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Dead Fish And Drying Rivers Reveal What's ‘Rotten’ About The Murray-Darling

A kangaroo struggles to free itself from mud in a cracked lake bed while fish corpses begin to rot.

This is the grim picture of animals under stress as drought plagues the Menindee Lakes in far-west New South Wales.

The footage was shot by The Sydney Morning Herald photographer Nick Moir between the lakes and nearby Darling River where up to a million fish died earlier this week.  

With a week of sweltering heat ahead, locals are bracing for more deaths.

As politicians and authorities trade blame over the deaths,  drought is being cited as a key factor. But experts argue it is “simply the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

John Williams, Honorary Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, blames mismanagement of the river system.

“Dead fish and dying rivers are not because of the drought, it’s because we are extracting too much water from our rivers,” he said on Friday.

Menindee residents Dick Arnold and Rob McBride. Image: Facebook (Tolarno Station)

The fish deaths have garnered huge public outcry, after "heartbreaking" video emerged of farmers cradling critically-endangered Murray cod on the banks of the river.

It's the fourth such event in recent months and the second at Menindee, after about 10,000 fish died before Christmas.

Williams said the tragedy was both predictable and unsurprising.

The river is like a piggy bank, if you keep taking money out without saving for the future you end up bankrupt, and just when you need it the most.

The Menindee Lakes are a series of shallow natural lakes along the Darling River which have been developed into water storage. 

They were managed by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority until December 2017 when the state government stepped in, as water storage levels fell below 480 gigalitres.

As of Friday afternoon, the lakes were at 3.0 percent, according to WaterNSW.

READ MORE: Farmers Holding Dead 'Century-Old' Fish Want Answers

The trigger for the recent deaths is said to be a drop in temperatures and a blue-green algal bloom that took out large volumes of oxygen from the water.

Simon Mitrovic, Associate Professor in Freshwater Ecology at the University of Technology Sydney, said algal blooms were "fairly common" during summer when the river is at low-flow.

"It is unusual to get a fish kill occurring at the same time," he said.

Image: Rob Mackenzie (Facebook)

Experts and locals are blaming state and federal governments for draining too much water from the Menindee Lakes and over-allocating the resource to irrigators.

But the peak body for Australian irrigators -- the National Irrigators' Council --  insists farmers on the river's north have received no allocation of water in the past 12 months.

'We Need Substantive Change'

Williams called for an overhaul of the current Murray-Darling Basin Plan, a $13 billion water reform established in 2012 to improve the health of our rivers and floodplains.

"It's taking too much water. We need to have substantive change," he said.

A report following the South Australian royal commission into allegations of water theft from the Murray-Darling Basin by rogue irrigators is also due in February.

Senior counsel assisting the commission Richard Beasley told AAP on Friday it would be the "right thing" to consider some of the issues raised by the fish deaths that fall within the commissioner's terms of reference.

Almost A Million Dead Fish Wash Up In NSW Waters

NSW opposition leader Michael Daley has called for a special commission of inquiry into the "ecological catastrophe".

He said Labor would seek to overturn the plan -- supported by all basin state governments and the Morrison government -- to effectively decommission the Menindee Lakes system.

NSW Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair has requested his departments for an urgent report into the deaths.

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au

Featured image: Twitter