Are new dams the answer to NSW water crisis? 

Published: September 2019 I By: Samantha Noon 

NSW regional communities are suffering from drought and serious water shortages – we investigate the crisis and possible solutions.


Local boys Jai Brown and Connor Burke in the empty Namoi River at Walgett – one of ten towns in NSW running out of water. Source: Carly Earl / Guardian / eyevine. 
"It's a really tough time to be a farmer – and a water minister," Melinda Pavey said with just four months into the job as NSW Minister for Water. She acknowledged the pitfalls of her department, particularly its opposition to building dams at NSW Farmers annual conference in July.   

“We’re fighting some internal challenges every day,” the Minister told delegates at the NSW Farmers annual conference. 

“Some of the processes within the organisation of the Department of Industry and Water have left me – bemused.” In her first briefing with the department, she said, “I was told [raising the wall of] Wyangala Dam was not a priority, yet it was a commitment we made at election.” She said there was no mention of the word ‘dam’ in her briefing notes for the conference either. 

“I share this with you because it is important to understand that there are those within the bureaucracy that do not want dams to be built.” The Minister made it clear that now is a critical time to plan for the future – and addressing transparency issues will be part of that. 

“Be assured, despite all that initial advice, there is $30 million in this year’s budget to ensure we get cracking on Wyangala Dam [near Cowra] and we get shovels in the ground. We’d like it to be sooner, but I don’t want to give you a timeframe that we can’t meet, that’s not fair.” 

NSW Minister for Water Melinda Pavey addresses the annual conference. Photography by David Hahn. 

She acknowledged the lengthy approval periods required for environmental impact statements for state and federal government water infrastructure projects, such as the $1.4 billion announced for the expanded Snowy Hydro scheme, but assured farmers of her commitment. The upgrade of Tamworth’s Dungowan Dam is another proposal on the table estimated at $484 million, which the Minister believes is a good option. 

Deputy Premier John Barilaro was also frank in addressing the issue of water and the need for investment when he spoke at the annual conference. “Water is the big whale in the room and there’s no doubt it’s the big issue,” he said. 

“We need investment in raising the dam walls, we need to get bulldozers on the ground. While Sydneysiders are at Level 1 water restrictions, now is the time to ensure regions aren’t short-changed. We are at a point now that all water infrastructure should be treated as of state significance. We need to make sure we unlock it today for the long-term and short-term.”
Melinda Pavey admitted, “It’s reasonable communities are frustrated at the time it’s taking. The pain, the anguish and the mental illness that many of our communities are facing with this drought – we know this and we are listening.” 

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She noted the importance of establishing connections within the community in a more meaningful way to address transparency issues and better understand the problems at hand. 

“We do have some challenges around the Murray-Darling Basin with transparency – there is no quick fix for this,” she said. 

“When you have inflows in those northern valleys at just 1.5% of the long-term average, you know we have some issues. There’s still high security and there is some carry-over in the southern Basin, only some, but in the north it is far bleaker.”
How to tackle the water crisis, as a nation
Ensuring South Australia comes to the table by increasing Adelaide’s desalination plant to full production to ease the pressure up north would be a step forward, the Minister said, in reducing the reliance on the Murray-Darling system for irrigation and environment needs. 

“Water can be shared across states. There is no reason this shouldn’t be able to happen.”

These issues, particularly the need for national cooperation, were later raised for discussion at the Ministerial Council for Corporations meeting on 4 August in Canberra, which resulted in the creation of an inspector-general role to police the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and ensure all water users are following the rules. Former police commissioner Mick Keelty, who was appointed Northern Basin Commissioner last year, will serve as interim inspector-general.

Kai Wakerman Powell, senior water consultant with water policy adviser Aither, also expressed the need for greater cooperation and sharing of information, during the water panel session at the annual conference.
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“We need to recognise [the system] is an across states, across boundaries, across jurisdictions problem, and we need to be working together,” Kai said. 

