The following is the established format for referencing this article:Ford, Z. E., S. Jackson, G. Bino, K. J. Brandis, and R. T. Kingsford. 2023. Scale, evidence, and community participation matter: lessons in effective and legitimate adaptive governance from decision making for Menindee Lakes in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin. Ecology and Society 28(1):15.
Rivers and their interdependent human communities form social-ecologically complex systems that reflect basin scale functionally but are often governed by spatially mismatched governance systems. Accounting for this complexity requires flexible adaptive governance systems supported by legitimacy in decision-making processes. Meaningful community dialogue, information exchange, transparency, and scientific rigor are essential to this process. We examined failings in the adaptive governance of the Menindee Lakes system, a major Australian wetland system on the Barka/Darling River of the Murray-Darling Basin. Ecological sustainability of the Menindee Lakes was a casualty of a top-down governance, driven by the New South Wales Government in pursuit of "water savings" for the Murray-Darling Basin, a large scale, federally influenced region. We used quantitative and qualitative methods to analyze long-term social-ecological impacts and stakeholder perceptions of adaptive governance. State and federal government agencies failed basic processes of adaptive governance, ignoring local environmental sustainability in pursuit of basin scale objectives at great cost to governments, communities, humans, and non-humans. This resulted in the development of an ineffective, technocratic solution that lacked community input, leading to a complete loss of support by local communities, including traditional owners. We emphasize the importance of elements of scale in adaptive governance projects, if such projects are going to be effective and legitimate with consequences of coarse commitments to large spatial scale political and environmental objectives.
Rivers and their dependent ecosystems are complex social-ecological systems. Because of their complexity, management of these systems can often have unpredictable outcomes, which disrupt function and feedback within the social-ecological system (Berkes et al. 2000, Rogers et al. 2013). Freshwater ecosystems support a disproportionate amount of biodiversity and ecosystem services, often over large spatial scales (Strayer and Dudgeon 2010, Reid et al. 2019), making environmental governance of these systems important for sustainable global resource use patterns. They also face considerable uncertainty with global climate change and increases in water resource development degrading ecosystems (Folke et al. 2005, Junk et al. 2013, Kingsford et al. 2016, Finlayson et al. 2017).
River basins depend on river flows often originating high up in a river catchment or watershed, where water must sometimes travel thousands of kilometers, usually traversing many different management jurisdictions (Moss and Newig 2010). This can be a challenge for water governance because this interconnectedness contrasts with often discontinuous and nested political/administrative levels of management (Molle 2009). This interconnectedness produces a mismatch between geographical and governance scales, often with top-down governance processes or centralized decision making, which fail to provide effective solutions for natural resource issues and coordinated governance (Cash et al. 2006, Lemos and Agrawal 2006, Ekstrom and Young 2009, Guerrero et al. 2013). These mismatches can also occur when the scale of spatial and temporal variability in a river system (Walker et al. 1995, Scown et al. 2016) is not accounted for in governance structures, especially with added uncertainty from climate change (Cumming et al. 2006).
Only flexible governance systems can address coupled water and human systems that evolve together over time and comprise highly contextualized and dynamic human-water relationships (Anderson et al. 2019), which are often multijurisdictional and have unpredictable feedback between ecological and social systems (Olsson et al. 2004, Chaffin et al. 2016). Adaptive governance approaches attempt to manage this uncertainty and complexity in social-ecological systems through learning-based and flexible decision-making processes that aim to adaptively negotiate and coordinate complex management (Dietz et al. 2003, Folke et al. 2005). This often occurs across multiple levels of organizations, involving government and non-government actors, supported by systems that use rigorous scientific information and encourage public learning to support evidence-based decision making (Pahl-Wostl et al. 2007); however, adaptive governance frequently fails to be implemented across all these levels of governance (McLoughlin et al. 2020). These learning processes enable the coordination and context for choosing between management actions, monitoring their effects, and adjusting actions as different components of the social-ecological system change (Folke et al. 2005).
As such, adaptive governance requires trustworthy information about the biophysical and associated social processes of river systems relevant and in scale with management decision making (Dietz et al. 2003, Vella et al. 2015). Administrative transparency and the inclusion of community dialogue in decision making is important for building trust in this information and establishing legitimacy (Cosens and Williams 2012, Hogl et al. 2012, Jackson 2019), which is essential for creating effective solutions. Trustworthy information for decision making depends on reliable sources and scientific knowledge used with integrity in the development of publicly trusted policy (Colloff et al. 2021). Transparency, free access, and documentation are essential to the community for informed and meaningful engagement in decision making (De Stefano et al. 2012). These factors are also important for stakeholders to understand decisions and solutions so they can influence them to benefit their own goals (Arnstein 1969, Badenoch 2002). Moreover, the public's involvement in decision making relies on good engagement to draw on their knowledge, values, and perspectives for sound and rigorous outcomes (Arnstein 1969, Jackson 2019).
This transparency and meaningful participation are important components of effectiveness and legitimacy within adaptive governance structures (Hogl et al. 2012, O’Donnell et al. 2019), and gaps in their implementation can exacerbate the challenges of achieving good governance in multijurisdictional and multiscale systems (Badenoch 2002, Akamani and Wilson 2011). This can also reduce trust, exacerbating preexisting conflict among actors when there are competing viewpoints (Lien et al. 2021). Adaptive processes need to be sincere and understood by communities for effective engagement (Allan and Watts 2018).
The Menindee Lakes
We examined elements of adaptive governance for current decision making related to a major wetland system, the Menindee Lakes (457 km² Water NSW 2022), which was a system of natural lakes made into dams to store water (total storage volume of 1731 GL) by a large weir across the Darling River in the 1960s (Appendix 1, Fig. A1.3). This water was delivered locally to the nearby city of Broken Hill, to the lower part of the Darling River, and to South Australia. The Darling River is in the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) of south-eastern Australia (Appendix 1, Fig. A1.3) where geographic scale and institutional complexity contribute to the difficulty of water management (Alexandra 2018). The basin is the largest in Australia, spanning one seventh of the continent (1,059,000 km² Australian Bureau Statistics 2010) where 2.2 million people live, and surface water supplies about 40% of Australia’s irrigated agricultural output (MDBA 2016). The region functions as a complex social-ecological freshwater system and includes many recognized sites of high biodiversity (Kingsford 2004, Bino et al. 2016). Freshwater ecosystems in the Murray-Darling Basin have been in ecological decline for decades (Walker 1985, Kingsford 2000, Pittock and Finlayson 2011) primarily due to water resource development in the basin that has had a strong impact on flow and flooding regimes (Kingsford 2000). Because of this, the basin has been subject to large-scale policy and law reform over the past 20 years, much of it aimed at restoring environmentally sustainable levels of water extraction and the delivery of water into the environment through integrated basin management (MDBA 2012). The recovery of these flows is an essential component of the conservation of wetlands within the basin, however, many wetlands have not received adequate environmental flows to achieve expected ecological benefits (Chen et al. 2021).
