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Gloucester, Mid North Coast NSW face unprecedented water shortages with drought, fires

Emma Siossian and Michael Cavanagh, Saturday November 23, 2019 - 09:06 EDT
Audience submitted image
Dams, like this one at Wingham, are dry right up the NSW Mid North Coast, after record low rainfall. - Audience submitted

As the drought and bushfire threats continue, some coastal towns in northern NSW are facing extreme water shortages, while others are heading for their driest November on record.

There are fears Gloucester, a gateway town to the Barrington Tops, will run out of water by the end of the month, and plans are in place for emergency water carting.

For the first time ever, the MidCoast Council, which covers Gloucester and the lower mid-north coast region, is imposing severe Level 4 water restrictions, starting November 25.

The council's director of infrastructure and engineering services, Rob Scott, said the region had recorded its worst drought and river flows on record.

"We are now facing an unprecedented water shortage in the history of our water supply service," Mr Scott said.

Outdoor water use is banned

Level 4 restrictions ban all outdoor water use and restrict business water use, and Mr Scott said plans were in place for emergency water carting, by road or rail, to Gloucester.

"It is now looking likely that some of our smaller water supplies, such as Gloucester, will enter emergency restrictions — this has never occurred before in our region," he said.

"We are making plans just in case emergency supplies need to be accessed."

Mr Scott said the recent bushfires had placed even more pressure on local water supplies.

"Last week was extremely demanding on our community, our staff, their families and our emergency services. It was also demanding upon our water supplies with usage increasing by nearly 30 per cent," he said.

"We have seen our community really pull together during the bushfires, and now we need the same effort to conserve water.

"We are looking at a drought event that's going to be a record, the one we are talking about for a long time."

'Uncharted territory': Water shortage impacts farmers, businesses

Gloucester's water is pumped from the Barrington River into reservoirs.

Gloucester dairy farmer and President of Dairy Connect Farmers Group, Graham Forbes, said the Barrington water situation was 'catastrophic' and having a huge impact on local farmers.

"So it's a very concerning, catastrophic situation that's unfolding in front of us," he said.

"We're going into some uncharted territory, but certainly the Barrington River has stopped for prolonged periods in the 1800s.

"The supply at Gloucester has halved in the last week. It's down to an inflow of around 12 megalitres today and it's been dropping at a rate of over one meg a day.

"So it could be, even by the end of the month, that a town like Gloucester could be out of water.

"The big question is what happens to businesses and farms: how will they be allocated water, or do they have to go and source water themselves, or do they close down their businesses?"

"Most dairy farms would need at least 20 times more water to be trucked in than what they are sending in milk.

"On my farm, it would be somewhere in the range of two to 300,000 litres of water would be have to be trucked in to operate my dairy and water my stock."

Dairy industry 'in crisis', milk production down

Dairy and Food Industry consultant Mark Livermore said the dairy industry was in a 'state of crisis'.

"This has been brought about, largely, due to the current severe drought conditions and, more recently, the catastrophic fires," he said.

"The current drought is seeing on farm storage facilities dry up and rivers stop flowing — where this has never been seen before."

Mr Forbes said it would have flow-on effects and impact the amount of milk landing on supermarket shelves.

"We've made a dramatic cut … and those cattle could have produced about 16-million litres in their lifetime," he said.

"So over the next three to four years there's 16-million litres that won't be produced in the Australian industry.

"All those cattle were either slaughtered and sent to China in boxes, or exported as heifers into South-East Asian countries."

Dry November

Further north in NSW, some coastal towns are heading for their driest November on record.

Both Port Macquarie and Grafton have recorded rainfall figures for 2019 which are 60 to 70 per cent below average.

So far this November, Port Macquarie has received just 5.6 millimetres rainfall, well below even the last record dry November in 2002 with 46 millimetres.

Further north, Grafton has received only 2.4 millimetres rainfall this month. The average for November is over 100mm.

Desalination being considered

Mr Scott said the MidCoast Council was looking at options for alternative water supplies.

"We will be expanding the Nabiac bore field, so that we can increase the amount of water from that source," he said.

"We are also considering another option to install a temporary desalination plant on the Manning to treat brackish water so it can be used to supplement our existing supply.

"What we need now, apart from some good rainfall to break this horrific drought, is for everyone to assist in conserving water."


© ABC 2019

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