Looking at where the information is, how it’s gathered and disseminating that, will be critical in identifying what’s happening on farms and in markets, he said. 

“There’s no point fixing the water market in NSW if it’s a problem in Victoria. There’s no point managing infrastructure in Victoria if the problem is in South Australia. So I think it’s a matter of finding common ground and coming together rather than pointing fingers.”
Measuring water usage and accountability vital during drought 

Despite the obvious need to address transparency, Melinda Pavey commended NSW for being “ahead of other states in terms of management and water accountability”. 

Since last April when the Natural Resources Access Regulator started operating to enforce NSW’s water law, 70% more cases have been received for investigation and 80% more cases have been finalised, with three times as many penalty notices issued. Of nine prosecutions in court, three had guilty verdicts.

However, the Minister admitted measuring the accuracy of the big water meters is hard when there’s no water to measure. “We need to get those larger pumps with proper telemetric systems but I’m also very conscious of the fact that it’s a challenging period, we’re putting big bills and big costs on farmers – but we will get through this side by side,” she said. 

The banks of the Darling River in Menindee post-fish kills, in far west New South Wales. Source: Samantha Noon. 

“Water, as we know, is a vital human need,” Jane MacAllister, chair of Region 4 of the Murray Darling Association and councillor at Wentworth Shire Council explained during the water panel session. 

“Whether we try and call it a commodity, it is in fact more than that because it’s something that we can’t live for more than a few days without, and that’s the bottom line,” says Jane. 

“We are deeply concerned about what remains after the [Menindee] fish kills, what species have been lost forever, because around the Menindee Lakes it’s the womb of the Murray-Darling Basin and that’s where the fish are recruited and hatched, populating the entire Murray-Darling Basin. I hate to say it but I don’t think we’ve seen the last of it. 

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“Working out what we value would be really helpful because farmers have been doing it tough for far too long. We keep having this irrigation versus environment debate but we keep forgetting that there are other extractive uses such as mining, urban water and town water. 

“The ATO [Australian Taxation Office] recently reported that more than 10% of Australia’s water is owned by overseas individuals or organisations. Where does that become a national security issue, and are we putting enough value on Australian water for Australian farmers?

“What once was highest security water in the Basin has not even been flowing past, and yet people are needing to pay for water access licences, they’re needing to pay their rates, there are some plantings that are sending off their final export this year. 

“People are walking off the land in droves and it’s heartbreaking, it really is – that’s just the surface of it. So we really need to look at value.”  

The water session panellists at the conference (above from left): Jane MacAllister, Murray Darling Authority; Levy Schneider, Netafim Australia; Dr Peta Derham, Murray-Darling Basin Authority; Water Commissioner Jock Laurie; and Kai Wakerman Powell, Aither.
Fairness essential in the water sharing system

In her speech to the annual conference, Leader of the NSW Opposition Jodie McKay highlighted the just-released draft review of the Barwon-Darling river system water sharing policy, conducted by the NSW government’s Natural Resources Commission. 

In the draft, the Commission states: “Expert opinion suggests extractions pushed the river below Bourke into hydrological drought three years earlier than the upstream sections of the river. The rules effectively prioritise upstream water users, resulting in impacts increasing further downstream.”

The draft report continues: “Communities who can no longer fish, swim or drink the river water have called for the plan to be fundamentally overhauled. These calls have been matched by graziers who have struggled to provide for their stock as the river has dried up.”

Describing the draft review as “damning”, the NSW Opposition leader told the conference, “Unfair allocations and the water sharing plans have brought on the drought three years earlier than it needed to be. I encourage everyone to read the report.”

Speaking on the panel, NSW Water Commissioner Jock Laurie said issues relating to over-allocation in the Basin provide an opportunity, but it must be approached with a sense of goodwill. 

Like many irrigators, Deniliquin-district farmer Louise Burge, is forced onto a zero water allocation. So what is the truth about the Murray-Darling water allocations? Photography by: Simon Bayliss. 

