Meet Rachel, the woman fighting for our outback’s lifeblood

murray darling, darling river, menindee, pooncarie, wentworth, south-west nsw

Crossing the narrow bridge is like driving into Henry Lawson’s The Song of the Darling River. “I form fair island and glades all green,” he wrote in 1899, “‘Till every bend is a sylvan scene.” Perched on the bank of the Darling, Tulney Point homestead and its grounds are indeed sylvan. They’re shady and lush, the emerald lawns and pretty flower gardens a vivid contrast to the sparse ground beyond. Here, the wind sighs through the leaves of the mighty river gums – a little parcel of paradise in a harsh, unremitting landscape. For the moment anyway. The Darling may be flowing now but there’s no guarantee it will be in, say, 12 or 18 months’ time. Rachel Strachan, seen in the video above and heard in the Forgotten River podcast below, has lived at Tulney Point for the past 30 years. After selling its water entitlement for horticulture, the station now runs Dorper sheep. The property lies off the road between Wentworth and Pooncarie, below Menindee Lakes in the far south-west of NSW. The Forgotten River team met Rachel during a trip into Outback NSW to listen to the stories of the people of the Darling or the Barka, as First Nations people know it. Rachel’s story is part of a four-part podcast special and accompanying series of articles, photos and videos telling the stories of the Darling River and its people. Our aim is take our listeners and readers to the banks of the Darling River where, despite decades of neglect, the people refuse to give up fighting for the life of this national icon. Rachel points to an outcrop of rock, dynamited some time in the 1800s to make for safer navigation for the paddle steamers which used to ply the river. Henry Lawson again: “I want no blistering barge aground / but racing steamers the seasons round”. Rachel’s face wears a veil of fatigue. It’s from 18 years of fighting for the Lower Darling, which sustains not only her family’s 20,000-hectare station but many others like it. “I really took an interest in 2003. It was the first time we had a dry riverbed,” she says. That dry-river episode was triggered by a crisis in the Murray which required water stored in the Menindee lake system upstream to be sent downstream. Once those lakes were drained there was no water left for Rachel’s section of river. There have been three cease-to-flow events in the Lower Darling since 2003. Before 2003, the last time water stopped flowing was in 1943. The most recent cease-to-flow event lasted 27 months. “I started advocating for issues around Menindee then and learning policy but now there are hundreds along the river who are beginning to understand water policy they never used to.” Listen to the full story on our podcast. That policy is underpinned by the 2007 Water Act, struck to provide a new legal national framework to manage Australia’s most important water resource. The act is administered by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to take a national rather than state-by-state approach. Unravelling the way water is regulated through the system is as complex as the network of tributaries and aquifers that feed the rivers – a headache-inducing collection of numbers, terms and acronyms. Sustainable Diversions Limits (SDLs), Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism (SDLAM), Water Resources Plans (WRPs), Critical Human Water Needs (CHWNs), megalitres and gigalitres – to the outsider the language of water management can be impenetrable. It’s in those details, says Rachel, that the devil resides. Years of tinkering with water management – a little change here, another there, increased allocations upstream, more downstream – have taken their toll on her part of the river. “It’s those slight little changes in policy that get made that are really hurting this river,” she says. The changes might include increasing sustainable diversion limits in a particular catchment upstream or extracting more water for downstream irrigators. Or they might be more substantial, like the 2016 decision to build a pipeline from Wentworth on the Murray to secure Broken Hill’s water supply 270km to the north. “Continuous policy change has just raped Menindee because it was the golden goose. A dozen cumulative changes have just pulled the guts out of Menindee, from not delivering enough water down to Menindee to also pulling it out quicker by various different licences.” She speaks of the huge power imbalance between the corporate agribusinesses of the northern basin and the farmers of the south. “They will have full-time people who just deal with water. We’re still running farms and families here and if we were one corporate, yeah we would probably have five of us dedicated to water and water policy and lobbying and being sent to meet ministers and what not.” And she reflects on the exhaustion of trying to survive and fight when the river has ceased to flow. “You’re trying to run a business and you’re adding all these additional things on top, plus you’re spending time petitioning government and trying to get media attention, plus you’re chasing pumps and waterholes and licences to access waterholes. It’s just ongoing.” The crisis in the lower Darling captured national attention briefly in 2019, when mass fish kills brought into sharp focus the plight of the Darling. Then the east coast bushfires overshadowed the disaster. The river might be flowing again thanks to good rainfall in the upper