The Murray-Darling Basin is characterized by considerable institutional complexity in large part because of its federal governance settings (Wallis and Ison 2011) with at least 6 major policy contestants comprising 4 basin states (Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, and Victoria) and Australian Capital Territory, the Australian Government, as well as 21 regional natural resource management agencies (Pittock 2019). State and territory governments are primarily responsible for land and water management under the Australian constitution. Institutional complexity has increased over recent decades with the addition of new institutional arrangements that have centralized decision-making, in step with the increasing diversity of environmental problems (Wallis and Ison 2011). In 2007, the Australian Government took overarching control of the development of a restoration program under the 2007 Water Act, implemented through the MDB Plan (Swirepik et al. 2016). This centralized decision making to a larger basin scale of governance. It was justified by an awareness of the environmental crises exacerbated by the millennium drought of 2002-2010 and led to increasingly technocratic solutions that in the region (Jackson and Head 2020), failed to give sufficient attention to local participation and community expectations for legitimacy (O’Donnell et al. 2019).
The basin-wide restoration program began with the Australian Government reducing water allocations via a sustainable diversion limit (SDL) set for the entire MDB, with a target of restoring 2750 GL a year to the river system. The primary mechanism for achieving this was the “buying back” of water diverted for irrigation. A secondary mechanism involved investments in irrigation systems to increase water use efficiency (Grafton and Wheeler 2018). Water was to be bought back by willing sellers, primarily the irrigation industry. However, in 2015, the current Australian Government decided that the economic impact on the irrigation industry was too great and put a halt to the buyback of water. Instead, they decided to reduce water consumption through improved water efficiency. Subsequently the Australian Government directed the state governments to identify water efficiency projects that could “offset” reduced water recovery targets by achieving “equivalent environmental outcomes” with less recovered water (MDBA 2012).
The Menindee Lakes project was the largest water efficiency project in the MDB, likely to deliver the greatest dividend in water savings to meet the target under the MDB plan (MDBA 2017, NSW Department of Natural Resources 2007). The project at Menindee, which was expected to save 72 GL of water (NSW Department of Primary Industries 2017), was administered as a sustainable diversions adjustment mechanism (SDLAM) project (hereinafter referred to as the Menindee Lakes project). This project had a long history with the NSW Government (the 1990s), in which more “efficient” management of the Menindee Lakes was considered a priority for water recovery. It relied upon engineering structures and changes to management operations to reduce evaporative losses from the lakes (Bewsher Consulting 1994).
In 2018, the Menindee Lakes project was formally adopted by the NSW Government to be completed by 2024, at an initial cost estimate of $A151.8 million (NSW Department of Industry 2018). The associated cultural, ecological, and economic risks of the project and the inadequacy of government community consultation have caused considerable stakeholder concerns (Australian Productivity Commission 2018, NBAN and MLDRIN 2019, South Australian Government 2019, Jackson and Head 2020). Key concerns were the lack of transparency, flaws in the decision-making processes, and the likely local impact and inequity in their distribution, although some questioned the fundamental assumptions of the water savings objective. The likelihood of the project’s failure jeopardized the project's intended significant contribution to water usage efficiencies (offset) under the MDB plan (MDBA 2020).
A major concern of the project area included a large portion of Kinchega National Park (Appendix 1, Fig. A1.3), which was set aside to protect biodiversity and cultural and recreational values, including wetlands (NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service 1999). The lakes and a 400 km stretch of the Darling River also sit within an area determined, in 2015, as native title under the Barkandji people native title claim. The recognition this claim brought is critical to the Barkandji people because the Darling River, or Barka, (now referred as Barka/Darling River) and its waters are central to their existence (Hartwig et al. 2018). However, despite this legal recognition, water governance structures in the region, and MDB more broadly, have dispossessed Barkandji people of this water and continue to marginalize them from decision-making processes such as water sharing plans (O’Bryan 2019, Hartwig et al. 2022).
The New South Wales Government explicitly stated that the project aimed to use an “adaptive and outcomes-based governance approach” (NSW Department of Industry 2018:96). Further, adaptive management and working effectively with local communities were also stated as key principals to be applied to environmental watering efforts under the Murray-Darling Basin plan (MDBA 2012). These intentions provided us with an opportunity to examine the effectiveness of this attempt at adaptive governance. We investigated critical elements of adaptive governance and decision making for the Menindee Lakes SDLAM project, including scientific evidence, public learning, and scales of decision making. We examined two biophysical elements in relation to the ecological condition and selection of Menindee Lakes for basin-scale water savings targets: (1) long-term (1880-2019) rainfall and flows into the Menindee Lakes from the Barka/Darling River and (2) the abundance and richness of waterbirds at Menindee Lakes (1983-2019) in association with flows. We also examined public learning through investigating the perceptions of local communities dependent on the ecosystem, about the ecological condition of the lakes, participation in decision making, and future options for the Menindee Lakes and the Barka/Darling River. We also examined the transparency, accessibility, and composition of information sources for the documented evidence that the government based their decision making on in the business case for the Menindee Lakes project (NSW Department of Industry 2018).