“If you think we’re going to sit here and get everything we want in a political sense or an outcome, you’ve got to be dreaming. It’s all about compromise. It’s about working hard, building relationships and rebuilding relationships to start with, and until we do that we’re buggered.” 

He added that you can blame the government and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan – but unless it rains, it’s not going to make any difference. “It’s about understanding that we need to elevate the problem, looking at the river under stress and turning it around to make a better outcome.” 

In order to establish a fairer system, a proper investigation of current allocations and over-allocations is the first step, insisted Jane MacAllister. 

“There’s no baseline. We need to know what we’ve got that might be over-allocated, where are we over-allocated, how much of the water is being returned to the environment. Are we achieving KPIs [key performance indicators]? We need to do some actual accounting, so that would be a good place to start.” 

Murray-Darling Basin Authority executive director of water resource planning and accounting Dr Peta Derham agreed that from every crisis comes an opportunity. 

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“There’s always going to be tension [but] if we don’t continue to change and adapt – we’re not going to continue to move forward,” she said on the water panel. 

“The Basin Plan offers an opportunity but if we don’t collaborate – we’re going to keep suffering,” says Peta. 

“There has been recent rainfall events in the northern part of the Basin; they should have made their way down the river system and they haven’t. Governments need to be asked – and I’m part of the government – the hard questions of each other.”
Urgent need to improve Australia’s water recycling systems

When it comes to water recycling, Australia is not nearly as advanced as its northern counterparts, like Singapore or Israel. 

Melinda Pavey acknowledged becoming more respectful of water is a key goal for the government in achieving greater water security. 

In a question to the water panel, farmer Denis Haselwood said he was upset with the amount of water Australia wastes. “Fifty percent of Warragamba Dam in the last two years is now out and circulating in the ocean,” he said. 

“When other better-watered countries in the Northern Hemisphere recycle water umpteen times, why in this dry continent do we recycle almost none? So the fertility of our farms and most of the water out of our dams is now out in the Pacific Ocean.”

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Panellist Levy Schneider, managing director of Netafim Australia, a global irrigation solutions company originating in the Negev desert in Israel in 1965, told delegates there were no excuses for not using technology to make the most of water.

“In 1890 [Australian prime minister] Alfred Deakin said, ‘It is not the quantity of water to a crop, it is the quantity applied with intelligence that we need.’” In Israel almost all of the irrigation is done with recycled water. “The technology that we have ensures the most efficient delivery system,” Levy said. 

Levy Schneider addresses the conference about recycled water practices in Israel. 
He spoke of a kibbutz in Israel that is a major grower and trader of jojoba oil. “They grow the crop using only recycled water from the city of Beersheba, so the technology is available, we just need to do it. The young generation are leaving the land [in Australia] and there is something to do about it, so let’s do it now.”  

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What is Australia’s water usage?

Town water supplies in regional NSW centres are drying up quickly. Minister for Water Melinda Pavey told the conference, “One of the challenges is we actually don’t know in some country towns what that average daily water usage is.” 

The government is working with councils to better explain how they are coping compared to other communities across NSW. The Minister said communities are getting better at saving water. Orange in the Central Tablelands has decreased usage by 33% to 140L per person per day, since changing water restrictions from Level 3 to Level 4 in April. In comparison, Sydney is averaging 200L per person. The city has now introduced Level 1 water restrictions. “The irony is, it’s not just the country now, it’s also the city dealing with water shortages,” the Minister said. 

Warragamba Dam was 100% capacity two years ago and in late August 2019 it was at 51.1%. “We have never seen such a quick, fast and furious drop in Warragamba Dam levels.” 

Sydney’s desalination plant, which can add up to 15% of the total supply of the city’s needs, was turned on in January. 

“We need to ensure our messages to the community around respect for water are heard loud and clear,” the Minister told delegates. “We need a total water story, it is precious and it is vital to us all.” 
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Sources: regional councils and state water authorities
*By comparison, the daily consumption in Sydney during the Millennium drought was 240 litres. 