catchments but even the Murray-Darling Basin Authority recognises the great uncertainty about how long this will last. Read more: What you need to know about the Murray-Darling “We know this water is critical for the wellbeing of First Nations people and after the recent drought, local Menindee communities are rightly nervous and concerned about their water security,” it wrote in its April 2021 communique. The dire predictions of more frequent droughts in the recent report of the United National Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change make that uncertainty even more acute. And for Rachel, it only adds urgency to her mission. “Now we are left with a river section and Menindee Lakes that needs rescuing. It’s very new and really horrible that it’s happening on our generational watch. For all the decades before it’s been in pristine health and we were recognised as one of the healthiest sections of river for Murray cod breeding.” The way she sees it, the status of her section of the Darling River has been reduced to a delivery channel and Menindee Lakes which feeds it has become a temporary storage dam. She is fighting for a more holistic approach to water management which recognises the connectivity in the entire system and the need to maintain base river health, flows and water quality. She is fighting for what was once – and still should be – a national icon. “You have to have storage targets and flow targets throughout the whole system. You can’t just silo off each section. You can’t say the Gwydir Valley has flow targets within this valley. Because at the moment it’s purely within the Gwydir Valley, the Namoi Valley, the Border Rivers Valley, the Warrego Valley, the Lower Darling Valley, the Barwon-Darling Valley. Even though they’re all connected, none of their water sharing plans actually connect and they don’t recognise the downstream needs of each other.” When that connectivity is broken, when the river ceases to flow, life is affected drastically. Rachel swipes through photos on her smartphone of giant Murray cod being carried from one shallow pool in a desperate attempt to save them. “There were grown men walking the banks just crying. No one should have to live through that.” Simple things taken for granted in the cities and towns where water supply is not an issue, such as washing your children, become health issues. When water ceases to flow, it becomes so unhealthy washing in it can cause all sorts of skin irritations and infections. There were other issues as well. In this stretch of the river, the Darling forms a natural boundary between properties. When it runs dry, controlling stock becomes almost impossible. Trevor Smith, who runs a sheep station just outside Pooncarie, explains: “I’ve got 22 kilometres of riverfront and therefore I lost 22 kilometres of boundary fence.” He’s thought about fencing off the river, with assistance from the government. “How they’re going to work the river bends I don’t know. And another thing about fencing the river is if you’ve got a sheep that’s been used to watering in the one spot for four or five years she’s just going to stay there until she dies because there’s water on the other side of the fence.” Trevor speaks in the slow drawl of someone whose family has farmed this part of the world for generations. His words are laced with frustration at trying to get a better deal for this part of the Darling. “I don’t think we’re getting a fair go,” he says. The rules, he says, favour the upstream users, particularly the large-scale cotton farms. “When they’re allowed to start the pumps, they run the river backwards. The water that’s already gone past gets sucked back to the stage where it doesn’t flow. And we still don’t get what was supposed to have come past in the first place.” Read More from the Forgotten River team A large measure of frustration stems from dealing with the revolving door of bureaucrats in charge of water management. “We seem to be getting somewhere sometimes and then the next meeting you have with them you’re back to square one. Or there’s a heap of new people representing the government and you start again. And then you have another meeting in six months’ time and they’re all new again so you start again. I don’t know how they’re supposed to keep up if they’re only there for six months and we’ve got a problem that’s been there for years and years.” It’s something with which Rachel is all too familiar. “Around that table,” she says, pointing to an imposing red gum dining setting which takes pride of place, “we have had so many bureaucrats and politicians come, and we get a sympathetic shoulder and everyone feels it. But they’re not sure if they can do anything.” Do something they must, she says. A river that doesn’t flow is a dead river. Her words, describing Easter Saturday last year when the water returned after 27 months, illustrate what’s at stake. “We met it at our boundary at 5am and I walked with it. It got to the houses at lunchtime. And the cicadas and the birds, all this noise, and the sound of it going over the dry and filling up the cracks – it was just incredible.” Perhaps it’s that sweet memory that drives Rachel’s optimism: “I don’t think the Australian people want to see the Darling or the Murray River die. So it’s going to end in good chapters.” Listen to the full story on our podcast. Search Forgotten River on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your preferred app. You can also click here, or use the web player in this article.