Evidence based for decision making
Rainfall and flows
We investigated changes in flow and rainfall patterns to Menindee Lakes given their reliance on water for flooding from upstream on the Barka/Darling River, which is supplied by seven catchments (Appendix 1, Fig. A1.1). Twenty-one rainfall stations among these catchments provided long term (1890-2019) annual cumulative rainfall data (BOM 2020). Data for each catchment were averaged from all the rainfall stations within the catchment, which allowed us to account for gaps in data availability among the rainfall stations (Appendix 1, Table A1.2). This averaged value was then weighted to each catchments contribution (%), to annual discharge for the Barka/Darling River (CSIRO 2008) to form a rainfall index that reflected the different contributions of each tributary river system to flows in the Barka/Darling:
Rainfall index = Annual cumulative rainfall for catchment (mm) x Catchment contribution to flows for the Barka/Darling (%)
We then modeled the relationship between this index and time for each catchment separately and combined, using the built-in linear model function in R (R Core Team 2021). This tested for differences in rainfall in the tributary catchments into the Barka/Darling and Menindee Lakes, again between three periods of water resource development (pre-development 1881-1959, increasing development 1960-2008, and water recovery 2009-2020; Table 1; Appendix 1, Table A1.1). This was done by using estimated marginal means, using the “emmeans” package in R (Lenth 2019) with pairwise comparisons of each catchment among these three different periods of development (Appendix 1, Table A1.1).
We also investigated trends in annual river flows into the Menindee Lakes (Gauge 425012; Water NSW 2020) in reference to water resource development. Annual cumulative flow data were available at Menindee Lakes (Gauge 425012; Water NSW 2020) for the two latter periods but not for the pre-development phase. For the pre-development phase (1890-1959), we modeled the relationship between annual flow at the upstream (117 km) gauge at Wilcannia (1880-2019; Gauge 425008; Water NSW 2020) and Menindee Lakes, using a linear model, which had a strong and positive association (R² = 0.97, p < 0.01; Appendix 1, Table A1.3, Fig. A1.1). Data from both gauges were log transformed to improve normality and homogeneity of variance to meet linear model assumptions (Appendix 1, Fig. A1.2). This relationship was then used with the inbuilt “predict” function in R to hindcast flows for Menindee for the pre-development phase, using untransformed Menindee (where available) and Wilcannia data. This allowed us to track annual flows for Menindee over time and test for differences among the three development periods (Appendix 1, Table A1.1).
There are seven flow thresholds, which relate to different ecological and hydrological responses, adapted from analyses for the Barwon-Darling water sharing plan (NSW Department of Primary Industries 2017). These included cease to flow (< 90 ML day-1), very low flows (90-400 ML day-1), base flow (400-4000 ML day-1), small freshes (4000-10000 ML day-1), large freshes (10,000-20,000 ML day-1), bankfull (20,000-29,000 ML day-1), and overbank (> 29,000 ML day-1; Appendix 1, Table A1.4). We examined the changes to the annual frequencies of these seven flow thresholds to the Menindee Lakes over the three development phrases (1881-2019) using linear regression (Appendix 1, Table A1.5). Data were normally distributed, and assumption of constant variance was met.
We examined trends in waterbird communities, which are a useful indicator of ecosystem change in freshwater ecosystems (Kingsford and Norman 2002, Green and Elmberg 2014), using long-term data (1983-2019) collected for some of the lakes within a 30 km survey band during the eastern Australia waterbird surveys (EAWS; Kingsford et al. 2020; Appendix 1, Fig. A1.3). We examined annual trends in total waterbird abundance within five functional response groups of species (ducks, piscivores, herbivores, large waders, and small wading birds; Kingsford et al. 2017). We log-transformed annual waterbird abundances and used the built in “lm” function in R (R Core Team 2018) to evaluate potential associations with annual flows at the Menindee Lakes flow gauge (Appendix 1, Table A1.7). We only reported declining trends in waterbird abundances, however, these are predominantly related to river flows and wetland flooding (Kingsford and Thomas 1995, Kingsford 1999, Kingsford et al. 1999, 2002, 2010, 2017, Roshier et al. 2001, Arthur et al. 2012, Bino et al. 2015). This also established that waterbirds were a useful environmental indicator for the Menindee Lakes and the Darling River. Assumptions of normality, homogeneity of variance, and linearity were evaluated using residual-fitted, residual frequency, and normal quantile-quantile plots (Appendix 1, Fig. A1.2). We also reported on changes in abundances between the first five and the last five years.
Published evidence for decision-making for the Menindee Lakes project
We also systematically searched available public databases for information cited within and relevant to the Menindee Lakes project (NSW Department of Primary Industries 2017) using Web of Science (WoS) of Thomson Reuters, Scopus of Elsevier, Environment Complete of EBSCO, and Google Scholar databases. We searched using phrases from cited statements within the business case for the Menindee Lakes project (NSW Department of Primary Industries 2017). Documents published after the publication of the business case (2017) were excluded. We also searched for historical documents in the water information system for the environment database (University of New South Wales 2020) and the Trove library database aggregator, https://trove.nla.gov.au/. We also obtained four relevant documents through a parliamentary order for papers from the legislative assembly of the NSW Parliament, provided in print form converted to a digital form by scanning. We obtained all but two cited documents in the business case; these two were not publicly available. All documents were then categorized into peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed documents, grouped by five themes identified from the content of the business case (government management, hydrology, ecology, cultural issues, and social issues). These were then separated into documents cited in the business case for the Menindee Lakes project and others available but not cited. We also noted if each peer-reviewed document was open-access or behind a paywall.
We surveyed the local community, which we categorized into three groups: Aboriginal traditional owners from Menindee, non-Aboriginal local residents from Menindee and Broken Hill, and local farmers from the Barka/Darling River immediately above and below Menindee Lakes. We used in-depth qualitative interviews (10 per group). We used the snowballing method to identify interviewees (Atkinson and Flint 2001) beginning with key community representatives. Each group of interviewees was asked a series of questions about local ecosystem services, government decision-making, and the consultation process for the Menindee Lakes project (Appendix 1, Table A1.9). The lead author did all the interviews to ensure consistency, adopting a semi-structured format (Creswell et al. 2006, Adams 2015). Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and then provided to each participant for review before analysis. These interviews were supplemented with a publicly available, online survey, which was advertized in the local paper and radio, for local people covering the same questions, except using Likert scale responses (de Winter and Dodou 2010).
We used semantic thematic analysis to analyze transcripts using NVivo qualitative data analysis software (QSR International Pty Ltd 2020) by semantically coding (identifying and coding parts of text within transcripts by their explicit meaning) for themes in participants’ responses to interview questions (Goddard 2011), beginning with a pilot set of transcripts (one from each group), which were reviewed by a panel of researchers that did not conduct interviews (Turner 2010). We identified key themes and subsidiary issues within the 30 transcripts through this semantic coding. We determined the frequencies in which each issue was mentioned in each transcript and explored the associations among different issues and responses using a hierarchical cluster analysis (Guest and McLellan 2003). We then used the built in “chisq.test” function in R (R Core Team 2021) to test for differences in the proportions of each issue within each theme among the three interview groups (traditional owner, local resident, and farmer).
