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Darling River flows at Menindee Lakes, washing away spectre of mass fish kills

By Declan Gooch and Saskia Mabin, Thursday March 12, 2020 - 14:05 EDT
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Lake Wetherell at Menindee is filling up after flows arrive down the Darling River. - ABC

The spectre of mass fish kills looks distant at Menindee, thanks to billions of litres of water that have arrived at the top of its famous lake system.

The outback NSW town was thrown into the national spotlight just over a year ago, when an estimated million fish turned up dead in the Darling River and Menindee Lakes.

A fresh flow of water down the Darling has renewed hope for businesses and grape growers, who have endured punishing conditions since the river stopped flowing.

It is the first significant flow to reach Menindee in more than three years.

"It's a great feeling, to be honest; lots of pelicans around, there's probably a thousand-odd pelicans up the river," resident and grower Graeme McCrabb said.

"It's just nice to see it come down. It's been coming down for a few days and to see it finally get here, to be talking about releases instead of dead fish, yeah, it's fantastic."

Mr McCrabb was among the first to raise the alarm when Murray cod, bony bream and golden perch began turning up dead in their hundreds of thousands.

"It's been a long, hard slog. I still vividly remember the fish kills and some of those really dark nights and dark days.

"The cod that have been relocated, and the perch — it gives them a chance. They were in a bit of strife, probably with another two or three months without water."

Flows follow months of hard work

Following the fish kills, out of the smallest, poorest-quality pools.

First, staff from the Department of Primary Industries relocated fish hours away by truck to a hatchery at Narrandera and to the river at Wentworth.

Later in the year, locals were asked to chip in and they relocated hundreds of fish to larger pools on the river.

"It's been a constant effort to try and get to this point, really. This is what we've been waiting for," Mr McCrabb said.

Authorities installed aerators at key points along the river in a then-unproven but apparently effective attempt to stave off further fish kills.

'It's our lifeblood'

For the Barkindji people of the region, the return of water has profound importance.

"It's good to see water in here. Now we can go back to our fishing, camping, all sorts of stuff now the river's flowing," Clint Ferguson said.

"It's our lifeblood. It means everything for us, our river. Take that away, and we got nothing."

In town by chance when the water arrived were members of the National Association for Loss and Grief.

"We're finding that the loss that is connected with that loss of water is profound," Jen Cowley said.

"So as the water approaches this last week, the mood has lifted considerably — it's been a really stark example of how much people's lives are linked to that water, and the health and wellbeing of the communities themselves."

There are fewer growers of Menindee's famous seedless grapes, mostly as a result of declining water security.

One of them, Steve Howse, said .

"Post-harvest from here moving forward until next year's crop is really important to us," he said.

"The vine stores starch and carbohydrates. I suppose it's the energy like a bear, it's hibernating for next year's crop.

"Storing it with bad water is not good for us, so a bit of fresh water coming in is going to be great."

Meanwhile, business owners who struggled through some of their toughest years were rejoicing.

"It'd just come on lunchtime and there were just people everywhere. The mood was good, it was really good," takeaway shop owner Petrina Williams said.

River recovery uncertain

The Department of Primary Industries have urged locals to keep an eye out for the threatened Darling River snail.

DPI spokesman Iain Ellis said shells had been found up and down the river, but no living snails.

"[They are a] critically threatened animal. A lot of people don't know about them, they were a very valuable food source historically.

"It'd be great to see if they're still alive. They won't be thriving, but if they're still around, then that's one more reason this river needs a drink."

The Darling River freshwater mussel is another species likely to have been severely tested by the past few years.

"We think they hitch a ride on fish as a parasite to move upstream, so obviously weirs and barriers may make an impact on their recovery efforts, [but] that's the sort of thing we're not fully aware of," Mr Ellis said.

Celebration overshadows ongoing anger

While the mood was celebratory in Menindee and Wilcannia when the water arrived, there was latent anger at .

Many locals felt the Government had lifted embargoes on pumping and floodwater diversion too early.

Mr McCrabb said it was a difficult balance to strike.

"You'd like to see a lot more water in the lakes [before restrictions were lifted], but certainly there's communities that need to irrigate and crop as well.

"It's just those low and medium flows need to be protected better than what we're doing at the moment."

WaterNSW forecast up to 285 gigalitres could reach Menindee — nowhere near enough to fill the lakes, which can hold more than 1,700 gigalitres.

The agency said it would begin releasing some of the water to the lower Darling River this month, eventually connecting it end to end for the first time in years.


© ABC 2020

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