/images/transform/v1/crop/frm/e5Qc2M5qQnfX3PTaVNk9Vy/4ac5e7d7-ea8b-40a0-a3c8-62d7a5f0f9df.jpg/r9_0_1919_1079_w1200_h678_fmax.jpg

FORGOTTEN RIVER

Meet Rachel, the woman fighting for our outback’s lifeblood

/images/transform/v1/crop/frm/e5Qc2M5qQnfX3PTaVNk9Vy/4ac5e7d7-ea8b-40a0-a3c8-62d7a5f0f9df.jpg/r9_0_1919_1079_w1200_h678_fmax.jpg

The rains have come, the Darling River is flowing again, but those who live on it fear it won’t last for long.

murray darling, darling river, menindee, pooncarie, wentworth, south-west nsw

2021-09-17T05:00:00+10:00

https://players.brightcove.net/3879528182001/default_default/index.html?videoId=6272639841001

https://players.brightcove.net/3879528182001/default_default/index.html?videoId=6272639841001

Rachel Strachan shares her passion for the Darling River. Video: Dion Georgopoulos

Crossing the narrow bridge is like driving into Henry Lawson’s The Song of the Darling River. “I form fair island and glades all green,” he wrote in 1899, “‘Till every bend is a sylvan scene.”

Perched on the bank of the Darling, Tulney Point homestead and its grounds are indeed sylvan. They’re shady and lush, the emerald lawns and pretty flower gardens a vivid contrast to the sparse ground beyond. Here, the wind sighs through the leaves of the mighty river gums – a little parcel of paradise in a harsh, unremitting landscape. For the moment anyway.

The Darling may be flowing now but there’s no guarantee it will be in, say, 12 or 18 months’ time.

Rachel Strachan, seen in the video above and heard in the Forgotten River podcast below, has lived at Tulney Point for the past 30 years. After selling its water entitlement for horticulture, the station now runs Dorper sheep. The property lies off the road between Wentworth and Pooncarie, below Menindee Lakes in the far south-west of NSW.

The Forgotten River team met Rachel during a trip into Outback NSW to listen to the stories of the people of the Darling or the Barka, as First Nations people know it.

Our aim is take our listeners and readers to the banks of the Darling River where, despite decades of neglect, the people refuse to give up fighting for the life of this national icon.

Rachel Strachan gazes over her stretch of the Darling River, which is flowing again for now, above. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Rachel points to an outcrop of rock, dynamited some time in the 1800s to make for safer navigation for the paddle steamers which used to ply the river.

Henry Lawson again: “I want no blistering barge aground / but racing steamers the seasons round”.

Rachel’s face wears a veil of fatigue. It’s from 18 years of fighting for the Lower Darling, which sustains not only her family’s 20,000-hectare station but many others like it.

These are good times at Tulney Point Station on the Darling but dire climate change predictions and water management policy creep cast long shadows. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

“I really took an interest in 2003. It was the first time we had a dry riverbed,” she says. That dry-river episode was triggered by a crisis in the Murray which required water stored in the Menindee lake system upstream to be sent downstream. Once those lakes were drained there was no water left for Rachel’s section of river.

There have been three cease-to-flow events in the Lower Darling since 2003. Before 2003, the last time water stopped flowing was in 1943. The most recent cease-to-flow event lasted 27 months.

“I started advocating for issues around Menindee then and learning policy but now there are hundreds along the river who are beginning to understand water policy they never used to.”

Listen to the full story on our podcast.

That policy is underpinned by the 2007 Water Act, struck to provide a new legal national framework to manage Australia’s most important water resource. The act is administered by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to take a national rather than state-by-state approach.

Unravelling the way water is regulated through the system is as complex as the network of tributaries and aquifers that feed the rivers – a headache-inducing collection of numbers, terms and acronyms. Sustainable Diversions Limits (SDLs), Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism (SDLAM), Water Resources Plans (WRPs), Critical Human Water Needs (CHWNs), megalitres and gigalitres – to the outsider the language of water management can be impenetrable.

It’s in those details, says Rachel, that the devil resides. Years of tinkering with water management – a little change here, another there, increased allocations upstream, more downstream – have taken their toll on her part of the river.

“It’s those slight little changes in policy that get made that are really hurting this river,” she says. The changes might include increasing sustainable diversion limits in a particular catchment upstream or extracting more water for downstream irrigators. Or they might be more substantial, like the 2016 decision to build a pipeline from Wentworth on the Murray to secure Broken Hill’s water supply 270km to the north.

I don’t think the Australian people want to see the Darling or the Murray River die. So it’s going to end in good chapters.

Rachel Strachan

“Continuous policy change has just raped Menindee because it was the golden goose. A dozen cumulative changes have just pulled the guts out of Menindee, from not delivering enough water down to Menindee to also pulling it out quicker by various different licences.”

She speaks of the huge power imbalance between the corporate agribusinesses of the northern basin and the farmers of the south.

“They will have full-time people who just deal with water. We’re still running farms and families here and if we were one corporate, yeah we would probably have five of us dedicated to water and water policy and lobbying and being sent to meet ministers and what not.”

And she reflects on the exhaustion of trying to survive and fight when the river has ceased to flow.

“You’re trying to run a business and you’re adding all these additional things on top, plus you’re spending time petitioning government and trying to get media attention, plus you’re chasing pumps and waterholes and licences to access waterholes. It’s just ongoing.”

