THE EVAPORATION OF WALGETTby Polly Fleeting
The drive into town is long. The road is bumpy, uneven and dusty as hell. It’s hot, really hot. The outstretched copper landscape encapsulates your vision. Every river, every creek – one after the other – is dry. No puddles, no trickles – bone dry.
A woman rides her horse along the chalky river bed. Lifeless trees are scattered across the landscape, towering over the carcasses of animals that came before. It’s the cruel hangover of an earth that has been drained of all it has. Like a sick joke, the distant heat haze dances along its horizon mimicking a gentle ripple of water. An ironic tease of what isn’t there but what’s needed the most.
Welcome to Walgett, a small town 517 kilometres from Sydney that’s disappearing into dust.
Paul and Cheryl Wilson’s 5565 hectare (14,000 acre) property sits a convenient 20 minutes drive out of town. In years with good rainfall they grow winter cereal crops, mainly wheat, but rotationally barley and chickpeas as well. Paul also runs sheep, about 3000 of them, which he uses for wool and mutton. He owns a brown kelpie, Belle, and often looks after his son Matthew’s dog, Tilly, who waits eagerly in the back of his ute, itching to be given the chance to chase a sheep or two. Cheryl keeps a handful of chickens in a coup out the back of the house. They are the proud parents of three grown children, Pretoria, Matthew and Angus, who used to live on the farm. Now, it’s just Paul and Cheryl sharing the small four bedroom, tin roof farmhouse, which sits alone on a wide open and mostly baron landscape.
It’s a 28 degrees afternoon in the middle of September. Both are in the kitchen, where the dining table sits in the middle of the room. “Tea or coffee?” Cheryl asks. The microwave timer goes off and Paul takes out a beaded hot pack which he throws over his shoulder. He’s just out of a sling after an operation at the Walgett Hospital a few weeks back, but he shakes his head and says, “I’m doing alright.”
“It’s so dry. But that’s life on the land I suppose… it just seems to have gotten tough.”
Before the conversation about the drought really kicks off, Paul reaches for his rain chart – a yearly calendar he keeps above the fridge where he jots down, in blue or black biro, every millimetre of rain that touches Walgett soil. “Last year and this year we haven’t had much rain at all. Last year we had 150mm out of 450mm and this year is even less. We’ve only had 88mm and we are in our 9th month,” he says.
On average, Walgett receives 450mm of rainfall each year. According to Paul’s records, 2019 is nowhere near what it should be. He explains that Walgett traditionally gets summer rain through January, February and March. But there was hardly any rain earlier in the year, and Paul fears that the amount of rain they need isn’t going to come. “If we got rain now, then through to Christmas – a reasonable rain or even if it’s not much rain – [it] wouldn’t go far in this country. It’s so dry. But that’s life on the land I suppose. It just seems to have gotten tough.”
LOW, AND HIGHLY ERRATIC
The current drought in Walgett has lasted seven years. But the area is no stranger to droughts, nor is this country. They are a common part of our weather cycle and have been throughout history. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the typical rainfall over the Australian continent is classified as: “not only low, but highly erratic.”
Associate Professor Andrea Leigh from the University of Technology Sydney, is a plant ecologist of arid environments – like Australia. “People are saying ‘oh we’ve had droughts like this before’,” she says. “And that is true, we have.”
The Millennium Drought lasted from 1996 to 2010 and saw many regions in Australia’s rural south experience extremely dry conditions. It even stretched to the nation’s capitals; Perth, Adelaide, Hobart, Brisbane, Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne all faced drought episodes. “One thing that typifies Australian climate and rainfall in particular is variability,” Associate Professor Leigh says. “You can’t really predict when rain is going to be good and when it’s going to be bad.”
But this isn’t news to Paul. He chuckles: “this is the biggest poker machine you will ever see, this place. When you came through the front gate, did you see the slot?” A reference to how much money he’s lost.
He explains how his wheat crops rely solely on rainfall, so if there is no rain throughout the year there will be no harvest in October – game over. For him it’s all about the right weather and the right timing. “That’s how we get the name the ‘whinging croppies’, because really the weather makes or breaks us. And it really breaks you, you can have it there one year and the next it’s just gone.”
Cheryl sits back in her chair with her palm resting on her left temple. She shakes her head slightly. “Until you have the wheat ready and stored, you don’t bet on anything. It’s a gamble every single day for us, every day of our lives.” Paul and Cheryl aren’t the only ones punting on a life on the land. Everyone in Walgett is gambling against the house. The drought is the house and the house is winning.
