The Lower Darling River – part of the giant Murray-Darling Basin – is in a dire state.
The New South Wales government announced a $10m rescue package last week to mitigate the effects of the river crisis on native fish this summer.
The NSW agriculture minister, Adam Marshall, said the unprecedented action would provide “a lifeline for key native species ahead of an expected summer of horror fish kills...We’re staring down the barrel of a potential fish Armageddon, which is why we’re wasting little time rolling out this unprecedented action.”
But there are already doubts about how effective the $10m program will be.
Several scientific reports said the lack of flow in the river due to the drought and exacerbated by irrigation upstream were to blame. When temperatures soared to over 40C and were followed by a cool change, the water in the pools striated, leading to de-oxygenation of the deeper water, killing fish.
The NSW government appears to be in denial about possible causes of the ecological catastrophe last summer. The water minister, Melinda Pavey, has criticised her own independent adviser, the NSW Natural Resources Commission, which said extractions by irrigators upstream may have led to the Lower Darling being pushed into hydrological drought three years earlier than it otherwise would have been.
The commission has called for an urgent revision of the rules that allow irrigators to continue to extract from the river when flows are very low. It wants the threshold when irrigators must cease to take water from the river to be raised, along with other rule changes.
Meanwhile, there are still 52 fires burning across Queensland, where its former fire commissioner says is “like nothing we’ve ever seen before...What we’re seeing, it’s just not within people’s imagination,” said Lee Johnson, who spent 12 years in charge of Queensland’s fire service, now a director of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, “They just didn’t believe it could ever get so bad.”