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Woolgoolga Dam could be the answer to water supply issues for NSW Mid North Coast blueberry growers

Claudia Jambor, Saturday February 15, 2020 - 15:18 EDT

Torrential rain along the New South Wales Mid North Coast has saved one of the country's biggest blueberry growing regions from the brink of collapse.



Before the rain, industry body Berries Australia said drought in the region had left growers out of water and forced many to stop watering crops while the region's workforce was slashed by 35 to 50 per cent.

Association chair Peter McPherson said recent downpours had replenished dams, bringing widespread relief to the region, where more than half of Australia's blueberries are grown.

"[The rain] has been an absolute saviour for a lot of farmers," he said.

But he said he was "extremely disappointed" that during the worst drought in the region's history, the sector could not tap into an old town water supply to help it stay afloat until the rain came.

In mid December, the council announced it would sell most of the Woolgoolga Dam supply to assist ailing growers. The plan was halted by the state's water regulators just before Christmas because the supply was not licensed for agricultural or irrigation use.



Dormant dam unused during drought

The 200-megalitre dam has not been used for drinking water since 1986 and predates the region's existing water supply scheme.

The council's director for sustainable infrastructure Mick Raby said the dam was in a unique position to share emergency water to support growers in the short term.



"We are one of the very few places in NSW that has enough water to consider sharing some with the agricultural industry," Mr Raby said.

The council voted at an urgent meeting in January to ask the water authorities to fast track changes that would enable the dam to be accessed by growers.

But the rain beat them to it.

"The process to change uses is quite long and complex — probably for good reason — but we never got our hands on the water at the time we needed it," he said.



The council's management of the dam has sparked anger among some residents, who have accused the council of rushing the sale of the water without community consultation and proper process.

Councillor Sally Townley said further assessment of the environmental impacts of pumping from the dam was needed.

"In these dry times, let's use these water bodies that we've got. But we need to make sure that we do it in a sustainable way," Cr Townley said.

She said the rain had given the council and the state's water authorities time to have a "more thorough, measured, and transparent look" into how the water could be distributed to farmers as well as other uses for the dam.

Given the dam was a public asset, Cr Townley said possible community uses, such as irrigating future sports fields, needed to be considered. 

"I think in the long-term most people would like to see it stay here as an ongoing water supply," Cr Townley said.

Growers like Stephen Thandi, also the chair of berry company OzGroup, want the dam available as a source of emergency water during future droughts.

"We don't know what's going to happen down the track," Mr Thandi said.

"I believe the licence should be changed. It's there then, it's set, there's going to be no issues later on."



What about old town water?

Coffs Harbour City Council has applied to the Natural Resources Access Regulator for approval to enable eight applicants to draw from Woolgoolga Dam.

The application is being advertised and is open to public objections.

Mr Raby said it had placed the council and authorities in uncharted waters.

"The process we are going through at the moment, with an attempted change in use of the water in Woolgoolga Dam, is probably testing the regulators because it is not a common thing," he said.

Fruit and vegetable giant Costa Group, which has blueberry farms north of Coffs Harbour, is among the applicants for the water — but small-scale farmers are also interested.



Cucumber grower Manjit Tiwani, who used to have approval to pump from Woolgoolga Dam, was shocked when the council turned off his pump to the dam late last month.

"I hope I can continue to use that dam. If I can't, I'll probably have to close my business," he said.

In a statement, the Natural Resources Access Regulator said it was investigating alleged unlawful water supply works and water taken from the dam.

It said it was also assessing whether the appropriate licences and approvals were in place, and conditions had been met.



Growers not out of woods

The council said the dam was a short-term solution.

In the long-term, it wants to expand its Coffs Harbour recycled water plant and pump reclaimed water to agricultural areas about 30km north of the city.

For now, Mr McPherson said the rain had brought widespread relief for growers, but the road to recovery would take time.

He said it could take up to two years for growers to return to normal production, depending on their crop.

"A lot of the growers have still suffered immeasurably from the events that they had to undertake, given the water shortage," Mr McPherson said.

"But the industry will pick itself up," he said.


- ABC

© ABC 2020

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