Why "Save The Murray"?


| Jennifer Marohasy

Reprinted from Quadrant Magazine:

I WAS SURPRISED when I learned that the Australian was running a "Saving the Murray" campaign. I realised that journalists often fail in their quest for the truth, but I assumed that they at least subscribed to the ideal. Campaigning - organised action to achieve a particular end - is the antithesis of honest reporting.

Environmentalism is now big business and big politics. It would therefore seem important that journalists at our national daily newspaper scrutinise the actions and the media releases from politicians, environmental activists and the growing industry and research lobby, particularly on an issue as important as the Murray River. Yet they were running a campaign.

In August, in advance of the federal election, Greenpeace, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and the Wilderness Society announced their policy platform as saving the Murray River, ending logging of old-growth forests in Tasmania and "tackling" climate change. On September 6, the editorial in the Australian suggested "it would be hard to slide a cigarette paper between the environmental policies of the major parties" on these three issues. The editorial did not acknowledge the newspaper's particular interest in saving the Murray. And there were in fact significant differences between Labor and the government on the issues of climate change and old-growth logging - with the differences on old-growth logging emerging as a defining election issue. In contrast both Labor and the Coalition had committed to increasing environmental flows in the Murray, the only difference being the amount of water to be "saved".

Since the Australian launched its "Saving the Murray" campaign in February 2001, public and political support in metropolitan Australia has been effectively galvanised to lament the dying of the Murray River and support the need to return water as environmental flows. But along the Murray, communities see things quite differently.

If, as the Australian's editor Michael Stutchbury suggests, the newspaper is about Australia "having a conversation with itself", then the "Saving the Murray" campaign provides a depressing illustration of the extent to which metropolitan Australia is being swept along by environmental fundamentalism. The problem with fundamentalist creeds is that they are driven by adherence to predetermined agendas and are rarely tolerant of new information, irrespective of the weight of evidence.


THE "SAVING THE MURRAY" web page at the Australian's website states:

On February 5, 2001, the Australian's environment reporter, Amanda Hodge, and photographer Shaney Balcombe began an epic voyage along the Murray River, on a campaign to save the nation's greatest waterway. The voyage culminated in a summit at Goolwa, South Australia, on February 25.

The "epic voyage" was in fact along one of our most closely settled and highly regulated river systems. The Murray - Darling Basin is home to approximately 2 million people, and supports almost three-quarters of the irrigated agriculture in Australia. Agricultural production from the basin represents 41 per cent of the national output from rural industries. Irrigated agriculture has been a feature of the Murray River, the main river in the basin, since the early 1900s when the first dams and irrigation channels were constructed. In 1974 the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme was completed and water was diverted west with the aim of generating hydroelectricity, drought-proofing the region and providing additional water for irrigation. Agricultural productivity in the region continues to increase, with a record wheat harvest last summer.

The "epic voyage" and summit at Goolwa were recorded in more than forty published stories by several of the Australian's journalists, including an editorial titled, "It's time to rescue our sacred river". The "Saving the Murray" series covered a diversity of issues from storm water management in the town of Albury, to descriptions of a colony of 100,000 wading birds breeding in the Barmah - Millewa red gum forest, to the culinary exploits of Stefano, an "effusive Italian-born political adviser turned cook" in Mildura.

Amanda Hodge, the journalist who undertook the "voyage", was awarded a United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Award for the "promotion of understanding and resolution of environmental issues" through one of the stories in the series.

The stories are interesting and easy reading. The continuous disconnection, however, between the description given of the river environment and each story's headline is disconcerting. The substance of the stories generally suggest that the river is healthy with fish, water birds and well-fed communities striving to achieve world's best environmental practice. Yet the headlines, side comments and conclusions, in almost every story, seem designed to reinforce the concept that the Murray River is dying and that we are in the midst of an ecological crisis.

In one of the last stories of the journey filed by Hodge, she appears to grapple with the contradiction, writing:

It is almost impossible to stand on the pristine sands that form the gateway to the white-capped Southern Ocean and declare that the Murray is a river in crisis. The point at which the two great waters meet is a breathtaking vision of natural beauty framed by grass-topped sand dunes and masses of water birds ... The river that sustains and delights millions of Australians and international visitors bears few of the obvious hallmarks of an ecological disaster ... Much of the damage that has been inflicted on this Australian lifesource cannot be viewed from its waters.

