Aboriginal elders to provide clean water for Walgett after NSW government short-term solution fails
Aboriginal elders in western New South Wales say they will provide free filtered drinking water for their remote community after repeated failures by the state and local government to do so.
NSW Water Minister Rose Jackson visited Walgett in April to announce a return to water from the Namoi River by May 3, as part of a “short-term” solution to fix the town’s long-term water quality issues.
Less than four days afterward it switched back to high-sodium bore water after the water treatment plant again failed to process the poor-quality river water.
Additionally, council was forced to turn off its reverse osmosis machine as it could not handle the sheer volume of salty brine water it was producing as a waste by-product.
Dharriwaa Elders Group treasurer Ricky Townsend said they would take matters into their own hands and install a reverse osmosis machine in the main street to provide free chilled and filtered water for locals.
“We all know the drinking water isn’t safe — and the survey we did in our community confirmed that people are having to buy drinking water,” Mr Townsend said.
“None of this work would have been needed if the NSW government and Walgett Shire Council fixed the town’s reverse osmosis system.”
The machine is being paid for out of the group’s existing funds, with a plumbing company from Newcastle donating its services to install it.
Walgett Shire Council did not respond to questions from the ABC about what caused the problems.
In a statement, acting general manager Hugh Percy said they were working hard to get the town back on river water.
“As previously advised, this is a complex process that takes time to ensure the water treatment and supply are fully stable,” he said.
“DPE Water is continuing to provide experienced water operators on the ground who are working with Walgett council staff and overseeing the transition to help deliver a stable system in the coming weeks.”
Mr Townsend said they wanted a more long-term solution to the water insecurity their community had faced for years.
The Dharriwaa Elders Group has sent Ms Jackson a list of demands to stop the river from being drained and to improve the health of the system.
“Flood plain harvesting has to stop — we want to see enforcement of extraction limits, bigger fines for water theft, and our rivers returned to proper health,” Mr Townsend.
“Our rivers are dying. We need governments to act.”
Ms Jackson said the transition from bore water to river water had been delayed due to parts arriving later than expected.
She said the treatment plant had switched back to river water, which would begin flushing bore water out of the system.
“It also takes time for bore water to be flushed out of the water network, but the taste of the water should have already begun to improve,” Ms Jackson said.
“The good news is that the treatment process is now working well, and the Department of Planning and Environment and Sydney Water have been on-site over the past few weeks to monitor the process and carry out water quality testing.”
Walgett drinking water quality, river system concerns aired by distressed residents
Walgett mother Kylie McKenzie had no idea that the water coming out of her taps was slowly destroying her son Xander’s immune system.
New South Wales Water Minister Rose Jackson met Ms McKenzie and other residents on Friday to hear their concerns about water quality in the town.
Following the meeting, Ms Jackson announced that Walgett’s water supply would be switched from the bore back to the river by Wednesday as a “short-term” measure.
Aboriginal elders are demanding a more permanent solution to ensure the long-term health of the river system and water security for the community.
The town’s water treatment plant has failed to handle turbidity and blue-green algae in the Namoi River, meaning the town has had to rely on poor-quality bore water for the past five years.
The high sodium levels in the bore water have been deemed unsafe for people with chronic illnesses such as Ms McKenzie’s son, who has brain deformations and eats through a tube.
“In summer he was constantly dehydrated and we didn’t know why,” Ms McKenzie said.
“Now we know — we were just pumping sodium through him.
“We’re trying to keep him hydrated, thinking we were doing the right thing. We weren’t.”
‘We’re river people’
Aboriginal leaders from the Dharriwaa Elders Group have asked the minister for sweeping reforms to protect the river.
Those demands include enforceable extraction limits, higher penalties for water theft, a priority for end-of-system flows, an annual independent audit of water management, and a maximum of 20 milligrams per litre of sodium for Walgett’s drinking water.
Vanessa Hickey of the Dharriwaa Elders Group broke down in tears while describing the condition of the river to Ms Jackson.
Ms Hickey said she could remember swimming in the Barwon and Namoi Rivers as a small girl, back when the system was full of yabbies.
“Us Aboriginal people, especially out Walgett way, we’re river people,” she said.
“Our responsibility is to care for our country and care for our totems.
“We, the Aboriginal people, have done nothing to do this, and now we’re suffering.
“You’ve got dams, you’ve cotton farms, you’ve got coal seam gas, you’ve got floodplain harvesting — how are our rivers going to recover when they keep on taking?”
