more water – a lifeline to the river

The mouth of the river Murray

Water is the current which carries conversation in the river port of Goolwa.  And right now, everyone in this strategically positioned town where the River Murray meets the sea is elated that for the first time for many years water has flowed over the Goolwa Barrage. There was a joyful mood at the recent opening of the River Life photographic  exhibition at the yacht club when the  MC commented how exciting it had been to see the river levels rise daily after all those years of watching it ebb away.  At the opening of the Goolwa Regatta Yacht Club’s season, the governor of South Australia, Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce commented how great it was to see yachts sitting in the water in the natural course of the river. “This time last year, you could have played cricket out there,’’ he said pointing to the lineup of yachts bobbing in the water.’’

This community has watched helpless as  the “bottom end of the Murray has dried up’’ over the past decade.  Aware Australians know that our major river system is in crisis through the combined impact of over allocation of water upstream and years of drought.  One good snow season and one winter of flooding rain in eastern states is not going to change the slow demise of the river, the experts say and I believe them.

This fact has been hammered home these last few days with the release of the long-awaited Murray Darling Basin Authority’s draft plan.  It signals drastic cuts of water entitlements ranging from 27-37 per cent in order to return healthy environmental flows through the Lower Lakes and the River Murray mouth. The mouth of the River Murray almost closed up in 2002 – which would have been an environmental disaster – and dredging has kept it open since.

The Murray Mouth is within cooee of Hindmarsh Island, where we now live and today we drive to survey the problem, a mere 11 kilometres away across the island.  We drive literally to the end of the road on the island and there we can see with our own eyes the issue to be addressed this week with the release of the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s Draft Plan. Right here there is a sliver of water which runs into the sea at the end of the sandbar opposite us and this is the mouth of the mighty Murray  – reduced to a mere trickle in relation to the massive river system  behind it. 

 This is the Mouth of the major river system of our continent, which is in decline.   We stand here with about seven people – all strangers to Olivier and I,  but we share an unspoken horror as we read the billboard outlining the need for dredging. The machinery drones in our ears – its large apparatus gathering 600,000 cubic metres of sand annually and depositing it on the sandhills either side of the mouth to keep it open. At this pivotal point in our history so much is at stake where we have a dying river system, which is vital to the health of the Lower Lakes, Alexandrina and Albert and the Coorong, a unique ecosystem of fresh water and sea water, which runs in a channel behind the sandhills, parallel to the ocean. The whole ecosystem  is the habitat of water birds and fish which is now seriously under threat.

The Lakes, River and Coorong Action Group chairwoman, Di Bell, of Finniss River reckons in The Advertiser that the key to restoring the health of the River Murray is for water to flow through the mouth at Goolwa. She also believes over-allocation is the cause of the crisis. Mayor of Alexandrina, Kym McHugh agrees – a regular flow through the Murray mouth is essential for a “sustainable river system’’.

He calls for the “right balance’’ between environmental and agricultural interests.

Fixing the Murray-Darling basin may cost “many billions of dollars more than predicted’’ (front page The Australian Friday October 8). It recommends cutting the water allocation of irrigators upstream by between 27-37 per cent to return 3000-4000 gigalitres of water to the river.   This has triggered warnings that about 20,000 jobs will  be lost, not forgetting the economic impact on whole rural communities.  However, we all, as a broader community jmust bite the bullet.  This is no time for ducking and weaving or buck-passing by politicians. Nor do we, as a people, need a bunfight between irrigators, farmers and conservationists.  This is a problem which we all must take to heart and seek a fair solution which will restore the health of the river, its viability and resilience in years of drought and most important, protect the environment, the habitat of our precious water birds, fish and wildlife.

It is alarming to learn from the Australian Conservation Foundation that 20 of the 23 river basins in the Murray-Darling system were in a “poor or very poor’’ condition.  Put simply, far too much water has been taken from the river for it to survive drought.   

 Meanwhile, the Goolwa community waits for the lobbying to begin following the release of the draft plan guidelines for the river system, which is the most important document in the history of the River Murray since European settlement.   All parties with a vested interest need to give a lot because the consequences of a dying river system with a closed mouth is untenable.  I now live at the very bottom end of the Murray-Darling river system and our local community have the most to lose if this one last chance fails to restore a sustainable river environment.  No wonder water is the word on everyone’s lips here.

Demolition becomes Day of Drama

Day one of demolition of our Belair house began badly. We had taken a packed lunch to await the arrival of the bulldozer which was to begin to take down the house.  It was already a bare shell, stripped of its terra cotta tiles, skirtings and timber floorboards.  The Baltic pine kitchen, too, had been sold and the copper canopy stored for the new house.

It looked a sorry sight. Yet we ate red salmon and vegetable bake against the backdrop of four bare  cream brick walls and skeletal timber roofing. Someone had written  “I am a window’’.  As if it had a soul.

The house  once had a soul and was the hub of Olivier’s French family life. Only French was spoken here and it was here that Olivier and his late wife, Colette had raised their four children. It had been their home for 30 years before Colette’s untimely death in 2003.

It had been my home, too, since 2008 when Olivier and I married – and now we were demolishing  to make way for our dream retirement home. These bricks and mortar may well be about to bite the dust, but I know with one look at my husband’s pensive face that he carries in his mind a lifetime of happy memories. He smiles to himself and I ask “what are you thinking?’’  .

 “We had such joyful Christmases; Always on Christmas Eve, the European tradition. Until I met you, I never bothered with Christmas Day.’’ .

 “Someone would dress up as Pere Noel and at midnight would give gifts to all the family,’’ he says.

“By then the children were popping with excitement. ‘’   

We munch on my home-made red salmon and vegetable bake and finger bins from the Belair Bakery.  It is hardly the occasion for wine, as there is sadness at the feeling of loss mixed with anticipation for the new. So we sip apple juice.  And we wait until 2.30pm when the supervisor arrives.

