The recent history & politics of Menindee Lakes & Darling-Baaka River

Watch for a detailed explanation of the Menindee Lakes situation.

The Menindee Lakes is a natural series of lakes that fill with water when the Darling-Baaka River floods. In the 1960s, a series of engineering projects augmented the Menindee Lakes, allowing water to be directed into the lakes and held back or released. This ensured a reliable water supply for the city of Broken Hill, the township of Menindee and secure supply of water for the Lower Darling River and supply to South Australia.

The Menindee Lakes system provides important habitat, nursery and recruitment for native fish, such as the Murray Cod and Golden Perch. It is important habitat for a huge variety of native and migratory bird species. The Menindee Lakes system is vital to the communities of the Far West, providing recreation and amenity, as well as attracting tourism, recreational fishing, horticulture and viticulture.

The Darling-Baaka River is central to the cultural, spiritual and economic lives of the Barkindji people.

The health of the Menindee Lakes and the Darling-Baaka River are intimately linked. The lakes fill from the Darling-Baaka River and water stored in the Menindee Lakes keeps the Lower Darling flowing during dry times. The Great Darling Anabranch is a series of ephemeral creeks, billabongs and lakes that wind their way to the Murray River to the west of the main Darling-Baaka River Channel.

Irrigation expands

There has been a rapid expansion of irrigation along the rivers in the Northern Basin of the Murray Darling Basin, particularly cotton. Irrigation of cotton has expanded by 4,000% since the 1970s. In 1971 Australia grew 81,000 bales of cotton. By 2012 Australia grew 5.3 million bales. Irrigation dams - Wee Waa

Much of the cotton is grown along the rivers of the Murray Darling in very large irrigation enterprises, with most of the cotton grown on tributaries of the Darling-Baaka River.

Large private storages were built to hold water and other structures were built to capture flood waters.  Water licences and water sharing plans allow irrigators to suck huge quantities from the tributaries of the Darling-Baaka even when flows are modest. 

The result has been that low and medium flows have virtually stopped flowing down the Darling-Baaka River.  Only the largest floods that cannot be captured upstream, or specially protected environmental flows, now make it down to the Menindee Lakes and Lower Darling-Baaka River.

An easy target?

After the Millennium Drought exposed just how over-allocated the river systems of the Murray-Darling Basin were, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was agreed between the Commonwealth and the states.  The Plan aimed to make the Murray-Darling Basin system more sustainable by returning more water to the rivers through buying back water licences and other measures to recover water for the environment.

Menindee Slogan Bus

The irrigation industry views the water flowing into the Menindee Lakes as wasteful and unproductive (not growing crops). They would prefer water to be  taken from the Menindee Lakes to meet the targets under the Basin Plan rather than for the irrigation industry to be compelled to use less water. The industry points to the volume of water that evaporates from the Menindee Lakes each year as a key reason to reduce the amount of water flowing into and being stored in the lakes. The amount of water that evaporates from shallow private storages in equally hot and dry climates is rarely mentioned.

Scientists and environmentalists view the water that flows down our rivers, fills wetland and billabongs, and spills over floodplains as highly productive for nature and vital for sustaining complex ecosystems that have evolved over eons. These flows are also vital for replenishing underground aquifers and for sustaining downstream communities and Indigenous cultures.

Some politicians view the Menindee Lakes as an easy target. The population around Menindee is sparse, without much economic or political clout. The birds, fish and wildlife can not vote, lobby or protest. Taking water from the Menindee Lakes system is seen as politically easier than seeking to recover water from loud, well-connected and politically savvy irrigators. The location of the Menindee Lakes in a remote part of NSW that is out of sight and out of mind for many citizens located on the eastern seaboard also makes it hard for the issue to gain political traction.

A plan to decommission the Menindee Lakes

After the Menindee Lakes filled from a major flood event in Queensland and NSW 2012, they were rapidly emptied by the Murray Darling Basin Authority and the NSW Government. Usually the lakes would hold water for many years after they filled, but by 2014 they were emptied. As a consequence, Broken Hill was in danger of running out of water and the government announced a plan to drill bores to supply the city with low-quality bore water. Locals were outraged at this plan and were concerned that the Menindee Lakes had been deliberately drained so quickly as part of a plan to justify the decommissioning of the lakes.RIP Menindee Lakes

Another flood filled the Menindee Lakes in late 2016, but again they were rapidly drained, almost inexplicably into a flooding river. By then end of 2017 they were again dry just as drought started to bite and Broken Hill was facing another artificial water shortage. 

Flush with cash from privatising the electricity networks, the NSW Government spent $500 million building a 270 kilometres water pipeline from the Murray River at Wentworth to Broken Hill. This ended the city’s reliance on the Darling-Baaka River and Menindee Lakes for water supply. Cotton Australia applauded the construction of the pipeline saying in their Annual Report, "The pipeline is a win for the community, the environment and irrigating farmers, and a solution Cotton Australia and its allies have long lobbied for." Meanwhile the local community was concerned that the pipeline would allow the NSW Government to decommission the Menindee Lakes without worrying about Broken Hill's water supply. 

Sure enough, plans to reconfigure the Menindee Lakes are back on the table as a project to 'recover water from the environment' under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan's Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism. The NSW Government wants to save up to 100 gigalitres of water each year by reducing the volume water stored in Menindee Lakes by up to 80%. A range of proposals have been put forward for consultation.  

The Darling River Action Group has labelled the plans as 'ecological genocide.' They strongly oppose the huge reduction in habitat that will occur if reconfiguration plans go ahead. They worry that changing the times between and length of inundation in the lakes will have a major impact on fish breeding and birdlife. The Barkindji native title holders are also strongly opposed to the plans, with significant concerns about the impact on their culture, community, environment and sacred sites.

Fish kills and dry rivers and lakes

Fish Kill Menindee In the teeth severe drought, predictions of environmental catastrophe on the Darling River came true as millions of fish floated dead on the surface. Hot weather and a lack of flows led to a blue-green algae bloom that stripped the water of oxygen when it died, suffocating many millions of fish along a length of the Darling-Baaka River. Images of giant Murray Cod many decades old floating on the surface of a stagnant, bright green river shocked  Australians. If water had been stored in the Menindee Lakes, a flow of water in the Darling-Baaka River could have been maintained and millions of fish and other creatures would have survived. It was noted that the very large mature Murray Cod that had died would have survived numerous previous droughts, so what had changed?

A report by the Australian Academy of Science concluded: 

The conditions leading to this event are an interaction between a severe (but not unprecedented) drought and, more significantly, excess upstream diversion of water for irrigation. Prior releases of water from Menindee Lakes contributed to lack of local reserves.

A small flow in mid-2019 led to a partial revival of the Darling-Baaka River and water in the upper lakes of the Menindee Lakes system. However, the Menindee Lakes and Darling-Baaka River face three major threats:

1) The proposed re-configuration of the Menindee Lakes system;

2) The continuing overallocation of water extraction licences in the Northern Basin of the Murray-Darling system;

3) The extent and proposed licencing of floodplain harvesting, which is capturing huge quantities of water before it can even reach the waterways of the Darling-Baaka River.

Together we can form an alliance to save the Menindee Lakes and revive the Darling-Baaka River to health. Join the campaign today.

Lake Pamamaroo panorama