FARMERS are warning that the Lake Eyre basin could be the next Murray-Darling fiasco if plans to open its network of creeks and rivers to irrigators go ahead.
At a historic meeting of scientists, graziers, traditional owners, environmentalists and politicians in Longreach this week, even Liberal National Party members and supporters were lining up against their own party on the issue.
Lake Eyre basin's 1.2 million square kilometres (almost one sixth of Australia), is fed by the Channel Country, a mass of intertwined waterways spread like veins across the desert.
Cooper Creek and the Georgina and Diamantina rivers ultimately drain into Lake Eyre following a ''boom and bust'' pattern of occasional and unpredictable flooding - and supporting a huge variety of bird and wildlife, farming, Aboriginal communities and tourism.
The Queensland government has plans to give small-scale irrigators access to that water and to wind back protection.
This has put the Coalition on a collision course with those who live and work there and the scientists who have spent decades studying one of the world's last unregulated wild river systems.
''It will be an absolute trashing of one of the most iconic natural water systems of the world,'' said Liberal National Vaughan Johnson, the region's MP since 1989. ''It's not cut out for irrigation.''
His government, led by Premier Campbell Newman, was aware of his views.
''I don't know whether they'll be happy or not … [but] this is about standing up for what you believe in, and that's what I will do,'' he said.
Angus Emmott, a third-generation grazier with 50,000 hectares on the Cooper Creek system, said: ''These are the last major desert rivers on Earth that aren't seriously compromised. These rivers are so healthy, and they support healthy societies and healthy industries. If we start developing them, we're going to go the way of the Murray-Darling.''
He scoffed at suggestions of water extraction remaining small-scale. ''There's no such thing as small-scale irrigation. What starts out small, grows.''
Richard Kingsford, a Lake Eyre basin expert at the University of NSW, believes that ultimately Lake Eyre could stop flooding except in the most extreme circumstances.
A spokeswoman for the Queensland Minister for Natural Resources and Mines, Andrew Cripps, warned graziers and scientists not to pre-empt the government's plans.
Mr Cripps said: ''The [review panel] is due to report back to me by the end of March and the Newman government will then make an informed decision on a balanced approach to river management that will preserve the environmental values of this unique part of Queensland as well as grow the economy in western Queensland.''
The story River to ruin: farmers fear for Lake Eyre basin over irrigation scheme first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.