Rational choices

First printed in The Southern Argus, October 1st 2009, with permission from the author


“When we seek revenge, dig two graves”

In politics the memories of being wronged are long, and often distort our actions or positions.

It’s not easy to keep a rational open mind, and the “noise” of our anger can drown out the whispered idea until we have locked ourselves in on a wrong position.

I believe we have done this on the positions we have taken re the Murray, Lakes and Coorong.

When Peter Lewis sided with Labor, and facilitated the formation of the first Rann Government, Liberal MP’s and some of the Liberal supporters were very angry.

There were good enough reasons for some hurt, but subsequent events, took us down a wrong path.

For example when Mr. Rann mooted the idea of a Weir at Wellington, to protect Adelaide’s water supply, the disaffected went into overdrive.

The “Stop Rann’s Weir” campaign was formed and every conceivable piece of evidence, hearsay, fact and fiction was drafted into the campaign.

Some of it was genuine concern, but much of it was retributive mischief designed to inflict political pain on a premier who had floated an idea probably put to him by his departments, and suggested by Peter Lewis some time earlier.

This fierce and well organised campaign extended to the election, and there was a local assumption that the electorate would recognise the errors of its ways and reinstall the Liberals.

It didn’t though the electorate of Hammond returned Adrian Pederick the Liberal party were left further from government, and locked in on the “No to Rann’s Weir” freshwater only solution.

The big picture and the soft voice of ideas were drowned out by noise, aggression and silly logic.

Sir Thomas Playford said that “Politics is the art of the possible”.

In this case we know that all of the catchment area of the Murray Darling Basin is outside State boundaries.

And that 70%, or 80% of the population live in those states.

This is the reality, this is the geography, this is democracy, and they are population too.

They vote. They want water. We need to negotiate.

I believe it would have been, and still will be an astute move to shift positions, and negotiate for a lock at Wellington. This would be very costly, so in return we must give something, the “win win” of negotiations. 

We have much to gain. Had we taken this stand earlier, we may have levered the total cost of the irrigation pipeline to Currency Creek out of the deal, but 90% is ok, and in the past. 

We now have a situation where if we build a lock, complete with fish ladders etc., all of the upstream wetlands, recreational areas, river industries, and major pipelines will be secure. 

They will be in a weir pool created by what I will call “Lock Zero”. 

The demands on the river will not be altered. 

The draw off from Mannum, Jervois, or private lines will be the same. 

The environmental flows, that currently flow over Lock One will continue to flow over Lock One, and all things being equal, those environmental flows would continue to flow over Lock Zero. 

There are no negatives, only cost. 

Murray Bridge river banks would be stabilised, the wetlands associated with Walkers Flat restored, recreational activities resumed. And the environmental flows that currently enter the Lakes via the river channel would enter it via Lock Zero. 

A lock at Wellington has no sustainably negatives, at least not any which do not apply to all the other 38 or so structures that control the river flows. 

Sure some will cite old river boat captains recall of lake water raising and lowering the river levels at Mannum by a metre, or comparing the system to some part of human anatomy. 

These are beliefs held in good faith by many, but do not stand up to rational scrutiny. 

We are always going to be in a situation where the system is compromised. 

We are forced to make choices. Some times “Sophie-like” choices. There will be times when we lose something grand to save something grander. 

If a position was taken to build a Lock at Wellington we would need to back it up with some modelling of all the options related to the removal of the barrages. 

This modelling would include the effects of the restoration of the tidal estuarine flows on the sand build ups created by the barrages. 

The effects of open tidal flows on the Murray Mouth. 

The Venturi’s and eddies that tidal flows and environmental flows would have on the Coorong, Lake Albert, and the waters around Hindmarsh Island, and Lake Alexandrina. 

The modelling would then create an ability to assess the ecological changes that would result. 

What creatures and what industries would thrive in the estuarine environment? And which would suffer? Where would the balance of nature sit? 

This only needs to be modelling, as actions would be dependent on results, and Sir Thomas Playford’s “art of the possible”. 

No modelling has been done, the CSIRO doc, “Construction of a weir at Wellington, with and without the barrages”. It is not hydraulic modelling, just some basic economic data related to the value of the water saved, evaporation etc. The “Twin Lake” proposal was on the basis on evaporation variations also. 

Enough of “flying blind”, this has brought us “bunds” at Narrung, “flow regulators” at Clayton, Finniss and Currency Creek, and all sorts of problems both physical, economic and social from the Murray Mouth to Blanchetown. 

Surely it is a good thing to do some sophisticated modelling. Are we missing something? I think we may be. 

Of course the “Ramsar” advocates will go nuts, but if we establish enough information the solutions may become self evident. 

Perhaps we need to take a look at that listing, who prepared the submission? Does it stand up to peer review? Was there a small element of “cultural cringe”, “us too” about our nomination of the area for listing? 

Perhaps a tidal estuarine system would hold equal merit and warrant listing in any case. 

The “shouting loudly” special interest groups have distorted the information trail. 

The obsession with acid soils, led to “bund” at Narrung, 12 months of futile pumping, defeat and the channel blocked. 

The same scenario has seen the construction of the Clayton bank, and creation of the Goolwa pond, and more pumping. Bizarre at best. 

Without modelling we have no evidence either way as to the options we may have had re-letting the sea in. 

And that’s what we have to offer in negotiating. From a position of strength having collated all the information we may be able to forgo the freshwater forever and exclusively in the lakes, allowing nature to provide the water levels for marinas, recreation, and maybe new fishing industries. 

The 770 square kilometres currently one metre below sea level is a strong card to have if we need an alternative to the river flow to raise its level. 

And there is also the possibility of rising sea levels to factor in. 

I have spoken at length with most parties on the issue. 

I believe the lock at Wellington is a must for S.A., and we may have to give something to get it as it will be expensive. But there is no engineering task that cannot be achieved. 

Yours etc., 

Kieran Fitzgerald