Jo Flick, a local woman from the Gamilaraay tribe, stands in her front yard. Her garden hose, which she is restricted to using for only one hour a day and night, rests coiled behind her on a patch of dry grass as she swats the flies away from her face. It’s a Sunday morning and she’s waiting to jump in her car to drive to Narrabri, a town to the east – two hours away. But this trip is not just a social outing to visit a friend, she is going there to buy drinking water for her family.
There are two water sources for the townspeople in Walgett. The town sits on the junction of the Namoi and Barwon rivers. But where these two rivers have traditionally flowed strongly, they now practically run dry. Walgett also has access to bore water that comes from the Great Artesian Basin beneath the dry earth. The water is pumped up, taken through a water treatment facility and then distributed to the taps in buildings and homes throughout the town.
“Most of the people aren’t drinking it at all because they know what kind of stuff is in it.”
But some aren’t drinking from the tap – river or bore water. Instead they are opting to buy bottled water. Another cruel hand was dealt to Walgett when its IGA supermarket – the only supermarket in an 80km radius – burnt down in June (for the second time since 2013). Now people like Jo are driven to desperate measures to access clean water. Every second Sunday, Jo hops in her car and drives to Narrabri to pick up six, 24-bottle cartons of water for herself, her partner and her two children. “Because the IGA burnt down we have to go to Narrabri, I’m about to go there now, we have to stock up.”
She doesn’t trust the local town tap water, she won’t let her family drink it and she says sometimes she doesn’t even want to touch it. “Most of the people aren’t drinking it at all because they know what kind of stuff is in it. They talk about a mixture, it’s not all bore, what’s the rest of it?”
Jo has always lived in Walgett and she says this is the worst drought in her lifetime. She describes the dry rivers, dead grass and occasional dust storms that envelop the landscape. “There’s been dust storm after dust storm. My little girl has allergies, we can’t wash the house down or anything, can’t clean our air conditioning. There is no water.” She lifts her arms in the air, “you’ve got this big orange blanket coming over you and it’s like ‘what is happening’.”
Over the Easter long-weekend (April 2019), the women of the Gamilaraay tribe gathered each night at the Walgett Showground. They sang, danced and prayed for rain. “It was something that we wanted to do as Aboriginal women,” Jo says, “to show people that our voices matter, because this is our country and we are not invited to the table.”
But it wasn’t only Gamilaraay women who attended. Around 60 First Nations women and elders from Queensland, South Australia and Victoria answered the Facebook call out to join the cause and make some noise. Jo laughs as she recounts having interstate telephone conferences on the table that sits on the right-hand side of her front yard. She explains how she was sending pictures of the dead grass on her front lawn and the empty riverbeds that lay next to the town. “They said, we see you, we want to help you. We see you’re in trouble and heartache and we want to lift you. And that’s what they did.”
She pauses, puts her hand on her heart, takes a breath and says: “After we did the singing ceremony we just felt compelled to get up and say, thanks for coming, and tears were just streaming down my face. It was so emotional and empowering, and it drives me still today to be strong and to be a voice because we all need to come to the table, but we aren’t even there yet, we are nowhere near it.”
“We came down to the river, and the kangaroo wouldn’t even drink the water. We watched him and he just knew. If the animals won’t drink the water, why would we?”
Athe end of August, Walgett Shire Council released an alert advising all residents to boil their water before drinking or preparing food, due to its high turbidity. Greg Ingham, Walgett Shire’s General Manager, has been in the role since the beginning of the year and says his first impressions of Walgett were of a struggling community.
“When I arrived here in January it hadn’t rained for some time, and it still hasn’t rained.” When asked about the water boil alert, he explains that the town, which usually runs bore water alone, had temporary access to river water, which he says is most townspeople’s preference. “The boil alert was issued because… of an environmental release in the Barwon River a couple of months ago from the dams.”
Between April and June, Copeton Dam, which is about four hours from Walgett, and Glenlyon Dam, just over five hours away, both released water into the Barwon River. Up to 36 gigalitres flowed from the dams – an environmental effort to help fish like Murray Cod, silver perch and eel-tailed catfish survive the harsh drought. “The release meant that we could, only for a few weeks really, draw some river water… but the river water has a high turbidity level, caused from sediment in the water.”