Evidence based for decision making
Rainfall, flow, and flooding regimes at Menindee Lakes
Despite several periods of prolonged drought, there was little evidence of any major changes in annual rainfall patterns in the tributaries or the Barka/Darling River over a period of 139 years (1880-2019), despite high variability (Fig. 1a). This contrasts with broader trends of decreasing rainfall in observational rainfall records in the basin since the 1950s (Dey et al. 2019, BOM 2020). Between pre-development and development periods, total weighted cumulative rainfall, including all tributary rivers of the Barka/Darling River showed no significant monotonic trend (z > 1.53, p > 0.12; Fig. 1; Appendix 1, Table A1.1) aside from the Namoi and Gwydir tributaries (p < 0.01; Appendix 1, Table A1.1). In contrast, average annual flows in the Barka/Darling River at Menindee Lakes decreased by 18% between the development (2849 GL, 1959) and water recovery periods (1815 GL, 2009-2020; z = 2.08, p = 0.03; Fig. 1b; Appendix 1, Table A1.6). Average annual flows also decreased by 21% between the pre-development (3971 GL, 1881-1960) and water recovery periods (1815 GL, 2009-2020; z=-2.14, p=0.03, Fig. 1b; Appendix 1, Table A1.6). Further, the annual number of cease-to-flow days (< 90 ML Day-1) at Menindee Lakes had significantly increased from 1881-2019 (t = 4.58, p < 0.01; Fig. 1c; Appendix 1, Table A1.5). Annual frequencies (days) of the other six different flow thresholds examined did not significantly change from 1881-2019 (Appendix 1, Table A1.5). Additionally, other studies found increasing low flows and decreasing, small freshes, bankfull flows, and overbank flows at gauges close to Menindee from 1896-2009 (Australian Academy of Science 2019).
Water resource development and flows
Major infrastructure and policy changes occurred through the development phase to the Menindee Lakes, Barka/Darling River, and its tributary rivers (Table 1). Before 1960, Menindee Lakes filled and dried in response to the flow regimes of the Barka/Darling River, usually holding some water for some time. This is based on local observations from a local resident over a 30-year period in the late 1800s, which included the federation drought (1895-1903; Table 1). Governments built the Main Weir (dam) across the river, channels, weirs, and regulators after 1960, increasing the flooding of some of Menindee Lakes, which were turned into regulated storages to supply downstream users (Table 1). After the mid-1980s, flows reaching Menindee Lakes decreased with the large government-built dams and private storages, which allowed diversion of flows from the Barka/Darling River and its seven tributaries (Table 1; Appendix 1, Fig. A1.3a).
Waterbird abundances were significantly and positively associated with Barka/Darling River flows at Menindee Lakes (z = 2.6, p = 0.01; Appendix 1, Table A1.7) and negatively associated with year (z = 1.9, p = 0.06; Appendix 1, Table A1.8). Total waterbird abundances on the Menindee Lakes had indicated an average annual decline of 7.5% (Appendix 1, Table A1.8) and total decline of ~68% (Appendix 1, Table A1.8) within the development (1983-2008) and water recovery periods (2009-2019; Fig. 2). Four out of five functional response groups to waterbirds experienced significant annual declines between 1983-1988 and 2014-2019 (t < 2.63, p < 0.01; Appendix 1, Table A1.8). Ducks experienced the highest decline between 1983-1988 and 2014-2019 with a 72% average decline followed by piscivores (44%), herbivores (33%), and large waders (9%). Shorebirds experienced no significant change. Abundances of four of the five functional response groups were significantly associated with river flows, with shorebirds indicating some decline (t = 1.74, p = 0.09; Appendix 1, Table A1.8).
Published evidence based for current for the Menindee Lakes project
The proportion of peer-reviewed sources cited within the Menindee Lakes business case did not reflect the number of relevant publications in the public domain at the time of its publication (Fig. 3). The evidence base for the Menindee Lakes project used only 1 peer-reviewed document and 21 non peer-reviewed documents (Fig. 3). The category of “management and social issues” referenced no peer-reviewed information (Fig. 4). A large proportion of the relevant, uncited peer-reviewed information in the public domain was from open-access academic journals (41%). Many other relevant independent reports were freely available.
There were no data or associated modeling used to justify the 3 different estimated water savings (72, 106, 116 GL) for the 22 structural and operational measures within the Menindee Lakes business case or for the original estimate of 180 GL water saving estimates originally expected by the Australian Government. The latter figure was 250% higher than the lower estimate in the business case (Table 1).
Furthermore, there was a range of relevant and available (mostly government funded and produced) reports on hydrology, ecology, and cultural issues that were not cited (Fig. 4). There was no reference to Kinchega National Park occupying a substantial proportion of the Menindee Lakes (~28% wetland; NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service 1999; Fig. 1). There was no reference to the Barkandji native title claim, the effects on Indigenous water values, available relevant government reports, and peer-reviewed literature pertaining to this claim. The Barkandji water rights and interests were not cited.
Stakeholders’ perspectives on the proposed Menindee Lakes project
We identified 2 emergent issues with the Menindee Lakes project in our stakeholder in-person and online survey interviews (14 respondents): government management and changes to water ecosystem services. These two key issues emerged from our five themes (hydrology, ecology, culture, socioeconomics, and government management; Appendix 2, Table A2.2), which were identified via thematic semantic coding (Goddard 2011) in transcripts and survey responses. The government management theme referred to issues that dealt with government engagement with the community about the SDLAM project, decision making for the Menindee Lakes, and the Lower Darling, more broadly. The water ecosystem services theme referred to the implications of this decision making for ecosystem services for local communities.
Within the issue of government management, trust and consultation processes were the major concerns (Fig. 4, Table 2). Many stakeholders and all online survey respondents indicated their dissatisfaction with government consultation, expressing little confidence that their views were considered for decision making regarding the Menindee Lakes project. The consultation process was often deemed tokenistic, rather than a process that genuinely searched for community knowledge, with many describing it as a “box-ticking” exercise (Fig. 4, Table 2). Many interviewees concluded that the engagement process excluded most of the community because stakeholder representatives were selected by governments, and events were poorly advertized and occurred at inconvenient times for most, often requiring the community to make immediate judgments based on little information (Fig. 4). Interviewees expressed fatigue and frustration with government consultation processes, with several stakeholder groups mentioning that they had walked away from the process (Table 2).
