Emotions flow like a river

How people feel about the Barwon-Darling's first flows

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The water flows hitting Bourke on Friday. Photo: Bourke Shire Council

The water flows hitting Bourke on Friday. Photo: Bourke Shire Council

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When the Barwon-Darling is thriving so are the river communities that rely on it, when it's bone dry there is nothing but despair.

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It's a river system that stretches thousands of kilometres sustaining the lifeblood for those that live along its banks.

When the Barwon-Darling is thriving so are the river communities that rely on it, when it's bone dry there is nothing but despair.

But emotions are running high for those in the northern basin who are watching on as water flows past their home that they now can't touch due to an embargo they don't understand while those further south wait with baited breath for flows to arrive.

At the top of the system around the northern tributaries of the Namoi and Gwydir they want more information to justify why the water embargo can't be lifted, as they think there is enough water there to give them a guaranteed crop and bring wealth to the communities.

In the middle around Brewarrina and Bourke - where the water has just arrived - the reaction is mixed as people don't want to see the river dry again.

At the bottom of the system in the Lower Darling below the Menindee Lakes they want the embargo to remain in place as they are desperate to see the flows that are expected to reach them at the end of April.

It becomes obvious when talking to people there is an entrenched north verse south feel, but whatever side of the debate they are on, they are all united and want to see water down as far as possible to break this drought for everyone.

They want a healthy river system, healthy communities and healthy businesses.

Flood Mallowa (February 8). Photo: Gwydir Valley Irrigators Association

Flood Mallowa (February 8). Photo: Gwydir Valley Irrigators Association

Northern Basin

At Wee Waa, Daniel Kahl who with his family is an irrigator on the Namoi, has only planted 10 per cent of his cropping area this summer.

Despite the recent rain, that won't change yet for next season either as Keepit Dam, their main water source on the Namoi, sits at 7 per cent.

Irrigators won't see an allocation from there until the dam is comfortably over 20 per cent, he says.

Last year they planted 20 per cent of their cropping area with groundwater carryover and prior to that in 2017/2018 it was closer to a normal year although it still fell short of a full program of rotation crops.

Mr Kahl said they've had no access to water from the river for two years with the recent flows hitting their property on February 8 at midnight after localised flooding at Narrabri.

"We understand there are extenuating circumstances with the first flow amid the drought hopefully breaking," he said.

"The use of the embargo is accepted by us but it's the lack of information around that embargo that is of concern."

The embargo has been put in place until February 28 but he says there was no metric measurement given to justify that timeline.

"We know there are still dry riverbeds out west but what all stakeholders throughout the basin need to know are what flow volumes are required to achieve the desired outcomes from this embargo?" he questioned.

"We understand and agree that all of us in the system need to help make sure flows make it to those communities with critical human, stock and domestic needs.

"But where are the goal posts, the flow targets to help us understand what it'll take to achieve that?

"Communities are hurting throughout the basin, including ours here. We need to know what flow targets need to be met so once they are, the embargo can be lifted and we can revert to the water sharing plans and their access rules before any opportunities this rain has brought have passed us by."

Boree road flooding was from rivers being run too high. Photo: Gwydir Valley Irrigators Association

Boree road flooding was from rivers being run too high. Photo: Gwydir Valley Irrigators Association

Zara Lowien, from the Gwydir Valley Irrigators Association (GVIA) that represents more than 400 water entitlement holders within the valley, said they understood that in drought water was prioritised for towns and rivers as critical needs, which was why temporary restrictions had been in place over the region since the beginning of the year for regulated and unregulated access licences.

"Recent rainfall in the valley should have been welcomed relief to farmers," Ms Lowien said.

"However, the intensity of rain on the drought-stricken landscape has meant that in some parts of the region, soil moisture remains low and doesn't reflect the rainfall measured, and others had localised and destructive flash flooding.

"The poor Government processes, around how they manage and communicate temporary restrictions and the last-minute rule changes, ruined the rain for many and created additional stress, especially for those farmers impacted by flooding."

Despite this she said there was optimism that it did rain and the rivers and creeks were flowing naturally for the first time since 2016, which was welcomed by everyone.

She said WaterNSW had confirmed 70,000ML (February 19) had flowed in the Barwon River at Collarenebri already from rainfall in Queensland and NSW.

Ms Lowien added they were now predicting total flows of between 30,000ML to 60,000ML may make Lake Wetherell within the Menindee Lakes system, up from earlier estimates, given the additional inflows from other catchments.

She said water was breaking out at a number of sites including Carole and Gil Gil Creeks and mid Mehi River where the systems were being pushed to the limits.

"Water breaking out of the river or creeks in a natural event can be expected. But the department in their determination to maximise downstream flows, has made the direction to push the limits of these systems with no regard to whether that's efficient delivery of water or our local community," she said.