Soon, there is a rumble down the street and the monster of destruction arrives on the back of a huge semi-trailer. The driver begins to manoeuvre the long cabin and loaded trailer – marked “Oversize’’ backwards up the 100-metre driveway.  It becomes stuck as a big gum branch blocks its path and the driver takes an hour trying to turn in the relatively narrow road. Suddenly,  the neighbours are on the street voicing their outrage because the truck’s front wheels have uprooted a shrub and run over ground-covers they have planted on the verge.

We both apologise, but this is a prize native garden and will be in the Open Garden Scheme next year we are told. Our neighbour, Nancy is not amused and her husband takes up her case in heated style. But the truck has now backed up the roadway which dips down into a dry creek bed  before it rises sharply to the house.

The monster of destruction, a huge excavator, looks like something out of War of the Worlds with its army tank-type roller wheels and raised toothy claw (grab).  I figure it is no place for a woman and I leave for the hairdresser leaving the men to get the thing off the back of the trailer.

When I return I am surprised to find the cabin of the truck jack-knifed across the driveway in the creek bed, the front fender jammed up against a tree; its wheels  embedded in dirt on the other side of the driveway.  Something has gone very wrong here.

“The brakes on the fully-loaded trailer failed to hold when the weight of the equipment on the slope lifted up the cabin,’’ explains Andrew, the supervisor.

“It slipped down the hill’’.

I look at my husband and we both simultaneously look down onto  the roof of our immediate neighbours below  and their new landscaped garden which abuts our driveway.

“It could have been a lot worse,’’ I say.

“I was on the trailer and had to jump off,’’ adds the driver.

“He jumped onto the roof of Andrew’s car and then ran alongside the truck to try and get to the cabin,’’ says Olivier.

“He failed, but jumped out of the way as the cabin careered into the tree.’’

The monstrous claw of the equipment had clunked down onto the front of Andrew’s car, damaging the front fender.  Not  only was he horrified by what had happened,  he was shaken from the thought of what might have happened had the trailer overturned to throw its load onto the neighbours’ roof.

Jammed into its jack-knifed position, the crane-like equipment had been offloaded.  The boss arrived and organised  chains and the monster hauled the truck back into alignment.

“I’ve had better days,’’ says husband and we get into our car and drive back to Hindmarsh Island.

37 cubic metres of Sea-change

Was it John Lennon who once wrote “life is what happens when you are busy making other plans’’.  We have lived this songline for the last few months as our carefully laid plans to uproot our lives, move house, demolish and begin to rebuild, have gone astray through unforeseen circumstances.

I am sitting here reflecting on those weeks of turmoil, sipping a D’Estree Bay Southern Flinders Shiraz, 2006,  surrounded by the remnants of our household – about 20 boxes and a dozen milk crates.  The rest, all 37 cm3 of it has been delivered yesterday to our new address at idyllic Hindmarsh Island.  It has been a mammoth effort for which I unashamedly claim major responsibility for managing the packing thereof. The smooth, rich drop of wine has lulled me into a mellow mood which adds a lyrical tone to what has been a traumatic time.  Otherwise, perhaps I would weep.  We planned to pack up our marital home together in leisurely manner sifting through two lifetimes of stuff, individually and collectively discarding what was no longer needed.  (We were crammed to the rafters with two households of stuff since our re-marriage in 2008). Then we would move out into rental accommodation at Hindmarsh Island for 6-9 months, demolish the old house (which my husband, Olivier, lived in for 30 years with his late wife, Colette) and rebuild our dream retirement on the same site.  We are following many astute baby boomers in our project and our house plan is indeed designed for leisurely indoor/outdoor living, safety and security.

The boulders in this smooth path to the Yellow Brick Road of Retirement Living began with the untimely hospitalisation of Olivier’s mother in France in late July, followed by his mercy dash to see her before she died of pneumonia.  Sadly, she passed away half an hour before he reached her, while he was at the hospital gates. Qantas had arranged a compassionate flight within 36 hours.  However, while he was doing the right thing as the only son, organising the funeral of his mother at the ancient St Martin’s Basilica in St Remy de Provence, I was left to pack up our household because the bulldozers were still booked for September 28 (Yes, next Tuesday.)

And I still went to London in between time (to see the daughter’s family) and France for our annual four-week holiday because we had prebooked (and prepaid) to go on August 19.   Gizelle was a hearty 91-year-old at the time of booking and I walked out of the house full of boxes and onto a glorious Qantas 380 business class flight to London that day.  

But lesson 1 in life is that we never escape our problems and so we returned on Thursday, September 16, to that house full of furniture, files, boxes and bric-a-brac with the removalists (Yanny and Ra) due on the doorstep on Saturday, September 18 at 8am.

Yet, life can be merciless. Friday night I was struck down by a ghastly gastro bug I brought home on the flight and instead of wallowing in the glory of my organisation, skills I wore a pathway to the loo. Son, Tyson took me to the doctor, and

Our new back yard at Hindmarsh Island

 after flaking out for a few hours, he drove me to Hindmarsh Island ahead of the moving van, where I lay on a sleeping bag for a few more hours. I felt as frail as a newborn kitty and here is where the benefits of marriage come into play – husband orchestrated the delivery of the boxes I had packed with the precision of a conductor.

All the furniture was placed or stored by 10pm (a 12 hour exercise!) and I summoned enough strength to pour two glasses of Poet’s Corner red and assemble a plate of French cheeses – including Olivier’s favourite, Roquefort, and sat beside him to toast our success.

But dear, darling Oli, who had worked so hard in my absence, fell asleep on the couch without a sip of the red wine passing his lips.