MURRAY-DARLING BASIN ADVOCATE
KATE MCBRIDE, 19, grew up on the banks of the Darling River on her families property, Tolarno Station, in outback NSW. Tolarno sits on the edge of Australia's 'red center' almost 600km from the nearest capital, Adelaide.
The Darling River is currently facing crisis and Kate believes that without a change in current water management plans, the entire Darling river and it's surrounding basin will perish. Kate describes 2018 as a "make or break year and she is advocating for a change.
Tom Dunn: You’re featuring on this interview series as a young Australian "Advocate", but how would you describe yourself?
I've actually thought a lot about this one over the last few months and I still can't quite put my finger on it. I used to hate the term activist because of the stereotype I had in my head. I used to think, well, I like trees but I'm not into hugging them, and as much as I love the colour blue I just wouldn't suit the hair colour haha. Since then I've realised that that's got nothing to do with it, all you need is something you truly care about and/or want changed and motivation to get it done. In all honesty, I'm just a young country girl who has a passion for farming and want to get people involved in the industry and understand the issues we face surrounding water.
TD: The Darling is a trade route and a water source that has been the lifeblood of your families property, Tolarno, for almost 70 years. Along with family heritage, what are the fond memories growing up on the banks of the Darling has left you?
KMB: Some of my most fond memories are of sitting along the banks of the river with friends and family or even just going down by myself with a stubby and sorting out my thoughts at the end of a long week. I'll tell you what though, nothing compares to jumping in the river at lunchtime on those seeming impossibly hot Aussie summer days of 50 plus degrees, that happen all too often up that way. I wouldn't call any of us completely sane being able to work in that heat but I think the river really is the only thing keeping those last few marbles rolling around in our heads at times. We’ve had birthdays and Christmas’ along the darling and I just cant imagine a Tolarno without it. One of my favourite things to do on our days off is take the dingy up the river with a speaker and esky all stocked up and float down for a few hours. Its so peaceful floating under the huge river red gums and I don’t think you get the true Tolarno experience until you’ve done it.
TD: What does the Darling River mean to you?
KMB: That's a tough question and I think the only answer I have for you is everything. Without the Darling, Tolarno station wouldn't be viable and without Tolarno I don't know what I'd do. The station itself if my absolute heart and soul, with the Darling being the lifeblood of it. So take the river away, and Tolarno and myself really aren't much. The river itself is everything to myself and the people who live around me. It sustains us but it's also our meeting place, hang out and even our salvation at times from the hot Aussie outback.
TD: Is it too late to save the Darling River? How close to death is the ecosystem?
KMB: I don't think it's too late but honestly we're coming close. NSW is putting a pipeline in from Wentworth to Broken Hill during early 2018 and I truly believe that if we don't succeed in stopping that, it may well be the final straw for the Darling. For so many years people have taken too much from an ecosystem that relies on balance and we're finally seeing the consequences. In 2015-16 the lower Darling (where I'm from) spent 8 months completely and utterly dry, I rode my motorbike along the base of one of Australia's largest rivers for kilometres without seeing a drop of water. I saw every type of dead fish, dying native wildlife as they drunk from the odd putrid waterhole that had been stagnant for months. Our beautiful river red gums that have stood for hundreds of years stressed out for the first time in mine or my fathers lifetimes. If that isn't close to dead I don't want to know what is and I sure don’t want to find out.
TD: The Murray Darling Basin is home to over 2 million people, 51,000 farms, 40 Aboriginal nations and over 140 species of native fish and waterbirds. What do you imagine will happen if the ecosystem does fall beyond the point of recovery?
KMB: The Murray- Darling basin is an incredible piece of nature that covers over a 7th of the country. Records and opinions differ but historically the Darling river contributed somewhere between 10-20% of the water to the Murray River and this just shows that even if one part of the ecosystems is killed it will have detrimental effects to the entire system.
