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There’s gold in the river and fairies in our forest

Murray River communities are “crying tears of despair” with the latest revelations from the Murray Darling Basin Authority.

Speak Up deputy chair Lloyd Polkinghorne says an MDBA report this week blaming environmental damage in a fragile stretch of the river on century-old gold mining is “incomprehensible”.

Communities have expressed increasing concern at the damage to riverbanks and their environs from increased flows under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. While the plan is supposed to protect the environment, in many cases it is having the opposite effect, as local residents continue to point out.

A particular area of concern is the fragile Barmah Choke, which is a narrow stretch of the Murray and its capacity to carry water is diminishing. This has been a growing problem for Basin Plan exponents, who Mr Polkinghorne said continue to try and justify a ‘just add water’ approach which supports a legislative requirement to send massive quantities of water from Hume Dam to South Australia.

“According to the latest MDBA report, a ‘slug’ of sand from upstream gold-mining and land clearing in the 19th and 20th centuries has found its way to the Barmah Choke and reduced its capacity. I’ve heard some weird excuses for this failing Basin Plan, but this takes the cake,” an exasperated Mr Polkinghorne said.

“Next thing you know, we’ll be told fairies have been found in the Barmah Forest … which is probably just as believable as this gold-mining theory.

“For more than five years we have been calling on the MDBA to acknowledge there are problems with the Basin Plan so we can all work together on appropriate, achievable solutions. Obviously this call continues to fall on deaf ears,” he said.

He added Speak Up will be writing to the MDBA to seek assurances that the gold-mining theory has been appropriately peer reviewed, and he has also suggested the MDBA should be more consistent with the figures it presents.

“In November 2019 the MDBA released a fact sheet stating the capacity of Barmah Choke was restricted to 7,000 megalitres a day, down from the 8,500 megalitres/day in Volume 2 of the Basin Guide from 2010. Yet this week it says the choke’s capacity is 9,000 megalitres a day. Perhaps, like so many parts of the Basin Plan, it’s all just guesswork.”

Mr Polkinghorne said the MDBA had previously blamed boating and recreational activity for riverbank erosion, but continues to turn a blind eye to the real reason for the problem, being excessive flows.

“If it talks to people who have lived for generations along the river it will learn more about its characteristics and environs than from a computer model in Canberra. But I don’t think that will happen because there does not seem to be the appetite to acknowledge the true reasons for environmental damage.

“I would also encourage the MDBA to look at other parts of the river, not only the 28 kilometres that was included in the latest ‘report’. If the gold-mining slug is damaging the choke, what’s the excuse for bank erosion that is occurring hundreds of kilometres downstream?

“With the greatest respect to the MDBA, it is extremely difficult to take anything it does seriously when this is what we are being fed. Meanwhile, the capacity of farmers to produce food is drastically reduced and our communities are suffering through the appalling water policy and management that we are forced to live with.

“So how about we drop the excuses that are being dished out and start meaningful conversations about how we fix this political plan that is failing our communities and the nation,” Mr Polkinghorne concluded.

Section of river bank near Cobram, upstream of the Barmah choke.

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