Many interviewees and all survey respondents did not support the alternative water supply for Broken Hill provided by the pipeline (Table 1), believing that the Menindee Lakes had the capacity to supply the town if its water supply had been properly managed. One interviewee suggested that the pipeline may have been developed to ensure water didn’t have to come down the Darling River and could bypass the Menindee Lakes (Table 2). Local resident interviewees discussed government management issues of trust and the consultation processes more than traditional owners and local farmers (χ2 = 5.01, p = 0.08; Appendix 2, Table A2.1), albeit not statistically significant. This could indicate that trust and consultation may be more relevant to local residents, or that traditional owners have lower expectations and therefore do not express their concerns.
Changes to water ecosystem services
Interviewees had detailed local knowledge of the hydrology of the Barka/Darling River and Menindee Lakes. Changes to flows for Menindee Lakes and the Barka/Darling River were a primary concern for interviewees (Fig. 4), with one farmer noting that the length of cease to flow events for the Darling had increased and stressed the declining upstream flows (Table 2). Connectivity of the Barka/Darling River and managing the entire system was also considered a priority (Fig. 4) and one interviewee considered a 70 GL water target at Menindee unacceptable for downstream water needs (Table 2). Interviewees also consistently indicated that the evidence and argument for achieving water savings, through reducing evaporative losses at Menindee Lakes was problematic, with water accounting lacking in integrity (Table 2). Issues of connectivity and changes to flows were discussed more by local farmers than by the local residents or traditional owners (χ2 = 5.43, p = 0.07; Appendix 2, Table A2.1), albeit not statistically significant, indicating that connectivity and flows may be more relevant to local farmers because they are often more immediately affected by reductions in flows.
Most interviewees mentioned ecological changes, ecosystem services, and changes to local fish populations, describing aspects of ecosystem collapse (Fig. 4.). All online survey respondents indicated that they had noticed changes in the diversity and abundance of local fish. Many interviewees also noticed declines and believed this was exacerbated by mass fish kill events, with one traditional owner noting the condition of the Barka/Darling as the worst they had seen in their lifetime (Table 2). Diseases in fish were also a common concern, especially for traditional owners who fish for food. Reductions in yabbies, mussels, flood dependent vegetation (e.g., river red gums), and birdlife (e.g., waterbirds) were often mentioned by all groups of interviewees (Table 2). One farmer described being confronted by dead mussels and emaciated kangaroos looking for water, as “post-apocalyptic” (Table 2). These concerns extended to the loss of ecosystem services to surrounding communities such as declining fish populations for local anglers and loss of vegetation for bank stabilization. Ecological decline was also linked to economic decline, with Menindee being described as “just a shadow” of what it once was (Table 2). Interviewees from the farmer group discussed ecological changes and changes to ecosystem services more than local residents and traditional owners (χ2 = 9.01, p = 0.01; Appendix 2, Table A2.1).
Local farmers and local residents usually described changes to ecosystem services, although traditional owners commented on reduced availability to similar cultural services because of the ecological decline in the lakes and river (Fig. 4, Table 2). For example, one traditional owner described the removal of water from the Barka/Darling and Menindee Lakes comparable to the blood draining out of their body (Table 2). Education was also affected, with another traditional owner describing how the lack of water stopped them from practicing their culture through placed-based learning (Table 2).
Through the business case process, the government did not acknowledge or recognize water rights or management practices related to Barkandji knowledge. For example, a local resident expressed frustration with the lack of recognition of Barkandji native title owners in the “yes, no, factor” of the project (Table 2). Traditional owners’ sense of identity and spiritual relations with the river and lakes were also affected by ecological degradation. One traditional owner described the death of a fish as akin to the death of a community member or spirit (Table 2). Traditional owners discussed the availability of cultural services more than local residents and famers (χ2 = 41.23, p < 0.01; Appendix 2, Table A2.1).
Community health, recreation, and local economic activity were also affected by reductions in water quality and the loss of a secure water supply. A local resident had noticed increased community anxiety and complaints about the safety of the water supply (Table 2). All online survey respondents indicated that environmental changes had negatively impacted their communities. Reduction in local agriculture, the loss of the recreational use of the rivers and lakes for the community, and tourism were considered to have lowered economic activity, population level, and employment. Interviewees from the local resident group discussed community health, changes to recreation, and local economic activity more than local farmers and traditional owners (χ2 = 29.45, p < 0.01; Appendix 2, Table A2.1).
Our analysis of the proposal to achieve water savings at Menindee Lakes through the SDLAM identified significant shortcomings in the adaptive governance of the project at local and basin-wide scales. These shortcomings led to a project with unclear and poorly substantiated dividends in environmental water savings at the basin scale but with clear local environmental costs. There were also serious problems in the use of scientific evidence. Our document analysis showed that the information basis for the project was predominantly non-peer-reviewed (Fig. 3), often in place of relevant government produced and funded reports, and peer-reviewed information generated independently of government processes. Significant information in peer-reviewed research and government reports, commissioned specifically for the prospect of altering the lakes, was not included in the primary decision-making document. Importantly, details of how projected water savings would be achieved were not transparent or accessible to the communities.
The consultation process was dysfunctional as our community interviews demonstrate. A primary problem in this process was a failure to acknowledge the evident, long-term ecological decline of the Barka/Darling and Menindee Lakes, alongside the impacts of losing a secure water supply for Menindee. This unsurprisingly resulted in the local community becoming disenfranchised with government engagement. We propose that these problems resulted from the project’s inability to achieve the intended “adaptive and outcomes-based governance approach” (NSW Department of Primary Industries 2017:96) to deliver a basin-scale environmental water dividend at significant local cost. First, we will discuss how insufficient consideration of the key issues of scale and ecological condition have comprised the effectiveness of the project. Second, we will discuss the administrative legitimacy of the project, which failed in terms of two important factors of adaptive governance (Esty 2006, Cosens and Williams 2012, O’Donnell et al. 2019), i.e., objective expertise as the basis for decisions, and the inclusion of public dialogue (and therefore local knowledges) in decision-making processes.
