National Geographic : 2009 Apr
saltwater lakes. "Personally, I d probably be bet- ter o catching mullet, ounder, black bream, and a couple of other marine species," he says as he sits at the dining room table of the house he built 40 years ago. "But it s just not right. ese lakes have always been freshwater. It s just a massive change. It s nonsense." The drought has left his community reel- ing. Local winemakers have recently been informed that the Murray River would no lon- ger be available for their vineyards. And Jones is a close friend to the elders of the Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal people, whose 30,000-year domain over the river abruptly ended when the expedi- tion led by Capt. Charles Sturt arrived at the Murray s mouth in 1830. For the Ngarrindjeri, the drought has led to the disappearance of black swan eggs, freshwater mussels, and other sacred totems that are vital to their spiritual and physical nourishment. Still, in the scramble to claim a share of Aus- tralia s diminishing water supply, these people at least have a voice. e creatures of the lakes and wetlands do not. "In a crisis, the entitlement the environment supposedly has is totally sub- jective to political whims," says Murray River environmental manager Judy Goode, who refers to herself as "the manager of dead and dying things." Even protected ecosystems---such as e Coorong and, in the northern basin, the Macquarie Marshes of bird-nesting legend--- receive no special dispensation, so long as there is a "critical human need" to be met. So Henry Jones has become the de facto voice for the dead and dying, delivering a well- honed, if mournful, monologue to whoever will listen: All the systems are on the point of collapse. Two-thirds of e Coorong is already dead---its salinity is almost that of the Dead Sea. What Jones nds, as he travels around the ba- sin to argue that water must be allocated for his Coorong and his lakes, is a sentiment that the whole water crisis is the environmentalists fault anyway. e greenies are derided for their shrill sanctimony. Farmers express indignation that any of their precious "working river" is lost to the sea. ey tell Jones that it makes more crawling o the farm on me hands and knees--- not unless I see some bloody heads roll rst!" It is hard for many Australians to reconcile the sputtering, surgically dis gured version of the Murray River with the shimmering idyll of their younger days. At the river s mouth, a ourishing ecosystem had long been nourished by the natural ebb and ow of seawater and fresh water. e ocean would rush in when the river ran low and then be pushed out by fresh water as the rst hard rains drained down the Murray to the sea. Today the overallocation of irrigation water, coupled with the drought, has brought the river to a virtual standstill. So that the belea- guered Murray can meet the sea, its mouth must be dredged around the clock. Without dredging, the mouth would silt up, cutting o fresh water to the lagoon ecosystem called e Coorong and to nearby Lake Alexandrina. It is here, every morning, that a 65-year-old silver-haired sherman in waders and a Wind- breaker navigates his aluminum boat out into the waters of Lake Alexandrina, or what is le of it. Long humps of silt-covered land rise up out of the water. Since most everyone else in his line of work has moved away, Henry Jones has the lake to himself---not counting the pelicans, though he, in fact, does count them, thinking: Maybe a tenth of what there was. And no white ibis. No blue-billed duck. Edging up to the north- ern Coorong lagoon, Jones reaches into the water to collect his gill nets. Among his catch there is not a single silver perch or Murray cod or bony bream. e salty water has done them in. Only carp survive. Dozens of carp, which did not even exist in the lower lakes a quarter century ago, and whose presence signals the demise of the freshwater environment. Jones has adapted to the changes in a way the vanishing species cannot. He has found retailers who will buy all the carp he can catch. And truthfully, he could adapt further. If, as is expected, the government constructs a weir near the bottom of the river to give urban dwellers in Adelaide more water, Lake Alexan- drina and its sibling Lake Albert would become ADELAIDE MAY HAVE THE DUBIOUS DISTINCTION OF BEING THE FIRST INDUSTRIALIZED CITY TO LIVE IN A CONSTANT STATE OF WATER SHORTAGE.