Residents affected by the recent catastrophic fish kill in Menindee are pinning hopes an independent inquiry promised by the newly-minted NSW Labor premier Chris Minns to solve concerns in the community.
Graeme McCrabb is among the concerned residents who pushed for an inquiry while meeting Mr Minns, now climate change minister Penny Sharpe and re-elected independent Barwon MP Roy Butler, when they visited the town just days after Labor won the state election.
"We hope this independent investigation they promised comes up with some answers and policy changes that won't allow fish kills to happen again, not only in Menindee but across the state," Mr McCrabb said.
"These [several incidences of fish kills since 2018 and 2019] have never happened before in our living memory, and they can't certainly put it down as natural events that's why the new NSW government is making an independent review."
Mr McCrabb uncovered the fish kill in his town in the summer of December 2018 and January 2019, in the aftermath of the long-running drought that affected at least 40 kilometres of the Darling River in Menindee, a popular outback NSW town 97 kilometres from Broken Hill.
Using video recordings and photographs of the fish kills, Mr McCrabb revealed the extent showing millions of native fish species such as golden perch, silver perch and murray cod, that had abounded the vast Darling River lifeless, blanketing the town's portion of the river and main weir for water supply.
Mr McCrabb said the recent fish kill they discovered last month has "decimated" their town's local agriculture and tourism economy in the far west while locals worry about the quality of their drinking water supply.
On Easter Monday, Mr McCrabb described the situation in the town where he and his family has lived for over two decades.
"There is hardly a person on the streets, and there are no fish movements on the river. There are dead fish on the river ... it's a shocking result for Menindee," he said.
"This Easter holiday should have been one of the busiest times of the year for us but there's no one here."
On their visit to Menindee on March 28, Ms Sharpe described the situation in the town as an "ecological disaster" while Mr Minns described it "catastrophic for locals".
During their visit, an inter-agency emergency operations centre (EOC) led by NSW Police emergency controller Brett Greentree has been conducting an assessment, response, and clean-up with Mr Greentree describing the situation as "pretty gruesome sites".
The EOC was formed on March 18 and on Wednesday, April 5 it was disbanded.
Operational priorities were relegated "to monitor and take action if new risks were identified" while water monitoring, sampling, and testing is ongoing throughout the Murray Darling Basin.
State Emergency operations controller and deputy commissioner Peter Thurtell announced the EOC decision to stand down saying "experts reported promising improvements" but responsible agencies would continue to meet and if conditions deteriorate, the EOC would be re-activated.
Mr Thurtell also assured that an assessment of the area's water supply had been found "not affected and continues to meet Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (ADWG)".
The EOC coordinated by the NSW Police and SES consisted of the NSW Department of Planning and Environment, Water NSW. Environmental Protection Authority and the Department of Primary Industries.
Results of the operations and testing were made available to residents and are available on the websites of each agency involved in the EOC, Mr Thurtell said.
But Mr McCrabb said they pushed for the independent inquiry because the EOC conclusion was only meant "to try to control the wreckage around election time".
"They haven't achieved any really," Mr McCrabb said.
Water NSW which manages the dams at Menindee where the fish kills have occurred has stated to a Daily Liberal enquiry that "The expert consensus is that the fish kill was a naturally occurring phenomenon resulting from deoxygenated floodwater arriving from the upper Darling River into the lakes."
The risk of another fish kill was identified as early as October last year which is why government agencies including Water NSW have been monitoring the situation and "worked on a strategy to mitigate the worst effects" as has happened last month, a spokesman said.
"As a result, the lakes were operated in such a way as to isolate the worst of the low-quality water in Lake Wetherell while better-quality water from other lakes was released for treatment by Essential Water for Menindee town supply and for diluting poor-quality floodwater in the lower Darling," the spokesman said.
Water NSW and EPA conducted testing and sampling on March 30 and April 3 and 4 at Lake Pamamaroo, downstream of the main weir at Menindee, upstream at Menindee Creek, and two other nearby creeks, the EPA update on its website showed.
Essential Water confirmed on March 23 that the quality of drinking water for its over 10,500 customers in Menindee, Broken Hill, and surrounding areas has not been impacted by the fish kills in Menindee.
Essential Water chief Ross Berry said they have "increased the frequency of sampling and testing" of drinking water to the far west towns they service to ensure their water supply meets the guidelines and working closely with relevant authorities.
The DPI Fisheries has urged residents to report fish death incidents directly by calling 1800 043 536. More information is at https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/fishing/habitat/threats/fish-kills.