20 November 2023

Social scientist calls on Canberrans to help save the once-mighty Murrumbidgee

| Sally Hopman
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Woman paddling through river

Siwan Lovett, pictured paddling through the Upper Bidgee River looking into the Bredbo Gorge. Photo: Tom Clarke.

It used to be called the mighty Murrumbidgee. Today, it’s known as the Forgotten River – but if Siwan Lovett has her way, the iconic Australian river will rise again.

“The upper Murrumbidgee is in trouble. Most of its water is captured by Tantangara dam, leaving little left for the towns, agriculture, plants, fish, animals and people that depend upon it,” she said.

“We don’t want this river to die,” Dr Lovett said. “But currently we are documenting its death. The upper Murrumbidgee River is a vital source of life, our third source of Canberra’s drinking water, but it’s in trouble. We’ve seen our river run dry in 2019. It’s only a matter of time until it happens again.”

Dr Lovett, a social scientist who has a PhD from the Australian National University in public policy, undertook a Winston Churchill Trust Fellowship to Europe in 2008 to look at establishing an Australian River Restoration Centre. She is now director of the not-for-profit which works to restore rivers and empowers others to do the same.

River in drought

The upper Murrumbidgee River dried into pools in December 2019 – upstream of Tharwa Bridge. Photo: Simon Lowes.

Dr Lovett said the legislative framework for ensuring that our largest water resource, the Murray Darling Basin, was managed in the national interest excluded structures operated by the Snowy Hydro Scheme.

“This means that the Tantangara Dam can capture more than 90 per cent of the water at the headwaters of the Murrumbidgee River each year and as much as 99 per cent in dry years. The current rules in place for this part of the river mean that when Snowy Hydro does release water for the environment, these flows are not protected from extraction.

“I believe the future of the river is in the hands of the people it serves,” she said.

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This is why Dr Lovett is taking her concerns and the quest for answers to the people – “and the more voices, the better”.

She has developed a survey in which she’s asking members of the public what they think.

“We have launched a quick and easy survey open until the end of November. We need everyone who cares about this river to respond.

“For years, we’ve been talking to politicians, we’ve talked to Icon Water, we’ve talked to Snowy Hydro, we’ve talked to all the stakeholders, now we need to talk to Canberrans themselves,” she said.

The upper Murrumbidgee River upstream of Tharwa Bridge in May 2022. Photo: Andy Lowes.

She has already received 500 responses to the survey and said a message was already clear.

“People say they want more transparency when it comes to how the water is used – and that’s a big deal.

“This is why we need to hear the voices of the community. It is important to get this data, which will be de-identified and then shared with all levels of government to guide their decisions on how to manage this precious river.

“Canberra keeps getting forgotten. We are betwixt and between,” she said.

“NSW manages the water,r but the Snowy Hydro is what catches it at the top – and has its own rules.

“As a Canberran, I find it quite embarrassing that it’s happening on our doorstep. We need the water quality to improve and for the environment to improve, but you can do all the work you want along the riverbank, but if you don’t have water, you don’t have a river.”

People concerned about the future of the Murrumbidgee River are invited to fill out the community survey. More information is available here.

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