Associate Professor Simon Mitrovic, a freshwater ecologist from the University of Technology Sydney, explains how this current period of drought is putting considerable stress on water supplies for rural townships like Walgett – because of the way it affects drinkability. “Under very low flows there can be an increase in algae blooms which can affect the taste and odour, and can also produce toxins,” he says. “This is something that councils need to do more testing on and [they should] also implement water purification.” He says that by the time the water travels from the dams to Walgett, the flow is reduced, creating more risk of algae growing.
Jo Flick feels certain that the water taken from the river for drinking, was nothing but an attempt by council to keep people quiet. “The water trickled down like slush. It wasn’t good water, it was shut up water.” She puts her hands on her hips. “We came down to the river, and the kangaroo wouldn’t even drink the water. We watched him and he just knew. If the animals won’t drink the water, why would we?”
KIDS NEED THEIR FLUID
Jo works at the Walgett Community College primary school campus, one of two primary schools in town. Just like in any other school playground, there are a number of bubblers. But at this school, it’s policy not to drink from them. “Our kids don’t touch the water, they don’t touch the bubblers, they’re not allowed to,” she says. “Once you get an alert from the Shire that you have to boil the water, how are we supposed to boil water out of the bubbler?” Through donations, the school has been able to stock up on clean drinking water. Every day, a carton of water is taken to each classroom to make sure the children have clean drinking water for the day. “We need to make sure we have the water when we need it, it gets hot out here and the kids, they need their fluid.”
Greg Ingham is confident that the water provided to the town from the river was in accordance with Australian Drinking Water Standards. “Our water testing didn’t indicate that that the water was unsafe to drink at any stage,” he says. “[The boil water alert] was purely a precautionary measure given the high turbidity of the water.”
River water isn’t the only drinking source. The town of Walgett also has access to bore water. In town there are two bores that supply water to all residences and buildings.
Paul and Cheryl Wilson’s property runs off their neighbour’s bore, 10 kilometres away. Many of the dams scattered around their farm have run dry, which is why they’ve resorted to just using groundwater. Their neighbour’s bore is a private one with a series of pipes that run through to various tanks and to the house on Paul’s property. The system was set up in 2009 and cost them $100,000, but now it only costs $300 a year for electricity. “While we are still paying it off, it is worth everything” Cheryl nods. Paul agrees: “It adds value to the place, and at least our home is right for water, and it’s good water, better than Sydney water.”
In prehistoric times, when this country was a landmass attached to Antarctica named Gondwana, it was also home to an inland sea called Eromanga. Fast forward to present day and you’ll find a very different place. What the Eromanga Sea left behind wasn’t anything that resembled a large body of water but instead, sodium, which has penetrated deep into the earth.
Dr Ian Wright, a researcher in freshwater ecology, water chemistry and water pollution from the University of Western Sydney, says that water supplies in rural towns like Walgett have high levels of sodium salt, which in the long run, isn’t healthy. “Australians usually have about twice as much salt as we should have,” he says. “But when you have really salty water, a lot of people may not realise that they are adding to their burden of bad health.”
“These places are struggling and losing population, so how are they supposed to resource and provide modern hygienic high quality water?”
It isn’t particularly dangerous for a healthy person to consume additional sodium through water, but it increases health risks for people on dialysis or with conditions like high blood pressure, kidney disease and heart disease. Dr Wright says the issue lies in the way NSW neglects to provide adequate information to rural areas about the health risks of consuming salty bore water: “NSW handles this really badly. If you are in the Northern Territory, South Australia or Western Australia they also have a massive salt problem – everywhere inland does – but they are fully open and transparent about it.”
The NSW Health guidelines are similar to the World Health Organisation’s, which are based on a healthy 70kg individual. That isn’t the average Australian. It’s also an issue of where the responsibility of water management lies in government., Dr Wright adds.“In Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory and Victoria, it’s the state government that looks after water supply, so you have the resources of the state. Whereas Queensland and NSW have left it up to the local councils. Now, if you’re a big rich council that’s fine. But… these places are struggling and losing population, so how are they supposed to resource and provide modern hygienic high quality water?”
As you drive into Walgett there is a sign reading “population 2300”, but that’s not the case anymore. The population of Walgett has decreased to 1700, with many people leaving over the last 18 months due to the harsh conditions of the drought. Greg Ingham says that water management has taken precedence and that Walgett Shire Council’s primary focus is providing its communities with potable, safe drinking water. “Council has to work within the requirements of the Australian Drinking Water Standards, which provide the guidelines for drinking water in Australia,” he says. “So our water samples – we take them weekly – are tested by an independent offsite body, and we haven’t had any concerns raised from NSW Public Health.”
