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Still, in the scramble to claim a share of Australia's diminishing water supply, these people at least have a voice. The creatures of the lakes and wetlands do not. "In a crisis, the entitlement the environment supposedly has is totally subjective to political whims," says Murray River environmental manager Judy Goode, who refers to herself as "the manager of dead and dying things." Even protected ecosystems—such as The Coorong and, in the northern basin, the Macquarie Marshes of bird-nesting legend—receive no special dispensation, so long as there is a "critical human need" to be met.

So Henry Jones has become the de facto voice for the dead and dying, delivering a well-honed, if mournful, monologue to whoever will listen: All the systems are on the point of collapse. Two-thirds of The Coorong is already dead—its salinity is almost that of the Dead Sea. What Jones finds, as he travels around the basin to argue that water must be allocated for his Coorong and his lakes, is a sentiment that the whole water crisis is the environmentalists' fault anyway. The greenies are derided for their shrill sanctimony. Farmers express indignation that any of their precious "working river" is lost to the sea. They tell Jones that it makes more sense to divert the Murray all the way inland, officially consigning the river to eternal servitude as an irrigation channel, while fishermen buck up and learn to live off the sea. In cotton-growing areas wholly dependent on irrigation, Jones says, "I'm lucky to get out with my life."

The Coorong represents only one glaring example of the Murray-Darling Basin's imperiled ecosystem. For example, Australian scientists and government officials were caught unaware when farther upriver some invisible drought-tolerance threshold was crossed and hundreds of thousands of river red gum trees—in the world's biggest such forest—suddenly died. And of late, a fresh concern has emerged: that the wetlands may be brewing toxins. Robbed of their seasonal flushing, and instead unnaturally submerged for decades, the swamps have become so dry that the crusted silt has reacted with air to form large surfaces of sulfuric acid. Scientists haven't fully gauged the threat to animals and people. For now, as University of Adelaide water economist Mike Young observes, "you wouldn't want to put your hand in it."

Adelaide may have the dubious distinction of being the world's first industrialized city to live in a constant state of water shortage. Its unhealthy reliance on the Murray—up to 90 percent of its water supply in low-rainfall periods—is symbolized by two unsightly pipelines that stretch more than 30 miles from the river to the city's water tanks. Since shortly after the drought's onset in 2002, the South Australia capital has been on water restrictions. Its residents dutifully cart buckets of used shower and washing machine water outside to their gardens. Native plants and artificial lawns are de rigueur. The racks of hardware stores are crammed with soil wetters, gray water diverter hoses, water-restricting shower nozzles, four-minute shower timers, and other tributes to water austerity. The radio "talk-back" shows have become reliable outlets for ranting about this or that water abuser.

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