James McTavish, being interviewed by Prime7 news

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If anyone is going to stop 90 regional towns and communities in NSW from being relocated because they’ve run out of water, it will be James McTavish.

McTavish was appointed NSW Cross-Border Commissioner 10 months and is currently heading up a massive operation for the NSW government that includes building what’s essentially a “water grid” from the Macquarie River to the Murrumbidgee.

Last week The Fifth Estate flagged a news report, first carried by Prime7 News Central West last month, that relocating these water stressed towns and communities might be a last ditch plan if the drought continues. This article has received 66,000 Facebook shares since first posted.

“The problem with the Prime story is it didn’t tell the real story,” McTavish told The Fifth Estate this week. “Every one of these towns are not even coming close to advanced planned evacuations.

“In every one of those 90 communities, we have a plan,” he said. I’ve been in defence where I’ve led major evacuation operations. So I understand the context and the fact is that it is absolutely a last case scenario that we should be entertaining any form of evacuation.

“If we need to cart water into some of these places, we will.

For some people there will be a need if they are medically vulnerable or need [other] support.”

For whole towns it’s “more efficient to get water to them”, he said.

The scale of work underway to ensure the majority of citizens remain in place is immense.

“Infrastructure is being built in a lot of places, bores are being put down, pipelines are being run, there is reverse osmosis,  augmentations of existing network, reuse of existing effluent in small centres.

“We’re carting water now and looking to tap into alternative supplies… including Queensland.”

Inter-valley transfers are being considered, “from the Lachlan Valley to the Macquarie”.

And in the longer term, strategies include “making sure we have a water network that extends inland from the Macquarie to the Murrumbidgee”.

Rivers are being stopped

McTavish said Water NSW had worked to “stop a number of rivers… ceasing normal water flows.”

This includes the Peel River, stopped at Dungowan with a weir constructed so water can be captured and piped to Tamworth, (at a cost of around $38 million, according to a local media report).

The Macquarie River has also been stopped, as has Gunningbar Creek.

Future plans might include “pulse releases” to manage some of the environmental concerns of stopping a river. The idea is to allow enough flows of water to reach “deep pools as far down as it can get”.

At Tamworth, authorities were working with Tamworth Council to put in water treatment for effluent to supply stock and high security users such as poultry operations.

Even the funding is open. One project McTavish was still costing this week would definitely be approved, he said. There was “no risk” it wouldn’t.

If it feels like a small war effort, McTavish won’t disagree. His background seems ready made: “22 years as a soldier” and five years in emergency services.

But the fear is that no matter what reassurances the government might give that relocation is not on the cards and that water will supplied, no-one realistically expects a bottomless pit of money to for the complex tasks involved in keeping towns and communities hydrated.

And the expense is already huge.

Already McTavish says the costs to keep the towns afloat is around $200 million, but given the scale of the works and programs underway the total cost might well be somewhat “north” of that sum.

That figure does not include $500 million understood to have been invested in piping water to Broken Hill in a project completed just two weeks before the town’s water would disappear completely.

Bathurst councillor John Fry told The Fifth Estate that his council had been allocated $10 million for various water retention works and pipes this week, but there was no knowing if this was enough.

“Essentially, we’re winging it. We don’t know what works and what won’t.

“This is the brave new world. It’s climate writ large.”

Right now though it’s clear this is a priority for funding.

A NSW government source last week indicated that the scale of work and resourcing is “huge…next level” with nine hydrologists hired and a “big shuffle” of resources between departments to manage the support work involved in what is often complex hydrological calculations.

But what’s survivable, and what’s reasonable, as a long term life choice could be two different things.

Call up the MidCoast Council based at Forster right now and you’re immediately appraised of the severity of the situation with a strongly worded recorded message.

“Severe level 4 water restrictions are in force for the Manning, Great Lakes, Gloucester, Stroud and Bulahdelah regions,” the message says, adding that very high level 3 restrictions are in place for the Hawkes Nest and Tea Gardens Regions.

A local official source in Forster who preferred to speak off the record said the area relies on water from the Barrington Tops.

“We’ve never been on emergency level restrictions before because normally we have a very reliable river system. A little bit of rain on the Barrington tops is enough to provide a lot of water; it’s why we have a relatively small storage.

“The Barrington River has never been known to stop flowing and we think it may stop sometime this summer,” the source said.

McTavish says the mid north coast region is experiencing severe water restrictions.

Reverse osmosis plants are one resilience option

For the MidCoast Council the state government has recently pumped in $1 million to help expand the Nabiac Bore Fields, north west of Forster. This also requires a reverse osmosis (RO) facility or desalination plant to remove minerals and salts from the water to make it drinkable.

The Forster source said that while RO units could make the water drinkable, high level restrictions needed to remain in place.

Costs for RO units vary from about $500,000 for a small unit to $2 million for a mid size unit or “multi” billions for a major urban water desal plant, according to McTavish.

“There is a lot of demand for RO units.”

Costs also depend on complications such as the quality of the water and how to handle the waste or “brine” from the plants.

Ground water that’s of reasonably good quality requires less treatment, compared to say, seawater, McTavish said.

