It is hard for many Australians to reconcile the sputtering, surgically disfigured version of the Murray River with the shimmering idyll of their younger days. At the river's mouth, a flourishing ecosystem had long been nourished by the natural ebb and flow of seawater and fresh water. The ocean would rush in when the river ran low and then be pushed out by fresh water as the first hard rains drained down the Murray to the sea. Today the overallocation of irrigation water, coupled with the drought, has brought the river to a virtual standstill. So that the beleaguered Murray can meet the sea, its mouth must be dredged around the clock. Without dredging, the mouth would silt up, cutting off fresh water to the lagoon ecosystem called The Coorong and to nearby Lake Alexandrina.
It is here, every morning, that a 65-year-old silver-haired fisherman in waders and a Windbreaker navigates his aluminum boat out into the waters of Lake Alexandrina, or what is left of it. Long humps of silt-covered land rise up out of the water. Since most everyone else in his line of work has moved away, Henry Jones has the lake to himself—not counting the pelicans, though he, in fact, does count them, thinking: Maybe a tenth of what there was. And no white ibis. No blue-billed duck. Edging up to the northern Coorong lagoon, Jones reaches into the water to collect his gill nets. Among his catch there is not a single silver perch or Murray cod or bony bream. The salty water has done them in. Only carp survive. Dozens of carp, which did not even exist in the lower lakes a quarter century ago, and whose presence signals the demise of the freshwater environment.
Jones has adapted to the changes in a way the vanishing species cannot. He has found retailers who will buy all the carp he can catch. And truthfully, he could adapt further. If, as is expected, the government constructs a weir near the bottom of the river to give urban dwellers in Adelaide more water, Lake Alexandrina and its sibling Lake Albert would become saltwater lakes. "Personally, I'd probably be better off catching mullet, flounder, black bream, and a couple of other marine species," he says as he sits at the dining room table of the house he built 40 years ago. "But it's just not right. These lakes have always been freshwater. It's just a massive change. It's nonsense."
The drought has left his community reeling. Local winemakers have recently been informed that the Murray River would no longer be available for their vineyards. And Jones is a close friend to the elders of the Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal people, whose 30,000-year domain over the river abruptly ended when the expedition led by Capt. Charles Sturt arrived at the Murray's mouth in 1830. For the Ngarrindjeri, the drought has led to the disappearance of black swan eggs, freshwater mussels, and other sacred totems that are vital to their spiritual and physical nourishment.