After attending the Centre of Culture, Land and Sea’s informative workshop at Meningie in South Australia. I used the opportunity to explore around Lake Albert and the Narrung Peninsula with its legacy of settler agriculture before driving on down to Salt Creek for a photoshoot for the Edgelands project.
Lake Albert, along with Lake Alexandrina, is a part of the Lower Lakes of the River Murray, and is adjacent to the northern lagoon’s eco-system of the Coorong. Being at the bottom end of the highly engineered River Murray, Lake Albert suffers from the river’s minimal environmental flows. Those at the terminus of the River Murray receive what is left over after consumptive use in the Murray-Darling Basin.
The irrigators around Lake Albert suffered from a lack of water during the Millennium Drought (from 2002- 2010)—-when Lake Albert was closed off from natural river flows by a Government constructed band at the entrance top the Lake. Exposure and oxidation of acid sulfate soils due to falling water levels from 2007-2009 in the Lower River Murray and Lower Lakes also resulted in acidification of soils, lake and ground water. The low water levels on Lake Albert resulted in many of the dairy farmers, who had relied on pumped water from Lake Albert, being forced to sell their cattle and even abandon their dairy farms.Currently, the water in Lake Albert is still well over 2,500 EC units (the Australian and New Zealand standard for a fresh water body is 1,000 EC or lower) and dredging at the Murray Mouth to keep it open has begun again. The negative economic impacts on the local economy and dealing services through the reduction in the number of irrigated dairy farms indicated that the irrigated dairy industry in the region is not viable.
If the reduced freshwater flows into the Lakes/Coorong Region is seen as unacceptable to the local community around the lakes region, then the upstream and interstate irrigators and water users favour opening the lakes to the sea to reduce the demand for environmental freshwater flows.
Increased temperatures from climate change will mean further reduction in inflows in the River Murray, and there are ecological and economic limits/constraints to adaptation to the changing conditions of water availability in the Lakes Region and the Coorong. The latter’s southern lagoon, which has been deprived of surface and groundwater inflows from the extensive wetlands in the south east due to the draining of the wetlands to the sea to increase agricultural land, is in a very degraded state. Though the aim of the Upper South East Drainage Scheme is to put low salinity water into the south lagoon via Salt Creek, the drainage channel was dry.
Reduced water inflows means the wetland of the southern lagoon’s has become hyper saline whilst the populations of bird species has declined dramatically. The most likely outcomes from climate change is decreased water availability and declining water quality as the southern part of the Murray-Darling Basin becomes drier. Since the current plans to return water to the environment do not meet the requirements to maintain the ecological character of the wetlands in the Basin as whole, we can anticipate that the vulnerability of the Coorong will only increase with climate change and rising sea levels.