The crisis in the lower Darling captured national attention briefly in 2019, when mass fish kills brought into sharp focus the plight of the Darling. Then the east coast bushfires overshadowed the disaster. The river might be flowing again thanks to good rainfall in the upper catchments but even the Murray-Darling Basin Authority recognises the great uncertainty about how long this will last.

“We know this water is critical for the wellbeing of First Nations people and after the recent drought, local Menindee communities are rightly nervous and concerned about their water security,” it wrote in its April 2021 communique.

The dire predictions of more frequent droughts in the recent report of the United National Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change make that uncertainty even more acute. And for Rachel, it only adds urgency to her mission.

“Now we are left with a river section and Menindee Lakes that needs rescuing. It’s very new and really horrible that it’s happening on our generational watch. For all the decades before it’s been in pristine health and we were recognised as one of the healthiest sections of river for Murray cod breeding.”

The way she sees it, the status of her section of the Darling River has been reduced to a delivery channel and Menindee Lakes which feeds it has become a temporary storage dam. She is fighting for a more holistic approach to water management which recognises the connectivity in the entire system and the need to maintain base river health, flows and water quality.

She is fighting for what was once – and still should be – a national icon.

A low flow is better than no flow. The Darling River at Tulney Point Station. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

“You have to have storage targets and flow targets throughout the whole system. You can’t just silo off each section. You can’t say the Gwydir Valley has flow targets within this valley. Because at the moment it’s purely within the Gwydir Valley, the Namoi Valley, the Border Rivers Valley, the Warrego Valley, the Lower Darling Valley, the Barwon-Darling Valley. Even though they’re all connected, none of their water sharing plans actually connect and they don’t recognise the downstream needs of each other.”

When that connectivity is broken, when the river ceases to flow, life is affected drastically.

Rachel swipes through photos on her smartphone of giant Murray cod being carried from one shallow pool in a desperate attempt to save them. “There were grown men walking the banks just crying. No one should have to live through that.”

Simple things taken for granted in the cities and towns where water supply is not an issue, such as washing your children, become health issues. When water ceases to flow, it becomes so unhealthy washing in it can cause all sorts of skin irritations and infections.

There were other issues as well. In this stretch of the river, the Darling forms a natural boundary between properties. When it runs dry, controlling stock becomes almost impossible.

Pooncarie grazier Trevor Smith is frustrated by the revolving door of water management bureaucrats. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Trevor Smith, who runs a sheep station just outside Pooncarie, explains: “I’ve got 22 kilometres of riverfront and therefore I lost 22 kilometres of boundary fence.”

He’s thought about fencing off the river, with assistance from the government.

“How they’re going to work the river bends I don’t know. And another thing about fencing the river is if you’ve got a sheep that’s been used to watering in the one spot for four or five years she’s just going to stay there until she dies because there’s water on the other side of the fence.”

Trevor speaks in the slow drawl of someone whose family has farmed this part of the world for generations. His words are laced with frustration at trying to get a better deal for this part of the Darling.

“I don’t think we’re getting a fair go,” he says. The rules, he says, favour the upstream users, particularly the large-scale cotton farms.

“When they’re allowed to start the pumps, they run the river backwards. The water that’s already gone past gets sucked back to the stage where it doesn’t flow. And we still don’t get what was supposed to have come past in the first place.”

Read More from the Forgotten River team

  • Listen to the Forgotten River above or find it on your favourite podcast player here.
  • Meet the team behind the Forgotten River here.
  • Find out more about the Murray-Darling here.

A large measure of frustration stems from dealing with the revolving door of bureaucrats in charge of water management.

“We seem to be getting somewhere sometimes and then the next meeting you have with them you’re back to square one. Or there’s a heap of new people representing the government and you start again. And then you have another meeting in six months’ time and they’re all new again so you start again. I don’t know how they’re supposed to keep up if they’re only there for six months and we’ve got a problem that’s been there for years and years.”

It’s something with which Rachel is all too familiar.

“Around that table,” she says, pointing to an imposing red gum dining setting which takes pride of place, “we have had so many bureaucrats and politicians come, and we get a sympathetic shoulder and everyone feels it. But they’re not sure if they can do anything.”

Do something they must, she says. A river that doesn’t flow is a dead river. Her words, describing Easter Saturday last year when the water returned after 27 months, illustrate what’s at stake.

“We met it at our boundary at 5am and I walked with it. It got to the houses at lunchtime. And the cicadas and the birds, all this noise, and the sound of it going over the dry and filling up the cracks – it was just incredible.”

Perhaps it’s that sweet memory that drives Rachel’s optimism: “I don’t think the Australian people want to see the Darling or the Murray River die. So it’s going to end in good chapters.”

Listen to the full story on our podcast. Search Forgotten River on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your preferred app. You can also click here, or use the web player in this article.

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