Independent review into Lower Lakes and Coorong confirms the need for barrages

Findings welcomed: An independent scientific review has found the Coorong and Lower Lakes were a fresh water ecosystem prior to European settlement.
Findings welcomed: An independent scientific review has found the Coorong and Lower Lakes were a fresh water ecosystem prior to European settlement.

The findings of an independent review into the state of the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth have been welcomed.

Commissioned by the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) in late 2019, the The Lower Lakes Independent Science Review, found the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth were freshwater ecosystems prior to European settlement.

The review was launched in response to concerns raised by stakeholders in the eastern states, who questioned whether the ecosystem was fresh, prior to the construction of barrages in the 1940s.

Some stakeholders, including NSW deputy premier John Barilaro also suggested that the removal of barrages may also result in an increase in water for upstream use.

These suggestions were firmly refuted at the time by the South Australian government and regional stakeholders, including the Alexandrina Council, who have now been vindicated.

In December 2019, SA's Environment and Water Minister David Speirs described these calls as an "irrational list of demands".

As part of the review, a panel of five independent experts, chaired by Francis Chiew - senior principal research scientist from the CSIRO - was established to:

  • Review the existing science relating to the management of the Lower Lakes and Coorong,
  • Identify advantages and/or implications of called-for changes, and
  • Note the knowledge gaps to fill to accurately plan for future climate change.

Key takeaways from the findings released on May 12 include:

  • The Lower Lakes were largely fresh prior to European settlement;
  • Removing the barrages would have significant ecological and socio-economic impacts;
  • Removing the barrages would not result in any water savings; and
  • Under climate change, the management of the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth will become increasingly challenging.

MDBA chief executive Phillip Glyde said the findings show that river managers are on the right track in managing what is considered an integral part of the Murray-Darling Basin.

"The way the Lower Lakes are managed had in the past been contested, with some communities questioning whether the lakes were fresh prior to construction of the barrages and whether removing the barrages would result in an increase in water available for consumptive use," Mr Glyde said.

"This comprehensive review of the science confirms it's time to put history to bed and focus on the future."

Alexandrina mayor Keith Parkes said council welcomed the panel's findings which offered relief to the region and enabled forward planning.

"We are pleased with the findings of the independent review, which reaffirm what Alexandrina Council and our community have been saying for many years - healthy rivers flow to the sea," Mr Parkes said.

"All Basin States must work together to secure a healthy river system all the way from Queensland through to the Murray Mouth."

Mr Parkes suggested the findings would come as a relief to the local community who have been fighting to secure a healthy, freshwater future for the Lower Lakes for many years.

"We agree with Mr Glyde, the time has come to leave behind any debate on the freshwater history of the Lower Lakes or the removal of the barrages and instead refocus our efforts on adapting to the challenges of climate change," Mr Parkes said.

Murray Darling Association Region 6 chair and Alexandrina councillor Melissa Rebbeck also welcomed the findings and said there would be inevitable, future agricultural management challenges associated with a changing climate.

"The independent panel findings reaffirm that agricultural communities throughout the whole Basin, including ours, will need ongoing assistance to adapt to a future with less water," Ms Rebbeck said.

"State and federal governments must continue to work together to foster opportunities and incentives that support agriculture to both adapt to and mitigate climate change, and in addition, continue to invest in research, development and extension in this space.

"Growth in agricultural productivity can occur but not at the expense of a healthy river."

The review also identified key knowledge gaps that need to be addressed in order to plan for the future management of the region in a changing climate.

Alexandrina Council declared a 'Climate Emergency' at their December 2019 council meeting, seeking to provide a clear mandate to place climate change at the forefront of local action.

"We acknowledge the challenge ahead of reduced inflows and rising sea levels and support the call to develop a comprehensive climate adaptation pathway for the Lakes and Coorong region," said Mr Parkes.

"Right now we need to stick with the Basin Plan and maintain our focus on continuing to recover environmental flows."

Read the full review via" https://www.mdba.gov.au/basin-plan-roll-out/monitoring-evaluation/lower-lakes-independent-science-review