There's no doubt rain has eased water supply concerns in some parts of NSW, but no one is fooling themselves that the drought or the fight for water sustainability is over.
In fact, according to James McTavish, NSW Regional Town Water Supply Co-ordinator, with so much "focus and energy" about on water, there is no better time than now to hone in on water sustainability.
Mr McTavish has brought some of his Army background to the fore in his new role to help with critical water supply needs. For instance when Uralla faced a raised arsenic alert with its water supply diminishing, emergency water supplies were sent within a day.
"We had packaged water there within 24 hours," he said.
It's been all hands to the water wheel as town water supplies dwindled and critical choices were needed to secure water for major regional centres such as Dubbo and Tamworth. Everyone was facing either historically low inflows into dams and/or historically long "no allocation" period for irrigators.
The solution was not just sourcing alternative water, but innovation. And in many parts of the state, people and businesses have stepped up to the water plate.
Take for instance in the regional town of Orange where a local campaign has seen the Orange community saving 120 litres of water usage per person per day. And in Tamworth key food processors have worked hard with council to reduce water usage by up to 20 per cent.
Orange is one of the major centres authorities are most concerned about, along with Bathurst (a new pipeline from Winburndale Dam, stormwater harvesting and treated effluent for irrigators are part of the water fix there) and all the towns along the Macquarie River.
It's hard to believe that at the bottom of the Macquarie River at the moment there is a minor flood warning at Warren. Things can change quickly - even Burrendong Dam has risen a few more per cent this week (4% as of February 24), giving some more security for Dubbo through this year. It was due to run dry this month. Water flowing from tributaries into the Macquarie have bolstered the river water supply. But critical water issues are still current for the Macquarie, Lachlan and Upper Peel valleys.
Both the North and South Coast and ironically the much talked about Barwon-Darling system has seen some relief to water supply in the last three weeks. Water is expected to flush right down the Darling to Lake Wetherell by March 26, filling town weirs (Bourke, Wilcannia, Menindee, Sunset Strip and Pooncarie) along the way and giving some security. The welcome news from WaterNSW this week was: "the long-awaited flows to the northern parts of NSW are now expected to meet critical needs along the full length of the Barwon-Darling River, and the target of 60-70 gigalitres in Lake Wetherell. This will enable a connectivity event to the end of the Lower Darling River". This also resulted in the lifting of the embargo on northern floodwater harvesting in some areas of the Northern Basin.
Both Mungindi and Collarenebri had faced less than three months of water but is now reviewing Level 4 water restrictions. Walgett had no access to surface water and had relied on bores for more than a year. Brewarrina had always had good town water supplies but the problem had been with sodium levels - another issue that the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment was addressing.
Other recent turnarounds included Braidwood on the Southern Tablelands where an agreement with Icon Water and the ACT Government to truck in water to the town was just one week away from being implemented, when the area was hit by a massive rain event of over 500mm, filling its dam. The dam is normally fed from a pump on the Shoalhaven River. Recently that pumping station was upgraded.
Queanbeyan-Palerang Mayor Tim Overall said council was also completing a report into augmenting Braidwood's supply from the current 74 megalitre capacity. Other recent agreements had seen Bungendore being able to increase its subterranean water access (drilling deeper) to boost town supplies. Bungendore has a number of new estates opening near the town. It was introducing water restrictions as a precautionary measure late last year even though underground supplies were "performing well".
Mr Overall said his area had learnt from the previous drought leading up to 2010 and had put in a number of water conservation measures. "The previous drought educated us and we have seen a massive drop in water usage since the 1990s," he said.
Other negotiations to solve water issues have also involved mines, so that valuable regional jobs are not lost. At Hermidale near Cobar, the Tritton mine lost its water source after releases from the Gunningbar Weir were stopped. The mine was able to negotiate its allocation via the Cobar-Albert Priest Channel pipeline, without hurting Cobar town water supplies. The Peak Mine in Cobar is also negotiating to allow it to bring water from a former open cut operation to use at its current mine site. It has also been targetting underground water supplies with consent from the Department.
Restrictions have also been eased on dairyfarmers accessing treated effluent from some towns to use as irrigation water. This occurred on the Mid North Coast near Taree and is also planned for near Bathurst. The major rain event on the North Coast meant this resource was not now needed at Taree, but the provision is in place for the future.
But the fight for sustainability goes on. Mr McTavish says the recent rain has buoyed spirits a little, especially along the Darling river and on NSW coastal areas. "Everyone is hopeful we will see an easing of conditions. But we have to plan and execute water savings now so that we're not caught out ever again."
