Australia

In rural Australia, people are struggling to access reliable water

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This is part of a series of reports from communities along the Darling River which have been impacted by water mismanagement and drought.

Parts of regional New South Wales are counting down the days before water supplies are set to run out. 

It has been predicted that towns in the central-west could run out of water as early as November as the state faces a drought of unprecedented proportions. 

For many in other parts of regional NSW, sourcing reliable water has never been an easy task.

Menindee
Aneeta Bhole/SBS News

Darryl Cowie is the owner of the Burke & Wills Menindee Motel and said there's never a day that goes by that the town isn't thinking about where their water is coming from.

Darryl Cowie
Darryl Cowie says reliable water is hard to come by when living in remote towns, but they get by.
Aneeta Bhole

“We've got to rely on what comes down the river and because we're so dependent on that, what happens upstream really affects everybody downstream,” he said.

“There’s an over-extraction further upstream which makes the river an unreliable water source.

Mr Cowie drinks the tap water - which is being sourced from Menindee's smallest lake - Copi Hollow
Mr Cowie drinks the tap water, which is being sourced from Menindee's smallest lake, Copi Hollow.
Aneeta Bhole

“It makes it hard for people investing in the town or growing produce to forward plan because there’s always a question mark on whether they’re doing the right thing or not.”

An independent report by the state’s National Resources Commission found the current break in water flow is the longest that has ever been recorded.

The report said "an intense drought, significant upstream water extraction and climate shift" are also to blame.

Mr Cowie provides bottled water for his guests at the motel.
Mr Cowie provides bottled water for his guests at the motel.
Aneeta Bhole

It was made following Australia's largest fish kills on record and water shortages in the river system.

Mr Cowie said after the event no one could drink the water coming from their taps.

Fish kill
After the fish kill the water in Menindee turned black according to Mr Cowie.

“The surface water in the river and the lakes all went sour and the water authorities were having a lot of trouble cleaning it up,” he said.

“Whatever was in the water was reacting with their chemicals and the water was going black, it was like tea.”

The water has since returned to its natural colour, but supplies are still dwindling, with potable and raw water being sourced from Menindee's smallest lake, Copi Hollow.

Mr Cowie said he drinks the water from the taps but provides bottled water to his guests because it is impossible to tell where water will be accessed from month to month.

For many towns in outback NSW, they sometimes have to rely on bore water from underground aquafers.
For many towns in outback NSW, they sometimes have to rely on bore water from underground aquafers.
Aneeta Bhole

"Now there's nothing come down the river at all, where do we go? The bore water? How long is that going to last? We don't know, how long is a piece of string?" he said.

As reliable water is hard to come by for people living in outback New South Wales, many of the residents in Menindee source their drinking water from donated supplies.

River water and bore water is used to wash clothes and water crops.

Wilcannia is still on water from the river
Wilcannia is still on water from the river but may have to turn to bore water if those supplies run low, says Darren Scotti.
Aneeta Bhole

Further upstream in Wilcannia, 150km from Menindee, the Central Darling Shire Council said they're on water from the town weir.

But without rain, the town only has about five months before that source runs out, when they'll turn to treated bore water.

"They replenish after a much longer period and we certainly have to stay within sustainable limits on that," said the council’s projects engineer Darren Scotti.

Water is being pumped from the weir in Wilcannia
Water is being pumped from the weir in Wilcannia but supplies are set to run out in five months without rain.
Aneeta Bhole

Communities running dry

David Pierce, a heavy vehicle driver, has been carting water from Wentworth for the town of Pooncarrie, 120km south of Mendiee. 

“They’ve copped the brunt of an empty river system, there’s no water, people need water to live it’s as simple as that,” he said.

“This is the first township in the Wentworth Shire to run out of water but we’ve been delivering water to farmers filling up tanks and that for a couple of months now.”

"It’s depressing," he said.

It's not uncommon for this region to have dry and hot temperatures.
It's not uncommon for this region to have dry and hot temperatures.
Aneeta Bhole

“There’s a lot of mental health issues starting to emerge but generally there’s no escape from a place that’s got no water.”

“You can’t fill your pool, you can only have a shower for a short period of time, so yeah it’s very depressing for people living in this sort of environment.”

The river used to run past Mr Pierce’s property, Pomona, but he’s had to rely on carting water to his property as conditions continue to get drier.

Water for Wilcannia is treated before its runs into people's homes.
Water for Wilcannia is treated before its runs into people's homes.
Aneeta Bhole

He said drought funding through the Federal Government has helped, with water allocations provided through the Wentworth Shire Council.

“We’re not on town water supply at all, prior to this allocation we filled our own tank at a $1,500 cost each fill,” he said.

“That usually lasted about two months, there’s only two of us.”

Mr Pierce receives assistance as part of the drought communities programme run by the federal government.

The programme provides $1 million over two years from 2018-19 to eligible councils for local community infrastructure and other drought relief projects. 

In New South Wales, Wentworth Shire Council is among a list of 52 towns that are eligible for funding.

Last month towns in central-western NSW were forecast to run out of water supplies by mid November.

The first towns to lose water supply will be Dubbo, Cobar, Nyngan and Narromine.

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