Drought preparations forgotten as heavy rainfall goes to waste, western NSW leaders say

Regional leaders fear critical “drought-proofing” projects have been forgotten and opportunities to prepare are being squandered as New South Wales is inundated by heavy rainfall.

The worst drought in living memory was swiftly followed by COVID, a mouse plague and now flooding, but residents argue there’s no excuse to face the next drought with the same inadequate infrastructure.

They say it is critical to make the most of abundant flows while inland NSW is inundated and argue flood events are often preceded by drought, as recently as 2016.

Authorities insist drought projects are a priority, but time is needed to ensure the major infrastructure is done well.

Residents fear it’s time they don’t have.

Vital pipeline prone to failure

Projects being investigated to help western NSW communities have reliable back up water sources include the Western Weir Strategy, Nyngan to Cobar Pipeline and Dubbo pipeline.

The outback mining town of Cobar depends on water transported from Nyngan’s Bogan River 130 kilometres away, via pipeline and three pumping stations that are “the town’s lifeline” but past their design life and prone to failure.

Cobar in Far West NSW was so badly drought-affected water was almost trucked in for the community.(Supplied: Rotary International)

During a major infrastructure failure, the Cobar township and mines only have three days’ water supply.

When the infrastructure failed, water was so scarce officials considered trucking in supplies.

“To keep a town like Cobar and our mining industries alive, we need new pump stations in Cobar, Nyngan and Hermidale and a new pipeline,” Cobar Shire Council general manager Peter Vlatko said.

“The pipeline broke down last weekend, we’re lucky it’s not a drought or summer.”

Fears about the next drought

A Department of Planning and Environment spokesperson confirmed a final business case for a new pipeline has been completed and the NSW government has committed its half of the $46 million cost for new pump stations.

It says the federal government is yet to pledge its half and the concept design for the pump stations and the pipeline still needs finalising.

A drone image of a pipe being replaced in the middle of red dirt landscape.
Thirty kilometres of the almost 130km Nyngan to Cobar Pipeline was replaced in 2017-18.(Supplied: Iplex)

“There’s no excuse for us not preparing for the next drought, don’t use COVID or flooding,” Mr Vlatko said.

“Once it rains it’s all put on the backburner. We’ll be in drought again and then everybody will panic.”

‘Flabbergasted’ by process

Mid-drought in 2019, the state government announced the Western Weir Strategy which would assess and improve weirs along the Barwon-Darling River system.

Last October, the state government announced the subsequent Better Baaka Program to investigate initiatives including upgrading Bourke’s weir.

Bourke Shire Council Mayor Barry Hollman said the council thought progress was imminent, but were informed more funding was needed for investigations.

A near dried out weir as viewed from the air
The Bourke Weir in February 2020, just days before a flow finally brought relief to the drought-stricken community.(Supplied: Bourke Shire Council)

“It’s very disappointing, we thought we were the next priority. We’ve been told to keep lobbying, we’re flabbergasted,” Mr Hollman said.

“There’s a lot of water coming past Bourke at the moment but when the water stops running, which it will, we only ever have six months’ water supply.

“We’ll face those drought conditions again unless they act on what we learn last time.

“Why do we have to go through it again when we know how we can fix it?

“The abundance of water that’s gone past us has all run out to sea. Increase our weir so we can have sustainability in our town,” he said.

A NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure spokesperson said it was “continuing conversations with the Australian government around funding opportunities for the next steps of the Western Weirs Program” as well as “the Better Baaka Program through discussions with other basin states at the Ministerial Council meeting. later this year”.

Government confirms commitment

A department spokesperson insisted projects were progressing well, with 27 completed in country NSW and more than 200 underway.

“Building drought resilience for regional NSW including western NSW is a major priority for the NSW government so that communities are in a stronger position to weather the next drought,” the spokesperson said.

The Darling Baaka River in Bourke in flood seen from the air
The Darling Baaka River in Bourke in flood in January 2022.(Supplied: Harrison Fittler)

“Since 2017 we have committed $4 billion to drought relief measures including $800 million in emergency water infrastructure projects such as water carting, new water sources like bores, pipelines and improving the use of existing water sources.

“As part of this year’s budget, we announced a further $90 million for the Safe and Secure Water Program which will co-fund critical water and sewerage projects over the next four years in partnership with local councils.”

.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.