Ms Jackson did not make an announcement at the meeting meeting that would address the long-term systemic problems facing the river system.
She said there was an appetite for sweeping water reform in the new government, including enforceable limits on water extraction.
“Our river systems are very sick and that is the result of decades of inaction,” Ms Jackson said.
“We do want a reset on how our rivers are managed.
“We do want a reset on NSW’s commitments under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.”
The Australian town where water insecurity is felt more than some communities in Bangladesh
Imagine living in a first-world country and being too frightened to drink tap water.
This is the reality for Indigenous residents in the north-west New South Wales town of Walgett, a community that has been living off emergency bore water for roughly five years.
“We can’t drink the water out the tap,” Aboriginal mum Lorraine Murray told 7.30.
“It’s filth. It stinks.”
A water security survey of 250 First Nations people living in Walgett found 44 per cent reported being worried about getting safe drinking water — a higher rate of water insecurity than in Bangladesh and similar to First Nations communities in Canada.
After years of drought and water shortages, Walgett relies on water pumped from the Great Artesian Basin, an ancient underground aquifer.
Walgett’s bore water has a slimier feel, and a slightly salty and more bitter taste than other tap water because the Great Artesian Basin water contains different dissolved salts.
“It’s like when you’ve got moisturiser on your hands, [it’s] slippery,” Ms Murray explained.
“It makes me so angry with the people that’s in control of the water.”
The NSW Minister for Water Rose Jackson told 7.30 in a statement: “Some assistance is now being provided currently by the NSW Government to Walgett Shire Council to support them to have the necessary infrastructure and technical expertise to resolve these challenges.”
While the minister said she was concerned, she links Walgett’s water insecurity to “overall declining river health — exacerbated by the impacts of droughts and flooding events”, and that the NSW Government is committed to the full implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
It’s not just taste and aesthetic issues worrying Walgett residents.
Previous tests of the drinking water in Walgett have shown the sodium levels exceed Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.
There are no health standards for safe sodium levels in the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines — only palatability guidelines — but experts say high sodium levels can be a health risk for people with chronic illnesses.
The UNSW Water Research Lab has analysed official government test results provided to them of Walgett’s bore water over a four-year period up until July last year.
“The salt levels that are analysed are about 15 times higher than what’s recommended for people with kidney failure and renal problems,” UNSW Water Research Lab’s Dr Martin Andersen told 7.30.
Dr Andersen also added that people with diabetes and heart issues should avoid drinking salty water for extended periods.
“For a healthy adult person, it’s probably okay to drink,” he said.
“But if you do have pre-existing medical conditions in terms of high blood pressure or kidney failure, you shouldn’t be drinking those levels of salt in your drinking water.”
For more than five years, the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service, the Dharriwaa Elders Group and some residents have expressed concerns about the potential effect on community health.
Many First Nations people in Walgett suffer from chronic illnesses and are on salt-reduced diets.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data from the 2021 Census shows a third of residents living with renal, heart and/or diabetes in Walgett are Indigenous, despite First Nations people making up 21 per cent of the Local Government Area’s population.
‘He can die from it’
Ms Murray’s 7-year-old son Dale lives with a kidney condition called nephrotic syndrome. If he doesn’t get better, he could need a kidney transplant.
The mum of 10 has endured traumatic nights dealing with her little boy’s illness.
“When Dale has relapses, he cannot see out of his eyes; his belly is like a balloon,” she described of an ordeal where Dale had to be airlifted to a Sydney hospital.
“It’s like he’s got a belly on his back, everything just swells. His one leg would be the size of my two legs.”
Dale is on a doctor-ordered reduced-salt diet, Lorraine said, adding that weekly grocery shops including special salt-reduced items could peak at $900.
“They [doctors] told me Dale can’t drink bore water,” Ms Murray told 7.30.
“There’s more sodium than the normal water. So Dale is not allowed to drink tap water at all. So he’s got to drink water from the shops.”
While many of us take access to clean drinking water at the turn of a tap for granted, Lorraine spends around $50 a week on bottled water to drink, wash food and cook with.
“It is expensive but we got no choice,” Ms Murray said.
“The condition Dale’s got, he can die from it.”
Running out of money, water, and patience
Walgett’s community survey questions were taken from the Household Water Security Index Scale (HWISE), a tool created by Northwestern University anthropologist Sera Young to quantify global water insecurity.
Based on the scale, the findings were compared to other communities both domestically and globally for water and food security.
One of the residents surveyed was Gamilaraay woman Mary Kennedy, who needs to avoid salty food and drink to keep her blood pressure in check.
