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Towns facing water armageddon as supplies run out

MAJOR towns that are home to almost 200,000 people in regional NSW risk running out of water within a year due to an "unprecedented" rate of dam depletion.

Dam storage levels have dropped 30 per cent in the past 18 months in the worst drought on record, leaving authorities scrambling to develop emergency water sources.

Large regional hubs Tamworth (population about 62K), Orange (40K), Bathurst (42K) and Dubbo (40K) face exhausting local water supplies in the next 12 months in the absence of rain - an unprecedented event confirmed for the first time by the NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey.

Keepit Dam in 2019.
Keepit Dam in 2019.

It is even worse for smaller towns such as Tenterfield in the state's north, which only has six months supply remaining despite being located at the top of a river system and not being affected by irrigators.

The state government has taken drastic action to sure up regional water supplies, committing $15 million to cart water to areas currently suffering severe shortages including Murrurundi, Guyra, Menindee, Pooncarie and Tibooburra.

As trucks deliver water to Murrurundi around the clock, families are restricted to just two loads of washing a week, three-minute showers and are forbidden from watering anything.

Tamworth and Orange are on Level 4 restrictions and Bathurst is soon expected to join them, meaning residents can't fill pools, wash cars or water gardens.

Tamworth swimmer Connor Roberts will have nowhere to train level 5 water restrictions are introduced - the town’s pools will not be filled. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Tamworth swimmer Connor Roberts will have nowhere to train level 5 water restrictions are introduced - the town’s pools will not be filled. Picture: Jonathan Ng

Even the world-famous Tamworth Country Music Festival is feeling the drought pinch, with organisers in the process of developing water saving plans to ensure the 50,000 visitors in January comply with restrictions.

Tamworth's current groundwater supply, once thought to be the city's back-up water source in the drought, is actually insufficient if the dry conditions continue, a recent council study found. Instead the NSW government has invested more than $5 million to build a temporary weir and investigate a pipeline to supply the city with water.

Ms Pavey said the lack of rain meant inflows into dams and rivers had hit "record lows" and communities were in "real danger" of running out of water.

"Catchments that have been historically reliable like the Upper Hunter, Peel Valley and Central West are now facing a critical shortage of water," she said.

Taj Fitzgibbon, 6, and his family have two-minute showers in a bucket to collect the grey water for their garden. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Taj Fitzgibbon, 6, and his family have two-minute showers in a bucket to collect the grey water for their garden. Picture: Jonathan Ng

"This means no water for our families to drink, wash their clothes, our children to bathe, and of course keep our industries alive." Keepit Dam in the Namoi Valley is down to 1 per cent.

There's little hope of reprieve for residents, with the Bureau of Meteorology's latest climate forecast indicating a higher chance of drier than average conditions in spring.

The drought has affected every part of the community, with Tamworth swimming star Connor Roberts, 17, worried he could be forced out of town to chase his 2020 Tokyo Olympic dream.

He trains at the Tamworth City Olympic pool in summer but if the water restrictions go to Level 5, the pool would not be refilled.

"If I was forced to move, I'd have to reset my whole life," Connor said.

"It costs a lot of money to move away, my family wouldn't be there, I would have to get a new coach, I would train as part of a different squad, I'd need to find somewhere to live and a new job. The main reason I want to stay here is that I think I've found the coach for me, a person who can help take me to the Olympics."

Farmer Russell Webb on his Winton farm where the lack of water makers survival difficult. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Farmer Russell Webb on his Winton farm where the lack of water makers survival difficult. Picture: Jonathan Ng

Like many across NSW Tamworth residents are showering while standing in buckets and hooking up their greywater to a wheelie bin to conserve water during the worst drought in memory.

Tanya Thompson, who has two children living in Tamworth, said it was difficult to manage all the different restrictions.

"Having two kids who are 12 and nine they have learnt the rules on water restrictions but it is tough on everyone," she said. "We are all just praying for this drought to break."

Ms Thompson's six-year-old neighbour Taj Fitzgibbon said his family are also following the restrictions. "When we have showers we have to flick over a little blue timer and that tells us when we need to get out," she said.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack has responded to a state request for Commonwealth funds to help build $4 billion worth of projects to droughtproof the country. Ms Pavey said she looked forward to working with Canberra.

Keepit Dam in 2014.
Keepit Dam in 2014.


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