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Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert are important lakes south of Adelaide in South Australia. Often called the lower lakes of the Murray River, the two freshwater natural lakes have played an important part in agricultural production for nearly 150 years. Because of the unique ecological niche the lakes play in the wetland environment along Encounter Bay on the Southern Ocean, the two large lakes have received a large amount of attention in recent years. Severe drought recently put the lakes' very existence in danger. Until welcome rainfall began to replenish the lakes in 2010, it appeared that both the lakes and its human inhabitants would lose the way of life carefully built via decades of human management.
Few settlements grace the shores of large Lake Alexandrina, and only little Meningie holds court on smaller Lake Albert. From the beginning of European settlement, this has been farming country and a fishing and boating mecca in a naturally arid land. In recent years, as people have begun to study the unique ecology of the area, and enjoy the plethora of birds that inhabit the marshes and nearby Coorong Estuary, more emphasis has been placed on the natural needs of the environment in order to sustain its ancient ecology. The two lakes are natural estuary lakes - primarily freshwater with their waters originating from the Murray River upstream. The original Murray River mouth emptied into the bay in the area of Goolwa after wandering through several channels and ever-shifting sandbars. The combined Coorong Estuary and lakes Alexandrina and Albert, along with their associated wetlands, are all designated a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance as waterfowl habitat. The Coorong and the nearby wetlands support over 200 types of native and migrating birds. Parts of the Coorong also form the Coorong National Park and Game Reserve.
Lake Albert connects to Lake Alexandrina via a narrow channel and has no other outlet. When Lake Alexandrina was discovered in 1830 by Captain Charles Sturt, he missed the channel leading to Lake Albert entirely, and the smaller lake wasn't discovered for another nine years. Lake Alexandrina was named for Princess Alexandrina, niece of King William IV of Great Britain and Ireland, who became Queen Victoria upon her ascension to the throne. Eager for fresh water to facilitate farming and cattle-ranching, the lands around both lakes quickly became agricultural. Several steam paddle wheelers acted as transportation on the lakes. The town of Milang on the northwestern shore served as home base for the paddle wheelers and now acts as host to artists and caravan parks. Visitors and locals alike enjoy sailing, windsurfing, power-boating and water-skiing, fishing and swimming.
Silver perch, Murray cod, golden perch, bony herring, catfish, Australian smelt, common carp, tench, rainbow trout and brown trout are caught in both lakes with the introduced carp likely the most common species. Both lakes are very shallow, with the deepest spot in either lake about 20 feet in Lake Alexandrina. At 20 feet, the bottom is about 18 feet below sea level. Most commercial marinas are located downstream at Goolwa and enter the two-lake system via locks. The lakes are commonly the site of regattas and boating races.
In an effort to prevent the occasional incursion of seawater into the lakes, a series of dams, dykes, berms and locks were built in the 1940s which enlarged the lakes somewhat. Much water is extracted from the lakes for irrigation purposes. The entire Murray River system is used for irrigation, reducing the flow downstream to both the lakes and ultimately the Coorong Estuary. Estimates show about 25% less water flows through the Murray River than did before development. This has caused conflicts, and the issue came to a head in a spectacular way when South Australia was hit by a major drought in 2007-2008. With almost no rainfall over that period, crop irrigation and evaporation caused Lake Alexandrina to shrink precipitously, and Lake Albert nearly dried up. The Coorong Estuary was seriously deprived of the necessary fresh water to maintain habitat for the many bird and waterfowl species that live in the giant coastal swamp. Ranchers sold off their herds of cattle, irrigation pipe lay across the dry lake bed, and crops dried up and died. To compound the problem, the remaining water in Lake Alexandrina became saltier, mostly from the incursion of salty groundwater. Competing interests argued about what should be done.
Some scientists advocated opening the gates of the 'barrages' to let seawater flush out the lakes. Locals argued that, once the sea entered, there would be no way to get it back out again, effectively changing a freshwater lake to a saline lake. A barrier was constructed across the channel to Lake Albert to prevent water from flowing to it, thus dooming that lake. Before long, Lake Albert was nearly dry. Even worse, the now-dry lakebed soil, high in iron content, oxidized quickly, forming highly acid groundwater to permeate the soil, killing plants. The problems were apparently caused by the lack of the mass of freshwater preventing both the salty groundwater and the acid groundwater from percolating to the surface. Some experts suggested letting Lake Albert dry completely and treating the now-dry acid soils with a lime additive and tolerant cover crops, a process that would easily take several years. The international ecological community was highly upset because nothing was done to save the unique wetland ecological system, although there was likely little that would ever meet everyone's desires. Realizing the disaster that was being created, authorities began pumping water from Lake Alexandrina across the barrier into Lake Albert. Meanwhile, the Coorong Estuary was drying up, rare ecological niche plants and animals were being displaced, and no one could come up with a plan that would meet every need.
Finally, in the midst of mankind's dithering, Mother Nature took action: the rains came. The rains arrived in such torrents that serious flooding occurred in much of South Australia. In 2010, Lake Alexandrina nearly refilled and Lake Albert gained a great deal of water. Coorong Estuary, part of the Coorong National Park, began to recover its lush rich environment. Normal rainfall since has succeeded in restoring much of Lake Alexandrina's normal environment. Lake Albert, however, faces long-term problems with little solution offered: it is too salty for irrigation purposes. Reducing the salinity via natural means may take many years. Because Lake Albert is at the 'end-of-the-line' in the Murray Lakes system, incoming fresh water from the Murray River does not flush the lake adequately to reduce the salinity. So, although both lakes are once again bird watching, boating and swimming destinations, Lake Albert is less productive as a fishery and not providing irrigation waters to local farms. It is again open for business for tourism, however. Campgrounds, local farm stays and guest cottages provide a welcome holiday opportunity just 50 miles from Adelaide. The area has much to offer from the glorious beaches and boating paradise near Goolwa to the productive wetlands and pleasant climate of the lower Murray River. A visit to this unique environment is definitely a bucket-list item, if you ever reach South Australia. We hope you'll come!
*Statistics shown are for Lake Alexandrina. Lake Albert covers 56,830 acres when full.
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