“I’ve got a lot of chronic issues and diabetes,” Ms Kennedy said.
“My heart problems too and liver problems.”
Due to concerns about water quality, four in five Indigenous Walgett residents had to rely on bought or donated bottled water in the last year.
Walgett is located about 700 kilometres from Sydney, so the town’s fresh produce can be more expensive than large regional centres due to transport costs.
Some fortnights, Ms Kennedy worries she will run out of money and run out of bottled drinking water.
“I would never drink it [bore water]; I can’t chance it because of my health conditions,” she said.
“Being on disability pension, I worry from one fortnight to the next because I’m buying high [cost] food … and on top of that I worry about the water.”
Going to bed thirsty
Gamilaraay woman Trish Tonkin was trained to collect the data for Walgett’s community water survey, which asked questions ranging from “Did you ever worry about not having enough food or water to meet your needs?” to “Did you ever have to go to bed hungry/thirsty?”
“Another thing we heard from people in the survey [was] that they were going to bed thirsty,” said Ms Tonkin, who grew up on the banks of the Namoi River.
“It’s shocking to even think that people are still going hungry and thirsty.”
More than a third of Aboriginal Walgett residents have gone to bed thirsty at least one month in the past year, according to the survey.
“This day and age it shouldn’t be happening,” Ms Tonkin said.
She lists fear of what’s potentially in the bore water and a distrust in authorities as possible reasons Indigenous Walgett residents experience water insecurity so severely.
‘We want action now’
A mobile desalination facility, known as the Reverse Osmosis machine, was brought to Walgett in May 2020 in response to community concerns about the extremely salty bore water, despite assurances from health authorities it was safe to drink.
The machine was meant to remove the high levels of sodium from Walgett’s bore water but stopped operating after several months due to logistical and waste issues.
“They ran out of storage space for the reject water,” Dr Martin Andersen explained.
“The salty water that they’re getting rid of, they put it into storage ponds and those pumps ran full and they had to turn the plant off again.”
Despite recent rainfall, the community also hasn’t been able to use river water to supply the town with drinking water — on April 6, WaterNSW issued an amber alert for blue-green algae in the Namoi River at Walgett.
“Due to algae composition, stock and domestic users should consider alternate water sources,” the report stated.
7.30 sought interviews with Walgett Shire Council Mayor, Urban Manager, and General Manager and sent detailed questions but did not receive a response.
NSW Health told 7.30 in a statement it is supporting Walgett Shire Council to return to river water as quickly as possible and that Walgett’s bore water is safe according to the National Health and Medical Research Council Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.
“The Australian Drinking Water Guidelines have not established a health guideline value [limit] for sodium,” the department said.
“The [sodium] contribution from water is less than from food. However, excessive sodium intake, usually from food, may be a risk for some people’s health. Most of the sodium taken into people’s bodies comes from salt in the food we eat.”
“We’re seeing the river becoming increasingly unreliable in terms of quantities,” Dr Andersen said.
“[What] we’re seeing is a decrease in the water quality as well. When there is water in the river, it has lots of algae growing in it and lots of turbidity, and that also poses a lot of complications for water treatment, for drinking water.”
Walgett residents are calling for a multi-agency independent task force to investigate and tackle water insecurity — and they want local Aboriginal organisations and expert voices included.
“We want action now,” Ms Tonkin said.
“Not tomorrow. Not the next day. We need it now.”
2019 August – Walgett (NSW) – Turbidity
PUBLIC NOTICE Boil Water Alert 31st August 2019
Walgett Water Supply System High Turbidity
Walgett Shire Council wishes to advise all residents of Walgett that due to a technical issue there is high turbidity in the town water supply resulting in a boiled water alert.
Walgett continues to feel the impact from the ongoing drought in New South Wales after being hit with yet another challenge in accessing clean drinking
An Aboriginal community in north-western New South Wales which has been tackling poor water quality for two years and pleading with the government for action to be taken, has now been told to boil its water before use.
As widespread droughts throughout the state continue, last week the Walgett Shire Council (WSC) issued an emergency alert that warned residents their water supply needed to be boiled before use due to a technical issue at a nearby water treatment plant.
Chief executive of the Walgett Local Aboriginal Land Council, Kelli Randell, told NITV News that “enough is enough”.
Ms Randell said community members have reported water coming out of their taps “the colour of mud” and that it leaving rashes on people who bathe in it.
