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Random Note — Drought

This is as shocking as it is unnecessary. Not just the intensity of the drought, we’ve had them before, but because for as far back as I can remember, plans like the pre WW2, Bradfield scheme from 1938 for North Qld and in NSW, the 1980’s Beale plan for the mid north coast, to re route rivers away from the coast to inland with a series of channels, tunnels, weirs and pipelines have been on the table ready to be implemented. 


And it’s not as if we haven’t done this kind of big picture, infrastructure thing before. Think, the Snowy River scheme. It’s exactly the same. And that’s almost 70 years ago. 


We are talking about infrastructure that is productive. Infrastructure that will add to and grow the economic pie and drought proof the western side of the Great Divide.  


We have the wealth and the technology to make it happen and never has borrowing been cheaper. What we lack is imagination and political will, so governed are we by political pygmies with equally small minds who simply think as far ahead as the immediate political cycle and winning the next election. 


Little do they understand that action on this scale, scope and dimension will win it for them. 


I never thought I would cite the wisdom of Bill Shorten, but this really is a case of ‘the cost of doing nothing being far, far greater than the cost of doing something’.


But as you would expect the inertia of an indolent, gormless, plodding political class, Liberal and Labor, state and federal has seen both plans come to nothing and rural and regional Australia come to this. 


READ ON — An Aussie moonscape, with fences, Greg Bearup

“….The high country of northern NSW boasts a series of lagoons, home to a vast and varied gaggle of water birds including a well-travelled Japanese snipe, Gallinago hardwickii. It flutters in each August from Asia and is set for bitter disappointment when it peeks over the horizon this year. The largest of these highland marshes is the fabulously named Mother of Ducks, a massive lagoon on the edge of Guyra; the town’s golf course runs along its eastern lip.

In April the club’s long-time greenkeeper, Len Archer, got a call from a group of golfers telling him there was a fire on the ninth. “Really!” he replied sceptically. The district has been in drought for two years and he knew there was bugger-all on the fairway to burn. Still, he went to investigate and was confronted by something he didn’t expect. “There were these three patches about a foot wide that were just smouldering,” he says of the burning earth. “I had a water tank on the back of my ute and so I emptied it onto the fires.” It made no ­difference and the earth continued to smoulder menacingly for a “good three weeks”.

It was like some biblical alert that things were crook. The ancient peat, usually sodden, had spontaneously combusted — a result of the heat created by decomposition — and the earth beneath the Mother of Ducks Lagoon, now bone dry, caught fire. The smoke that wafted across the town was surely a sign; but then locals hardly needed a signal, godly or otherwise, to alert them to how grim their situation has become.

It’s been devastating for Guyra. Leonie Oehlers has owned the hairdressing salon, Scissors and Combs, for 32 years and says the previous year has been her worst trading period ever. “People are going twice as long between cuts,” she says. “They’ll have their cuts and then they’ll put their own colour in.” Business is down more than 50 per cent. Her father, Barry Clark, owns a cattle stud nearby. He’s had to sell some of his precious breeders, cows and bulls that have been his life’s work. “It just broke his heart,” she says of the day the truck rolled out with his cattle on the back. “It’s really knocked him around.”

Leonie’s brother, Kevin Clark, manages Ducats Earthmoving, which has a concrete plant; it’s been told it will have its water allocation cut. It couldn’t have come at a worse time. The company is about to begin a massive concrete pour: 6000 cubic metres to lay the slab for a new hydroponic tomato farm. “We just provided all the concrete for the new town pipeline and now the bastards are cutting off our water,” says Kevin. His family — one in farming, one in hairdressing and another in construction — are all drought-affected.

This is a town perched on the top of the Great Dividing Range — at an altitude of 1330m it’s 400m higher than the Snowy Mountains resort town of Jindabyne. City people tend to think of the bush as one amorphous landscape but Guyra, my home town, is not like those places way west of the Great Divide, like Bourke or Birdsville, that regularly suffer from drought. Its elevation and proximity to the coast, 170km away, usually gift it with a reliable average rainfall of 888mm. Its rich basalt soils are among the most coveted grazing lands in Australia. A 1500ha property nearby, Tenterden Station, recently sold for $17 million — $11,333 a hectare.

This high rainfall, and the bracing climate, was partly why the giant vegetable producer Costa Group spent more than $100 million in Guyra building a series of hydroponic tomato glasshouses. It’s the largest private employer in the region, providing jobs for 550 people, and it is about to lay the slab for another $40 million glasshouse, which will boost total staff to 700. Its newer glasshouses are water-efficient — all the water they need is collected from the roofs and reticulated — but its old glasshouse, constructed in the early 2000s, accounts for some 40 per cent of the town’s water use. A company spokesman said that if worst comes to worst, it too will truck in water to keep the operation running and save jobs.