If the damage is not evident from a three-week cruise down the Murray, then presumably it can be shown by the published research and the environmental statistics.

At the Goolwa Summit, the then federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator Robert Hill, announced that the Prime Minister's National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality would provide $1.4 billion to address water quality and salinity issues across Australia, with approximately half of this amount to be spent in the Murray - Darling Basin.

On April 7 (some six weeks after the "epic voyage" and summit) Amanda Hodge summarised the river's problems in an article titled "Rescue for a river in ruin". The key environmental problems were identified as: rising river salinity; dryland salinity spreading throughout the basin; reduced biodiversity; over-extraction of water for irrigation; and declining native fish stock. However, no data, expert opinions or credible published reports were provided or cited to support any of these claims. Rather, these problems were assumed.

A survey of public attitudes to farming and the environment undertaken by Crosby/Textor two years later, in 2003, showed that across four states, in both regional and metropolitan cities, Australians believe that the "health of the Murray - Darling system" is the nation's most important environmental issue, with salinity and rising water tables (associated with dryland salinity) identified as particular problems.

Indeed the perceived ailing health of the Murray River is driving water policies nationally, including the recently endorsed National Water Initiative. In November last year the Northern Territory government went to the extraordinary step of banning the growing of cotton on the basis that this crop, along with irrigation developments, had "devastated" the distant Murray River.


I CAME TO THESE ISSUES in June 2003. At that time both the government and Labor had recently agreed that "saving the Murray" was a national priority and both were canvassing the possibility of taking water from irrigators to increase environmental flows - the Opposition were committed to 1500 gigalitres (equivalent to three Sydney Harbours) and the government appeared likely to agree to a similar quantity.

At market prices of approximately $1200 per megalitre, this represents up to $1.8 billion worth of water. Water is considered the lifeblood of the communities along the river, and denying irrigators this amount of water was likely to have a serious social and economic impact on river communities, and on the competitiveness of dependent agricultural industries.

I was interested in checking the evidence regarding the notion that the Murray - Darling system was in decline. I focused on those indicators of river health that key research organisations had identified as most important. These indicators broadly accorded with Hodge's summary of April 7, 2001.

River salinity. I started by requesting data from the CSIRO Division of Land and Water that I assumed must have existed to justify the organisation's statements - which were clearly enunciated on their website at that time - that salt levels were rising in almost all the basin's rivers.

No data, however, could be provided. I was referred by the CSIRO instead to the Murray - Darling Basin Commission (MDBC). The commission provided me with salt readings for Morgan - a key site just upstream of the pipeline off-takes for Adelaide's water supply - back to 1938. Surprisingly, the MDBC data showed that salt levels had actually halved over the last twenty years, and were then at pre-Second World War levels.

In August 2003, I gave a paper titled "Received Evidence for Deteriorating Water Quality in the River Murray" at a meeting in Canberra. In the paper I showed graphed data for the four key water quality indicators (nitrogen, phosphorus, turbidity and salinity) at three key sites along the river.

Internet publishers On Line Opinion posted the paper on their website and it was extensively distributed among the basin's farming community. A consequence was that the CSIRO and MDBC conceded in the rural press that the situation had been one of improvement, not deterioration, in salt levels over the last decade. The text on the CSIRO website was removed. Spokesmen for these institutions, however, continued to sidestep discussion of the data for the other water quality indicators.

The critical point is that water quality indicators for key sites suggest that the situation is stable, not deteriorating. The data are consistent with a healthy river system in the context of the environmental conditions which characterise inland Australia.

Subsequently I discovered that the disconnection between rhetoric and data was just as overwhelming in the case of the "other problems" identified by Hodge in her article of April 7.

Fish. Murray cod was listed as a threatened species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act in July last year. The media release from the Minister for the Environment and Heritage gave the reason for the listing as a 30 per cent decline in numbers over the last fifty years. The Australian reported this immediately in two articles, "Murray cod on national list" and "For cod's sake, Murray needs stronger flow". However, there are no data to support the claims of a decrease in cod abundance over the last thirty years; nor do any data support the claim that there has been a 30 per cent decline in numbers over the last fifty years.