Scale and ecological condition
The Menindee SDLAM project is an example of a governance scale mismatch, in which a locally scaled solution is used to achieve large-scale governance objectives (Cumming et al. 2006, Guerrero et al. 2013). At the scale of the Murray-Darling Basin plan, governments (NSW and Australian federal) considered the Menindee Lakes project an opportunity to “save” water from evaporation, which could then be “packaged” as environmental water for the entire basin, thus meeting the Australian Government commitments to deliver on its target of 2750 GL year-1 of water being returned to the rivers of the MDB (Jackson and Head 2021). Additionally, policy and legislation for the basin include an environmental equivalence test, meaning water saved from a project such as the Menindee Lakes project must deliver a net environmental benefit overall (Mosley et al. 2010). The requirement echoes the original justification for a large-scale federal policy like the basin plan in which widespread environmental decline felt particularly hard in small basin communities like Menindee. This large-scale governance imperative failed to address the local environmental costs and has therefore struggled to be translated to an effective solution at the local level. Interestingly, this mirrors the failings of other complex governance arrangements in giving effect to large-scale international agreements through the delivery of environmental water for Ramsar wetlands in the MDB under the 2007 Water Act (Kirsch et al. 2021).
Our study of environmental condition at the local scale (declining flows and waterbird abundances) showed that the Menindee Lakes ecosystem was in decline. We found that annual flows in the Barka/Darling River supplying Menindee Lakes have continued to decline over three development periods (Fig. 1b; Appendix 1, Table A1.6), further adding to increasing evidence of long-term declining flows (Kingsford 1995, Thoms and Sheldon 2000, Leblanc et al. 2012, Australian Academy of Science 2019, BOM 2020) and increasing drying of the river with more cease to flow events (Australian Academy of Science 2019, BOM 2020; Fig. 1c) driven primarily by water resource development in the Barka/Darling tributaries. Despite several periods of prolonged drought, there was little evidence of any major changes in annual rainfall patterns in the tributaries or the Barka/Darling River over a period of 139 years (1880-2019), despite high variability (Fig. 1a).
The Menindee Lakes project’s focus on water savings failed to address the fundamental importance of the lakes as locally valued ecosystems, which naturally fill and dry (Kingsford et al. 2004, Leigh et al. 2010, Bino et al. 2015) and sustain ecological processes and human livelihoods (Porter et al. 2007, Kingsford et al. 2010). Our analysis of ecological indicators of long-term decline, a factor in determining adaptive capacity (Folke et al. 2002, Allen and Holling 2010), showed long-term declines to waterbird communities in Menindee Lakes (Fig. 2). This decline occurred over more than three decades, driven by declining river flows (Fig. 1c; Appendix 1, A1.6), indicative of the deterioration of overall ecosystem health (Kingsford et al. 2004, Green and Elmberg 2014). Local communities reported similar declines (Appendix 2, Table A2.2), reflecting declines in fish-eating birds (Fig. 2). Local fish communities were also in decline (Gehrke et al. 1995, Gilligan 2005, Wallace et al. 2008), most seriously reflected in the mass fish kills of millions of fish in 2018-2019, attributed to lack of flows in the Barka/Darling River (Australian Academy of Science 2019). The decommissioning of Lakes Cawndilla and Menindee under the Menindee Lakes project will further disrupt essential ecological processes, given the importance of the lakes as a basin-wide breeding source for golden perch, Macquaria ambigua, (Ebner et al. 2009, Stuart and Sharpe 2020).
Our interviews revealed the community impacts from this ecological decline. Losses to local agriculture and recreational use of the lakes have depressed local economic activity, caused population declines, and reduced employment opportunities, especially in Menindee, which was described as “a shadow of what it once was” (Table 2). The loss of a secure water supply has had negative impacts on the community’s cultural, physical, and spiritual well-being, and traditional owners have lost access to highly valued cultural resources. Local people are acutely aware of the impacts of long-term ecological decline on their communities, with an increasing realization that this is fundamentally a consequence of government decision making (Australian Academy of Science 2019; Fig. 4). Decision making disempowered and frustrated many in the local communities. Policy was considered to have disproportionately favored needs of upstream users (Grafton 2019), often at the expense of Lower Darling communities (South Australian Government 2019). On this basis, the options proposed for the Menindee Lakes project are predicted to have further major environmental and social costs for the Menindee Lakes and local communities.
The project, as conceived in the documents we relied on for this analysis, has received considerable community criticism and progression was suspended by governments in late 2021. The project is currently being rescoped. This project was an example of ineffective environmental policy because it failed to address long-term ecological decline and the social impacts of this decline, while also failing to achieve the project goal of delivering water savings that had net environmental benefits and positive outcomes for communities. Scale played a key role in this failure with the NSW government’s fixation on achieving a federal scale policy objective with an incorrectly scaled environmental offset for the use of the environment elsewhere in the basin. There is no evidence that government water agencies drew upon ecological data that would guarantee any satisfactory form of commensurability between the water solutions on offer or a “like for like” substitution (Maron et al. 2016, May et al. 2017, South Australian Government 2019).
Considering the multijurisdictional nature of river systems and the increasing global popularity of biodiversity offsets as policy tools, understanding how large-scale governance and environmental offsets in water impact the effectiveness and legitimacy of environmental policies will become an important issue for adaptive governance. This is particularly important for future attempts to govern water across large spatial scales and with the use of market mechanisms, such as water trading, for transboundary rivers (Zeitoun and Mirumachi 2008).
Despite the availability of rigorous data (e.g., waterbirds, fish, hydrology, and cultural data) and good understandings of trends and requirements of key biota, there was little consideration in the business case of these ecological aspects of the lakes. Further, there was no inclusion of information from the Ecological Sustainable Development project implemented by the NSW water agency (Table 2), a large series of studies commissioned specifically to provide information on the impacts of modifying the lakes at a substantial cost of $A2.5 million. A serious omission was the NSW Government’s obligation for conservation of Kinchega National Park (NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service 1999), which must be managed for (inter alia) the conservation of biodiversity, natural landscapes, and cultural features that provide opportunities for public appreciation. These conservation values would decline with the Menindee Lakes project.
