IN THE summer of 1944 one of Australia’s great environmental reformers toured the Macquarie Marshes, in north-central New South Wales, on horseback. William McKell, the state premier, would have breathed the hot and humid air between tall stands of cumbungi as reeds rustled and cracked against the weight of the horse. He would have emerged from rushes to find open-water lagoons teeming with herons, spoonbills, pelicans and ducks, all feasting on thirty different species of fish.
McKell was so impressed with the Marshes he declared the crown land in the area a National Fauna Reserve. The Marshes were of world scientific renown, he said, and a vital sanctuary for Australian and northern hemisphere birdlife. They should be preserved for the Australian people, for posterity, for all time.
McKell went back to Sydney and less than two years later steered through parliament the legislation that enabled the construction of the Burrendong Dam – the dam that the NSW Water Conservation & Irrigation Commission said would significantly reduce the size of the Marshes, leaving the waterbirds no option but to “depart to other areas.” McKell even went out to the site of the proposed dam and turned the first sod with a bulldozer.
This was really no surprise, because during the 1941 election campaign McKell had promised to divert the water from the Snowy River inland for irrigation. He had promised to build large dams on the Hunter, Murrumbidgee, Tumut, Lachlan, Darling, Macquarie, Namoi, Gwydir, Peel, Macintyre and Dumaresq rivers. This was the environmental reformer who began the program that would degrade the inland river systems of southeastern Australia.
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