THE GREAT RIVERS.
IS THE MURRUMBIDGEE GOING DRY?
(FROM OUR SPECIAL COMMISSIONER, WITH THE
SOUTH AUSTRALIAN COMMISSION )
MILDURA, May l8
We found them wondering where that small flood came from. It reached Balranald one of the days about Easter time. The river had been 2 feet 6 inches below summer level. At dusk it began, to rise. It rose all night.
In the morning it was swirling past the
town 11 feet over summer level. It had risen 13 feet that night.
Another two foot would have flooded the country—-13 feet over summer level brings the river over parts of the banks near Bal- ranald. It fell again before reaching 13 feet. But it sufficed for one useful purpose. It filled Yanga Lake.
Five miles out of Balranald the bush sud-
denly parts and you find yourself looking
out for two or three miles across a shallow depression of dry grey mud, and parched shrubs. The station faced out upon it. It was painted deep blue on the map, and they called it, by courtesy, Yanga Lake. At least, that is what it was yesterday.
But a year ago the Yanga people obtained leave to put a weir across the billabong which lends from the Murrumbidgee back into the Lake. It was built last year, a concrete dam with open frames in the cen- tre. The creek could run freely through the frames; but, if they wished, they could close the dam by dropping boards like sleepers down the slots in the frames and so building up a solid wall to whatever height they wished.
BLUE WATER AND WILD FOWL.
When this flood of unknown origin arrived, the creek into Yanga Lake began to fill. First it trickled, then it ran, then it poured ful volume out into Yanga Lake. The water rose till it was ten feet deep. So long as it continued rising they let the creek run. The moment it fell they drop- ped the panels into the weir, and the water was imprisoned.
And there, this week, we saw it come
suddenly, out of the low box scrub and red clay flats of this country of 12-inch rain- fall, on to the edge of a circle of smiling beautiful water. Two or three miles across the blue surface, we could see the trees of tho further shore-the banks narrowing and opening out again, far beyond, in the shape of the figure "8."
Owing to a good and wise provision of the Government that lake simply swarmed with wild fowl. Quite close to us, preening itself in the sun, on the grassy banks, not
in the least afraid, was a flock of two or
three dozen wild duck. Two pelicans were swimming quietly up the channel from the weir. White crane, water fowl of every sort and size, crowd about Yanga Lake. When the Government gave permission to fill this basin it made it a condition that it should be sanctuary for wild fowl, close season all the year round. The same condition has been laid down in the case of Lake Talpee, a dozen miles to the north. It is an excel- lent provision.
NOT THE OLD SIGNS.
At several places down the Murrumbidgee we have found them wondering where that water came from. They were expecting no flood by the old signs. But the old signs are all failing them nowadays. Heavy rain on the head waters used to mean a flood, and dry spells a low-river. But those chang- es come at any time nowadays, due to causes of which they know nothing; to the work- ings of the brain of an engineer at Barren Jack in the process of his building; or per- haps to alterations in the needs of the peo- ple at Yanco when they come to the end of their watering and open Berembed weir. When the Murrumbidgee shows a sudden rise or fall to-day they know that somebody 400 or 600 miles up river is, or has been, doing
or thinking something. And that is about all they know.
It is natural they should be nervous. The Murrumbidgee splits into a maze of channels -the country between it and the Murray is gridironed with a dozen of them down each of which a Murrumbidgee flood, or even a fresh, used to send travelling a certain head of water-much as a goods engine will send its trucks wandering down their various lines in the shunting yard. Most of them found their way eventually into the by-channels of the Murray, cutting the country off into tempor- ary islands, 50 or 100 miles long. But on the way the stations and settlements in this dry country took toll of them. They had obtained leave to dam them; and by the time the "fresh" passed they would most of them have retained their share. They were not much of rivers, those backwaters, but they were the main water supply of a big stretch of this country.
They are watching the Murrumbidgee very anxiously through this country to-day. On the Murray below Euston they had just had a rise in the river which they said they could not explain. Even at Mildura one seems to detect a slight anxiety as to how the Mur- rumbidgee scheme will affect them. "I've heard they'll want a great deal of water up there," sold one old Mildura settler,'"and I don't know how much of it we'll get."
How much the Murray will get that ques- tion is easily answered. In dry years, when the scheme is complete, they will get none. The Murrumbidgee will not pass even a trickle, worth speaking of, into the Murray. Yanco will want it all. The amount which the authorities have more or less promised to send down to the stations and towns on the Murrumbidgee and the various billabongs seems to be the utmost that Yanco will be able to leave them in dry years.
LOWEST MURRUMBIDGEE ON RECORD.
The people along the Murrumbidgee and the creeks make no bones about their be- lief that, whatever the authorities may for- cast, the lower river will see very little water at all. At Hay and Balranald, on the lower Munumbidgee, they simply pointed to the plain fact that the Murrumbidgee has been lower in 1914 than in any year on record. It had been generally low of late years. But this year, since Yanco began to take water, it had reached the limit. It was not so low even in the great drought of 1902, when Hay was a red desert, and men were going off their heads under the strain of it. The river was 2ft 7½ inches below summer level on March 19, 1903; but on the one day in 1914 it fell 2ft 11 inches below summer level. A man rode across it on a bicycle.