The project did not deliver transparency or accountability in decision making, an important step in enabling public participation (De Stefano et al. 2012) and legitimate governance (Huitema et al. 2009). Despite significant tax expenditure, there was an absence of any peer-reviewed modeling available to the public in relation to the water savings estimated by governments. Two reviews of the business case, gained through a parliamentary order for papers, identified the business case estimates were based on modeling conducted by the MDBA in 2016, with little information on relative contribution of structural and operational contributions to water savings. Further, the water savings estimate did not incorporate the ongoing problem of declining flows with upstream development (Kingsford 2000, Thoms and Sheldon 2000). This lack of transparency also extended to the accessibility of the primary decision-making document. This was not accessible for public scrutiny, with the business case (produced in 2017) being made available only after a freedom of information (FOI) request from the Australian Senate in March 2018 (South Australian Government 2019).
Inclusion of public dialogue in decision-making processes
Adaptive governance requires meaningful public dialogue with a two-way flow of information between government agencies and communities, providing opportunities for knowledge exchange and deliberation between the groups affected by decisions and decision makers. The experiences of the community members who participated in this study indicated limited meaningful public dialogue for the Menindee Lakes project. Many in the local community commented on the lack of transparency in decision making and felt that they had not received enough relevant information or time to make informed contributions. Government consultation processes were often deemed “tokenistic” with key stakeholder groups withdrawing from government engagement several times. The accessibility of government consultation events was often limited to those invited as part of a consultation committee and not widely available for many in the community. Many observed that water savings unfairly targeted Menindee Lakes, given significant evaporative losses from artificial private storages upstream (Webb McKeown and Associates Pty Ltd 2007, Jackson and Head 2020). As with many other systems in decline (Postel 1997), ecosystem services have compromised the functioning of the community. These impacts, combined with a dysfunctional community engagement process and lack of transparency, eroded already wavering trust in governments, an important component of community participation (Reed 2008, De Stefano et al. 2012). This element of trust was particularly important, considering the significant involvement of Indigenous stakeholders in government engagement and the Barkandji native title claim (Jackson 2019).
Despite promises of significant water savings, several serious departures from an effective adaptive governance approach profoundly affected the outcomes for this project, particularly in relation to the local community. Key to this were issues of administrative legitimacy, especially when attempting to create reciprocal dialogue with the community. If government agencies transparently presented all the evidence and included options presented by the community, decision making would have been considerably more inclusive. Objective expertise was not part of the decision-making process for the project because the long-term ecological conditions of the Barka/Darling and Menindee Lakes were largely ignored, in favor of an unclear, predominantly engineered water savings offset, which could not achieve environmental equivalency, as required under the MDB plan. A focus on achieving basin-scale, water savings outcomes at the local scale environmental cost, resulted in a missed opportunity to develop a management plan locally, focused on restoring the lakes and their flooding and drying cycles, as previously suggested by the community (Australian Academy of Science 2019). This could have delivered some water savings as well as restoration by reinstating drying and flooding patterns (Kingsford et al. 2002). The missteps of this project highlighted the importance of scale in achieving effective and legitimate solutions through adaptive governance approaches for river systems. Furthermore, these governance approaches should encourage locally driven conservation management of wetlands, which prioritizes objective expertise and meaningful public dialogue in the pursuit of more sustainable management of complex social-ecological systems.
The authors have no conflicts of interest.
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Our thanks to all interviewees for their time and effort participating in the interviews. We thank the Menindee Local Aboriginal Land Council and Sam Fields for providing the space to conduct interviews in Menindee. Financial support was provided by the Centre for Ecosystem Science. We thank all traditional owners, local residents, and local farmers who participated in this study. All interviews and surveys were conducted with ethical approval for this research, which was provided by the University of New South Wales Human Research Ethics Council (HC number HC200429). This research was supported by an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant (LP180100159).
If the manuscript is accepted, we will make all code and relevant data available. For our human subjects, we are not able to make their data available.
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Table 1. Changes to flow and flooding regimes of Menindee Lakes from natural, before river regulation of the lakes (pre-development), subsequent development of the lakes, and its inflowing Barka/Darling River and tributaries with descriptions of the developments and effects on flooding regimes.
|Phase||Time period||Significant policy||Description||Flow regime||Reference|
|Pre-development||1881–1959||Not applicable||The lakes filled with sufficient flows in the Barka/Darling River delivering natural inundation regimes.||Local resident, A. F. Cudmore, observed that the lakes were only dry “half a dozen or more times” from 1870-1900.||(Commissioners of the Royal Commission on the River Murray 1902)|
|Development||1949–1968||Menindee Lakes scheme||Weirs, regulators, levees, and channels (Fig. A1.6) constructed under the Menindee Water Conservation Act 1949, to store water in the lakes, predominantly for irrigated agriculture downstream and South Australia but also to supply Broken Hill and locally, Menindee, and the Lower Barka/Darling.||Natural flooding of the lakes altered so some of the main lakes (Lakes Bijijie, Tandure, Pammamaroo, Menindee, and Cawndilla; Fig. A1.6) were inundated more frequently and longer to store water. This killed some floodplain dependent vegetation and reduced diversity and density of waterbirds.||(Kingsford 2004, Kingsford et al. 2004)|
|1960–2008||Government built dams in tributaries||Government built dams upstream in tributaries (Fig. A1.6) stored and captured floods (e.g., Burrendong Dam on the Macquarie River and Keepit Dam on the Namoi River) reducing flows in the Barka/Darling River.||Increasingly, flows reaching Menindee Lakes declined although lake levels in regulated lakes kept artificially high. Tandou Lake no† longer flooded and was used for irrigated crops (Fig. 1).||(Kingsford 1995, 2004, Webb 2007, Kingsford et al. 2016)|
|1980–present||Large private dams built||Private off-river storage dams expanded in most of the tributaries of the Barka/Darling River (Fig. A1.6), designed to divert flood flows stored for irrigation.||Allowed more water to be diverted from the tributaries and the Barka/Darling River, reducing flow to the Menindee Lakes.||(Kingsford et al. 2004, Webb 2007, Australian Academy of Science 2019)|
|Water recovery||2009–present||Establishment of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan (cost of $AUD13 billion)||Set aside a target for 2750 GL/year reduction in diversions to be returned to rivers and wetlands. Despite this, policy and practice of water sharing plan rules (e.g., floodplain harvesting and activation of A class water licences) reduced environmental flows to Menindee Lakes.||Aimed to return environmental flows to the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin, including the Barka/Darling River.||(MDBA 2012, Simpson 2017)|
|2012–2016||Northern basin review||A policy and legislative decision to reduce the amount of water recovered under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan by 70 GL year† in the Barka/Darling River and its tributaries.||Reduction in quantity of flows returned to the Barka/Darling River and its tributaries.||(Australian Productivity Commission 2018)|
|2018–2019||Broken Hill pipeline (cost of $AUD500 million)||Allowed water to be taken from the River Murray to supply the city of Broken Hill as the Menindee Lakes became an increasingly unreliable water supply option.||No effect on flows and flooding regimes.||(NSW Department of Primary Industries 2017)|
|2017–present||Proposed Menindee Lakes SDLAM project||Developed to achieve 106-180 GL of water savings through infrastructure measures and operational adjustments, by reducing evaporative losses.||Reduction in inundation frequency and extent for Lakes Menindee and Cawndilla in Kinchega National Park (Fig. A1.6).||(NSW Department of Primary Industries 2017)|
|† A class licenses give permission for water users to extract water from an unregulated river system during periods of low flow (NSW DPIE 2020, Water NSW 2022).|
Table 2. Interview quotes from stakeholders (local resident, traditional owner, and farmer) in relation to the Menindee Lakes project, exemplifying views on the five major themes: government management, hydrology, ecology, culture, and socioeconomics.
