Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Going with the Flow: Sustainable Water Management as Ontological Cleaving

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Going with the Flow: Sustainable Water Management as Ontological Cleaving

Article excerpt

Entering the waters

The lookout offers a superb panorama over Lake Eildon, a vast expanse of dark blue water which in the distance disappears among the forested valleys of the National Park. The lake is in fact a reservoir. The lookout is perched on an 85-metre-high embankment, behind which up to 3 334 000 megalitres of water can be held, more than six times the volume of Sydney Harbour. The reservoir's waters are released into the Goulburn River, to continue their journey across the northern plains of Victoria. Downstream, vastly different stories are told about the regulation of this river.

Over 250 kilometres downstream on a dairy farm near Wyuna, irrigation water supplied by the lower Goulburn is used for agricultural productivity. Stored at Eildon Reservoir, ordered by the farmer for release into the river, and then delivered onto the farm via a grassy verged irrigation channel, it waters the pastures that nourish the cows, whose milk is sold to the local dairy cooperative. A flood-irrigated pasture contrasts starkly with the unwatered fields around it: green amidst brown, fresh pasture carrying a dense herd of stock amidst unoccupied fields of dry grass. Les, (1) a dairy farmer, praises the Goulburn's waters as "the lifeblood of this whole area, which produces canned fruit, vegetables, et cetera, plus the huge dairy industry". The reliable supply of irrigation water enabled by river regulation at Eildon, he contends, is responsible for the socioeconomic development of this region as the 'food bowl' of Victoria.

Further upstream, near Nagambie, a dryland farmer called Hal tours his wetlands on the banks of the mid-Goulburn. The dead, grey trees standing morosely within the parched lagoon are potent signifiers of a lack of liveliness within these wetlands. The young trees and shrubs that Hal planted several years ago are stunted by the dry conditions. There are no foraging birds, no noisy chorus of frogs, and many other signs of a healthy riparian ecosystem are likewise missing. Hal laments, "I think in the year 2000 we had a hundred [millimetres] more than our average rainfall, and if Eildon hadn't been holding back water, then we would have got our wetlands full." He alleges that in securing a water supply for irrigation, Eildon impedes another kind of flow, water for biodiversity and ecological health, which is known in environmental policy and river management circles as 'environmental' water. Hal mourns river regulation as the ecological destruction of the river and its wetlands.

Irrigation water and environmental water: in such instances and many others, they are made to co-constitute each as other. Irrigation water is presented as productive in relation to environmental water, the water running down the river that is, as some farmers say, 'unused' or 'wasted'. Environmental water is presented as life-giving to riparian and in-stream ecosystems, whereas irrigation water is correspondingly told as lifeless, or even as 'threatening' life, for example in environmental policy (DNRE, 2002, page 27). Thus constituted in opposition to each other, irrigation water and environmental water unsurprisingly clash. In what other ways might these versions of flow be made to relate?

In this paper, I consider what it might be to do sustainable management through a case study of the Goulburn River, one of the largest river systems in southeastern Australia. This river touches many lives. Economic development, social well-being, natural environment, and cultural heritage: a diverse array of community values and expectations are embodied in the contemporary management of the Goulburn River. The core theme of sustainable development with which I engage in this paper is "the integration of environment and development" (United Nations Environment Programme, 1993, page 15). In managing the Goulburn River, this working together of environmental protection and resource use is embodied in the vision for a "healthy, working river" (Tennant et al, 2003, page 3). …

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