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WA's drought 'the driest the land has been in 40 years'

By James Liveris and staff reporters, Monday June 1, 2020 - 11:34 EST
Audience submitted image
Trucks driving through very dry conditions in Meekatharra in January 2020. - Audience submitted

Parts of Western Australia are in the grip of one of the worst droughts some pastoralists have seen in more than 40 years.

Last month, parts of the state recorded less than 10 millimetres of rain.

For regions including the Gascoyne, Great Southern and Eucla, it was either their driest April on record or the driest since 1995.

And it is only going to get worse, according to the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD), which says dry seasons are likely to become more frequent.

DPIRD also says one in five of WA's 400 pastoral stations face a precarious future.

Driest in 40 years

For Morrie Seivwright at Glen Station, north of Cue in the Murchison, the conditions are the worst he has seen in more than 40 years.

This year the Seivwrights recorded 45mm of rain over 12 days, which he described as "fairly useless".

"We haven't had a winter [rainfall] since 2000, and this country needs 50:50 winter and summer rain," he said.

"Even the turpentine bushes now are dying, whereas before the mulgas were dying.

"I didn't think anything could kill turpentine, but lack of rain does."

After almost completely destocking two years ago, Mr Seivwright says he is handfeeding his 60 remaining head of cattle.

He said hay was difficult to source, and at times he was forced to drive 1,200 kilometres to Esperance to collect loads of feed.

'Enough to dampen the dust'

WA no longer has drought declarations, but DPIRD's Bruce Mullan says significant parts of the state are "feeling the pinch".

"Across the state the best description is 'very patchy'," he said.

"Some areas are getting their 20–30mm, but others are getting 4–5mm, which is enough to dampen the dust, if at all.

"It is a serious issue that these areas are not seeing any consistent rain."

Last year's annual rainfall was 49 per cent below average for WA, during what was the second driest year on record, the driest being 1924.

Mr Mullan says at this stage the likelihood of strong rains is very small.

"None of the areas that we have been keeping an eye on are out of trouble yet," Mr Mullan said.

"Until we get sustained rainfall, most famers would be feeling very nervous about what the season holds for them."

Three in a row

The rain that has fallen across many parts of WA's south in the past few weeks might have helped some farmers get crops in the ground, but it has done little to alleviate serious water problems that have been building up over the past few years.

Bill Bailey, farms at Jerramungup, about two hours east of Albany in the Great Southern, which was one of the first places declared water-deficient in the current dry.

"This is the third season as a dry," he said.

"Instead of getting the 10–20mm every now and again for the year, we've been down to 5mm and it doesn't run water.

"We've never had that before — we've just seen dry, dry, dry … it's a pattern I'm wishing is going to change soon."

Mr Bailey said Jerramungup was not the only place that had suffered.

"You could put a compass around Jerramungup and circle right down to the Gairdner River-Boxwood Hill region, then right out to the Ongerup-Borden region, north to Lake Grace and all the way into the West River region," he said.

"It's been dry within that circle for the last two to three years."

Time to cull

Meanwhile, north of Kalgoorlie, Justin Stevens from Mount Vetters Station said summer had delivered about 120mm of rain off the back of 18 months of extremely dry conditions.

He said the station did some drastic culling last year, which left cattle stock "down to the bare bones".

"We were looking down the barrel in November and December last year," Mr Stevens said.

Edmund Forrester and his family run two stations on the Nullarbor Plain, a region that is also suffering record dry conditions.

They have cut their stock numbers by 40 per cent.

Mr Forrester said they were grateful for the 90mm they received at Kanandah Station, about 350km east of Kalgoorlie, and 60mm at Belgair over the summer.

But autumn only delivered about 5mm.

"We were hoping to get some follow-up [rain] to help us get through winter," he said.

"But that hasn't happened yet."


© ABC 2020

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