Drought, water extractions and climate change have threatened the future of Australia's greatest river, the Murray, as governments work to strike a balance between the millions of people who depend on it and the environment.

Story By Paul Myers

When David Gordon described the Murray River as “the Nile of Australia” in his 1906 book of that name, he was truly prophetic. It was far from a time of plenty. Eastern Australia had just emerged from the so-called Federation drought that reduced the Murray and Darling rivers to a series of waterholes. Although a frequent occurrence before and after European settlement, semi-dry, non-flowing rivers weren’t acceptable to Australia’s early-20th-century rural pioneers.
Suddenly, the early hopes and promise of the inland were in doubt. A nation intent on inland development required continual paddle-steamer access to fledgling river towns and the remote inland stations they serviced, while allowing new areas to be settled, grazed and exploited. And so, in 1918, 88 years after Captain Charles Sturt solved the “riddle of the rivers” by rowing to the Murray mouth, the Murray River Commission was established to plan the future of Australia’s greatest waterway.
Like Gordon it, too, saw the Murray as a river of plenty and, with the backing of the Commonwealth and states, events were set in train that changed – for better and worse – a river along which 200,000 people now live and upon which, from Canberra to Melbourne and Adelaide, millions depend.
But today, the 2560-kilometre Murray River is the subject of more debate, diagnosis, disagreement and despair than those early planners could have imagined. They thought that by building locks and weirs, water could be kept permanently in the Murray to enable navigation and irrigation, and that building dams in key catchments would guarantee not only a constantly flowing river but water extractions indefinitely.
They reasoned that the only possible outcome to the Murray master plan could be growth and prosperity, which it was for most of the next 80 years. But by the 1990s it became apparent that Mother Nature would have the final say in determining the river’s fortunes, that those early visions may have been too grand, initial hopes too high and eventual dependence on the river too great. Not that it was all bad, for along the way riverside populations blossomed, a multi-billion-dollar food bowl emerged and tourism flourished.
These benefits notwithstanding, the health of the Murray River and its sustainability is now as much in question as was the future of the inland itself 100 years ago. And so a new plan is now being rolled out for the entire Murray-Darling Basin; when finalised next year it will effectively limit urban and rural activity by restricting the amount of water that can be taken from the Murray and its tributaries.
The effects will be profound, even though the best part of another century may have to pass before a final verdict on its impact can be made. In the meantime – as it has for 40 million years – Australia’s greatest river will continue to wend its way to the Southern Ocean, its future dependent not just on natural influences but equally on human decisions made far away from its fertile banks.

This story excerpt is from Issue #72

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2010