“We’re in uncharted territory at the moment … it’s like nothing we’ve had before.”
That’s the message from the state’s water experts as the Gwydir Valley follows the Namoi into the unknown as one of the worst droughts on record tightens its grip.
The Namoi catchment is dry and barren as kangaroos rather than fish flock to the dam bed that resembles more of a desert.
And, unless there’s significant rainfall events in the next 12 months, water supplies in the Gwydir Valley will be all but depleted.
The Gwydir Valley is among the worst-affected regions in this severe time of drought, with storage currently at critically low levels.
Copeton Dam is at 13 per cent storage and, without significant inflows, is likely to be holding close to 180 gigalitres at the end of this water year.
The long-term average inflow of the Gwydir river system is 1141GL. In 2017-18, the actual inflow was just 208GL.
However, things are much more dire in the Namoi Valley, with Keepit Dam currently at 0.5 per cent and last year’s inflows only 80GL – significantly lower than the 870GL long-term average.
“Inflows in the last six years are lower than the millennium drought; this is a record,” WaterNSW executive manager for system operations Adrian Langdon said.
Inflows in the last six years are lower than the millennium drought; this is a record.WaterNSW executive manager for system operations, Adrian Langdon
“People aren’t fully aware of that.
“A lot of people look at what’s happening downstream and say this and that and make up stories, but the real fact is: the upstream catchment has had six years of critically low rainfall water.
“Over the last two years it’s been a record low, the lowest levels we’ve seen in the northern catchment since 1918.”
Mr Langdon said if it wasn’t for dams such as Copeton and Keepit, the river systems would have been dry 18 months ago.
Over the past 12 months there have been block releases from Copeton Dam to help extend water supplies in the Gwydir Valley.
The Moree community was presented with the dire outlook for their valley during a public water consultation session this week.
Representatives from the NSW Department of Industry – Water, WaterNSW, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage and rural financial counsellors, as well as the NSW Drought Co-ordinator Jock Laurie, were on hand to discuss the situation currently facing the Gwydir Valley river system.
The consultation involved updating members of the community, including irrigators, council staff, and other key stakeholders and interested bodies, on the water availability outlook and proposed measures to help manage the river systems if the dry conditions persist.
The department’s water policy co-ordinator for drought, Michael Wrathall, said it was a challenge to work out the timing of these releases, and trying to balance the needs of environmental river users with stock and domestic users and high-security users.
“We have to work out how to get the timing right,” he said.
“Dam storages will only last about six months without water.
“So we’re trying to do releases six months apart. We’re likely to be able to do two bulk releases over the next 12 months. Once those are made, there’ll be nothing left in Copeton. We’ll have to look at alternate water supplies.
“We have to be really careful with our water supplies over the next 12 months. In 12 months, the Gwydir is likely to be in the same position as the Namoi is now. Hopefully we don’t get to that stage. We’re already at record lows now.”
Mr Wrathall said that, if we went another 12 months without rain, the situation would be “much more severe than anything we’ve experienced in the last 100 years”.
“We’re in uncharted territory at the moment, which is another reason it’s difficult to manage,” he said.
“It’s like nothing we’ve had before.”
As well as informing the public of the current water availability outlook and proposed measures to manage the river systems, the consultation was about engaging with the community to find out how the drought was affecting them and what government agencies could do to help.
“We’re really focused on managing the river system better and getting some local advice,” Mr Wrathall said.
“Following the week of collecting feedback [from the drought-affected river systems], we’re making recommendations about how we manage each of the river systems if the dry continues.”
Communication and transparency were the two key issues raised by members of the Moree community.
“On the whole, they’re reasonably happy with how the system has been managed,” Mr Wrathall said.
“They want more from us, in explaining why we’re doing things.”
Irrigators and farmers said they wanted factual information in a timely manner so they knew what was going on, and called for greater transparency from the water agencies about how they made their decisions.
“Irrigators need information to go forward in terms of their business plans,” Mr Langdon said.
“They understand there’s a drought, but water is a critical part of their business. They need to know what should they be planning for for the next 12 months.”
At the Moree consultation, the importance of getting factual information out to the broader community was also stressed.
“What they’re feeling is increasing pressure put on the community up here for taking water that doesn’t exist,” Mr Langdon said.
“Sixty to 70 per cent of water being delivered in the Gwydir system is environmental water. The majority is not for irrigators, it’s for commonwealth and NSW water holders who are delivering positive environmental water outcomes with that water.
“Irrigation water was very small, but [irrigators] seem to be getting the blame. We have to get information to the broader community.”
In the past 10 years, 22 per cent of total inflows of the Gwydir have been allocated to extractive users. There have been no allocations provided to general-security users in the Gwydir Valley since February 2018.