Thu, Sep 19, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Australia’s big dry sucks life from
once-proud towns

One city and three towns highlight the devastation created by one of the worst droughts in living memory

By Anne Davies, Ben Smee and Lorena Allam  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

Australia is experiencing one of its most severe droughts on record, resulting in desperate water shortages across large parts of New South Wales (NSW) and southern Queensland.

Dams in some parts of western NSW have all but dried up, with rainfall levels through the winter in the lowest 10 percent of historical records in some areas.

The crisis in the far west of the state became unavoidable after the mass fish kills along the lower Darling River last summer, but now much bigger towns closer to the coast, including Dubbo, are also running out of water.

Residents of three distinct areas talked to Guardian Australia about the state of their towns under extreme stress from water shortages, expressing anxiety about their future, but also determination to keep communities alive.

DUBBO, NSW

It seems unthinkable that the city of Dubbo, with a population of 40,000 and home to the Western Plains Zoo, could be facing the prospect of running out of water by the middle of next year.

However, as the drought enters its second summer, that is exactly what is facing the main town in the central west of the state.

It is also raising questions about management of water in the region, as irrigators in the basin have been permitted to continue to take water in the expectation that inflows would occur.

Instead, inflows into the Macquarie River are at historic lows.

The vast Burrendong dam on the Macquarie — six times the size of Sydney Harbour and the main water source for Dubbo, Wellington, Narromine, Nyngan, Cobar and Warren — is at 4.5 percent capacity and dwindling rapidly as unseasonably high temperatures hit the region.

This is not just a matter of water restrictions and inconvenience. The drought and water shortages spell potential economic catastrophe for Dubbo as farmers leave fields unplanted and sell off stock, tourist numbers wither, and parks and gardens turn brown.

Dubbo still looks like an oasis in the brown landscape that surrounds it, despite being on level two restrictions, but tougher level three restrictions are imminent if there is no spring rain, as the Australian Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting. Then the city will rapidly go to level five, then level six.

That means no watering of lawns and parks. Some of the council’s pools are to be emptied and residents are to be required to use no more than 120 liters a day — half the amount now permitted.

That means short showers and limited use of evaporative coolers, in a summer when the temperature on most days are to be well above 30°C.

“There are no records of the sort of drought that we are experiencing,” Dubbo Council Chief Executive Michael McMahon said. “At the same time the population has grown and there are more businesses here.”

Two weeks ago the state government announced a A$30 million (US$20.5 million) program to sink more bores, and McMahon said he hopes to shift to about 50-50 bore and dam water by March next year.

However, there are serious questions about whether groundwater in sufficient quantity and quality can be found to support all the people who rely on Burrendong.

“I’m quite concerned that the groundwater they find won’t be enough or of good enough quality to help Dubbo,” Healthy Rivers Dubbo convenor Melissa Gray said.

She pointed to a risk assessment by state water authorities in November last year that found that the risk of compaction and subsidence — caused by extraction of groundwater — was high in several zones of the Macquarie aquifer.

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