“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” says grazier Sam White. His family established Bald Blair Station in the 1890s. White takes me for a drive across his parched and depressing paddocks — it’s only June 2 and this is what things ­usually look like at the end of a harsh winter. It’s a moonscape, with fences. We stop on a ridge and he points out the Bald Blair Lagoon — as a kid, he went water skiing there. “It’ll be completely dry in a couple of weeks,” he says. “That’s only the fourth time it’s been dry in the past century.”

Four times in the past century, but, worryingly, twice in the past five years; the last time in 2014. “We didn’t get the recovery that we’d normally get during the 10-year period,” White says. “What we are experiencing is more dry periods in the past 30 years than we had in the previous 30.” Bureau of Meteorology analysis backs up what he is seeing: there are more hot days, meaning more evaporation, drier paddocks and less run-off. BOM analysis of the ­Northern Tablelands Region shows that the average temperature over the past decade is 1.4 degrees higher than a century ago.

The state Nationals member for Northern Tablelands, Adam Marshall, tells me this apparent change in weather patterns, “seemingly” due to climate change, is a grim prospect. “[It] frightens the bejesus out of me that this could be the new normal in terms of weather patterns, with more extremes, more prolonged dry times — and when we have wet times, they’ll be more severe as well. We are experiencing conditions in terms of water storage and water supply, particularly in the tablelands area, that we just haven’t ever seen before.”

It’s an ear-nipping winter day and light snow ispredicted to fall overnight as James McTavish and I head towards Tenterfield in the far north of NSW, just 20km from the Queensland border. Some 97.4 per cent of NSW is in drought and McTavish has been appointed Regional Town Water Supply Coordinator — a fancy title for the arduous task of keeping the taps running. This ­crisis is not restricted to NSW, and just across the border in the towns of Warwick and Stanthorpe, the situation is equally grim. More than 65 per cent of Queensland — almost every district south of the coastal city of Rockhampton, across to Boulia in the far west — is in drought. There’s drought, too, across Victoria’s Gippsland, much of South Australia and south-west WA.

McTavish, 49, was a lieutenant colonel in the infantry. He did a tour of Somalia and two stints in East Timor. He left the army to work as an emergency co-ordinator for the NSW State Emergency Service, marshalling the response to major floods and storms. If only he could conjure up all that moisture now. “When you speak to a lot of people regionally they know that things are changing,” he says. “They might disagree on the cause and they might disagree on what you call it, but the reality is they accept that something is different. We’ve had two years of very hot weather and two years of very low rainfall and that has led to two years of virtually no inflow into water storage.” There was a “bit of a blip” with a wet season in 2015, but much of the state, particularly the far west, “has been in drought for seven or eight years”. ­McTavish rattles off a list of towns facing a ­crisis, places that will be in severe trouble if there is another hot, dry summer: Mungindi, Walgett, Orange, Brewarrina, Tamworth, Dubbo, Narromine, Bourke, Louth, Tilpa and Menindee — the scene of the recent mass fish kill. The ­massive Burrendong Dam, which supports Dubbo, is at 5.3 per cent; Chaffey Dam, a ­relatively small dam supplying Tamworth, is at 23 per cent. Copeton Dam, near Inverell, which can hold three times the volume of Sydney Harbour, is at nine per cent. Keepit Dam, in the Namoi Valley, is at one per cent.

The Band-Aid is costly. In its budget this month the NSW Government announced $30 million to waive fixed charges for water licences, $15 million for emergency water carting, $30 million on a new groundwater supply for Dubbo, $8.2 million for a secondary water storage at Nyngan, $2.2 million to augment bore water at Coonabarabran and $2 million for Albert Priest Channel maintenance (Nyngan and Cobar). A further 30 similar projects are currently under consideration. The government recently completed a $450 million pipeline that has saved ­Broken Hill. “We are seeing some of the lowest inflows into our dams since the 1940s,” says NSW water minister Melinda Pavey.

And still the weatherman brings only gloom. Farmers are enduring their second year of drought and the predictions are that it will continue into 2020. “The outlook is not great,” is the blunt assessment of Dr Karl Braganza, head of climate monitoring at the Bureau of Meteorology. From July to September there is no part of the country that has “a chance” of exceeding medium rainfall. Long term, what is needed to break the drought is a La Niña event in the Pacific Ocean; currently it is stuck in the dreaded El Nino phase. Meanwhile, the other engine of rain, the Indian Ocean Dipole, has turned its back on us too. Says Braganza: “The way El Nino tends to work is that once it gets going in winter it tends to persist through to the next autumn and in autumn it tends to reboot itself.” That’s autumn 2020.

