Opinion: Let the rivers run wild

Lake Eyre from space Image: NASA's Earth Observatory
Tuesday, 5 March, 2013

The Lake Eyre Basin, one of the world's last great free-flowing river systems, must be protected, writes Professor Richard Kingsford.

Temperatures across Australia in January were the hottest ever recorded, topping 50 degrees near Lake Eyre. Out in the middle of the continent, water is in short supply and what is left disappears from shallow lakes and channels before your eyes.

Yet once again the mighty rivers that flow into Lake Eyre are threatened by upstream development.

The Queensland government has signalled its intention to foster small-scale irrigation, a decision that could haunt generations to come, reliant on this incredible river system that delivers income and a healthy environment.

Among the many questions that need to be asked about the proposal are three key ones: how much water, from where and what will be the impact?

Lake Eyre and its rivers lie in a heart-shaped river basin and none of its precious water ever goes to waste, supplying waterholes and spectacular wetlands.

For millennia people’s lives have been intertwined with the boom and bust cycle of wets and dries in this region. There is an incredibly strong bond between the Aboriginal people of the Lake Eyre Basin and its rivers, replete with rich stories.

The last boom – the floods of 2009 to 2011 - led to an extraordinary explosion of wildlife, including up to a million waterbirds. Tens of thousands of cormorants and pelicans were still feeding last year on the bountiful fish in the lakes of lower Cooper Creek in South Australia. The heavy rains are also essential for frogs, turtles, trees and wildflowers – wielding a magic not confined to the natural world.

The floods also poured money into outback towns in Queensland and South Australia, as tourists flocked to see a brimming Lake Eyre. Floods convert into income too for floodplain graziers, whose livelihoods ebb and flow with the waters. The channel country is among the richest grazing in the land, where you could almost “fatten a stick”.

As this wonderful part of Australia moves into the inevitable bust cycle, however, and the rivers start to dry, the big challenge is to think long-term. Two unquestionably unsustainable industries - irrigation and mining – threaten the benefits to people and wildlife.

Both industries could exact a heavy toll on the rivers and their ability to deliver a healthy environment and its goods and services to future generations. Diverting the flows would inevitably affect the rivers down to Lake Eyre.

Landowners, traditional owners, scientists and environmentalists have worked with all governments for nearly twenty years to protect the rivers of the Lake Eyre Basin but this could change.

The Lake Eyre Basin Agreement, which has been signed by Queensland, South Australian, Northern Territory and Australian Governments, unequivocally commits these governments to protecting the rivers and their flows. But it is only an agreement.  

Lake Eyre’s rivers are special on a world stage because they produce spectacular boom floods and they remain largely intact.

This last characteristic is under threat if Queensland decides on the water development path. The economic and environmental ramifications will be widespread, inevitably extending to the enigmatic Lake Eyre.

Professor Richard Kingsford is Director of the Australian Wetlands, Rivers and Landscapes Centre at UNSW.

Last week he addressed a conference on Lake Eyre conservation that brought together graziers, traditional owners, scientists, environmentalists and politicians in Longreach in outback Queensland.