The NSW state government is considering evacuating the residents of as many as 90 towns that are seriously affected by drought if they completely run out of water. Sign up to our twice weekly newsletter to keep up with the news on sustainability and the built environment.
For months, many towns in rural NSW have been relying on water being trucked in but that is only a short-term solution, and bore water is only available to some towns.
Prime7 News Central West late last month reported that the government would make the drastic move of relocating populations from towns without any water supply.
Asked by Prime TV how many towns were facing the prospect of completely running out of water, the state’s regional town water supply co-ordinator, James McTavish, said: “We have about 90 towns and communities that we have substantial concerns about now”.
“We are very keen to make sure that we use that [evacuation] as an absolute last case only and in every community we have a plan,” said Mr McTavish.
He said the government had not learned from the Millennium drought.
“We are looking to make sure we are never here again,” he told Prime7.
At the time of writing, the state government had not responded to requests from The Fifth Estate for more information about any evacuation plans.
But a state government source told The Fifth Estate the government was looking at all options – new weirs, pipelines and bores, as well as reverse osmosis systems to purify water supplies.
The source denied there were plans to relocate the town but said resourcing to address the problem had moved to the “next level”.
“It’s huge… there’s been a big shuffle,” they said, adding that nine hydrologists had been hired.
Little else is known about the government’s plans but it is believed they vary from town to town.
“Different towns need different systems,” the source said.
“Day Zero is about the flow on-ground. It doesn’t take into account underground aquifers. Some [towns] do have the possibilities for bores. Some towns are easier to truck water into.”
The source said there was some optimism in government circles that solutions would be found, citing how a pipeline to supply Broken Hill with water was completed in 2016 “two weeks before the town ran out of water”.
Broken Hill is now one of the safest in the state for water. However, the pipeline is believed to have cost $500 million and it’s unclear how many pipelines the state could afford to build.
For most towns, a two-tier approach was being used, the source said.
“The state government isn’t the utility provider; we don’t control the water; the local councils do.
“We step in when they need some help; we have the expertise. A lot of local councils do not have that expertise.”
Working out where to drill for bores is complicated and drilling is expensive, they said.
A request for interview with Mr McTavish was not responded to before publication.
People living in Bathurst, Orange, Dubbo and other communities afflicted by water shortages are worried about what any evacuation plans might look like, according to Bathurst councillor John Fry.
Cr Fry told The Fifth Estate people were worried about whether entire families and communities would be moved and if they would ever be able to return to their homes.
People were also worried their homes could be damaged by vandals, he said.
Cr Fry said that as of Thursday water in Bathurst’s dam had fallen to 37 per cent of capacity – the lowest level since the dam was rebuilt in 2000 – and it was evaporating at 1.1 percentage points per week, with “no reasonable hope of decent rainfall.”
Cr Fry, who learnt about the government relocation plans when he saw the Prime7 news report, said he tried, unsuccessfully, to find out more about the plans through a senior contact in the Department of Water, Property and Housing.
He said farmers in his area were currently buying water at $2.50 per one thousand litres and while people were not talking about Day Zero, irrigators had been put on notice by the council.
“Our irrigators have been told to cut back to 20 per cent pumping rate and when the dam gets to 22 per cent [of capacity], it’s a total ‘cease to pump’,” he said.
“We realise our irrigators provide our food but at the end of the day the city takes priority.”
Cr Fry said he recently put a motion to council to declare a water emergency but it was voted down. Other councillors said there was “no need to panic”, and that climate change was “a beat up”.
Cr Fry, who is also part of a business that works on rehydrating land through regenerative farming, said a lot could be done to retain moisture in the soil and plants. It was also possible to capture water from summer storms but the infrastructure wasn’t in place.
Bathurst can’t access bore water, and although people had been pushing for grey water recycling for some time council hadn’t seriously considered it.
“We’ve been talking about it for 20 years,” he said.