Floods and new life along the Murray

Visiting some of the flooded areas along the Murray River this week has reminded me that Nature will do what Nature will do, regardless.

We often interpret things from a human perspective and in terms of damage done to the things that we have built. That is our default perspective and, of course, is the one being applied to the Murray River floods.

But think another way. A flood brings life to the Murray. It flushes out the old and stagnant, it floods billabongs with life giving the teeming millions within access to the main river.

Birds fly with it, feasting. It is the trigger for a whole new breeding cycle for creatures both above and below the water.

Walking to the river’s edge shows me that life abounds in every flooded piece. Every square metre of flooded roadside themes with life. – Boatmen, tadpoles, fish of all sizes,  things with flippers, things with tails, worms mosquitoes, birds, people, insects and, unseen hordes of microbes.

We see myriads of agile Dragonflies darting through the air, feasting. They would have normally finished breeding in September, with their larvae living below the surface of the river, feasting –  they are voracious hunters. The humidity and warmth of the last season has extended their aerial ballet for us.

The Murray has flooded for millennia. Creation stories come from it to explain the relationships between human, animal, plant and river, showing that none are separate. It is a river of extremes though. Early European explorers found the river to be no more than a series of connected ponds.

I remember my our first trip to the Murray, back in 1971. Our family had only recently come to live in SA from the migrant hostels in Cabramatta. Dad drove us and we stopped at Walker’s Flat and fished from what seemed to be an extremely narrow road. Later, we found that the river was in flood and we were fishing in someone’s yard!

Until the Paddle Steamers began their journeys along the Murray, carrying all kinds of people and goods, huge, fallen trees littered its bed. These were home to myriads of fish and other creatures. They were safe breeding grounds for fish like the Murray Cod.

The logs got in the way of the steamers though and were removed to allow them unhindered access. Fish populations started to decline and the whole ecology of the Murray started to wither. Many decades later, logs and trees were placed back into the river to remedy things and they are there now.

The barrages were put in many years ago to ensure that there was always enough water for boats but until they were modified, blocked the path of the lives of river creatures. We’ve had the river wrong all of this time, seeing it as something to be controlled and regulated, bought to heel for our purposes.

The river used to flow freely, all the way to the Coorong where it met the sea in a huge, living filter that provided home, shelter and rest for millions of birds and animals. Many species of birds, such as the Orange Bellied Parrot use the Coorong as a haven during their migrations.  I’ve sat there in the evenings and watched tens of thousands of birds come in to feed and rest. Flock after flock, arriving for hours from sundown until dark.

The Coorong relies for its fecundity on pulses of flood water which it slows and cleans before allowing it to reach the ocean The flow of river water is imbued with new life as it mixes with salty, ocean water in this huge wetland.

The billabongs that line the main river, once thought to be worthless, stagnant lakes have been found to be the home and breeding grounds for many species of fish and birds. When the river drops, they are isolated in the billabong and live in relative safety. The inrush of fresh water that a flood brings is the trigger for a whole new phase of life in the river itself until it drops again to normal levels and the cycle repeats.

The river used to run much clearer too. The introduction of European Carp has been cited as the main reason for this, though there are other contributing factors. These pests grub along the bottom of the river, disturbing mud and eating what would be the prey of local fish. It’s another man made disaster that the river is paying for.

In South Australia, our stretch of the river pays heavily for any kind of negative effect that hits it upstream. We are particularly vulnerable for narrow minded water management policies enacted in the states upstream. The effects of things  like water allocation, recreation, pesticide use and other agricultural activities all flow downstream to us.

The Murray connects life in a myriad of spheres, its existence is timelessness and floods are just a part of it all. We are latecomers but our influence is as strong as that of anything else throughout the river’s life. Floods remind us of this.

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