How red tape can clog a river's recovery

Don Martin scrapes paint from his sailboat under the bridge for which this town is named. He has boated here for 30 years. As a child, he swam here.

Back then, he could see the bottom, he says, and the water was generally higher. Not much higher, maybe a foot or so. "But a foot of water," he says, "makes a lot of difference."

On a river like the 1,300-mile Murray - Australia's Mississippi, at least in terms of importance - it makes a world of difference. Farmers, ranchers, cities, and towns all rely on the Murray-Darling basin, which covers a seventh of Australia's land mass and encompasses more than half its population. The basin is running dangerously low on water.

Less than one-third of the Murray's natural flow now reaches the mouth, experts say. By some estimates, major Australian cities could run out of water as soon as 2006.

While a confluence of drought, development, and population growth have drained the river, reversing the trend will probably depend on the web of governments, agencies, and private groups that manage or use it. So far, their progress has been slow, and it's not clear they'll act in time to solve the Murray's problems.

"Australia is ahead of the pack on water policy in terms of what they're trying and the recognition that they have to do something different," says Sandra Postel, who runs the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Mass., and serves as consultant to the Worldwatch Institute. But "it's going to take more than what they've tried so far to really address the decline of the river."

A visit to the mouth, in Goolwa, illustrates how dire the Murray's problem has become. Sand-pumping equipment labors noisily on the forlorn flats, working to keep water flowing between river and sea. It has been running since late 2002. Combine years of damming and irrigation with even lower-than-usual rainfall - the past four years have been the driest on record - and a precious resource ends up in dangerously short supply.

Further, what's left can be tainted. The Murray's salinity level has crept up over the years, owing largely to groundwater runoff through depleted soil. By some accounts, it has leveled off. But damage has been done.

"Most scientists agree that the ecological health of the river, floodplains, and wetlands is declining," according to Sarah Ryan, coordinator of a program called Murray Region of Water for a Healthy Country at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). She notes key indicators: red gum trees "widely showing signs of stress" and the sharp declines of native fish stocks.

Blame flows

Observers toss blame in various directions. Some cite the sheer draw of big foreign-based cotton concerns, rice growers, and other agribusinesses, as well as overhead watering trusses, used by Australian farmers for crops and pastures, which they say allow too much evaporation.

Martin, the boater, cites a government move years ago to plant willows along the river to preserve the banks. Branches break off and take root downstream, he says, creating thirsty new trees.

Down in Adelaide, far too much rainwater is allowed to run off, says Judith Bleechmore, a longtime private consultant who has handled a number of environmental-based marketing projects for the government.

Far to the east in Melbourne, stenciled graffiti in downtown alleys calls for an end to logging - which leads to soil erosion - in catchments that supply that city.

Demand for water is high in Australia. "The best thing that's happened to us is the drought, because it's made everybody in urban areas appreciate the value of water," says Lawrie Kirk, a spokesman for the Murray- Darling Basin Commission (MDBC). "When I came to Canberra seven years ago, there were no such thing as water restrictions.... Now we've imposed [them]. Consumption dropped by, I think, 25 percent - and it's still dropping."

Mr. Kirk reels off other positive developments. New irrigation proposals must show a positive net result for the river system, he says. Water-rights trading has been weeding out less efficient uses upriver - flood irrigation of pastures, for example. One farmer sold enough of his allocation to enable himself to go 12 months without heavily irrigating, Kirk says.

But time is running out.

"In some places, it's dragging on a little bit," Kirk acknowledges. Getting dozens of government and private contractors and subcontractors to cooperate comes with challenges. He is even reluctant to estimate the total number of partnerships toiling within the six-government initiative on tasks that range from salt interception to graphic design. "We're just having a restructuring at the moment, but our role now - once we get strategies up and running - is implementation."

The scientific work is also protracted. "We talk about understanding the full range of water benefits across the hydrological cycle - from when it falls as rain in the upper catchments until it reaches its destination, whether an irrigation field or the Murray Mouth," writes the CSIRO's Ms. Ryan in an e-mail.

Measuring the value

What's needed is to develop ways to measure those water benefits "in economic and nonmarket terms," she adds. That includes assigning values to the water needs of indigenous people, tourism and recreation, as well as household use and irrigation.

Moves to fairly and sustainably manage this system's water date back at least as far as World War I and the River Murray Waters Agreement, itself 40 years in negotiation. By the late 1980s they evolved to the Murray- Darling Basin Agreement.

Now, more than five years later, frank internal assessments are hard to find within the sprawling save-the-Murray network. Two private-sector partners declined to comment on their work regarding salinity, one saying his firm had been "burned" in the past for appearing to speak for other partners.

Some outsiders are critical.

"The MDBC have somewhat lost the plot," according to Peter Cullen, an internationally known natural-resource scientist. "That is why the prime minister has established the National Water Commission, and given it $2 billion to get on with the job," he writes in an e-mail. "It is urgent."

Several states and territories have signed onto the federal initiative. It is intended to fund a regional reallocation of water that would reportedly deliver an average 63.4 billion gallons - roughly the capacity of the main reservoir that feeds metropolitan Boston - to the Murray each year.

But recent reports indicate that support for the plan is wavering as state and territorial governments quarrel over funding.

Ms. Postel, the water expert, considers it critical that a river's regulated "flow regime" mimic to some degree its natural flow. Beyond a water-withdrawal cap, which she praises as a unique and serious effort, planners should consider the degree to which they modify the river's natural patterns, she adds.

In fact, the Murray's seasonal flow has already been altered significantly, according to Ryan, with the effects of such changes still being established. "Before we dammed the river and extracted water for irrigation, the river was low and warm in summer and cool and high in winter," she writes. "Now it is at its highest in summer, when cool stored water from reservoirs is sent downstream for irrigation needs."

The MDBC's Kirk calls major changes to Australia's handling of water a generation away. The education effort now under way means today's schoolchildren, he says, will become responsible stewards when they take over. "It's not necessarily [about] the science at the moment.... It's the management in about a decade and a half. I'm very positive."

For now, Ryan says, the focus must remain on giving governments and water managers the tools they need to get more value from the water they have. "We can't increase the amount of water we draw from the rivers of the Murray Region, But we can probably use it smarter."

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