As Keepit Dam fell from 6.2 per cent to less than half a per cent in the span of just a few weeks, people became shocked and angry.
The rapidly dropping levels exposed expanses of ground that became boggy or dry, even deeply cracked in places.
Bare trees that should be underwater stood stark against cloudless skies.
Sailing club members turned up for a day on the remaining water, and found themselves “just watching the water disappear”.
Residents from the region commented: This is just so wrong. Where is all the water going? I cannot understand this.
Urgent talks were held for people who rely on or are responsible for the dam in some way, such as WaterNSW, farmers, recreation groups and local government staff.
And the water levels kept plummeting.
Lowest on record
Available records, going back to 1976, show Keepit has never been this low: at 0.4pc of its capacity, there is 9 gigalitres left of a possible 425GL.
The previous historic low was in April of 1995. About five months earlier, the dam fell below 3pc for the first time in years. It hit a low of 1.18pc on April 13 before recovering to over 3pc on July 6. This time around, the dam has fallen from 3pc to an effective capacity of zero within two weeks.
WaterNSW, which manages dam operations and water in 42 storages across the state, held meetings of stakeholders during that time. System operation executive manager Adrian Langdon said in Manilla on December 4 there had been “record low inflows into the Namoi system in last 12 months” – and zero in the previous six months.
“Catchments are still dry, so any rain we’re getting at the moment is not leading to any run-off. And it’s the same all over NSW … we need above-average rainfall to get the system flowing.”
He spoke of the challenges of delivering customers’ water, which included minimising transmission losses as the releases moved downstream towards Boggabri, Narrabri, Wee Waa and Walgett.
“All our modelling is done on a worst-case scenario, which is drought of record,” he said then – but, another spokesperson told the NDL, the Namoi was now in “uncharted territory”.
The dam is subject to the Water Sharing Plan for the Upper Namoi and Lower Namoi Regulated River Water Sources, which came into effect on July 1, 2016.
Water-sharing plans set out how water will be allocated over a decade. The Department of Industry – Water is the state government’s regulator and policy maker, accountable for these plans. WaterNSW follows them, and manages storages so it can deliver maximum water to users and the environment.
Neither party could provide data yesterday on the biggest consumptive users, but the most recent Australian Water Markets Report states: “Most water [in the catchment] is used to irrigate cotton, pasture and cereals”, and various authorities put the proportion at around 80 to 90pc.
The mining industry says it uses “around 1.5 per cent of the state’s water”; this is backed up by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, which says, “Households, mining, manufacturing and other industries each only use a few per cent of consumptive water”.
“Generally speaking in the Namoi Valley, mines are certainly a customer, but their usage is relatively small,” WaterNSW’s Tony Webber says. “A large proportion is used in agricultural production.”
Water released from the dam is also for domestic and stock purposes, town water supply, environmental health, and some is lost to evaporation and groundwater.
Some have labelled irrigators, particularly cotton farmers, “greedy” in their water take. But when the dam was proposed, its main aim was to assist agricultural enterprises in the Namoi Valley. Greater water security and production led to faster growth of the towns downstream: Gunnedah, Narrabri, Wee Waa and Walgett.
Calls for retention
Of course, there are users of the water that’s in the dam, too. The NDL has spoken to and heard from the fishing and sailing clubs, the holiday park, Sport and Recreation, and other leisure users. While most of them are working around the conditions, some have been stymied; all are saddened.
Sport and Rec manager Heath Roods suggests there should be no water releases after the dam falls to a certain point.
“I think something needs to be done; they should be enforced to keep – even 5pc would be plenty of water,” he says.
“You can’t underestimate the value of a waterway for a community, basically … It’s such a big issue at the moment; everyone’s talking about the mental health of farmers, but it’s the whole community.”
Sailing club commodore Ian Pine suggest a figure of 10pc. He speaks of the “therapeutic or mental health value of just being on the water or seeing the water”.
“It’s a factor that really should be given more credence and it’s one of those things: it’s hard or not possible or probably should not have a dollar value put on it.”
He says there “doesn’t seem to be any recognition of the huge amount of investment” in facilities and operations such as the holiday park and Sport and Rec, for whose clients a big, healthy body of water is a large drawcard.
‘Mindful of hardship’
Although not the policy-maker, WaterNSW was “certainly mindful of … not just economic hardship but emotional hardship” to users of all kinds, Mr Webber says.
“The intensity of the drought and the lack of inflow is why we find ourselves in this situation,” he says.
The conditions are so hot and dry, and the ground so thirsty, 50pc of water releases are being lost – normally it’s 30pc. No water is even making it down the Namoi River as far as Walgett.
Dams are designed and managed to capture inflows, he says, but with none to speak of, water management right now is “about extending vital supply as long as we possibly can, particularly stock and domestic supply for landholders”.
“Walgett council, even in their immediate vicinity, have 15 families carting water,” he says. “The importance of even a small supply shouldn’t be underestimated.”