The authorities have an answer. The river, they say, may be lower this year than in 1902, but then what few people realise is that, on the Murrumbidgee catchment this has been a drier year than 1902. The rivers have reached their lowest record this year. But then the year itself has been the driest of which there is any record on the catchment of the Murrumbidgee-and records have been kept for 40 years. We found the people on the Murray at Echuca complaining that their river also was exceptionally low. A few weeks ago a youngster took off his boots and stockings, and paddled across the river at Mildura. There are nearly a dozen steam- ers laid up at Echuca; and, talking to some of the crews as they sat disconsolately about the river banks, one found that they throw the blame upon the big pumping plants.
The result is that it is impossible for an outsider, and probably, for anyone else, to judge how far it is the Murrumbidgee irri- gation and how far the dry year that ac- counts for the Murrumbidgee's record. It has had one useful rise, and the engineers at Bar- ren Jack state that if the water had not been held up in the dam, and parcelled out, it would
have run lower still. The Murrumbidgee people may be right in believing, as most of them do firmly believe, that without locks the Lower Murrumbidgee will degenerate in- to a long, dry ditch. If the river is locked they have no cause to fear. There will al- ways be a good navigable stream. "
HARD LINES ON THE BILLABONG.
But, unless locking will save them, it looks as if the billabongs will run dry-at any rate, on their lower course. Last Monday about midday, after three hours' motoring from Echuca, we came suddenly upon a deep river channel. There was a pool of water in it, and on the pool was a big ferry punt. We crossed in that punt. But we could have havo driven over the river bed few yards
further up, with nothing but dry twigs and
crackling gum leaves under our wheels. As we waited for the punt we could see above the high river bank opposite the few scattered roofs of Moulamein. And almost opposite us, out of the main river and winding far back out of sight into the bush, ran a deep wide ditch. It was not quite so deep as the chan- nel at our feet, and it was absolutely dry
Along the bottom of it lay a collection of
huge dry logs.
It was the mouth of The Billabong. You could follow that Channel up, it you wished through over 600 miles of windings, 250 miles as the crow flies, until you traced it to some spring or rivulet high up the mountain sides east of Albury. Garryowen is on its head streams, and Germanton; and you cross them in the Melbourne express just south of Culcairn. Perhaps long ago before the rivers, running for ages, had worn this old Australia so flat that they now often scarcely run at all-perhaps in those days a self-respecting river ran out of the ranges along this 600 miles of channel. But now It mostly borrows its water-when it has any -from a brother river. Some way before it reaches Jerilderie there runs into it the Colombo, which itself runs out of Yanco Creek. Yanco Creek itself comes in another 30 miles lower down, and a host of further chan- nels—-Turn Back Jimmy, Forest Creek, Eight- mile Creek—-wander out of these channels and back again. And the Billabong finally flows into the Edward, and the Edward into the Wakool, and the Wakool into tho Murray. The Edward and the Wakool are by-channels of the Murray, and they fill constantly enough for regular navigation during part of the win- ter and the spring. Steamers make a regular weekly service from Echuca, about 250 miles up the Wakool and the Edward, as far as Moulamein and Murgah; they regularly take the wool away from the stations along the Lower Edward, and, we are told, they could probably go as far as Deniliquin if the river were snagged. But then the Edward gets its water regularly from the Murray about July, or whenever the Murray is high enough to send its water over the seven-foot sand bar where the Edward joins it, whereas the Bil- labong and the whole Billabong system gets its water from Yanco Creek. And Yanco Creek depends on the water which it gets whenever a "fresh" comes down the river near Narrandera.
THE "FRESHES" COME NO LONGER.
Every little "fresh" in the Murrumbidgee used to send its off-sboots coursing down the whole Billabong system, and it is on these that the people far down the Billabong tell us they depend to fill all the dams across the creek and the Billabong higher up, and over- flow to the channel lower down. Barren Jack may be letting a normal flow through to the Murrumbidgee, but that does not help the people far down the Billabong. They want not normal flows, but sudden rises to bank the river up just where Yanco Creek joins it; and to this extent the Creek and Billabong people are opposed to the Mur- rumbidgee people, and voted against them at the meeting of protest which was held two weeks back at Narrandera, and carried their way by 29 votes to 26. They resolved to ask that a weir should bo put across the Mur- rumbidgee below Yanco Cut, so that whilst 500 cubic feet per second were sent down the river, 200 cubic feet should be turned off down Yanco Cutting into Yanco Creek. Failing that the Billabong people will have to wait patiently until Barren Jack is full, and then depend on the big floods which overflow it, for those little casual freshes down the Murrumbidgee River have probably gone for