by Henry McGilchrist

*Burrendong Dam shot on film (Photos: Henry McGilchrist)

Residents of Dubbo in the NSW Central West are accusing the state government of “absolute mismanagement” when it comes to water resources.

Mel Gray, convenor of community group Healthy Rivers Dubbo, points to the state’s amended Water Management Act and Water Sharing Plans. These regulate how much water can be sold to farmers and communities.

Permanent supply (100%) is shown in dark blue. Purple highlights show parts of the river system that have dropped to almost 0%. (Source: European Commission Global Surface Water Explorer, 2020)

Dark blue shows water levels during drought in 2018. Lighter blue indicates where water levels were seasonal or not present. (Source: European Commission Global Surface Water Explorer, 2020)


Approved by parliament six years ago, the amended Act requires only that data collected prior to 2004 – on the “worst period” of inflows – be used to determine how much water is allocated to license holders.

But this means that data collected during Australia’s worst drought, The Millenium Drought (1996 – 2010), isn’t taken into account.

Ms Gray says that by bringing that amendment before parliament, then-minister for water Kevin Humphries created an allocation process which categorically ignores evidence of a changing climate.

The pre-Millenium Drought data, she says, is not suitable for current conditions.

Despite recent rain, the region is still in the grip of an “unprecedented” drought. Dubbo Regional Council has only just eased water restrictions to Level 3.

Lynn Rayner, the editor of the local newspaper and news-site The Daily Liberal, says the council is making the most of a tough situation.

We are talking about a local council. They’re doing what they can based on the water allocations they’ve got from the state government.

Lynn Rayner

Editor, Daily Liberal

The National Party was the target of more claims of mismanagement last year when it was suggested it had held back a report predicting the regional water crisis.

The paper, commissioned by the Department of Primary Industries and called Assuring Future Urban Water Supply in 2013, projected available surface water to decrease by between nine per cent and 30 per cent, across NSW.

Ms Gray describes the failure to publish this report and to “ignore the science” as “heartbreaking”.

“It is straight up mismanagement, because we know climate change is coming,” she said. “And it’s here… “

“We could be working with it to keep the river even more resilient. But we’re doing the opposite. We’re taking more and destroying it faster.”

Ms Gray believes the influence irrigators have over the National Party has led to resource mismanagement. Meantime, she says the government is unwilling to assist local businesses gain access to bore water supplies.

Last year, Kevin Humphries was named in legal proceedings for allegedly allowing irrigators to illegally pump water in Broken Hill during an embargo. It was during his time as Water Minister.

Two years earlier, he had been referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) after the ABC’s Four Corners investigated links between the government and irrigation lobbyists. Reports today (April 24) point out that 1000 days have passed without an update on the case.

Mr Humphries retired from the NSW Parliament in March 2019.

Narromine cotton farmer Jon Elder, believes any blame for the mismanagement of water resources should be directed at the government and not irrigators. He says blaming cotton farmers “misses the point” of the water allocation debate.

Like any business, you marshal what resources you have, your land, your expertise, and you do what’s most profitable. But I can assure you: if you ban cotton, I would use exactly the same amount of water. I would grow because it’s a license… I would just grow a less profitable crop.

Jon Elder

Cotton farmer, Narromine


David Towney is a resident of Peak Hill and a member of the Wiradjuri Nation.

He says farmers cannot be expected to undermine their livelihood by lobbying the government to change the water management process, as that would lead to lower crop yields.

Instead, he believes that “a politician or… group who are part of a party that’s not in government” may need to challenge the current legal framework and bring climate-minded science back into the water determination process.

Mel Gray believes that “priority number one” is “taking the water portfolio away from the nationals” and undoing the 2014 amendment to the Water Management Act.

David Towney (Photo: Henry McGilchrist)

Dubbo was among the state’s most marginal seats in the 2019 State Election. Ms Gray believes a further swing against local Nationals MP Dugald Saunders, is likely. The Nationals also suffered a swing against them in the neighbouring Barwon electorate.

“I don’t feel… any government of any persuasion is addressing the issues adequately of climate change,” she adds. “Everyone needs to step up.”

—Story and photos: Henry McGilchrist @mcgilchrist_hen