Murray River listed as endangered

Opinion by Susan Lawler

The Murray River was listed as critically endangered on August 5, the day before the Australian federal government went into caretaker mode before the election campaign.

Murray River at Mildura, credit Your MilduraThe Weekly Times claimed that this was a sneaky move because there was no official announcement, and representatives of irrigators were quick to criticise the move on the basis that they were not consulted and that the river is in good health.

So what happened? The Federal Environment Department was given advice from the National Threatened Species Scientific Committee. There is no question that the Murray River ecosystem is seriously damaged. Native fish are either in decline or extinct in places, and riparian vegetation is missing along the stretches dedicated to agriculture and to human habitation (towns).

The committee decided that part of the river met the criteria and the Environment Minister Mark Butler approved its inclusion on a list of threatened ecological communities.

The decision is not that surprising, given that the ecological community of the lower Murray River has been listed as endangered in NSW for many years now. What is considered the lower Murray in NSW is downstream of the Hume Weir (near Albury). The most recent listing covers the lower lower Murray, which is to say downstream of the Darling River (near Wentworth). This is just an extension of an already recognised problem.

Should irrigators and other members of the public be concerned? Well, I don’t see any reason to panic given that any pre-existing activities are exempt from restrictions. That means townships and irrigators already in place on the Murray River will not be affected. New developments will be subject to scrutiny, which can only further protect current residents and users.

Can a river really be endangered? Apparently they can, as evidenced by the recent listing of the most endangered rivers in the United States. The Colorado River tops that list and there is no doubt that measures to protect the river are key to the tens of millions of people that rely on it for their water supply.

I do not think the Environment Minister was being sneaky, although he may have been rushed to sign given the timing of the announcement of the election. All Environment Ministers are expected to respond to strong recommendations from their Scientific Committee.

The Murray River is an essential part of Australia’s natural assets and keeping it healthy and strong should be everyone’s concern. This listing is a logical recognition of multiple threats to Australia’s largest river.

So if you are feeling threatened because the river you live on is threatened, you are right. But irrigators need not worry about their future. They should be glad that our government is taking responsibility for the river that their livelihoods depend on.

First published on The Conversation on 23 August 2013. 

Dr Susan Lawler is the Head of Department of Environmental Management and Ecology at La Trobe University Albury-Wodonga. She writes a regular blog for The Conversation entitled This thing called life.

Image credit: Your Mildura