Weather News

Macquarie Marshes no longer a green haven, as water crisis bites in western NSW

Jennifer Browning, Saturday September 7, 2019 - 19:44 EST
ABC image
Burrendong Dam is currently at 4.7 per cent capacity. - ABC

Across the Macquarie Valley, in the western region of New South Wales, water is fast running out.

Three years ago, the Macquarie Marshes were flourishing. The haven for animals and birds was green as far as the eye could see, and regarded of one of the largest remaining semi-permanent wetland systems in inland Australia.

But a lot can change without any rain.

The bone-dry marshes are a stark reminder of the reality of the water crisis in NSW.

"I think the nicest way to describe it at the moment is 'dust bowl'," RiverSmart CEO Bill Phillips said.

"It is like this everywhere. It has not been getting water either from rainfall or through flows down the river for some months."

'Wetlands are adaptable'

The Macquarie River had not run dry since Burrendong Dam was built in the 1960s.

That is, until now — the river has stopped flowing to the marshes.

"Drought's not new and before Burrendong Dam was built, the Macquarie River would dry up and stop flowing," Dr Phillips said.

"The thing about wetlands is that they are very adaptable. They've got very used to this boom or bust cycle, but there will be impacts on the population of some species."

'Towns are the priority'

The State Government last month unveiled emergency drought measures to secure water for the towns of Warren, Cobar and Nyngan, but at a cost to environmental flows.

WaterNSW spokesman Tony Webber said the Government had little choice.

"Towns are the highest priority at the moment," he said.

"We're beyond the days where we had a choice of winners and losers in this drought," Mr Webber said.

"I don't think the Government had a choice, critical human needs had to come first," Dr Phillips added.

Losing water along the way

The water levels in Warren have become so low, if emergency services cannot draw water from the river to fill fire hydrants, the hospital will need to be closed.

"That's a big possibility," Warren Mayor Milton Quigley said.

"We've put plans in place to use bore water if the river runs dry."

The State Government has started construction to raise the Warren Weir by half a metre, to direct water to Nyngan and Cobar.

It will send water down the Albert Priest channel, a waterway, which has 30 per cent transmission loss before it even reaches Nyngan.

"No-one can sustain the sorts of transmission losses that are occurring now," Cr Quigley said.

"We're learning now that water is the critical key, not money.

"Water will run out before the money does, so it's time to look at that aspect."

Burrendong Dam currently sits at 4.7 per cent capacity.

Accessing deep storage

In addition to raising the Warren Weir, water authorities are also preparing to install deep water pumps to provide an addition four months' supply once the dam is empty.

Mr Webber said it was something they planned for in the Millennium Drought, but avoided.

But he said with no significant rainfall in sight, they had little choice this time around.

"There's every likelihood that the river at Warren could be cut off or severely restricted in the coming weeks," he said.

"We anticipate that work will start on a pumping network at Burrendong Dam to access deep storage as soon as this summer."

Dubbo turning up the taps

Upstream of Warren, Dubbo is also facing the prospect of running dry.

But the community has failed to respond to new water-saving measures.

Dubbo Regional Council's level-two water restrictions have done little to stop water use, with new data showing residents are exceeding the allowed levels of usage.

"Our original plans were 320 litres per person per day, but there has been a slight increase in utilisation over the winter months," chief executive Michael McMahon said.

The city's water supply is reliant on a mix of bore water plus the Burrendong Dam.

Dubbo's lift in usage is at odds with Cobar, which saw a 30 per cent reduction in water usage after restrictions.

"People see themselves in a situation [with odds and evens restrictions] that, 'I can't use it tomorrow so I may as well use it today'," Mr McMahon said

He said the council was reviewing and updating the region's drought management plan and discussing whether to move to level-three restrictions in the future.

However, he said at this stage they did not know what that would involve.

"Every drop counts. There's been no real rainfall in our catchment over winter so more water restrictions will be coming in the near future," Mr McMahon said.

Dubbo has been given $30 million in State Government funding to secure more water for the city.


© ABC 2019

More breaking news

Sydney Morning Herald
ABC News
National Nine News
News Limited

Display Your Local Weather

Weather News

Perth storm damages homes, brings down trees and causes peak-hour traffic chaos

00:54 EDT

A severe thunderstorm has struck Perth and surrounding parts of Western Australia, bringing damaging winds, heavy rainfall and hail and causing chaos in peak-hour traffic.

South-west Queensland watching floodwaters rise after rain drenches the state

16:20 EDT

An emergency flood declaration has been declared for the township of St George in the southern inland as floodwaters continue to rise in south-west Queensland.

Warm Coral Sea fuelling storms over Queensland

13:21 EDT

Unusually warm water in the Coral Sea is fuelling showers and thunderstorms over Queensland this week.