But Dr Wright isn’t so sure that the bore water in Walgett is okay for regular drinking. With summer around the corner, temperatures rising well into the 40s and no big rain forecast in the near future, there’s fear that residents of the Walgett township, and surrounding farmers, are at more risk of consuming water with higher and higher sodium levels. “It’s basically like soup. So you boil it down and the flavour enhances. The rivers and storages are so low that with the evaporation they lose pure H2O and all the natural minerals,” he explains. “For many people NSW stands for Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong. I really think we are capital-centric, we aren’t looking after our rural communities at all. It’s not good enough.”
Various community groups and initiatives have taken place in Walgett, to help supply the town with drinkable, healthy water. There have been gofundme pages, social media campaigns and callouts to help the struggling community. Dignity Water, a Sydney organisation, has been providing water to Walgett Shire. Since February they have delivered nine truckloads of factory produced spring water from South Australia to the area – 44,000 litres per trip.
Spokesperson Lanz Priestley, says the demand for water fluctuates with the weather but with summer coming he fears the desperation is going to expand 10, even 20-fold very soon. “It needs to be done, but it’s absolutely crazy that we need to be doing this at all,” he says. “Most of the towns that we are delivering this water to were built on the biggest banks of the biggest river system in Australia, yet my chief concern is that people don’t have water that they are happy to drink out there, they simply need more water.”
“It’s a wasteland. This is another desert out here, it’s not the outback anymore, it’s the desert.”
Lanz says that water departments in bigger towns like Tamworth and Dubbo have a responsibility to put in infrastructure to distribute water to smaller, struggling towns.
While there have been initiatives like the bores in Walgett, it’s about sustainability and adopting the right technology – like desalinators – to ensure people are consuming drinkable water. But not in fear of the health risks caused by algae blooms in the river or high sodium levels from groundwater.
“We are looking at a dry river system, we are looking at a system where people don’t have enough water, where stock are dying in the thousands, where wildlife are dying. We have an ecological disaster and people are worrying where they are going to get their next drink of water from.” Jo Flick shakes her head. “It comes back to the shire,” she says. “They have a fair bit of region to look after and they should be supplying the water. They should fill up our tanks. There’s no point getting carton after carton of water, we just need clean water.”
I’m 100% sure it’s human induced climate change. If plants die, animals die, including humans.
Paul Wilson drives his white Toyota Land Cruiser around the outskirts of a failed wheat crop. He knows no life beyond the country. He’s seen good and bad years on the land, from solid rains to destructive floods and frosting to severely dry droughts. The current drought started in 2012, but in 2016 mother nature decided to give the farmers out west a little bit of a “strip tease”.
“The rain came on the 4th of June in 2016,” he says. “We’d had bugger all rain earlier in the year so we had no sub-soil moisture. We’d planted about 4000 acres in May and on the 4th and 5th of June we had 74mm of rain.” The rain came again a couple of days later, dumping a massive 50mm. “From then on it rained right through to the end of September.” The rain had caused floods in some areas but also replenished a lot of reservoirs across the Murray-Darling Basin. The rivers were flowing again, animals and people had water to drink and farmers had moisture for their crops. “Everyone in the district thought the drought was over. We thought ‘this is it’, it’ll break. But it didn’t.”
In a good harvesting year like 2016, Paul will bring in an average 5000 tonnes per week. Wheat sells for about $250 a tonne and he makes around $100 profit on every acre (not hectare) he plants. “Cropping is our biggest cheque at the end of the year, but you need it because it takes a big cheque to get you through. Because it doesn’t rain money, it rains expenditure.”
This year he won’t make anywhere near that sort of money. While his failed crop may be enough to keep his 3000 sheep plump (he is one of the few farmers in the district to have bought sheep this year) and he will earn some from wool and mutton, there’s no money to be made from the crop alone. For him it’s just a cycle of survival.
“Just because we are in drought it doesn’t mean everything else stops. The power costs, the rates, everything else, it all stays the same,” Cheryl Wilson explains. Paul nods in agreement: “You can’t just keep losing your income, we aren’t doing anything wrong. We are just trying to have a go but it’s totally out of our control.
“I’m positive it’ll turn around eventually, it always does, but I just don’t know how people are going to turn around from this.”
— Story and photographs, Polly Fleeting