HotSpots H2O: Massive Fish Kills Fuel Anger Over Murray-Darling Basin Management

The Rundown

Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin is mired in another controversy following recent fish kills. The first kill happened in late December, the second in early January, and officials warn that more deaths may occur. Up to one million fish are dead.

The Murray-Darling watershed stretches for more than 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) and provides water one of the country’s key agricultural areas. When the Millennium drought hammered Australia throughout the 2000s, competition between irrigation, industry, and the environment became more pronounced, prompting the formation of a $13 billion watershed recovery plan. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which was signed into law in 2012, seeks to recharge the immense water system while continuing to support agriculture and other industries.

In the past seven years, the plan has been fraught with scandals and political issues, and tensions have flared again in the wake of the fish kills. Experts have named the government, the cotton industry, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, and the country’s growing aridity as possible culprits for the fish kills.

“The ongoing drought conditions across western New South Wales have resulted in fish kills.” –Official statement by WaterNSW and the New South Wales Department of Primary Industry after the first fish kill.

“It is clear what has caused the Darling River fish kill – mismanagement and repeated policy failure. To blame the fish kill on the drought is a cop-out.” –Maryanne Slattery, senior water researcher with the Australia Institute.

“[The] river droughts are happening more often and they’re more intense as a result of the irrigation industry in the Darling diverting water from the river over the last 10 to 20 years.” –Richard Kingsford, the director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of NSW.

“As an industry, we are growing very tired of being ‘the whipping boy’ for all the problems that are being brought on by this crippling drought. The recent fish deaths in the Barwon-Darling river system at Menindee was a devastating sight. However, it is wrong to blame cotton growers for this incident.” –Michael Murray,  the general manager of Cotton Australia.

By the Numbers

1/7 Proportion of Australia’s land that drains into the Murray-Darling Basin.

2.6 million Australians who live in the basin, including members of 40 Aboriginal nations.

$24 billion Size of the basin’s agricultural industry.

46 Native fish species that live in the Murray-Darling river system.

2,750 gigaliters Water that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan originally hoped to shift from irrigation use back to the environment. Several adjustments to the amount have been proposed since 2012.

Science, Studies, and Reports

A report by the Australia Institute claims that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, acting on instructions from the New South Wales government, is largely to blame for the fish kills. The report notes that drought and heat, which incubated deadly algal blooms, undoubtedly played a role–but government mismanagement created the conditions for the catastrophe. The Australia Institute, as well as the Green party and the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations, have called for a royal commission or other formal inquiry into the fish kills.

On the Radar

Further fish die-offs are predicted as warm temperatures continue to envelope the Murray-Darling Basin. Residents are attempting to prevent more kills by monitoring waterways and installing aerators that introduce oxygen into the waters. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of fish continue to rot along the riverbanks of the Murray-Darling.

Map of the Murray-Darling basin. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Resources and Further Reading

A plan for the Murray–Darling Basin (MDBA)
Another Murray cod dead at Menindee as locals brace for another kill(The Guardian)
Darling River fish kill: cotton industry says it won’t be ‘the whipping boy’ for disaster (The Guardian)
Hundreds of thousands of native fish dead in second Murray-Darling incident (The Guardian)
New South Wales government largely culpable for fish kill, report finds (The Guardian)
What is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and why are we still talking about it? (ABC News)

1 reply
  1. John Turner says:

    $24 Billion from your Agri Business says it all. Not going to be able to challenge them to change their ways. Insanity Why when we know we have a problem, we apply the same solutions that we used when we created them. (Albert Einstein) Spray irrigation, open irrigation channels,ponds and lakes – 30-40% evaporation. No real water charges on irrigation volume/volume or amount of crop per hectare, so low efficiency values of water use. There are sub – irrigation systems that can be viable especially now when there are whole industries are under threat. Or we can wait until the next monsoon comes along ?

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