More complicating issues arise in how the unit is powered – whether it’s from mains electricity or through more expensive diesel generation and whether it’s leased or owned and what it might cost to build headworks and remediate the site after.

“We’ve got water engineers looking at it all,” McTavish said.

Reclaimed water for crops is another option

 Treating effluent for less critical uses such as stocks and crops would alleviate the water stress, he said.

Mines with high security water licences currently had priority but that may not last.

“There will come a time in the future when we will prioritise the needs of the town ahead of other users,” McTavish says.

But while the focus is on the regions, and solutions are being found, McTavish warns that there is far greater concern for the big population centres of Sydney, the Hunter and Newcastle.

“To be honest,” he says, “the people of the Sydney region need to looking at making better use of available resources.”

First, people need to “get over the phobia about using recycled water.”

“I live in Wagga and upstream is Gundagai, Tumut, Canberra and 1000 septic tanks between here and Burrinjuck Dam and obviously there is dilution but if the water is treated to a high standard and managed appropriately, it’s not an issue.”

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  1. What happens to mortgages when/if people have to just walk away from their homes, on the land, in small towns or large cities.
    who will pay compensation or repatriation expenses?

  2. For a number of years now, one has been trying to push for more de-salination plants being built – (to service the hinterland via micro-tunnelling) More underground reservoirs not dams…NSW taxpayers lost ownership of their de-salination plant when Andrew Constance sold it, for short term financial gain, to Hastings and the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan…Hastings had to hold a fire sale…and half of the de-salination plant is now owned by a Swiss billionaire. WATER INFRASTRUCTURE OR LACK OF IT – This country is experiencing a massive drought, fires and lack of water…so where in Morrison’s/NSW’s massive infrastructure spend does it mention‘water infrastructure’?

    Farmers need water, fires need water and communities need water….
    But nowhere throughout Morrison’s big spend is any mention of viable ‘water infrastructure’…oh we have, we will build more dams…dams need water…
    Without the use of Australia’s coastline and accessibility to sea water, via more ‘de-salination plants’ as say Morocco, Kuwait and other intelligent thinking nations…the hinterland of Australia will be reduced further of not just viable farm land but whole communities who need access to water to survive…boreholes are not enough and indeed not always viable… https://bwa.co.za/the-borehole-water-journal/2016/11/21/borehole-water-a-limitless-supply-forever – when drought hits your borehole… Groundwater is contained in aquifers under the ground and is replenished by rainfall. (Rainfall being the operative word)…
    So Morrison where the ‘bloody hell are you’? You can build all the roads you want, but if the towns are empty of people…what use are they…they are simply going nowhere…to no-one.

  3. my understanding of ancient history is that great cities were abandoned when their water supply failed

    the great city of Angkor Wat in Cambodia – last I read probably an earthquake uplifted and diverted the course of the river that had supplied the entire farming district for the city. People just left.

    the ancient Indus River valley cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro – now in Pakistan – were apparently abandoned after some natural cause diverted the river they relied on for their water supply.

    or due to climate change – https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-climate-disaster-that-destroyed-the-ancient-harappa-5958151

    I fear and hope not the same will eventuate for Sydney in Australia – the driest continent on Earth – at a time of climate change – after a double jeopardy of two consecutive record setting hottest average days in Australia in the last week now.

  4. Peter Stevens makes perfect sense – this needs to be taken up at the highest level of government – a paradigm shift is essential- he is exactly right that we have destroyed the natural topography through thoughtless monoculture which hasn’t allowed for effective water catchment and green corridors- the floods in Queensland were a tragic example – water – unstoppable by natural landforms – causing huge land & property damage – & loss of life. And this fire catastrophe requires leadership at a national level with a preparedness to make brave long term decisions and stop current band aid solutions

  5. Thanks Peter Stevens for so articulately writing about what the real problem is. Yet NSW continues to hack its vegetation down without fear or favour.

    You would think in an age of space satellites and bionic limbs, that humans would have worked out the link between vegetation, water, and cool air.

  6. And in that part of NSW that used to be called the Western Division where the Darling River stopped running more than 12 months ago and where the horrific fish kills occured at Menindee ? All the villages and small towns have had to rely on donated and purchased bottled water for months. Bourke has has several no water spells. Wilcannia. Walgett. Menindee. All the properties have run out except for some brackish bore water. And all the media is worried about are places that “might” run out in the future. It appears to many of us that there is a widespread belief in and around Macquarie Street thate the Western Border of NSW is about 10Klm West of Dubbo.Anything further West can be ignored; after all, there are not many votes out there.

  7. As much as our farms and towns and cities are ill prepared for water stress they are also not ready for rain. In less than 250 years we have removed significant biomass and grazed, gutted and drained the land, depleted aquifers, and Ignored the inherent landscape hydration mosaic. The task is now to retain the rain in the ground where it falls, and rebuild the local water cycles afforded by climate moderating biomass on a landscape and bioregional scale. If every land owner had access only to the precipitation that occurs on their land we would not have the insanity of a 10 fold overallocation of all the available blue and green water in the continent. In 2007 the OECD outlined the dire situation brought on by profit taking from water in Australia. It’s time for a radical reversal of the desert making paradigm of colonial ignorance. The way forward is known.