Traditional owners say they have developed a plan that would, for the first time, allow water in the Murray River to flow for cultural purposes.
- New report charts clear path forward for Aboriginal water rights in the Murray-Darling Basin
- Traditional owners in the Basin own less than 1 per cent of the water
- Cultural flows are separate from environmental water, and are owned by First Nations
Produced by Environmental Justice Australia for the Murray and Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) and the Tati Tati Wadi Wadi community, the report is a detailed policy toolkit for using water in the Murray River for cultural purposes at Margooya Lagoon.
Located within a bend of the Murray River near Robinvale, Margooya Lagoon is a permanent wetland and important cultural site for the Tati Tati people, according to traditional owner Brendan Kennedy.
“Margooya is our ancestral site,” Mr Kennedy said. “It’s an important site for many of our ancestral beings and ancestral animals.”
Construction of locks and wiers to regulate the flow of water down the Murray River significantly altered the natural watering cycles of the lagoon and, until 2009, it was permanently inundated.
Natural ebbs and flows
Prior to construction of the locks and wiers, Margooya Lagoon experienced natural wet and dry periods, but now the lagoon rarely receives high enough flows to flood the adjacent floodplain.
Management of the site — which is defined as “unclassified public land” is overseen by Parks Victoria and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP).
The Tati Tati Nation is seeking water rights that would allow it to have greater control over flows through the area.
“Environmental Justice Australia have now created a legal plan for how to achieve cultural flows on Margooya Lagoon.”
First Nations’ rights to, and aspirations for, water rights in the Murray-Darling Basin were formalised in 2007 in the Echuca Declaration, a document prepared by MLDRIN.
Another major step came in 2018, when the National Cultural Flows Research Project described, in detail, the value of cultural flows for First Nations and created a framework for achieving them across the Murray-Darling Basin.
It defined cultural flows as “water entitlements that are legally and beneficially owned by Indigenous Nations of a sufficient and adequate quantity and quality, to improve the spiritual, cultural, environmental, social and economic conditions of those Indigenous Nations”.
The then federal government committed $40 million dollars to buying water rights for First Nations groups in the Basin. However, so far, no funding has been allocated to the purchase of water rights.
MLDRIN released a further report in March 2021, which examined the existing legal and policy pathways to increase water for cultural flows.
The Environmental Justice Australia report has applied the cultural flows framework to Margooya Lagoon, untangling the complex web of state and federal legislation to chart a clear path towards cultural flows for the Tati Tati.
“What we’re seeking to do do is move forward on that cultural flows model and agenda,” Environmental Justice Australia senior lawyer Bruce Lindsay said.
In 2020, the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation received 2 gigalitres of water in the Mitchell River from the Victorian Government, which was celebrated as a major step forward for Indigenous water rights.
This year, however, Victorian traditional owners in the Murray-Darling Basin were recently blindsided by a state government decision to allocate 2GL of additional water savings from a network upgrade to irrigators.
Mr Kennedy hopes this framework will help state and federal government address the inequity in water ownership in the Basin.
While cultural flows can have environmental benefits, they are distinctly different from environmental water licences held by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and its state-based equivalents.
“The Murray is a fully allocated system,” Mr Lindsay said.
“And that means buying them off the market or making arrangements with the environmental water holders.”
The plan presents three strategic options for achieving cultural flows, including:
- building on the existing relationships between the Tati Tati, the Mallee Catchment Management Authority and DELWP
- creating new agreements that strengthen the Tati Tati’s legal status and ability to negotiate with public agencies
- reforming the existing list of regulations and policies that govern the watering of Margooya Lagoon.
Ngarrindjeri man and MLDRIN chair Grant Rigney said that, if adopted by governments, the framework would be the first time the cultural flows concept was rolled out and it would be a critical milestone in achieving water justice for Indigenous Nations in the Murray-Darling Basin.
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