McTavish is working with NSW councils to try to avert catastrophe. You can truck water into a small town like Guyra, but for major population centres like Dubbo or Tamworth “it would be prohibitively expensive and the logistics capability just doesn’t exist”. There are also major water-­reliant industries in these cities — big employers such as abattoirs, chicken producers and mines — to take into consideration. Throughout the state, plans are being drawn up to cut down on waste, to restrict use, to sink emergency bores — anything to keep the water flowing to the towns and businesses that would shut without a reliable supply.

In Tenterfield, the town where Henry Parkes delivered his famous oration that led to Federation, we meet with the mayor, Peter Petty — a farmer, truck driver and farrier who possesses a handshake that could crack a macadamia — and the council’s CEO, Terry Dodds. The town is on “level 4 and a half” water restrictions: sprinklers and the washing of motor vehicles are banned, and the town’s concrete plant has switched to bore water to continue operating. If the concrete plant closed, the town’s builders would be thrown out of work. Three local nurseries are just hanging on — no one wants to plant trees they can’t water. The council has had to stand down two of its four grader crews because you need water to grade dirt roads effectively.

On the outskirts of town, Dodds explains, are residents known as the “blockies”, people with 2-3ha blocks who might run three cows, “two to pay the rates and one for Christmas”, or a few ponies for their kids. The blockies are not on town water and their tanks and dams are empty. He says some have resorted to taking water from a secluded tap out the back of the Salvation Army Hall. “For someone to come in with a trailer and park behind the Salvation Army Hall and pinch a thousand litres of water — that’s ­desperate.” The council has resorted to removing or locking taps in its parks.

A plan is being drawn up for the council to employ year 11 and 12 school students to hand out shower timers and a tip sheet for saving water to every household in Tenterfield. They will also convey to residents the gravity of the crisis.

Petty and Dodds take me for a drive out to Tenterfield Dam on the outskirts of town. Like Guyra, Tenterfield has a relatively small water supply. It too has a high average rainfall, 935mm, and the run-off from the catchment has always been more than sufficient to supply the town. This year there’s been no run-off. In town, next to a picketed cricket oval, is a reserve called Shirley Park. Years ago the council sunk a bore in the park to top up the town’s water supply when it ran low. The pumps at the Shirley Park Bore were last turned on 19 years ago. It is now the only thing that stands between the town and Armageddon.

“If that bore runs dry,” says the straight-talking mayor Petty, “we’re buggered, 100 per cent. This is an emergency and we haven’t seen the worst of it. We don’t often see a lot of rain over winter and if the spring rains fail…” Earlier in the day he’d met with the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, and talked about dusting off old plans to dam the Mole River, 26km west of ­Tenterfield. He hands me a pamphlet outlining the plan. McCormack, he says, was enthusiastic. I wonder how enthusiastic the towns and irrigators further west would be — the Mole River runs into the Macintyre River, through Inverell, and eventually into the Murray Darling, a river system that vacillates between being in the sick bay and the intensive care unit.

Dodds and I wander down to a spot on the dam floor that would normally be submerged. Water bubbles up through a pipe, hits a tin cap and cascades down onto a granite rock to join the water in the dam, downhill. It’s a tenuous lifeline. No one knows how much water is in the aquifer below Shirley Park. The council is running the bore two days on, two days off. If the bore fails, Tenterfield, a town of 4000 people, will be out of water in months. The nearest reliable water supply is almost 200km away.

The following morning, James McTavish sits in on an emergency meeting with Petty, Dodds and various representatives from the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet, water bureaucrats and the licensing body, the Natural Resources Access Regulator. For four hours they thrash out ideas to keep the water running. The situation is worse than the government bureaucrats had thought — an earlier engineers’ report had used an incorrect measurement to calculate how much water was in the dam. It turns out there’s even less than they’d believed. Hurried recalculations are done by the engineers sitting around the table — they come up with a figure of just 200 days’ worth of water. A sense of urgency sweeps the room.

