April 21st 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The deeper causes of Australia's social malaise

GENDER POLITICS Queensland proposes transgender birth certificates

CANBERRA OBSERVED Malcolm at 30 (polls): the cloud on Turnbull's horizon

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell firmly denies sex abuse allegations

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Sydney Archdiocese aims to eliminate slavery in supply chain

RURAL DEVELOPMENT Irrigation along Fitzroy River proposed and opposed

LIFE ISSUES Abortion Rethink Summit: the case for care

VERBATIM WA food, drink producers face shortage of carbon dioxide

HOUSING AFFORDABILITY Land costs: economist Henry George's solution

ELECTRICITY Will Turnbull lose three out of three?

ECONOMICS Trade wars: tariffs unlikely to be fired in anger

SEX AND TEENS How about support for the abstaining majority?

VISUAL ARTS Layers of meaning in Botticelli's La Primavera and The Birth of Venus

MUSIC Is it good?: Or, do we just like the sound it makes?

CINEMA The Death of Stalin: Black comedy of a dark time

BOOK REVIEW Cool head on topic that generates heat

BOOK REVIEW Life's not so bad: from the outside



OPINION What a republic would really mean for Australia

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Irrigation along Fitzroy River proposed and opposed

by Warwick D'Silva

News Weekly, April 21, 2018

The controversial question of irrigation along the Fitzroy River has arisen in recent months.

The Fitzroy is located in the West Kimberley in Western Australia and flows for 733 kilometres from the King Leopold and Mueller Ranges into King Sound. The river has a catchment area of 93,829 square kilometres.

Advocates for utilising the Fitzroy’s water for irrigation say that a lot of its freshwater is going to waste, flowing straight into the sea. Among them is mining and beef billionaire Gina Rinehart, who has pointed out that each year over 14 times the amount of water in the Sydney Harbour (about 500 giga­litres) goes to waste – that is, about 7,000 gigalitres.

In an address to the 500 Club in February, Mrs Rinehart also made the comparison with Lake Argyle, Western Australia’s largest and Australia’s second largest freshwater manmade reservoir. She pointed out that Lake Argyle holds 10,763 gigalitres at full capacity and one year’s flow from the Fitzroy would fill this lake to 66 per cent capacity.

Pastoralists are keen to use the Fitzroy River’s water resources, particularly for beef cattle production. Australia’s cattle count is 27 million, of which WA has 2 million, which is just 8 per cent of the national total, a tiny figure for Australia’s largest state. The largest of WA’s herds of cattle are in the Kimberley region – the region through which the Fitzroy runs. The expansion of the export market for beef represents a large opportunity for the state and the Government is already supporting bilateral investment in this sector.

Mrs Rinehart made the point that the water from the Fitzroy could benefit both cattle producers and pastoralists. She said that the 7,000 gigalitres of water that flows into the ocean from the Fitzroy in the average wet season would especially benefit the cattle industry as research suggests that cattle can put on up to 28 per cent more weight when they have access to plentiful clean drinking water.

Australia has a lot fewer cattle compared with other countries of similar size. Australia has 27 million cattle. Brazil, which is just a little bigger than Australia, has 226 million; and Argentina, with around a third of Australia’s land, mass has 53 million. Providing clean drinking water will help cattle to be stronger and healthier and to reproduce more readily.

Other advocates for the irrigation of the Fitzroy are crop farmers. Warren Greatorex, Liberal candidate for the Kimberley, has said his party wants to start a conversation with those in agriculture in the region who want to start irrigation, though proper consultation from experts would be required before any specific projects could be considered. But, he said, “we should not negate any opportunities that could lead to any economic development, which in turn will help some of our social problems throughout the Kimberley”.

Recently the McGowan Labor Government told a gathering at Fitzroy Crossing that it has no plan to dam the Fitzroy River. Environment Minister Stephen Dawson said: “At the outset, the McGowan Labor Government has been clear that we want to protect and grow the environmental and economic future of the Fitzroy River for the people of the Kimberley. We are also firm that the river and its tributaries won’t be dammed.”

Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan echoed his words, saying that the Government was adamant that no dams would be built on the actual rivers that impeded the rivers flow. However, she added: “We’re certainly open to the notion of having off-river storage with water that accumulates from overland flows or underground flows.”

Gogo Station, 11 kilometres to the south of Fitzroy Crossing, plans to develop 25 irrigation fields, a total of 5,000 hectares, which would use 50 Gl of surface water each year. This water would be derived from the Margaret River, a tributary of the Fitzroy, by means of a gravity off-take channel. Water will only be taken when the height of flow in the Margaret River is three metres or above base-flow level.

Furthermore, the proposal also includes runoff capture from the river. In simple terms, utilising excess river flow. This proposal offers an alternative to the highly controversial damming of the Fitzroy.

At this same recent workshop that the ministers attended, a traditional Aboriginal stated: “We don’t want to see the place get dammed or anything, but our younger people have got no jobs, and they just carry on drinking and there’s too many drugs around as well, and this is where we want to create jobs and opportunity.”

These costs and benefits must be considered when exploring the idea of irrigation of the Fitzroy. Jobs would be created in the region, to the benefit of those currently suffering unemployment, especially in the Kimberley region, where unemployment runs concurrently with other social problems such as alcohol and drug addiction. Furthermore, providing more jobs would add to the security of families and young adults.

The WA Government’s answer and the alternative means of creating jobs is to create a national park – an election promise from last year’s Labor election win. However, Environment Minister Dawson said: “But in terms of how long or how wide the park is, or what those boundaries are, we have got no preconceived ideas.”

Nine leading experts on the Fitzroy River, each from different fields including freshwater ecology, water policy, conservation biology, hydrology and archaeology have produced a statement calling for greater protection for the river. An additional 90 other scientists also signed in support of the statement.

The statement explains the river’s importance for the many species of fish and bird that rely on the river for survival, as well as those endangered species that inhabit the river. The scientists recommend putting in place a buffer zone which does not allow for irrigation or damming near the river to protect these species.

The statement also details the cultural importance of the river and surrounding land to the local indigenous community, where rock art is located and the local community has a close connection to the land.

In order to have minimal impacts on local species and not to intrude on local landowners’ wishes, other irrigation techniques may be considered, such as pumping some of the water through pipes to storage tanks. The world’s largest water tank contains just 0.02 Gl, a minuscule proportion of the 7,000 Gl of water that runs off into the sea.

Large-scale irrigation or damming of the Fitzroy River thus face significant opposition and alternatives such as pumping, piping and Gogo Station’s proposal of utilising excess flow by means of a gravity off-take channel are worth exploring so as to have minimal effects on local dependant species.

So, for now it seems that irrigation plans for the Fitzroy region are just at the most preliminary stage.

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Last Modified:
April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm