I have recently become involved in a new project entitled Our-Waters, which is about the River Murray and the photographic archives of the Godson Collection held by the State Library of South Australia. Some background to the project is here on my Our Waters Our Country blog, which, for now, is loosely associated with the Our Waters project.
As it is still early days in the project, it has no public profile (ie., there is no website) to inform people what is happening. However, a recent update on the state of play of the Our Waters project is on this blog post. This indicates that this photography is not what Rebecca Solnit calls eco-porn: photography that celebrate the ‘untouched beauty’ of nature associated with the nature tourism and calendars that view our land and rivers as a place of wildness and wilderness.
It is an opportune time to start such a project given the recent report on the ecological state of the Coorong by the Goyder Institute. The ecological condition of the Coorong has been steadily degrading since European “settlement” due to upstream water extractions, and the Millennium Drought was a major disturbance causing a rapid decline in condition. Whilst the relatively recent increase in natural and managed inflows to the Coorong through the Murray-Darling Basin Plan have improved the ecological condition of the North Lagoon, the ecological condition of the South Lagoon has not recovered, or it has continued to decline. As Mary E. White wrote in her Running Down – Water in a Changing Land (Kangaroo Press, 2000):
The continuing saga of the extraction of massive amounts of water from inland rivers to satisfy the escalating demands of the irrigation industry is Australia’s most serious, and ultimately potentially most disastrous water-related issue. It is a battle between two essentially irreconcilable attitudes to land use.
To speak plainly, the Murray-Darling Basin has been, and is being, managed to benefit the irrigators.
The Goyder Report on the ecological condition of the Coorong’s South Lagoon states that:
The Coorong is considered to be the most important waterbird wetland in the Murray-Darling Basin. It has been degraded to the point where it is at risk of losing the key elements which make it such an iconic wetland of local, national and international importance. Most notably this has included large reductions in the abundances and some waterbirds, particularly fairy tern and migratory shorebirds. This is associated with the prevalence of filamentous algae that is preventing aquatic plants from completing their life-cycle and interfering with the ability of waterbirds to feed on both plants and invertebrates in mudflats. The system is now in a vulnerable state and may have little capacity to absorb continued and cumulative environmental stress resulting from water extractions and changes in climate.
It is highly likely that the growth of the filamentous algae in the South Lagoon is caused by the flows from the drainage system in the South-East of South Australia, since these flows are drainage from agricultural landscapes and so would would contain a lot of nutrients. But little scientific research has been done on this. What is known is that the reduction in extent of aquatic plants has led to a loss of habitat and food resources, particularly for shorebirds, whilst the shift in dominance from aquatic plants to algae has reduced access to foraging habitat for waterbirds. Consequently, the South Lagoon now has little capacity to absorb continued and cumulative environmental stress.
The Report states that the management regime must now contend with how to restore the system (ie., Lower Lakes, the South-East groundwater and the Southern Ocean) to a more desirable state (i.e. more suitable habitat for migratory shorebirds, extensive Ruppia tuberosa beds etc.) that supports the site’s biodiversity into the future shaped by climate change.
Any contemporary landscape photography of the Coorong, or of the rivers and land in the Murray-Darling Basin, is basically representing a landscape that is increasingly being shaped by climate change, and so to all intents and purposes it is a photography in the Anthropocene. This would be a photography that doesn’t ignore histories of colonial invasion and occupation which have inevitably left their mark on the land, which addresses colonial legacies, and challenges the dominant narratives around representation of land.