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River towns back from the brink as inflows top up vital water supplies in western NSW

By Jessie Davies and Lucy Thackray, Friday February 21, 2020 - 07:27 EDT
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Water in Namoi River has Walgett residents Zane, 11, Tyrese, 10, and Shapaul, 9, beaming. - ABC

A drinking water crisis has been averted in western New South Wales after widespread rain restarted rivers that were all but bone-dry just two weeks ago.



Intense storm activity in the lower Namoi Valley has sent a flush of fresh water down the Barwon and Namoi Rivers, filling depleted weir pools in Collarenebri, Walgett and Brewarrina.

Collarenebri, home to 650 people, had just 21 days of river water left to drink before the rain arrived last week.

"The Barwon River was as low as I'd ever seen it," resident Jasen Ramien said.

"Worryingly, we didn't have a backup water supply."



Beer in the dustbowl

The flow, which pumped up to 100,000 megalitres in parts of the system, has taken the pressure off three local government districts.

Over the past three years the Walgett, Brewarrina and Burke Shire Councils have scrambled to erect infrastructure to deliver potable water to residents.

Now, however, the river is running and water restrictions have been eased from Level 5 to Level 1, meaning residents can now water their lawns, wash their cars and refill their swimming pools.

"There's nothing worse than coming home of a day at work, living in a dustbowl and trying to sit out the back and have a beer with no lawn to look at," Mr Ramien said.

"Now, we have a green lawn, and you can see it on people's faces in the community — it's a very welcome sight."

"Now, people in the pub walk in with a smile on their face."



What's in a name?

Walgett means "the place where two rivers meet" — but with both the Barwon and Namoi Rivers dry, that has been something of a misnomer for several years.

Last September, the town's council was forced to sink two bores to supply the township with water.



Locals like Janette Murphy found the bore water supply unpalatable due to its high sodium content and began purchasing bottled water.

"It's been costing me $50 a week for months now," she said.

With no rain on the long-term forecast, the council moved to raise its weir wall and install a reverse osmosis plant to reduce sodium levels.

Last week, both of the town's rivers were restarted and water restrictions were relaxed.

Natalie Thurston, who manages the Walgett's Sporties Club said activity around town had stepped up.

"You can just feel that vibe in town, everyone's getting ready to go get chemicals and spray and hopefully put a crop in," Ms Thurston said.

"So that'll have the follow on effect."



Fresh water headed for Bourke

The long-awaited flush arrived in Brewarrina on Sunday, and was expected to arrive in the Darling River at Bourke within a week.

Ahead of the flow, Bourke Shire Council had switched to bore water because it anticipated the first flush would have a high salt concentration due to the parched state of the river bed.

But its bore water was salty, too.

Recent testing showed the sodium levels were as high as 353 milligram per litre, above the rate (180mg/L) recommended by Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.



'Best flow in years'

The flow is expected to make it all the way to the Menindee Lakes in far western NSW.

A spokesperson for the state's bulk water supplier, Water NSW, said 50,000 litres could reach the parched lake system by March 18.

"It's the best flow in years," the spokesperson said.

On its way, the flow would provide water critically needed in the towns of Louth, Tilpa, Wilcannia and Menindee.

Water was expected to reach Louth between February 25 and March 2, and Wilcannia from March 10 to March 20.



Drought not broken

Even after significant, widespread rain, 99 per cent of NSW remains drought affected.

The latest data from NSW Department of Primary Industries showed 23.5 per cent of the state is suffering intense drought.

Dam levels across western NSW remained low, but in the past week Burrendong Dam had been boosted to 3.3 per cent capacity, Keepit Dam had increased to 8.7 per cent, and Windamere Dam to 26.4 per cent.

Walgett mayor Manuel Martinez remains optimistic the drought would break, but says he will continue to advocate for more funding to drought-proof outback towns.

"The heavens are opening up and it shows us that it can rain out this way," he said.

"But we need more storage areas for our country.

"At some stage we'll be back into a long drought.

"That's just how it is."


- ABC

© ABC 2020

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