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Drought-hit town of Murrurundi has three months of water left. What happens then?

Rachel Carbonell, Nancy Notzon, Anna Henderson and Kathleen Ferguson, Monday August 6, 2018 - 05:11 EST
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The NSW town of Murrurundi is desperate for water. - ABC

The people of Murrurundi would be out of water in a matter of weeks if it was not for the tough water restrictions locals are living under.

Residents in the small town in the New South Wales Upper Hunter are limited to two full washing loads of clothes a week and can have only three-minute showers.

The restrictions will buy residents another three or four months of water, if they are lucky.

You have heard about the pub with no beer. But what about the pub with no water?

Jen Morris, who runs Murrurundi's White Hart Hotel, said they would consider trucking water in but have no tanks to store it.

"It's a lot of stress to think that we're using a lot of the town water considering how low the water level is," she said.

"So it's always in the back of your mind how much you're using."

Ms Morris said they were trying to get by with as little water as they could.



"[It's] really hard in a pub where you've got to keep everything sanitised and clean," she said.

"I just feel bad, I feel like we're using a lot more than what we should be, but we can't use any less than what we're using."

Head chef Jess Lancaster said she was torn between worrying about keeping the kitchen clean and worrying about the amount of water it took to do that.

"We can't hose our floors, we've got to mop, which we shouldn't be allowed to do, we should have to hose it," she said.

"You've just always got to keep in mind how much water you're using."

Ms Lancaster feared there was only so long the pub kitchen could continue to operate under such conditions.

"It won't be hygienic enough to put food out because … you've got to have water to keep everything clean," she said.

It is schnitzel night and the pub is busy, full of locals, including farmers looking for a night away from their dry dams and hungry stock.



Di van Balen is among the diners.

"I think the pub actually serves a wonderful purpose in terms of keeping people connected and offering people the opportunity to share their stories," she said.

"I think 90 per cent of people would come and discuss the weather and the lack of the rain and what it means for them."

Ms van Balen and her husband live down the road and do not have access to town water.

"We rely on rainfall and that's just been non-existent in the last little while," she said.

"We purchased probably, I'd say, four loads in the last 12 months at a cost of about $1,000."



For those getting by on small amounts of town water, it is not just the restrictions causing pain.

Ms Lancaster said it irritated her skin.



"I get eczema from the water," she said.

"As soon as you turn the tap on it's instantly chlorine and you get out of the shower and you smell like chlorine and it's not nice.

"You get out of the shower, you're all itchy. You don't feel clean when you've had a shower."

Ms Lancaster will not drink it either.

"You can't drink it without it making you feel a bit off in the stomach," she said.

Her boss, Ms Morris, said she too was suffering from skin problems.

"From the water after a shower, I've noticed this week that I've actually got cracks on my heels of my feet. So the water is making my skin that dry that my feet are actually cracking," she said.

"There's actually blood. On Saturday there was blood."

Manager of water with the shire council, Phillip Hood, said the water was safe to use and to drink.

"Our water is tested regularly. It meets the drinking water guidelines. We wouldn't send anything out to the residents that didn't meet those guidelines," he said.



But with estimates that the town has three to four months of water left at best, he was as worried as everyone else about the dwindling supply.

"I don't think it's acceptable for any town to run out of water, especially a town of this size," he said.

"Part of what makes this situation at the moment particularly dire is because we are in the middle of winter.

"As we get into the warmer months we'll have other factors come in.



"The evaporation rate will go up from the dam — we may get a significant algal bloom that is beyond our ability to treat."

Mr Hood said there was a layer of sludge on the bottom of the town's dam which could also affect the water as the level continued to drop.

What does all that mean? It means the town may run out of water even sooner.

The town has two contingency plans.

One is trucking in water. The other is using groundwater.

"At the moment we're exploring alternative water supplies from groundwater bores," he said.

"We're doing some exploratory drilling in the coming weeks.

"If we can find a suitable source of water then that will be something that we instigate to keep the water supply."

It is an expensive exercise. And it is a gamble.

"Properties on the periphery outside of the reticulated system have groundwater bores that are drying up for the first time ever," Mr Hood said.

The council was also struggling to find the money to pay for the search for water. It has requested help from the New South Wales Government.

The long-term plan is for a pipeline between Glenbawn Dam near Scone, about 50 kilometres from Murrurundi, due to be completed in two years.

But as farmer Brian Hunt said at schnitzel night at the pub, that would not help right now.

"I think now the completion time is 2020, which in my humble opinion, the way things have turned out, is going to be a bit too late," he said.

Grazier Mark Wylie knows personally the frustration and cost of searching for water.



"We have spent $30,000 in the last six weeks having water diviners and bore drillers on the property, exploring for alternative water supplies," he said.

"Unfortunately we have been totally unsuccessful in sourcing any alternative water supply."

While Mr Wylie supported drilling for water, for farmers and the town, he worried about how long the groundwater supply would last if drought conditions continued.

"It's a finite resource, it won't go on forever. The water level will just drop and drop and drop," he said.

"You can't have everyone dipping into the one pond without that pond eventually running dry and that's what's happening."



There may be little choice but to keep trying to tap into more groundwater.

WaterNSW is the state-owned corporation which manages rivers and water supply systems, including 40 dams.

Executive manager for systems operations Adrian Langdon said the long-range forecast looked ahead three months and dry conditions were predicted to continue.

He said without rain, there was not a lot WaterNSW could do to alleviate water scarcity in places like Murrurundi.

"If we're not capturing rainfall [in] most of the systems we're looking at, if it doesn't rain, we don't have water available to actually move," he said.

"We're reliant on other sources such as groundwater supplies and those types of things to support these communities."



WaterNSW is pinning its hopes on good summer rain.

"We are hoping summer rainfalls — which we've missed over the last couple of years — will appear this year," Mr Langdon said.

"The Bureau of Meteorology is not forecasting any change to conditions between now and October.

"We do need and will be relying on rainfall over the summer and autumn periods to ensure their critical needs can be met going forward."



No one can say when or if Murrurundi will get off level six water restrictions.

And as summer approaches, which often brings with it temperatures in the 40s, this year it looks like the town might have to do without its swimming pool.

Upper Hunter Shire Mayor Wayne Bedggood said it simply would not be viable to fill the pool unless it rains.

"It's been hard for a long time, but it's reached desperation stakes now," he said.

"We're on our highest water restrictions on Murrurundi and the people up there have been on those restrictions for some time.

"It's only a few more months and we're going to be trucking water into Murrurundi.

"Our backs are against the wall."


- ABC

© ABC 2018

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