Scientist John Williams is urging a revamp of the water management policy for the Murray-Darling River, saying the recent mass fish deaths shows the strategy is not working.
“We have to have water management plans that can cope with drought and not kill the fish. So it is telling us that our current management plan – under the Murray Darling Basin plan – is not working,” he told SBS News. “Because if it was working we can go through droughts without fish killed.”
The former chief scientist of land and water at the CSIRO for a decade until 2004 said the current policy for the Murray-Darling River did not factor in the impacts of climate change.
“Well in the current Murray Darling Basin plan, climate change is not properly dealt with. We haven’t built a plan which recognises the change we are likely to have according to global warming. We haven’t built that knowledge into the current plan adequately at all. And this has got to happen.”
The federal government has blamed drought for the mass fish deaths, but Mr Williams, now an honorary professor at ANU Crawford School of Public Policy, said the loss of water flow is the big issue.
“The real issue is the loss of flow in the river system so the pools of water in the river actually develop what is called stratification, so that the actual water cannot mix. And the same time that water has got algae bloom running through it.
“So these fish are dying because a) the high temperature takes oxygen out of the water. But also the decaying algae material takes oxygen out of water. And it is both of them resulting in fish dying without any oxygen in the water column.”
Federal government sets emergency meeting for this week
Up to a million fish are dead in the Darling River at Menindee and more are likely to perish in coming days as temperatures rise.
Despite criticism from scientists and environmental advocates who say mismanagement of water is to blame, the federal and NSW governments are adamant that drought is behind the deaths.
Federal Water Minister David Littleproud has asked the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to convene a meeting of water managers and environmental water holders this week.
The federal government wants states to agree to use $5 million from Murray-Darling Basin funds for a strategy to look after native fish.
The meeting will look at the immediate risk of further fish kills and how to mitigate that possibility including through the release of environmental water.
But Mr Littleproud says the government couldn’t have planned for the severe drought affecting eastern Australia.
“The only thing that will fix this is rain,” he told reporters in Brisbane on Monday.
Focus on water management solution: NSW Minister
NSW Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair called for an end to blame-shifting, saying the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was settled in December.
“Holding a talk-fest that does not identify any new water solutions to help the Menindee community, does not help anyone,” Mr Blair told AAP.
Government, industries and locals trade blame over mass fish deaths
He said managers should look at options in southern NSW, where there may be water in environmental accounts.
The clean-up at Menindee begins this week, with scientists saying rotting fish need to be urgently removed from the Darling River or the carcasses will trigger even more deaths.
Mr Blair said fish were killed by a “perfect storm” of factors including severely low water flow, algal blooms and a sudden drop in temperature.
PM urges bipartisanship
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was concerned some may attempt to “play politics” with the bipartisan Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
“It’s a devastating ecological event,” Mr Morrison told ABC News Breakfast.
Labor leader Bill Shorten wants an emergency task force to investigate the ecological disaster.
Opposition water spokesman Tony Burke was recalled from holidays and sent to Menindee on Monday.
“We need to have the scientists out here doing the work,” Mr Burke told reporters.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said her government is being led by experts in its response to the issue.
“We’ve had scientists advising us the whole way through, not just in recent months, but over many years and that will continue,” she told reporters in Sydney.
Call for an inquiry
NSW Labor leader Michael Daley has promised to establish a special commission of inquiry into water management with royal commission-like powers, if elected at the March state election.
Australia Institute research director Rod Campbell believes there needs to be a serious process towards overhauling how the basin is managed.
“For the prime minister to blame the drought is a cop-out. We need an inquiry into how the managers of the Darling River have got it so wrong for so long,” he said.
Menindee farmers find thousands of dead fish in the Darling River
– with AAP