In many towns headworks have been completed to help with water security in the future. There's a long way to go before allocations for irrigators return to normal, but at least the drought has encouraged innovation and boosted resilience.
The office of NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey provided an update for The Land on the water situation in NSW, following the recent significant rain event in some areas of the state, in one event doubling Warragamba's water storage, giving Sydneysiders almost three years of water supply in one week. Meanwhile, in some regional areas the dams failed to capture much of the extraordinary rain event, that saw the Southern and Northern Tablelands soaked and the Monaro bloom out in green and every NSW fire extinguished and all coastal areas enjoying heavy rain.
The release shows that the drought is far from over and there are ongoing worries about water supplies in many areas. The good news is that general water restrictions for general security water licence holders were lifted this week on the Border Rivers, and the Upper and Lower Namoi regulated areas.
The DPIE said: "As at 25 February 2020, the Pindari Dam volume has risen from 12.5 gigalitres (GL) to 28.5 GL; Glenlyon Dam volume has increased from 8.6 GL to 36 GL; Keepit Dam volume has risen from dead storage to 50.7 GL, while Split Rock Dam volume has increased from 6.8 GL to 18 GL."
This is the advice from the Water Minister's office on February 24. The Land thanks them for putting this together for our readers:
"Dry conditions continue in much of the state
Recent rainfall has provided welcome relief to many coastal areas, however, as at 24 Feb 2020, 98.8% of the state remains in drought with 22.3% experiencing intense drought.
This drought is the worst on record in many regions with record low rainfall and record low river flows.
Inflows from recent rainfall has caused water quality issues, including short term challenges caused by debris. While many storages have seen increased inflows, unfortunately much of the rainfall has fallen downstream of major storages.
Major rainfall along coast and eastern NSW
Coastal areas and rangelands along eastern NSW received a large amount of rainfall in early Feb 2020, with widespread flooding.
Coastal water storages have improved significantly in volume, however inflows into major regional storages have been limited.
Any additional rainfall in the Greater Sydney catchment is expected to generate good runoff due to catchments now being wet.
Many regional catchments have received reasonable rainfall in early February. Due to the very dry soil moisture content from the protracted drought, runoff to storages has been limited.
Away from the coast, all regional storages had only modest increases of a few percent, which is helpful but not drought breaking, and most major inland storages remain critically low.
Keepit Dam has seen significant inflows, up to 10.5% after being close to empty a matter of weeks ago.
Hunter Water storages have increased to 63.4% (20 Feb). Lostock Dam is sitting at 92% up another 7.3% in the past seven days.
While remaining at high risk, the water security situation improved significantly for Uralla during the week, with substantial rainfall filling Uralla Shire Council's Kentucky Dam.
The drought risk for systems in coastal local water utilities along the north and mid-north coast is likely to reduce significantly in the coming weeks.
However, most coastal systems are reliant on off-stream storages, and current poor surface water quality will limit how much water they can extract until flows reduce and water quality improves. This is normal following significant rainfall.
Tamworth has received consistent rainfall; however, only limited amounts have fallen in the Chaffey Dam catchment, with storage levels only increasing from around 13% to 14.2% so far.
Significant further rain is required to make a substantial difference to the water security situation in Tamworth.
The NSW Government is funding water carting for communities on the south coast following ash runoff into Brogo dam.
Council is working to install a temporary treatment facility to alleviate the need to cart water and provide good quality water until the new Brogo/Bermagui water treatment plant is built (with NSW Government funding).
Flows in the Barwon-Darling River have passed Brewarrina and reached Bourke on the 21st of Feb. This is likely to improve the drought situation.
On 18 February, Walgett Shire Council issued a boil water alert for the town of Collarenebri.
Flows of around 75-95GL are expected to reach the Menindee Lakes mid-late March.
See below 'Change' is representative of change in catchment level over a seven-day period from Tuesday 18th to Monday 24th:
Glenlyon Dam: Current - 14.1%. Change: +0.8%
Pindari Dam: Current - 9.0%. Change: +1.7%
Copeton Dam: Current - 10.4%. Change: +1.1%
Split Rock Dam: Current - 3.8% Change: +0.6%
Keepit Dam: Current - 10.5%. Change: + 3.6% (800 ML/day of inflow a day 50 GL)
Windamere Dam: Current - 26.3%. Change: -0.1%
Burrendong Dam: Current - 4.1%. Change: +0.8%
Wyangala Dam: Current - 13.3%. Change: +0.5%
Burrinjuck Dam: Current - 34.2%. Change: +0.6%
Glenbawn Dam: Current - 40.0%. Change: +0.5%
Lostock Dam: Current - 92%. Change: +7.3%
Lake Menindee: Current - 0.7%. Change: 0%. "