|Theme||Stakeholder group||Interview quotes|
|Government management||Local resident||“Um, I would seek to inject some integrity to the system. So, by selecting stakeholders and advising them that they’ve been selected to be consulted as representatives of the community. Um, you know, that’s probably the first error because they haven’t allowed the community to say they’re interested.”|
|Traditional owner||“So, all the consultation that have happened in the last three years, I've been part of it. And to see how it’s played out politically and how the government has its own agenda basically, um, we’ve got frustrated enough just to walk away because, all we’ve seen is ticking that box and they wasn’t listening to what we had to say. And, that still continues today. They’ll bring their agenda to the table. And that’s what I said. We’ve got to get away from their agenda and create our own. When they bring up new ideas, they go and handpick or keep the ones that will support them.”|
|Local resident||“They announced that Broken Hill was going to get a pipeline from the Murray River for a secured water supply. Now that word secure, got to remember we had a secured water supply before 2012. It seems to be since the Barwon Darling water sharing plan came into place that the water security had changed greatly. I think the pipeline was developed to ensure that water didn’t have to come down the Darling.”|
|Hydrology||Farmer||“We’ve farmed citrus here, since the 1920s, and we only ever had cease to flow for no longer than three months at a time. Even before the Menindee Lakes storage scheme was built, we had regular flows along the Darling and the Lower Darling and through the Lakes, because there was always one of the tributaries contributing, putting fresh water down. So, it never used to cease to flow or stop flowing for long periods of time like it has recently.”|
|Farmer||“Yeah, [connectivity] really needs a lot more consideration, the end of system ?ows at Menindee. Menindee’s not the end of the system, there’s another 500 kilometres of the Darling River that needs to be looked after as well, and to have a 70 gigalitres water target at Menindee is not acceptable.”|
|Local resident||“You could argue that for those three years, that the lakes were dry, you were saving anywhere between 400 and 700 gigalitres that the Murray Darling Basin Authority precariously put out as the evaporation rate. You could say, any amount of water has been saved because it’s not evaporating, but if the water is not getting there to start with, then there’s a hole in the logic and there’s definitely no integrity in the accounting.”|
|Ecology||Farmer||“Um, it’s, it’s a really confronting site, dead mussels along the side of the riverbank. you know, to see emaciated kangaroos, um, with no energy looking around for water and birds that are just, you know, trying to stay out of the sun with their beaks open, trying to keep cool. Um, it’s really, uh, uh, uh, post-apocalyptic type landscapes. It’s really hard to describe, but you know, you instinctively and intuitively know that it’s not right. It doesn’t feel right.”|
|Local resident||“The economic impact of those [environmental] changes have been very, very evident when you only have to drive through Menindee to see it’s just a shadow of what it was before. That’s kind of a disaster that’s kind of been unfolding for quite a long time now. Yeah.”|
|Traditional owner||“When I was a kid, we didn’t even know what a fish kill was. The fish never died, when I was a kid. And I was born in 1947, so makes me 73 this year. And the conditions of the river now, I’ve never seen it. And it started back in 2010, 2011, and from there on it just went worse and worse and worse.”|
|Culture||Traditional owner||“It’s just like the blood draining and out of our body. Really. If you haven’t got that water in the River and the Lakes, it’s like perishing. You can’t get to the river for those cultural activities that we usually go out and do, like fishing and gathering and the hunting too.”|
|Local resident||“Where is the Aboriginal voice in this? These are the traditional owners. We have traditional owners; we have native title recognition for most of the far West with the Barkandji native title owners. Where are they, in the yes, no factor. Why isn’t it that there, that is a federal recognition.”|
|Traditional owner||“We’ve been nearly three years without water. That in itself doesn’t let you practice your culture, nothing. You know, you can’t take your kids down the river. Can’t get a feed of fish to feed anyone, including yourself.”|
|Traditional owner||“Well it’s [The Lakes and River] part of, it’s part our dreaming. Some of the people that their totems, that were talking about, um, and it’s part of our culture, our spirituality. Basically, everything, for us, it’s not just the fish, you know what I mean? It’s more than that. And I guess people might just see it as a big fish, but for us that’s one of our people, or part of our spirit that dies, when that fish dies.”|
|Socioeconomics||Local resident||“I work for the Far West local health districts. And The lakes have been dry at least twice while I’ve been back in the last five years, I’ve noticed that that’s had a really big impact on the community. The biggest thing I noticed back in 2015 was that the lakes were dry when I got here. And there was a lot of anxiety in the community, in the surrounding areas. And people were complaining about skin irritations and the quality and smell and just feeling like it wasn’t a safe water supply.”|
|Local resident||“There’d be droves of people coming up from Victoria fishing, it was quite a popular spot and but there is nobody here now. Half of Broken Hill would be out along the banks of Pamamaroo and no camping spots were available around the area in the holidays. But that was when there was plenty of water about and things to be had and things to do and fish to catch and yabbies. As It’s declined, it’s just gone all put.”|