By Jane MacAllister, Water Campaigner, Nature Conservation Council of NSW
Almost 35 years ago, the Menindee Lakes in far western NSW was the scene of one of the most extraordinary wildlife spectacles of modern times.
Flooding rains at the top of the Darling-Baaka River catchment filled the chain of shallow lakes and attracted more than 140,000 waterbirds from across the continent in a spectacular irruption of life, the likes of which has not been seen since.
Fast forward to January 2019, and these same lakes were the scene of one of our most distressing and shameful wildlife disasters – the death of more than a million native fish: bony bream, golden perch and our iconic Murray cod due to water mismanagement and the worst drought in living memory.
The Menindee Lakes, 1000km west of Sydney and not far from the border with South Australia, are an emblem of our extraordinary biological endowment but also the appalling failure of non-Indigenous Australians to wisely manage our priceless natural heritage.
Sadly, ecologically harmful decisions about the lakes’ management are still being made.
Right now, the NSW Government is pushing ahead with engineering works that will stop the lakes filling and make them drain more quickly so that corporate irrigators at the top of the catchment can keep syphoning off vast volumes of water for crops like cotton.
This plan will further harm the area’s native plants and animals and push the whole system closer to collapse.
Already, crustaceans and molluscs have all but disappeared and millions of mussels were lost during the now-regular cease-to-flow events. Mass water-bird breeding events, like the one recorded in 1985, are now a dim memory.
This is not just an ecological disaster; it is a human and cultural one too.
The Barkandji people, whose name is literally “people of the river”, have been forced to postpone or abandon cultural practices that have been handed down through thousands of generations over possibly 65,000 years.
Barkandji Elder Uncle Badger Bates sums up the tragedy this way: “Without the water, we got no name, we got nothing”.
But it doesn’t need to be this way.
By abandoning the government’s ill-conceived engineering works and nominating the lakes as a wetland of international significance under the Ramsar Convention, we could turn things around.
We have to let the lakes fill and drain in ways that mimic the natural flows that prevailed for thousands of years so balance is restored and nature can thrive once again.
Listing the lakes on the Ramsar Convention would not only have tremendous symbolic power.
It would trigger federal environmental law that would require better protection of these complex and fragile ecosystems, and a more ecologically sensitive approach to the critical issue of water management.
Ramsar listing would also boost the economy by stimulating tourism, investment and much-needed jobs in one of the country’s most disadvantaged regions.