Menindee Lakes – A Slow Death Down Stream

This is a snapshot of Australian Federal/State government rural water policy in action and its a prelude to another feature  on this site a year later.

It’s an example of Australian Agri-bussiness and Corporate Farming benefiting, but at the expense of others. Mostly those rural communities downstream. The area around the lake in particular exudes that horrible stench of a community struggling. It’s quiet and feels empty in more ways than one.

This is no more apparent than at the small village community known as the ‘Sunset Strip’ on the shore of Lake Menindee. There is very little water in the lake that was ounce described as an outback oasis, where the residents of the strip could watch the sunset and take a dip, or launch a boat. Not now I suspect, except for a couple of places somewhere else on the system.

I first visited the area in May 2017 and spent time briefly in Wilcannia, Broken Hill, Menindee and Mildura and saw the problems of water policy facing the city residents and rural towns in far western NSW and Victoria. Friends and locals from the Hill with property at Menindee gave me a firsthand insight into the problems facing residents, landowners and businesses in the area. Its not pretty.

In better times, the trip south from Broken Hill to the lakes had been one of excitement for a weekend on the water. These days, the road to Menindee is marked with crosses that outback residents have erected out of frustration and anger at authorities perceived to be killing their community …. slowly and by stealth.

Managing the resource across three States is complicated. “These are the lowest inflows into the lakes in recorded history. We are in record drought territory,” says Hanlon, the Deputy Director-General (Water) with the Department of Primary Industries. There have been three extreme droughts in 15 years including the millennium drought.

No one denies the complications in managing water out here, it’s just the impacts are always worse downstream.  just a few kilometres to the south, the first cross appears: It states, “Lake Killers and other crosses in small groups on the hill tops and on the roadsides near the turn off to the lakes. The handmade signs painted on the crosses say “RIP Menindee Lakes”; or “RIP Darling River” or nothing. Just a stark white cross painted on gum near the shores of the lake. Everyone knows what it means!

This is a serious issue for these people, who have an invested history in the area through several generations and have chosen to make this place their home. Many locals believe their concerns are being ignored by the Government and the city regulators who oversee The Murray Darling Basin Plan.

In the past, Broken Hill and surrounds had been almost guaranteed a supply of lake water, said Broken Hill’s mayor, Wincen Cuy, in a recent submission asking for more water in the lakes. “That is no longer the case.” There have been highs and lows during times of severe drought to major floods, but nothing like this.

When full, the seven lakes that comprise the Menindee Lake System – ephemeral natural lakes where weirs and dams were added in the late 1940s – hold three times more water than Sydney Harbour, but not anymore.

The locals scattered along the Darling at Menindee and Broken Hill have a sense of humour and don’t take themselves to seriously, but their patience is being severely tested by this issue.

The inability of Governments to guarantee Water supply, that one basic commodity essential to life in the small outback towns is slowly killing them and a way of life. That was in 2017,  I fear however that in August 2018 the situation has not improved. most of us from the south take water for granted, here they never will.

The story will continue…

Mike Briggs, Menindee May 2017

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