. He wanted his reforms to prevent dust storms coming from the plains and soil washing down the slopes and mountains, to diversify agricultural production away from its risky dependence on one or two commodity crops, to ensure decisions to grow crops were informed by scientific research as well as economic and marketing data, to modernise rural Australia and improve the poor standards of living in the bush, to encourage farmers to “adopt improved practices,” to secure natural resources for long-term development, and to protect unique ecosystems for their aesthetic, recreational and intrinsic values.

These aims pretty closely reflect current hopes for reform of the Murray–Darling Basin. McKell was a statesman who genuinely wanted to improve the condition of the people and environment of rural Australia. His story shows how the ways we understand the living world and the language we use to do it shape our ways of working with it. We need to understand the complex ways ecological metaphors, science and culture become entangled and change over time.

BY SEPTEMBER 2011 the Murray–Darling Basin Authority had shifted its language away from balance. Craig Knowles had become a keen disciple of “ecological resilience” and “adaptive management” and wanted everyone to know. The Authority posted a video on YouTube showing Knowles talking in front of an electronic whiteboard about his latest thinking on the Murray–Darling Basin Plan. His hit rate for “adaptive” was almost as high as his previous rate for “balance.”

Resilience theory, which grew out of a paper that ecologist Buzz Holling published in 1973, is sometimes labelled the “new sustainability science.” In simple terms, resilience describes the capacity of an ecosystem to survive disturbance without collapsing and becoming a different system. The management style that goes with resilience is “adaptive” – it watches out for changes, and adjusts its strategy accordingly, to avoid undesirable ecological states or to facilitate a move towards a desirable one. In the words of the CSIRO’s Brian Walker and David Salt, resilience thinking is “part philosophy, part pragmatism.”

Resilience and adaptive management offer an alternative to the old regime of command and control. They recognise that humans are part of nature and that societies and ecologies form intertwined, complex systems. They do away with the false assumptions that underpin much of modern environmental management – that there are constants, or equilibrium, and that environmental management is all about optimising supply and demand. They favour ecological buffers and redundancy, minimising the risk of management decisions having a devastating effect on the environment.

Although it’s good to know the Authority wants the adaptive management plan to be informed by “local knowledge,” it’s also the case that Aboriginal people have been largely left out of the debate. So have local landholders on the lower reaches of the rivers, who support higher cutbacks. We can only hope that Knowles has turned over a new leaf since, as NSW planning minister, he introduced legislation that stripped local communities of the right to be consulted about major infrastructure projects affecting them.

Perhaps the Authority will learn a little more about risk, vulnerability and redundancy. In the Guide to the proposed plan scientists suggested that the least risky option was to reduce overall entitlements by 7600 gigalitres, and that the riskiest option was 3000 gigalitres. In the YouTube clip, Knowles says that after accounting for what’s already been purchased the Authority wants to get back 955 gigalitres through buybacks and subsidising irrigators’ infrastructure. At this time the Authority will “adapt” the plan to see if they can get back even less for the environment in the second phase to 2019.

I hope the language of resilience isn’t simply being spun to work against the very things resilience researchers wanted to achieve. After all, this was already a plan with more money budgeted for irrigation development than water buybacks. Craig Knowles is no William McKell. Neither is Tony Burke. If a management regime like McKell’s – motivated by best intentions and based on science – can go so awry, imagine what a management plan informed by spin might do.

DAYS before the release of the Draft Management Plan, Tony Burke began talking about “constraints” in the system. Companies have built access roads and channels where the rivers flowed before the dams went up, and they might sue if that land receives water again. For Burke, “constraint” was a convenient way to dismiss those who argued that the reductions were not enough because they fell short of what scientists such as the Wentworth Group recommended and what the Guide itself had outlined. He spoke as if these were immovable obstacles.

This tells us something about the river system – that this is a substantially modified system at every level. It’s not simply that irrigators have been licensed to extract water. On the Macquarie, for example, there is limited capacity at the dam outlet works to replicate natural flows, cold-water thermal pollution interrupts native fish breeding and can extend for 300 kilometres down the river, pesticide and herbicide run-off degrades water quality, nitrogen and phosphorous combined with increased turbidity from dam releases contribute to toxic blue-green algae blooms, and thousands of kilometres of legal and illegal earthworks divert water for pasture and irrigation near the Marshes. Even at the smallest scale there is work to be done: native fish seem to dislike round culverts, but happily pass through box culverts. It’s a simple measure.

How much attention and effort will go into these details? The basin plan was never going to be comprehensive. The modelling is hydrological, not ecological. Mainly it’s about how much water is needed to keep alive floodplain trees, which are used as a proxy for the ecological health of the wetland. No one really knows if that is a good stand-in for ecological resilience and integrity of the system, but I’m guessing it must be easier to measure. If it’s a matter of delivering water to grow trees at specific sites then irrigators are right to ask for the job.

I’m starting to think, however, that there is hope for the rivers and for a fair deal for irrigators and downstream landholders. All the talk about resilience and adaptive management leaves it open for the public servants charged with implementing the plan to do good work. Knowles himself used the language of resilience to say that rivers are “dynamic systems,” and that “this is more than just about a volume of water.” Perhaps the government of the day won’t be shocked when this plan leads to a recommendation for extra money to address the whole range of causes of river degradation.

Many people started to believe that the reforms the Howard government introduced, and which culminated with the Draft Basin Plan under the Authority and Tony Burke, were going to save the rivers. They put too much faith in the plan. I was one of them. I was raised in Dubbo, swimming in and drinking Macquarie water (although a couple of summers there was too much faecal matter in the river to swim). We visit the Marshes regularly: it’s a special place. But as McKell and the Water Conservation & Irrigation Commission remind us, it was natural resource management that put us in this mess.

I’m glad this is not the final plan, the big fix. We’ll have to keep trying to figure out how these unique and variable inland rivers work. It’s time to start thinking about what it means, in practice, to want a “healthy” or “resilient” river system. It’s time to put more resources into developing and understanding difficult and complex ecological science. That just might be what this plan will allow. It will depend on the stories we tell, the histories we believe, and the language we use to understand the living world. •