'Lot of grief' as acute water shortages threaten drought-hit NSW towns

Cooling off amid extreme heat in the Barwon-Darling River near Bourke in January. The town is likely to switch entirely to bore water next month amid record low flows for Australia's longest river. Photo: Kate Geraghty
Cooling off amid extreme heat in the Barwon-Darling River near Bourke in January. The town is likely to switch entirely to bore water next month amid record low flows for Australia's longest river. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Towns across inland NSW are facing "acute" water shortages, as dam levels dive, rivers wither and towns scramble to drill new bores and prepare to truck in water if the drought fails to break, officials say.

Among the most severely hit are Wilcannia and White Cliffs on the lower Darling River, where water may need to be carted in within about two months.

To the east, Bourke expects to shift entirely to bore water next month as the period of no flows on the Darling sets a record.

Meanwhile, residents in Mendooran in Warrumbungle Shire are on level-6 restrictions that limit shower times to three minutes a day and curb clothes washing to just two loads a week per household.

"There's an acute water shortage in a substantial amount of western NSW," says James McTavish, the state's new Town Water Supply Coordinator who is three weeks into the job.

The so-called northern wet season from October to March has brought little rain to ease drought across inland NSW. Credit: Bureau of Meteorology

The so-called northern wet season from October to March has brought little rain to ease drought across inland NSW. Credit: Bureau of Meteorology

The mass fish kills on the Darling River near Menindee in December and January have already drawn national attention and prompted two scientific investigations. More fish kills are possible and communities will continue to struggle unless rains return soon, scientists say.

On Sunday, Menindee resident Graeme McCrabb was able to simply pick up an ailing Murray cod that was too weak to swim away. Others have died nearby recently.

"Catch of the day" without even trying: Graeme McCrabb picks up an ailing Murray cod in the Darling River near Menindee on Sunday. Via Graeme McCrabb

"Catch of the day" without even trying: Graeme McCrabb picks up an ailing Murray cod in the Darling River near Menindee on Sunday. Via Graeme McCrabb

A similar predicament exists at Keepit Dam, "the Pride of the Namoi", near Tamworth, which is just 0.5 per cent full.

The government has introduced aerators to raise oxygen levels to keep remaining fish alive.

Burrendong Dam, a major reservoir supplying water to the Macquarie River, the Macquarie Marshes and towns such as Dubbo, has dropped sharply even with transfers from Lake Windermere near Mudgee.

As of Sunday, Burrendong was at eight per cent full.

Towns with large Indigenous populations are among the hardest hit. Walgett has been completely on bore water since the Namoi River ceased to flow, and even bore supplies failed briefly in January amid 40-degree heat.

Burrendong Dam is now at 8 per cent full, and dropping rapidly. Photo: Ryan Mackintosh

Burrendong Dam is now at 8 per cent full, and dropping rapidly. Photo: Ryan Mackintosh

At Brewarrina on the Barwon-Darling, where almost two-thirds of population is Aboriginal, the river is "bone dry", and "a lot of people have had enough", Phil O'Connor, the town's mayor, said. "It's getting really bad."

For Wilcannia and White Cliffs, the "substantial water shortages" are because of a lack of ground and surface water, Mr McTavish said.

That means as many as 20 homes in White Cliffs may soon lose raw water supplies to flush their toilets.

The local Rural Fire Service may also run out of water to fight fires if they break out in buildings, such as the hospital at Wilcannia, he said.

Towns like Coonabarabran, on level 5 restrictions, have only avoided tighter curbs because of a rush to drill new bores.

From having four before the drought, the town got $2 million funding for eight more, six of which are now operating, Roger Bailey, general manager of Warrumbungle Shire, said.

Kangaroos near White Cliffs in a drought-hit part of far-western NSW in August. Photo: AAP

Kangaroos near White Cliffs in a drought-hit part of far-western NSW in August. Photo: AAP

The nearby Timor Dam is about 18 per cent full, but the last 8 percentage points, or 100 million litres, can't be recovered, he said.

"It's causing a lot of grief for a lot of people at this point of time," Mr Bailey said. "It's just very, very difficult."

Despite the constraints, towns such as Dubbo, have so far avoided water restrictions.

The regional hub of about 40,000 people is sourcing 30 per cent of its water from bores and the rest from the Macquarie River.

A spokesman for Dubbo Regional Council said "if Water NSW [reduced] our allocation entitlement then we will implement our drought management plan where restrictions will be enforced".

The Council is aware of WaterNSW's prediction that without inflows, Burrendong dam will be "pumping dead" as soon as the end of the year, even with transfers from Lake Windermere.

"Council has been actively seeking additional groundwater supplies to ensure water security for the region," he said.

Cotton farms near Warren are green even as drought limits flows of the Macquarie River to the nearby Macquarie Marshes. Photo: Jeremy Buckingham

Cotton farms near Warren are green even as drought limits flows of the Macquarie River to the nearby Macquarie Marshes. Photo: Jeremy Buckingham

Niall Blair, NSW rural water minister, said water restrictions "are a matter for the local councils".

Still, Mr McTavish "is talking to all towns to ensure there is greater consistency across all councils", Mr Blair said.

The coordinator is working with the [ritical Water Advisory Panel set up last year, an with all councils – from Walgett to Wentworth – to ensure "all residents have access to a safe and secure water supply," he said.

Brewarrina mayor, Cr O'Connor said he chatted at length with Premier Gladys Berejiklian on Thursday to press his region's concerns.

"At least she made the phone call," he said. "I hope she can do something."

"We don't believe the drought is the problem, it's the way it's been managed," he said, noting how much farmland will have a cotton crop even amid water shortages. "It just beggars belief how much cotton is growing."

Cotton Australia has been approached for comment.

Whatever the causes, Mr McTavish hopes town preparations to cope with the current dry spell mean "next time we get a drought, we don't get the same issues again".