Walgett has two rivers but no water left to drink
The receding waters of Keepit Dam, which is currently at 0.3 per cent capacity. (ABC News: Michael Vincent)
One of the river beds has deep cracks. The other has water a distinct shade of green.
Walgett literally means “the meeting of the two waters” — the Namoi and Barwon rivers. But neither is providing drinking water to this town in north-west New South Wales.
“It looks bloody shocking to see our rivers like this. But what can we do if we’ve got no rain?” Lewis Beale, a Kamilaroi elder, said.
“I used to go fishing with my grandmother, aunty and uncles, and we all had a great time.”
At the top of the Namoi River system is Keepit Dam, which can hold a body of water about four-fifths the size of Sydney Harbour.
The dam is currently at 0.3 per cent capacity and has had to be shut down.
Adrian Langdon, executive manager of system operations at Water NSW, told 7.30 that between mid-October and mid-December this year, Water NSW released about 78 billion litres from Keepit Dam.
Of that amount, about 35 billion litres would have been taken by other licensed users in the valley for things like stock and irrigation.
The rest of the released water — about 43 billion litres, or 55 per cent — would have been soaked up by the river bed and lost to evaporation.
That left little to no water flowing to Walgett, which sits at the end of the river.
Water models ‘need to be changed’
Just outside Walgett, irrigator James Moore has had another year without crops.
“This is one of the worst droughts that we’ve got on record,” he said.
His family has been in this part of the country since the late 1800s.
He kneels down and picks at the crumbling surface of his black, dry dirt, which blows away in the wind.
Mr Moore’s property had just one good year since 2012.
His livestock still gets water and feed, but he relies on the river for his main livelihood.
He thinks Walgett has been short-changed during this drought and believes Water NSW is using outdated modelling to send insufficient water downstream.
“My understanding is the modelling used is based on the previous drought from 2003-2007. Clearly this drought is actually stepping outside that and it obviously needs to be revisited,” he told 7.30.
Water NSW says current conditions are unique.
“Models are always being updated with the most up-to-date information, and as we’ve said, with the record temperatures and low inflows at the moment the models will be updated,” Mr Langdon said.
Distaste for bore water
Sisters Gai Richardson and Coleen Edgar say tea made with bore water is “revolting”. (ABC News: Michael Vincent)
Walgett, like all other towns on the Namoi River, now relies on bore water.
The Walgett Sporting Club draws a crowd most nights of the week, especially now they have improved the taste of the beer.
“Oh, it was very frustrating,” club manager Natalie Thurston said.
“For months and months people were complaining and saying the beer tastes funny, the beer’s off, and I’d say nah, it’s fresh kegs, it can’t be the beer.”
They thought it might have been faulty glasses until “we realised it was actually the water, when they switched over to the bore water,” Ms Thurston said.
Customers could taste the bore water used to wash the glasses. They have now installed a water filter.
Sisters Gai Richardson and Colleen Edgar have lived in town for a combined century and they are not fans of the current drinking water either.
“When you make tea with the bore water it goes really black really quickly. And it tastes revolting, it’s really hard to drink,” Ms Richardson said.
“You have to put about six spoons of sugar and lots of milk in it if you want to be able to drink it.”
There have also been concerns about high levels of sodium in Walgett’s bore water.
Plans for when the rains come
To minimise the impact of future droughts the State Government has approved raising the height of Walgett’s weir in the Barwon River by 1.1 metres so it can hold more water, but some locals do not think that is enough for their water security.
Raising the weir will cost about $8 million, of which $4 million is for a “fish ladder”, which would allow fish to swim from the lower side of the weir to the higher side. So raising it even higher will increase the costs more.
“Fundamentally as a community member we’re saying, ‘well hang on a minute, we’re putting fish over people here’,” Greg Rummery, an agronomist who has lived in Walgett for 30 years, said.
“I’m not sure that’s the outcome we’re looking for.
“Fish are important obviously, and river health is important, we get that. But so too is the health of the rural community.
“The fact that Walgett’s got no water is not necessarily a result of the drought, it’s really a result of poor infrastructure.
“And a bigger vision around that infrastructure, as in a weir, can solve that water security issue.”
He wants a newer, higher weir before the rains come.
“Things will change. It certainly won’t stay dry forever. I think all of us that live and work here know that,” he said.
“Wet times will come, and with wet times comes opportunity.”