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From sunken forests to garden beds: This is what's at the bottom of Lake Burrendong

By the Specialist Reporting Team's Penny Timms, Emily Clark and Brendan Esposito, Saturday October 5, 2019 - 20:40 EST
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Burrendong Dam is currently at 4.4 per cent capacity. - ABC

In New South Wales, the relics of a time when people didn't just pray for rain but planned for it too are emerging from the depths of one of the country's biggest dams.

Decades ago, the community of Burrendong in the state's central west was flooded to create a water supply.

It was a town sacrificed for the greater good, but as the lake dries up, reminders of what was there before are being exposed — stuck both in the cracked earth and in time.

At capacity, Lake Burrendong can hold three times as much water as Sydney Harbour. In November 2016, it was at 120 per cent. Now, it's at 4.4 per cent.


Before it was a playground for boating and fishing enthusiasts, Burrendong was "quite a sensible little town", according to former resident Dale Edwards.

"When I went there, I was under the assumption that it would be resumed, so I sort of agreed to myself — the day would come," he said.

He said at the time, the feeling among the community was that ultimately the dam was worth it, but they knew the water was taking a lot of "good river country".

Mr Edwards, now 79 and living in Mudgee, said when his property was resumed in 1964, he was one of the youngest landholders to make way for the water storage.

As his story goes, the community implored him to write its history down.

"I had so many people chewing my ear saying you know more than anyone else, God's sake write it down," Mr Edwards said

He wrote a book — The Ghosts of Burrendong — so there was a record of what went under.

The amateur historian said most of the properties that were now exposed were once sheep farms, some employing and housing several families.

When all the people were gone and it was time for the water to arrive, it all happened a lot faster than planned.

"It's funny how it goes. I remember with Burrendong, they reckoned it would take three years to fill it up when they closed it off," Mr Edwards said.

"There were two solid weeks of rain and it filled in a fortnight. Jeez, it filled quick."

Today though, the region is much more likely to see dust storms.

Mr Edwards' house never went under — even when the dam is full, it still sits as one of the properties resumed, but not flooded.

Despite a pragmatic acceptance of the dam, he laments just how much of the country it swallowed up.

"There's a lot of good country being wasted," Mr Edwards said.

"[It's] home to all the noxious animals and noxious weeds and no-one is living on them, so no-one is keeping track of those sorts of things."

Dougall Campbell is one of the lucky ones who still runs sheep.

His family has lived in the area for six generations, and even as the big dry tightens its grip, he's determined to hold onto his property and livelihood.

"It's all pretty ordinary out here now, very ordinary in fact," Mr Campbell said.

"I mean, it's been two years of this now and I can't say it's been easy."

Strong lamb and wool prices have helped soften the blow of the drought for Mr Campbell, who said life felt much worse in the early 2000s when the conditions were tough but commodity prices were low.

"I really noticed it then, the whole town just shrinks when that happens," he said.

"If you have really poor commodity prices, you just can't pay anyone, so the whole town suffers."

This time around, he said he had not noticed as many people leaving.

"We stock merino sheep on our property. We were forced to destock most of them last year when the drought really kicked in. We're now left with really my core breeding stock. I'm just trying to hold on to them for as long as I can. But, it really depends on rain.

"If we don't get it soon, who knows?"

Wellington is one of the main regional centres near Burrendong and it sits inside the Dubbo Shire.

Mr Campbell said it was difficult to describe the sentiment around town, but admitted the drought and dreams of rain were the main topics of conversation, no matter where you go.

During times of adversity, sport and other social events are the lifeblood of small communities. It's the same for the NSW central west.

"Oh, they're crucial!" Mr Campbell said.

"We've even got our own farmers' cricket team going on, not that we're very good. It's not so much about the result than it is about the jokes we make on the field and the fact we get to have a beer all together at the end of it.

"Plus, I think all the wives like the fact that we're out of their hair for a while!"

But, with water restrictions tightening, Mr Campbell is unsure how much longer sporting fields will be watered.

"When it stops, I don't think anyone will be taking a dive for the ball; they'll just let it go through for a four."


© ABC 2019

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