Regional NSW towns face scary water shortages  
Low to near-empty dams are prompting emergency planning across the state to increase dam storage capacity, build pipelines or construct more desalination plants. Under hot debate at the annual conference was the issue that at least 10 regional towns, including Tamworth, Armidale, Dubbo, Cobar, Nyngan and Narromine, are at risk of running dry in the next six months, with few options if rain does not arrive. 

The Menindee-Broken Hill pipeline (above) is set to be decommissioned since the opening of the Wentworth-Broken Hill $500 million pipeline built to secure Broken Hill’s town water supply. Landholders near Menindee are concerned for their future water security. Source: Samantha Noon. 

The situation is even more grim in towns such as Guyra, which has been carting water from Armidale since June, awaiting operation of a $13 million, 15km pipeline to Armidale’s Malpas Dam. 

Water Minister Melinda Pavey told conference delegates, “Providing water for drinking in the north is an absolute priority.”

Walgett has been facing even greater challenges. It’s been on Level 5 water restrictions since the Namoi and Barwon rivers stopped running and the weir dried up last summer, forcing the town to survive on bore water with higher than average salinity levels. There are plans to raise the town weir by a metre. Very recently, environmental fish flows allowed a slight reprieve in town water supply. 

 Walgett farmer, Ed Colless

Walgett farmer Ed Colless said at the conference his community had been in drought much longer than others, and it was no longer an “issue of limited supply”. 

“I’m a farmer in a community that has to work around the reality of no water,” he said. 

“We are now moving beyond hydrological drought and very much moving into socio-economic drought. The reality is we’re going to have to manage and do it more and more in the future, with no water.”

NSW Water Commissioner Jock Laurie said evaluating how to deal with no water was a good question. “We need to realise the intensity of the drought, the impact it has and the changes that it will apply to our rural communities,” he said. “There’s going to be impact, we’re not going to get out of this without people being hurt.” 

Melinda Pavey agreed that communities’ water security was reaching worrying levels. “Sonia O’Keefe [a farmer from Walcha] told me you’re not meant to run out of water at Walcha, and when you’re running out of water in Tenterfield and putting bores down it gets tricky, let alone the processes of government.”

With this alarming situation at hand, the government has promised a stream of water infrastructure projects to help secure regional towns’ water supply to “ensure everyone has a fair share”, the Minister for Water said. These projects include upgrades to Wyangala Dam, near Cowra, and to Dungowan and Chaffey dams, near Tamworth, along with pipelines to enable water transfer.   

Emergency proposals for NSW water infrastructure 


  • Guyra Dam (at 20.5%) 
  • Pipeline from Malpas Dam completed – it was scheduled to begin operating in August ($13 million cost).

  • Chaffey Dam (at 21.9%)
  • Proposal to expand by 20%, taking its capacity to 120GL ($143 million). 

  • Dungowan Dam (at 24%)
  • Proposal to increase capacity from 6GL to 22GL ($484 million).

  • Emergency pipeline 
  • Funding granted to run pipe from Chaffey Dam to Dungowan ($3.4 million).

  • Split Rock Dam (at 2%) 
  • Transfer pipeline proposed ($141 million). 

  • Keepit Dam (at 1%) 
  • Pipeline to Tamworth option ($128 million).

                Sources: WaterNSW and local councils; dam levels correct in mid-August. 
*Read the draft Water Sharing Plan Review – Barwon-Darling Unregulated & Alluvial Water Sources 2012, by the Natural Resources Commission here

Five ways forward for Australia’s water security 

  1. Realise the value of Australia’s water.

  2. Embrace technology to become more water efficient. 

  3. Plan ahead with water infrastructure, such as dams. 

  4. Communicate better between farmers and government – and cooperate nationally.

  5. Explore more opportunities to recycle water.

*NSW Farmers is setting up a Water Taskforce to work on the solutions.

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