"Our community has also been hit by drought, it's heartbreaking for everyone to see such inefficient use of water which now cannot make it downstream or benefit our local community."

Middle of the system

At Brewarrina the town's mayor Phillip O'Connor, who has an A-class irrigation licence, says he doesn't want the embargo to be lifted.

He wants it to stay in place so the water can run down the system as far as possible.

"The river is in such a mess and everyone who lives along it wants it to have a break," Mr O'Connor said.

Mr O'Connor said the flow had already hit Brewarrina and the spirits had lifted in town.

"We have never seen the river rise as quick as it has, because there is an embargo and no straws in it to suck it dry."

"We understand everyone needs to earn a quid, which will be a different story when the river is full.

"Just let is flow and fill up everything and replenish the river to give everyone who lives along it downstream a chance to benefit."

Further downstream, the town of Bourke woke up Friday morning to see the first flow hit their town.

"The river is the lifeblood of the town and to see flows was refreshing. It just lifted the whole town," said Bourke Shire general manager Ross Earl.

Mr Earl said they had reduced the water restrictions from level three to one on Wednesday in anticipation of the water flowing down the system.

"We are conscious of people downstream that haven't got water yet, which is why we still have restrictions on," Mr Earl said.

There was a flow in November due to heavy local rain, but prior to that it was 450 days before another flow, which was due to environmental releases.

Mr Earl said there needed to be enough water to go right down to Lake Wetherell and beyond, and once that was guaranteed, then the embargo should be reassessed.

Tulney Point Station. Photo: Rachel Strachan

Tulney Point Station. Photo: Rachel Strachan

Southern basin

In the entire history of Tulney Point Station, which sits on the Darling River between Pooncarrie and Wentworth, the property has never seen the river in such a state.

"We took over in the 1980s, but we still have the historical records that go back to the mid 1800s and it has never been recorded as being this bad," said Tulney Point Station owner Rachel Strachan.

"It has ceased to flow for around five months at a time in extreme droughts but even prior to building Menindee Lakes, the Lower Darling would have one or two of the northern rivers continually contributing to flows."

The Strachans ran out of stock water at Christmas where they had previously been pumping from residual holes.

They've had no flows below Pooncarrie since late 2018, which were operational releases.

Prior to that there was a flow that came through in 2016-17.

"Once it gets to Menindee, a regulated resource that is shared between NSW and Victoria, then the MDBA takes over operations to underpin South Australia's water supply," she said.

"The Darling has historically provided 18 to 20 per cent of flows into the Murray, which underpins assisting to help the Murray deliver South Australian requirements.

"That's why there is a lot of pressure from Victoria and the Lower Darling because the Murray system is just as dire as the northern basin."

Mrs Strachan said the recent flow was expected to reach Menindee by the end of March, but was not expected at Tulney Point Station until late April or early May.

"Keeping the embargo in place is critical to the equity of the river, which has to be respected and we can't just benefit certain towns or people along the way," she said.

"It has to sustain certain outcomes before its extracted for additional use.

"Once it has satisfactorily sustained basic river health, then it should be evaluated.

"But there has to be a hierarchy there to underpin it, we can't have everyone at the top extracting it and forgetting about those at the bottom.

"It's a highly emotional issue where people are on the brink, everyone feels robbed as everyone needs water.

"But are we the generation that is going to fail if we don't stand up and protect the river right along the system."

Tulney Point Station. Photo: Rachel Strachan

Tulney Point Station. Photo: Rachel Strachan

Minister's response

NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey said everyone was united on the goal of getting water down the river.

"It's been a brutal drought and the emotions in western NSW are brittle," Mrs Pavey said.

She said the current flows were putting town water back into communities that had been missing out for months.

Mrs Pavey said changes were made to ensure that flows travelled south and once the government was convinced with the modelling it would respond in a way "that was fair".

"Putting embargos on is about getting water south, but no one will be truly happy until we get decent flows across the entire system and fill all major storages (like Chaffey, Burrendong, Hume and Dartmouth) that are critically low," she said.

She added there needed to be major flows to have allocations this year for general and even high security water.

"This brittleness is made worse by the vision of heavy falls on the east coast, but our western communities are not forgotten, we know what a burden this is," Ms Pavey said.

WaterNSW operational update (February 21)

In WaterNSW's latest operation's update the forecast for Menindee is now for 60,000ML to 80,000ML by late March.

The statement said significant rainfall and stream flows from early in the week were now recording as higher flows in the Namoi and Border Rivers with an additional 30GL.

Floodplain drainage has continued at Mogil Mogil, Tara and Walgett with an additional gain of around 7GL in last two days.

There was major flooding in the Balonne-Condamine basin in Queensland with around 100GL observed at St George station but still no flow at Brenda (first NSW station near QLD border). Water harvesting is allowed in Queensland from this event.

Some inflows are expected to reach Barwon-Darling system upstream of Warraweena but no inflow is considered.

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