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It’s the biggest investment to secure a town’s water supply in the state’s history: half a billion dollars for Broken Hill and the parched far west of NSW. But as the dry spell deepens, the government will struggle delivering it. By Charlotte King.

Broken Hill’s water supply plans under threat

Outback resident Ross Ledra.
Credit: CHARLOTTE KING

There is a strange quiet to the row of fibro holiday shacks that make up the Sunset Strip – the 1970s-style holiday resort bordering Lake Menindee in far western New South Wales. The outback hamlet appears as if it were put here by mistake. The little houses take names such as “Bob and Cathy’s Lake House” and “Casa del Lago”. Lakeview Avenue leads to nothing but a vacant stretch of sand. 

Until Ross Ledra’s red Ford Territory appears, the only movement on the street is a rusting swing set, gently rocking in the wind. “There was talk of evacuating the town towards the end of this year,” Ledra says as he lets me into his lakeside home. He pours me a glass of water from a plastic bottle in the fridge, a poignant gesture given the circumstances. “Because if you haven’t got water; we’re talking water. No sewer, no hospital, no nothing. Nothing out of your tap, that’s what we were talking towards the end of this year.”

A few hundred metres from Ledra’s balcony, little white patches of sand mark where water authorities have been drilling for bores. If there are no significant inflows into the Darling River by the end of 2016, the groundwater resources under this lake will provide an emergency water supply to NSW’s far west, including Broken Hill – a town of 18,000 people. From November this year, authorities will have to treat the remaining surface water from Menindee’s deepest lake, Copi Hollow, through reverse osmosis. The salinity will be at such a level that it’s undrinkable. 

“What a joke,” says Ledra. “A lot of people up north say: ‘What’s the matter with bore water?’ Well, yeah, there’s you and your wife and two kids on a property. We’re talking 18,000 people: it’s a little different.” But for Ledra, this crisis was man-made. “In November 2013 they decided to pull the plug,” he says. “It’s been a monumental mistake. See they didn’t expect another drought, that’s what’s got them running for cover.” 

In the 1960s a deal was struck between the states and Commonwealth allowing flows from this chain of seven lakes – which hold more than three times Sydney Harbour when full – to be shared with downstream communities. It was part of the Menindee Lakes scheme, a bold infrastructure project using weirs and regulators to shore up a more permanent water supply for Broken Hill. But the deal has been contingent on the lakes’ combined volume being above a certain capacity, about 37 per cent, or 480 gigalitres. It’s at this point that the water in the lakes becomes fare for downstream users, with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority authorised to deliver it. 

Over a hot spring leading up to an even hotter summer, between 2013 and 2014, the MDBA chose to make the most of this arrangement. The Menindee Lakes are flat and round and “lose” a considerable amount to evaporation each year. Rather than risk this, orders for the Lower Darling and Murray rivers were put in. Between releases from the NSW government and the MDBA, about a third of the lakes’ then volume was delivered to irrigators, state governments and the environment downstream. The delivery was also timed to promote golden perch spawning in the Lower Darling, which ecologists have since shown was a success. Ross Ledra’s eyes fill with indignation at the decision. “They [figured]: ‘We’ve had the 10-year millennium drought; we won’t have another one so quick; the lakes will get replenished.’ ” He pauses: “It hasn’t.” 

Since 2014, the drought in the northern basin has reduced the Darling, already a slow-flowing river, to a stagnant stream. In the mining town of Broken Hill, 100 kilometres to Lake Menindee’s west, authorities are holding a monthly briefing at the Barrier Social Democratic Club. “The urgency we’re dealing with here is extraordinary,” says Guy Chick, the manager of the city’s water supplier, Essential Water. Chick is chairing this month’s meeting and, as he shifts his weight from one foot to the other, he appears decidedly uncomfortable in the role. “We’re all here with the same passion to see a solution,” he reminds the audience, peppered with community dissidents who say the lakes are being mismanaged. “But the conversations here have got to be held with respect and courtesy.” 

Chick’s company is part of a complicated network of authorities charged with keeping the far west hydrated. Essential Water has to supply the water to homes and businesses; another organisation, Water NSW, is responsible for solving the short-term shortages by drilling bores, while the NSW government’s Office of Water is mandated with finding a longer-term solution. The NSW government has now confirmed that bores, originally painted as an emergency option, are also on the table as a more permanent solution. This has angered some in the Broken Hill community, including the mayor, and prompted internal wrangling among the Nationals, with former water minister Kevin Humphries openly critical of the move. The Greens have also weighed in on the debate, with the MLC Jeremy Buckingham claiming the government needs to work on reducing extractions upstream instead. 

At the Barrier Social Democratic Club, the top bureaucrat from the Office of Water, Gavin Hanlon, faces the room next. He tells the audience that millions have been put aside for the crisis and brings up a few slides detailing the longer, drier spells that the far west has experienced during recent decades. Hanlon calmly fields questions about his recent decision to lift an embargo allowing irrigators in northern NSW to harvest additional – or supplementary – water from the Darling. He reassures the audience that “only a few people” are accessing that water. It’s a curious admission, considering the flow of 18 to 20 gigalitres he is talking about amounts to almost twice what Broken Hill is licensed to pump each year. 

Mark Hutton, a former miner turned health clerk who now administers the Broken Hill, Menindee Lakes: We Want Action Facebook page, asks whether lifting the embargo was a good idea, considering the quality of the surface water has diminished to the point where it will soon need desalination. Hanlon tells the activist there is a hierarchy of demands informing these decisions, but assures him: “When it gets really dry, humans come first.” Hutton asks the bureaucrat what comes second. “There is a whole series of things that happen after that,” he says.

The priority system determining where water from the basin goes varies by jurisdiction. In the days when paddle steamers carted goods and passengers up and down the river, the states drew up an agreement to ensure a minimum amount of water flowed through to the Murray’s mouth in South Australia. The trade-off was that in a wet year, NSW and Victoria could extract more water. “In my experience everybody thinks that the water that falls near them belongs to them, or the water that passes near them belongs to them,” says Professor Lin Crase, a water policy researcher at La Trobe University. 

“This is problematic. But that’s why urban centres generally have a generous allocation and that allocation is given priority over other suppliers.” As a town, with nursing homes, businesses and schools, Broken Hill’s entitlement to water has a higher security than other groups. But in a system as variable as the Darling, certainty is scarce. 

“Water entitlements are not guaranteed, they’re simply your share of the available water,” says Crase. “In a dry year, obviously everybody’s share shrinks.” 

NSW has set aside almost half a billion dollars to secure Broken Hill’s supply over the long term – the biggest investment in the state’s history to guarantee one town’s water. With the Bureau of Meteorology declaring an El Niño event and drier conditions for Australia’s east to come, this cost may only increase. 

Crase says Broken Hill could better ensure its survival using the same approach as agriculturalists – by entering the water market. Buying and selling water entitlements is what kept many growers afloat during the drought. Water Minister Niall Blair claims “all viable options” to secure the long-term water for the town will be examined in a business case. 

But back at the Sunset Strip, Ross Ledra is sceptical of the solutions offered by the water trade. A local grower has lost more than $400,000 in water purchases, he says, because they need to be used within a certain period; and with the Darling at a snail’s pace, it’s not accessible. 

“It’s a great idea if I’ve got an abundance and I can sell it to you. But now you’re buying water rights. So it doesn’t exist – the body of water is not there. But I can still sell it to someone.” He screws up his face, perplexed. 

“How can you sell something that’s not there?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2015 as "In deep water". Subscribe here.

Charlotte King
is a regional journalist.

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