Thursday, January 10, 2008

Water Rights

David Groenfeldt is the Executive Director of the Santa Fe Watershed Association in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Santa Fe River he cares for has recently been declared the most endangered river in the US.

When I first spoke to David Groenfelt he told me something amazing. It was a different way of seeing a river system and the relationship between humans and the water.

Humans believe they have rights to river water. For drinking, sewerage, irrigation, and recreation. They think this becuase they pay for access to water in the form of water rights. They have a right to the flowing stream's water or the meandering river's water. But what happens when their use rights drain the river and the surrounding ecosystem of its lifeblood? The outcome, a drying or dried up river and a paradox where the river has no rights, even to its own water.

Taking this outcome to its extreme - how much would a river pay for access rights to its own water? As can be seen in many areas across the globe, the river pays with its life.

Over the weekend the media reported two damaging river stories. The first in The Australian newspaper told the terrible story of how the parts of Murray River have turned to acid. The effect - an acid river that brings death to animals, birds, fish, frogs and insects that drink from and live in its hazardous waters. River Red Gums and other riverbank vegetation is also slowly dying. There is no relief in sight.

The acidic water is caused by the drought and over-irrigation taking the precious flow. The article says acid waters occur in areas that used to flood regularly but now these areas have become dry. The low river levels have allowed the iron pyrite in the soil (a by-product of decaying organic matter) to come into contact witih oxygen. This process acts like a chemical reaction forming sulphuric acid. The solution? Rain and stronger river flows.

The second media story focused on the Darling River. The ABC Landline journalist stood in the heart of the river, in sand and stones, sadly not flowing water, and spoke about its plight. Interviewees on the program not only mentioned the huge economic losses to the farming and tourism sectors, they also talked about the disappearance of water birds to the area. And their loss of place.

A dried up river, once the life-bringing waterway of inland Queensland and NSW, is suffering from an over-abundance of irrigation licences for inappropriate agriculture. One of the inteviewees put it this way:

'In the years before 2006 we had what I call the cotton drought. The irrigators upstream took so much water out of the river that we just didn't get the flows through that we should have got, and we didn't get the small floods through that are essential for the flood plains.' (Barney Stevens, Darling River Action Group, 2007).

Other farmer interviewees simply said the river is dying. A huge huge cost when humans do not recognise this simple need: that rivers need rights to their own water.

Wallace R, 2008, 'River of death where water turns into acid,' The Australian, Jan 12, 2008
Willacy M, 2007, 'Community rallies to save the Darling River,' ABCTV Landline, Jan 13, 2008, originally aired on June 17, 2007.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Life for Rivers

Rivers for Life is a very insightful book covering the need for global care of water and river systems for both people and nature. Written by Sandra Postel and Brian Richter (2003) from the Global Water Policy Project, Rivers of Life's first chapter is titled: Where Have All the Rivers Gone? It documents the impact wrought by human development through changing infrastructure (such as dams, hydro-projects, dredging etc.) on rivers, wetlands and other freshwater ecosystems, so much so that the health of the river and the plant and animal species that dwell in and along the river are threatened. The authors estimate that worldwide that 'a significant proportion of fresh water species ...including 20 percent of freshwater fish species ... are at risk of extinction or are already extinct.' (2003:3)

Healthy river systems are fast disappearing. But at the same time there is a host of activists, river and wetlands restorers who are working to re-create river health and wellbeing. Postel and Richter advise rivers should be valued for their own sake not only for the services they provide the human community. They comment: 'Rivers are more than conduits for water. They are complex systems that do complicated work.' (4)

What's needed for the restoration of river systems is all the scientific research that's being done as well as great encouragement for people to care for local waterways. One suggestion is to tell river stories from the present and the past, e.g. stories from indigenous communities and from the early days of white settlement when cotton growing, sugar cane farms and cattle stations spread out along the river. People may become more aware, more engaged and perhaps more motivated to take action to protect the river environs.

Talking to people I meet on the trail teaches me so much about the river and its history. We discuss the birds we've seen, the experiences of flood times, how tough it was for the early settlers in clearing the luscious rainforest for farmland and more generally, about the threat of encroaching development. And we work together to care for the precious bushland. Each day I pull up a number of noxious weeds but with the recent fantastic rain, the weeds are growing faster and taller than my ability to rip them up them; it seems impossible to combat their spread.

Postel and Richter are optimistic that people will learn to appreciate the natural environment including rivers and so might replicate the 'complicated work' that rivers do by lobbying for river education and river health. To this end the authors make a serious plea:

'Unless human communities begin to adapt to natural cycles and coexist with aquatic communities, those natural communities will disappear and the ecological work they perform will be lost.' (202).

They call for an ethic of stewardship which respects 'the beauty and mystery' of the natural world while at the same time demanding from governments a more aware, community-embedded active rivercare program.

One of the case sudies from Rivers of Life is the Brisbane River and its deteriorating health. Postel and Richter point to the extent of land clearing where now only 14 percent of the whole river catchment area where most people live 'remains uncleared' (133). They document a litany of river impacts that have severely affected the river flow, from construction of dams to changes in waterway vegetation which interferes with 'shading and temperature controls' raising the likelihood of 'algal blooms and lowering dissolved oxygen levels.' (135, citing Arthington et al, 2000).

The list of concerns continues with the loss of biodiversity and subsequent loss of habitat for bird, animal and fish species, including the platypus.

To combat these problems (or are they horrors?), a number of counter strategies are suggested. It requires concerted and combined action among all stakeholders and residents but of course, such suggestions to restore healthy river systems may (or invariably do) bring conflict, as ecological demands can disturb policy and development desires and outcomes. Postel and Richter (2003:137) write:

'This conflict between managing the Brisbane River for human purposes versus meeting the river's own needs for water is one that arises on virtually every river. ... Complete restoration of the Brisbane's natural flow regime would likely cause too much disruption to landowners and water users to be publicly acceptable.'

In the end such conflict is played out between humans and nature where nature's voice is rarely heard. At the moment the Butcher Bird is sitting on the verandah singing the most glorious chorus and sounding, on occasion, like the Magpie, the Kookaburra and of course, itself. I love that. The very melodic refrain of the Butcher Bird reminds me how important it is to value local river systems and trees and get involved in that complicated work of the ecosystem of which, we humans too, are part.

Arthington AH et al, 2000, Environmental Flow Requirements of the Brisbane River Downstream from Wivenhoe Dam, Brisbane, Queensland: South East Queensland Water Corporation, and Centre for Catchment and In-Stream Research of Griffith University.
Postel S and B Richter, 2003, Rivers For Life: Managing Water for People and Nature, Washington, DC: Island Press.