The most widely quoted source of information on native fish status in the Murray - Darling Basin is a New South Wales Fisheries survey undertaken in 1995-96. This survey did not provide any data from which trends with respect to improvement or deterioration in fish numbers could be determined. The report's principal conclusions include the statement:

A telling indication of the condition of rivers in the Murray region was the fact that, despite intensive fishing with the most efficient types of sampling gear for a total of 220 person-days over a two-year period in twenty randomly chosen Murray-region sites, not a single Murray cod or freshwater catfish was caught.

Most remarkably, at the same time, in the same years, in the same regions, that the scientists were undertaking their now much-quoted survey that found no Murray cod, commercial fishermen harvested twenty-six tonnes of Murray cod!

The commercial fishery was closed in 2001. It is evident from the available commercial fishing data that a collapse in the cod fishery did occur in the early 1960s, after which numbers remained low but stable through to the 1990s. There is anecdotal information suggesting that numbers are now on the increase.

Red gums. On July 31, 2003, the Australian published a comment by journalist Asa Wahlquist, "National challenge needs steely courage". Without providing any evidence or citing a particular authority, she stated that "Australia faces a catastrophic water crisis" and that "River red gums that have lived for centuries are dying".

A survey of red gums undertaken by the MDBC in March 2003, which did not distinguish between stressed and dead trees, nonetheless indicated that the "red gum problem" was limited to South Australia and was associated with the drought.

The reality is that red gum forests in Victoria and New South Wales are generally healthy. Indeed they are recognised as internationally important wetlands precisely because of their high biodiversity and because they regularly support large colonies of water birds. Since the early 1990s there have been specific and substantial water allocations for these forests, which have continued to sustain them through the drought.

Dryland Salinity. The Australian's journalists have relied heavily on the government's report "The National Land & Water Resources Audit's Australian Dryland Salinity Assessment 2000" (NLWRA) for information regarding the spread of dryland salinity. The document warns that the area with a high potential to develop dryland salinity (from rising groundwater) will increase from 6 million hectares in 2000 to 17 million hectares in 2050, as reported by Hodge in the Australian on March 17, 2001.

The NLWRA has been widely cited and was used to help secure $1.4 billion in funding through the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality. It is therefore worth considering its technical integrity.

Interestingly, the report does not distinguish between what might normally be considered irrigation salinity as opposed to dryland salinity. It determined that areas with groundwater within two metres of the surface are at high risk of dryland salinity. The forecast ground-water levels were "based on straight-line projection of recent trends in groundwater levels".

Yet no data supports the notion that we currently have a situation of rising groundwater in the Murray - Darling Basin. Groundwater levels in the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Coleambally irrigation areas - the regions considered most at risk - have generally fallen during the past ten years.

The CSIRO has provided me with the following reasons for the general fall in groundwater levels: improved land and water management practices; relatively dry climate over the past ten years; increased deeper groundwater pumping and higher induced leakage from shallow to deeper aquifers; and lower water allocations during the last couple of years.

Based on the NLWRA's own definitions of dryland salinity, and the available evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that the area at risk of dryland salinity has substantially decreased in the Murray - Darling Basin system over recent times.

Data collected by Murray Irrigation Ltd since 1995 from 1500 sites covering 500,000 hectares of agricultural land considered most at risk from irrigation salinity, has shown that this region has experienced a 90 per cent drop in the area affected by shallow water tables.

The information presented in the NLWRA is speculation and is not based on actual data. Even when values are shown for years before the assessment was published, the values are "predictions", not measured statistics. The NLWRA does not provide any information about the actual measured extent of dryland salinity, nor does it test its projections against actual outcomes.

The NLWRA has been extensively quoted and accepted uncritically by the Australian as evidence of a spreading dryland salinity problem.

Bjorn Lomborg, Danish statistician and author of The Sceptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, in his address to the National Press Club in Canberra last year cautioned against giving automatic credence to the ambit claims of environmentalists. He made the point that "everyone has an interest". I would go further and suggest that journalists should treat all claims of environmental deterioration and impending doom, including government reports, with healthy scepticism.


IN DECEMBER 2003 the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) published my monograph Myth & the Murray - Measuring the Real State of the River Environment, in which I detailed the available evidence for those environmental indicators that have influenced public perception of the Murray River's health. Victorian Farmers' Federation President, Paul Weller, was reported in the Victorian rural weekly, the Weekly Times, commenting that the report exposed the extent of the misinformation peddled by key research institutions and that the media should not continue to let this travesty of justice be perpetuated.

Amanda Hodge phoned me on December 8, the morning of the document's launch, indicating she had been told to cover the story but that she was too busy to talk with me. In the event the Australian never covered the story or reported on my findings.

In March 2004, the federal government's Standing Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries handed down an interim report that emphatically stated that the scientific evidence does not support the claim that the Murray River needs saving. The committee clearly sought to understand the issues and discovered that scientists had been substituting advice from "expert panels" for basic data collection. The committee relied heavily on my monograph and also the work of ecologist Dr Lee Benson.

The majority report of the committee (which comprised seven Coalition members, three Labor, and one independent) recommended that, as a matter of urgency, the government delay its proposal to commit water for additional environmental flows. The committee cited concerns with the quality of the science advice and understanding that underpinned the mooted policy recommendations, which cumulatively are likely to have a negative economic and social impact. One (Labor) committee member dissented.

The Australian immediately responded with three pieces that were overwhelmingly dismissive of the committee's report: "MP revolt on rescue of Murray", "River mouth needs less talk, more water" and "Downer rejects Murray water delay". Two days later the national daily followed up with two more articles, "Delay in Murray flow catastrophic" and "Red gums' water of life comes down to the river".

Not one of the stories explained why, for example, the delay might be "catastrophic" or why the river mouth needed more water. No effort was made to understand or analyse why the parliamentary committee - which also included Labor members - was providing such strong advice that challenged the existing environmental policies of both the major parties.

I was not contacted by any of the four journalists who wrote the five stories. A letter-to-the-editor which I drafted, and my suggestion that I contribute an opinion piece, were disregarded. I was, however, referred to in one of the articles as a "loud lobbyist" and for being responsible for the committee "totally discounting millions of dollars of public investment in research over the years".


WHEN EMBARKING on the "Saving the Murray" campaign, Michael Stutchbury needed, at the very least, to give substance to his stated vision:

As the nation's daily newspaper, we are the forum in which all sides of these big issues are chewed over. But where we believe we can lead the national debate forward - such as in our championing of a republic or our campaign to save the Murray - we will clearly make our own views known while providing a voice for those who disagree.

Yet there was no voice for those who disagreed. Perhaps it was unreasonable to expect that the same journalist, Amanda Hodge, who spearheads the "Saving the Murray" campaign, could dispassionately interview people, like me, who were challenging the evidential basis of the same campaign.

In April, I sent a draft of this critique to Stutchbury. I was interested in dialogue with the journalists who had run the campaign and had an understanding of the status of the campaign. His response was to offer me an opinion piece. A short piece was eventually published by the newspaper on budget day. Not a single letter to the editor or other comment in response was published by the newspaper. I know there were letters, because several were copied to me.

When the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry handed down its final report in June, the Chair, Kay Elson MP, summarised the committee's position:

The committee is not swayed by the emotions of some commentators who portray the River Murray as dead or dying. Indeed, the steady flows in the River Murray today are in stark contrast to the trickle reported by Sturt in his journals more than a century and a half ago. The committee understands that variations in flow are quite natural and not necessarily an indicator of poor river health. The significant progress which has been achieved in other areas of river health, such as controlling salinity, should be more widely acknowledged and recognised.

Incredibly, the Australian responded to this 201-page report not by focusing on the findings, but by suggesting one of the committee members, Patrick Secker MP, was likely to lose his seat at the approaching federal election. "He was part of a parliamentary committee that recommended extra flows down the Murray be postponed. It was potentially suicidal, and he knew it," wrote Richard Sproull and Jeremy Roberts on September 15, 2004. The article went on to quote Mr Secker saying, "I don't call myself a great politician, I never have, I say what I believe is right and then so be it." Far from losing his seat at the election, Mr Secker was returned with an increased majority.

The Australian was born forty years ago as a bold venture in national journalism, vowing to provide, according to editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, "the impartial information and the independent thinking that are essential to the further advance of our country". The Murray River and its communities would appreciate some independent thinking from the Australian. Instead they have been served up environmental activism and environmental fundamentalism - the antithesis of independent thinking.


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