This is the township of Menindee’s drinking water supply.
The pool behind weir 32 that provides water to the township of 600 turned green in January and a thick slime now covers up to a third of its surface.
WaterNSW has declared a red alert for toxic blue-green algae blooms at the weir, and for the lower Darling/Baarka for the 400km to its junction with the Murray.
The warnings advise people to avoid contact with the water. While the town has some filtration on its town water, it still smells bad. Those on properties and in small towns further south cannot safely drink the water, and there are warnings to monitor livestock.
This is despite the north-west of New South Wales receiving 14% more rain than average in 2020 and twice as much as 2018 and 2019 combined.
Locals like Graeme McCrabb say the Darling is now in as poor shape as it was in 2018, the year before the massive fish kills in January 2019.
“If we don’t get a major rain event in the next few months we’re looking at the same conditions next summer that led to the disaster,” McCrabb says.
So why, with good rainfall in the north, is Menindee facing yet another ecological crisis?
That’s what the Menindee community wants to know.
So angry are the local farmers, Indigenous population and the town that they have once again pulled stumps on any discussion with the NSW government over the Menindee Lakes plan, which is designed to return more water to the environment.
The stakeholder group representing 23 different local interests say they won’t be talking to the government until they can be provided with one of the basic necessities of life: safe drinking water.
“The issue here is critical water needs,” says the chairman of the stakeholder group, Terry Smith, who is also chair of the Pastoralists’ Association of the Western Darling.
“We keep getting told that this issue is out of the scope of the discussions about the Menindee Lakes project, but this is the most important issue to the community.”
The Menindee Lakes project, at a potential cost of somewhere between $800m to $1.2bn, is the NSW government’s marquee project to make water savings for the environment by using water more efficiently. The project, which would change the size and configuration of the lakes to make them smaller and deeper, aims to create water savings of 106GL a year through reducing evaporation.
Under the Murray-Darling basin plan, states have committed to deliver water savings for the environment, and this would provide a big chunk of NSW’s commitment – if it works.
But if NSW fails to deliver on its share of water savings by 2024, the state will likely face more buybacks of entitlements from agriculture. This would almost certainly mean that farmers in the rich cotton growing areas to the north would be required to reduce irrigation – a move that is strongly opposed by some of the most powerful farming interests in the country.
New water resource plans designed to address water shortages in the Darling have been operating in NSW since the middle of last year. So why are communities like Menindee still facing dire shortages?
The new water plans are designed to address many of the shortcomings of the old plans, including protecting low flows in the river from being pumped for irrigation further upstream from Menindee, and protecting the first flushes of the river after rain.
But seven months into the new rules, the Menindee residents say they don’t go far enough. McCrabb and other locals believe the real problem still lies in the government’s failure to address over-extraction by irrigators upstream and unregulated harvesting of floodplain water, which has caused a major drop in the amount of water actually reaching the river.
Flows are barely reaching Menindee and the lakes have not been allowed to recharge – they are at 18.3%, meaning that there will be little scope to send water down the river next summer if it remains dry.
So the community is boycotting discussions on the big ticket item that the NSW government wants: their support for the Menindee Lakes project.
“Until the issue of equitable water share for the entire Darling/Baarka is addressed, the proposed changes at Menindee of the [Menindee Lakes] project will have no support from the Lower Darling community. The community quite rightly expect the base needs of the river to be covered first,” Smith wrote in a letter to the local press.
Smith tells the Guardian: “There’s little point in building the Mendindee Lakes project if the lakes are only likely to fill intermittently – perhaps as infrequently as every 15 years.
“Why build the project at Menindee when you can’t run the river? There is no benefit for the community, for the culture, for the economy. People at Menindee just want their water back.”
The government’s first proposal for managing the lakes has now been abandoned after it became clear the planned construction of a new regulator – a structure to control flows – at the junction of Menindee and Cawndilla lakes would destroy one of the most important Indigenous sites in NSW.
The new plan, involving adding four metres in depth to the two northern lakes by building banks around them, is controversial for other reasons. There are questions of flooding of farmland, the cost, Indigenous sites and the fact that the government still hasn’t factored in the last 20 years of data on inflows.
McCrabb says it is also expensive. The cost of the water saved by the project will be $20,000 a megalitre, compared to the market value of an A class licence pre-drought of $1,500 a megalitre.
But for now, the question is the water supply.
“If this debacle was happening on the other side of the hills, there would be an outcry,” Smith says.
A spokesperson for the NSW water minister, Melinda Pavey, said the government would soon consult with communities on the western regional water strategy and was “open to speaking further about water quality in the lakes”.
“We have already written to the advisory group indicating this will be the best forum to discuss connectivity and water quality,” the spokesperson said.
“WaterNSW is currently forecasting between 13,000ML and 20,000ML will flow over the weir at Wilcannia by the end of February, with as much as 10,000ML flowing into the Menindee Lakes.”