After three years of desperately low dam levels and zero water allocations for many irrigators, many of the state’s dams are close to overflowing, with more rain on the way.
- After years of drought many dams in New South Wales are at capacity
- Burrinjuck Dam is almost full and water is being released with rain forecast
- Some irrigators argue water allocations are now too low considering storage levels
Burrinjuck Dam, near Yass, was more than 99 percent full this week when Water New South Wales began releasing water to prepare for more in-flows.
The water authority said 67,000 megalitres of water had flowed into the dam since July 15.
Water NSW’s Tony Webber said releases were being increased to 15,000 megalitres a day, up from 10,000, to make room for expected wet weather.
Blowering Dam near Tumut was more than 98 percent full and Water New South Wales said it was considering reducing the water level ahead of forecast wet conditions.
Together, Blowering and Burrinjuck Dam hold the equivalent of about five Sydney Harbours of water.
A return to water security is a familiar story across all of the state’s catchments.
In the Central West, Wyangala Dam, near Cowra, was 89 percent full after dropping below 10 per cent of its capacity during the drought.
The amount of water in Lake Wyangala has increased by 11 percent in the past week.
Similarly, Keppit Dam, near Tamworth, which was “functionally empty” during the drought, was now at 97 per cent capacity, having increased by more than 8 per cent in the past week.
“We’ve gone from a situation following years of drought where water security was quite perilous to the best situation we’ve seen in half a decade,” said Mr Webber.
Irrigators along the Lachlan River, who rely on Wyangala Dam, have been celebrating a return to water security.
The chairman of Lachlan Valley Water, Tom Green, said when carryover from last year was included irrigators in the region had on average access to 80 percent of their general security water licences.
“It’s a big boost to the regional economy and to landholders to know that there is some certainty,” Mr Green said.
Mr Green said farmers now had the confidence to plant summer crops because they know they’ll have the water to finish them off.
“Having [the water] this early allows us to prepare ground for crops and order fertiliser and seed,” he said.
“You can start to guarantee a level of production moving forward.”
Does that sound fair?
But not everyone believes the return to water security in NSW was being shared evenly.
Chris Brooks, an irrigator from Barooga on the Murray River west of Corowa and chairman of the Southern Connected Basin Communities, said despite storages along the Murray increasing, irrigators only had access to a fraction of their licences.
“The irrigation allocation was just lifted to 10 percent [for general security] which is a disgrace considering the volume of water in the dams at the moment,” Mr Brooks said.
The Hume Dam near Albury, which is one of the dams in the Murray system, was sitting at 72 percent of its total capacity.
“There’s 5,820 gigalitres of water in the Murray system and the volume that they’ve given to the region here for [general security] productive use is 3.3 percent. Does that sound fair to you?”
While some irrigators have access to carryover water that wasn’t used last year, and allocations could be increased later on, Chris Brooks said growers needed allocations early to commit to summer cropping programs.
“You need to have the water allocation and all your fertiliser in place by about September,” he said.
“Giving us a water allocation in January or February is a complete waste of time, so people carried water over from last year because it was allocated too late.”
The New South Wales Water Minister, Melinda Pavey, said she wasn’t responsible for those decisions but allocations were conservative because of the recent drought.
“I think it’s a fair criticism and I think decisionmakers are being cautious, having just come through the drought,” she said.
With the Bureau of Meteorology forecasting a wetter than average spring across the state Water New South Wales is now monitoring dam levels for potential spills.
Ms Pavey said the challenge now was managing the storages across New South Wales with wet catchments and the possibility of flooding.
“We have got Water NSW on a completely different footing and setting [than the drought] out there talking to communities, checking flood gauges, ensuring the rivers are running well, but also being prepared for warnings.”
She said the situation with dam storages in New South Wales justified the government’s attempts to increase the capacity of Wyangala and Dungowan dams.
“One of the challenges of climate change is we are going to have periods of dry and periods of plenty, and we need to be able to capture that rain during periods of plenty,” she said.