It is finally decided that drillers will be engaged, that afternoon, to start searching for alternative bores. McTavish assures the council that he will do everything he can to ensure the necessary approvals are given top priority and that emergency funding is secured. The snag is that until the council is granted the appropriate water licences, it will have to buy the water on the open market. Dodds, the council’s CEO, is incensed. “That is ridiculous,” he says. “There is no way while my bum points to the ground that I am going to go to pensioners on $480 a week and say, ‘By the way, your water bill has just doubled because I have had to buy water on the stock market’. They are just going to look at me like I’ve got two heads.”

McTavish assures Dodds that the state government will pick up 75 per cent of the bill until the licences are granted. The thing he can’t do is guarantee they’ll find water. Tenterfield sits on top of the Great Dividing Range in what is known as fractured granite country — finding aquifers here is difficult and unreliable. The drillers may find a good source of groundwater nearby. But then, they may not. Then what?

Another emergency meeting, this one 180km south at Armidale Regional Council to discuss the water crisis in Guyra, which is now part of the recently amalgamated regional council; it was a bitter union. McTavish tells me Australians urgently need to change their attitude to water use. “There are places where they have adapted very well to lower water availability, but there is still a substantial proportion of the population that is profligate in their water use,” he says. “That has to change and it has to change permanently.”

Along the way, I stop in to talk to some farmers — one of them is famous, reluctantly so. On February 5, 1960, Steven Walls, then aged four, was out mustering sheep with his dad on a property at Tubbamurra, just north of Guyra, when he wandered off and got lost. It sparked one of the largest land searches in Australia with 4000 people on foot, 100 men on horseback and five light aircraft scouring the scrub for him. Steve was found four days later, 11km from where he went missing, sunburnt but relatively unscathed. Johnny Ashcroft wrote a hit song about it, Little Boy Lost, and Steve became famous, but not rich. A movie about his ordeal came out in 1978, starring John Hargreaves — but the film company went broke and he got nothing out of that either. The whole thing has always been “a pain in the arse” for Walls — he’s famous for something he was too young even to recollect.

Walls, now 64, still lives a simple, rural life at Tubbamurra on the 50ha block he bought from his grandmother more than 40 years ago. He was a shearer until his back went, and now supplements the modest income he gets from his farm working as a shed-hand and a labourer on nearby farms. He used to run 15 cows, but “I was workin’ in the shearin’ sheds and puttin’ them on the road tryin’ to feed em’. Couldn’t do it.” And so he sold all of them. He used to run 150 crossbred ewes, but has cut them back to 100, “’cause the feed got too dear”. He’s getting less work in the shearing sheds now, because farmers in the district have all reduced their flocks. He’s getting less labouring work on farms too, because his neighbours have less money. His elderly mother, Dorrie, who lives with him, says she’s worried about her son. Money is tight. Have they considered selling up and moving to town, I ask. “No way in the world,” he says. “Livin’ in town would drive me completely mad. I gotta be out doin’ things.” And so he’ll buckle down until the rain arrives, whenever that may be.

Further in, on the outskirts of Guyra, I catch up with Fiona Smith — she and her husband Derek run an impressive free-range egg operation on their 120ha block. The chicken sheds, with two maremma dogs protecting them from foxes, are towed around the property, fertilising the pastures and allowing them to fatten their sheep and cattle — in a good year. In an average year they run around 220 cows and 80 sheep along with 3000 laying hens. This year’s been tough — because of the cost of feed and the lack of water they’ve had to cut their cattle numbers back to 10, their sheep to 10 and their hens to 1500.

“Who’d have thought Guyra would be running out of water and be having these long extended periods of high temperatures?” Fiona says. “Guyra was a safe water area — but apparently that’s no longer the case and we just have to deal with it.”

That evening I’m allowed into an emergency meeting at Armidale Regional Council, along with the mayor, Simon Murray, the CEO, Susan Law, James McTavish and senior engineering staff. The council’s senior water engineer produces a chart showing that in the past 18 months run-off into the dams supplying both Guyra and Armidale has been reduced by 95 per cent. All other jobs have been put aside while his team deals with the water crisis.

Four milk tankers — two of them B-doubles — are now trucking treated water up the mountain to Guyra. The Caltex service station has agreed to stop its car-washing service, the tomato farm will cut its water usage from five megalitres a week to two, and Ducats’ concrete plant in Guyra will have its water allocation cut altogether.

Bizarrely, a couple of Armidale councillors have been complaining about “not being able to water their roses” because of the water restrictions in Armidale, the mayor says. McTavish, the former infantry officer, says that next time he is in town he will meet with the councillors to explain, in blunt terms, the importance of them getting behind the restrictions. “There is a difference between what you would like to have and what you can actually have in a water emergency,” he says. “In six months’ time, if you don’t get rain, harder decisions will have to be made…”