Personally I think if the Darling river falls to the point it did in 2015/16 again, that there will be serious consequences for all states that the basin runs through. A lot of people forget the Murray darling basin encompasses QLD, NSW, Vic, SA and even ACT so one thing I can say for sure is we on the river won't be the only ones feeling the pain again. From a very young age, my father described the Murray-Darling basin like a set of lungs with the Murray being the larger and somewhat more talked about lung. If you kill off one of your lungs the other may keep going but it can't be very healthy and it can't do it indefinitely. I think that's such an important way to look at it because it really is a living breathing ecosystem and it can't keep going the way it is. We are already seeing increased algal blooms along the darling which is a tell-tale sign of the terrible health of the river but this isn’t a new issue and yet organisations such as the Murray-Darling Basin Authority do not seem to be taking action. In 1991-1992 a 1000km stretch of the Darling turned bright green, this was the longest stretch of poisoned river known anywhere in the world and yet since then our management practices have not improved.
TD: In your eyes, what's the perfect solution to the Darling River situation?
KMB: Unfortunately there’s not one simple fix for such a big problem, but at the end of the day I believe we need to get back to basics, and the simple fix is return water to the system. This may involve embargoing water or saving water for cultural flows, which in my opinion is one of the most important things that should be done. As much as the system and water is always going to be a highly complex issue at the end of the day people often lose sight of the fact the simple fix is allowing water to flow down the river and not be pumped into storage dams further up. I visited Wilcannia the other day (a town upstream of Tolarno) and it was absolutely heart breaking to see the state of the river up there.
Not so fun fact, people in Wilcannia have one of the lowest life expectancies of anywhere in Australia with it being 42 for females and 37 for females and a lot of that can be attributed to the health of the Darling river.
TD: If you could invite anyone in the world to spend a day with you on Tolarno, who would it be and why?
KMB: Ahhh, being a teenage girl I'm sure most people would expect some sort of celebrity or something, but to be honest I'd take the Prime Minister up and show him how people up our way are being treated like second class citizens, with no access to clean drinking/ bathing water for ourselves or our stock. Surely seeing it with his own eyes he'd have to take all the water issues a lot more seriously? Well you'd hope anyway? The sad part is Prime Minister Turnbull was Water Minister previously and should understand the problems, but it appears to me it’s always someone else’s issue and the unsustainable cotton growers at the top of the catchment are far too powerful. At the moment it seems to be the last thing on the government’s agenda which gets to be really frustrating when it's your livelihoods at risk. A few months ago we had a group of senators come up and have a tour of Tolarno and the Menindee Lakes before we all took part at the senate hearing and it was incredible to see politicians coming out and getting a first hand experience. Unfortunately the NSW premier Gladys Berejikilian and the Prime Minister don’t have as much interest, which is a real shame.
TD: Both you and your Dad have featured in some YouTube videos that hav really started a discussion on the health of the Darling. Has social media the best tool for raising awareness of your cause?
KMB: Yes and no. It's been a lot of trial and error with social media to be honest. It's been incredibly helpful to get it out there a bit, but it was more programs such as ABC's Four Corners and newspaper articles etc. that have got it out to a wider demographic. In saying that though I don't think it would've got the attention of the ABC and newspapers if it wasn't for the videos in the beginning. It's funny looking back at our first few videos how terrible in a way they were and yet some of the videos we've made now have got upwards of 40k views which we thought was pretty impressive. In our household everything is a competition and so dad and I have a bit of fun seeing who's videos get the most views (I'm currently winning). We've also done a lot of radio interviews as well which I’ve found is good for people who are out working in the paddocks all day to get our point of view to them as well because they’re the people who these water issues effect the most. Enagaging through social media sort of did start the discussion and has been really helpful but its all the behind the scenes things we’ve done such as writing submissions that have been the best tool for fixing the issue I think.
TD: What's been the general reaction you've received while advocating for a change in the health of the Darling River?
KMB: I've been so well supported this whole time by everyone and the praise and appreciation I've received for it has been incredible. Of course I never expected that and it's not why I got involved but it's really nice, particularly because as anyone whose been in my position would know, there is always those select few that want to tear you down for whatever reason they've got in their head. Then again I've had people who I’ve never met before come past Tolarno and leave me letters telling me they've heard me in the radio and how impressed they were. Even a few politicians I've met in this journey have told me I would make a great politician if that's the path I chose one day. There's been a lot of different reactions because of course it's such an emotional topic. I did a talk in Broken Hill a few months back, it was actually my first experience with such a big crowd and I even started crying a little during my speech. Half of the audience's eyes were watering apparently and I think that's because they saw just how much I care about the river and where I come from. I think people are surprised because a lot of teenagers these days don't really care about these sorts of issues so I guess having a young girl form the bush pour her heart out in front of a big crowd of people is something out of the ordinary.
TD: What can we expect to see from you in 2018?
KMB: Well at this stage modelling shows we will have a dry river again by December 2018 with no information about when flow will increase again so I'm not giving up on protecting the Darling and you'll be seeing a lot more of me in 2018 hopefully. I'll be back at uni so I may not be at Tolarno full time as much but if anyone is around and I'm at Tolarno I'm always happy to have a yarn with people or even email me if you have any questions about anything. I'm also getting involved with 'River Murray Walks' and potentially becoming a bit of a tour guide a few weeks a year so that'll be good as I'll have a bit more or a basin wide look on the whole thing. I’m also starting to do more videos about the river on our facebook page ‘Tolarno Station’ so if you’re interested keep an eye on the page for everything that I’m up to.
TD: What can we expect to see from the Darling River in the coming year?
KMB: Unfortunately at the moment it's looking like not a lot of water is what you'll be seeing from the Darling. NSW water is putting in a 500 million dollar pipeline this year and I, along with many others, believe that will be the end of the lower darling and Menindee lakes. It's absolutely heart breaking that the government is doing this and we're trying everything in our power to stop it from going ahead. In saying that though we have a lot of people fighting with us to put a stop to it and protect so the darling and I believe we can stop it with enough people power. There is also a lot of pending investigations that should wrap up this year surrounding water theft (an other issues along the Darling) so should be an interesting year for the river. It almost feels like this is the do or die year in my opinion so its more important than ever we get people behind our cause.
TD: Finally, what would your advice be to someone who was advocating for a change?
KMB: It's such an old fellas saying but probably 'Rome wasn't built in a day' because it's so true. Coming into this fight I had no idea on how bigg an issue it was and in all honesty it's felt a bit like one step forwards, two steps back at times. I have days where things like the pipeline being approved and when the Cubbie Station (Australia's largest cotton producer) politician becomes the new Federal Water Minister that I feel like throwing my hands up in the air. Some days it feels like a never ending battle that can't be won, but I’ve found that’s just part of this kind of thing.You will have down days but you'll also have a lot of wins whether they're big or small and it's those you have to focus on. Look back at where you were and how far you've come, think about the friendships you've made and think about how much you care about what you’re fighting for and it'll motivate you even more.
The other thing is don't ever think you can't do something. I honestly couldn't speak in front of a class at school to give an oral presentation. It was my biggest nightmare and use to freak me out so much. The thing that changed me was getting involved with Australian conservation foundation and partaking in a river fellows program which gave me the confidence to talk about the river and skilled me up to the point that I now absolutely love talking in front of crows because it's that many more people that know about the issue then. I remember coming home from my first retreat and dad asking how it was. I was on such a high because I realised how life changing it was and I turned around and said to dad "I went into this retreat with a love for the river, I left with the ability to fight for it”.
I’ve found the best thing to do is take every opportunity that comes your way as well, whether it be courses to skill you up or meetings about it. Even if its not as useful as you thought the people you meet are what counts and what help keep you motivated. As much as I do put a lot of time and work into fighting for rivers I’d be nowhere without all the people who email me each day with all the local water news or any articles that might help me. Its been such a community effort coming as far as we already have and I’ll always be grateful for all the help I’ve received from everyone.
Get in touch with Kate McBride:
Facebook - @tolarnostation
Instagram - @katemcbride
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