The town of over 2000 residents has endured severe droughts for the past two years. Over that period, its usual water source – the Barwon and Namoi Rivers – have either run too low or dried up completely and as a result the community has regularly relied on bore water for its potable water supply.
The community have often reported their bore water – drawn from the Great Artesian Basin – to contain elevated sodium levels, leaving people with gastric, stomach aches and vomiting.
She said the community is “disappointed” and “concerned” that their rivers – a source that they could finally rely on again – was now unsafe to drink.
“Only having access to water with high sodium levels was one thing, but now having to boil the water due to turbidity risks, well, it’s just another blow to a community who is already struggling to survive,” she said.
Ms Randall said the WSC is doing everything they can to supply the community with clean drinking water.
She said construction for a water farm is set to begin with the aim of generating 30,000 litres of drinking water per week from hydro panels collecting water vapour from the air.
Additionally, WSC said it is looking into a mini desalination plant for Walgett to clean the water and make it safe for all community members to drink.
Greg Ingham, General manager for WSC, said he was unsure of what exactly caused the high turbidity.
“There may be several causations factors contributing to the high turbidity, such as uncontrolled land runoff, lack of ground vegetation cover, silting, etcetera,” he told NITV News.
“The extended drought conditions are not helping in this regard.”
In a public Facebook post, WSC said they were working quickly to fix the problem by flushing mains, monitoring the treatment plant 24 hours a day and collecting additional samples to monitor the water.
“Chlorine-resistant pathogen reduction: Where filtration alone is used as the water treatment
process to address identified risks from Cryptosporidium and Giardia, it is essential
that filtration is optimised and consequently the target for the turbidity of water leaving
individual filters should be less than 0.2 NTU, and should not exceed 0.5 NTU at any time
Disinfection: A turbidity of less than 1 NTU is desirable at the time of disinfection with
chlorine unless a higher value can be validated in a specific context.
Aesthetic: Based on aesthetic considerations, the turbidity should not exceed 5 NTU at the
consumer’s tap” ADWG 2011
Community faces latest challenge in gaining access to clean drinking water
Walgett (New South Wales) – Sodium
9/1/19: Walgett Shire Council regularly monitors the drinking water to ensure the supply of drinking water complies with the Australian Drinking Water Management Guidelines (ADWG). The sodium level is one of the measurements and has been found to be around 300 mg/L. There is no health based guideline value for sodium, but there is an aesthetic guideline of 180 mg/L.
4/3/19: Walgett Shire Council collected its monthly chemistry sample from the Walgett drinking water supply for testing by the NSW Health laboratory on the 20thFebruary 2019.Walgett Shire Council is closely monitoring the quality of the drinking water as it is currently drawn from a bore which has a higher mineral content.The February results show that the level of sodium in Walgett’s drinking water was 323 milligrams per litre (mg/L). The average level for all the samples of bore water tested so far is 301 mg/L.
Health expert warns residents are at risk from high sodium in water in drought-stricken NSW town of Walgett
Walgett has always been a river town, perched near the junction of the Barwon and the Namoi rivers.
But with the drought biting hard, the water from those rivers isn’t making it to this northern New South Wales town.
With nothing to pump from the local weir, Walgett is the latest town forced to go underground for water, a move that health experts say could have potentially serious health implications.
Many locals are worried the emergency supply of bore water is damaging their health.
Dharriwaa Elder, Thomas Morgan, said the water was no good for drinking.
“Too much salt in it,” he said. “The kids, my grandkids, they’re starting to spit it out, they don’t like it.”
Elder Rick Townsend lives near the water treatment plant.
“I get the smell of it every morning and it’s the foulest smell,” he said.
“I don’t drink it, not at all. I drink the water at the hospital, tank water. Or I’ll buy the water in the supermarkets.”
Another local, Chantelle Kennedy, said most people were avoiding the tap water. “Most of us go to IGA and buy packs of 24 bottles for $20. It’s dear,” she said.
“A lot of people have been buying fizzy drinks because of the water. Some of them come out and buy hot drinks, which is cheaper than buying water.”
Salt of the earth
The bore water is from the Great Artesian Basin, which provides water for many outback communities.
However, tests of the drinking water in Walgett have shown the sodium levels there exceed Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.
Associate Professor Jacqui Webster, from the George Institute for Global Health, said the sodium levels were concerning.
“The sodium levels in the Walgett water supply are at 300 milligrams per litre and the Australian drinking water guidelines are 180 milligrams per litre, so that’s substantially higher,” she said.
Dr Webster said the guidelines for sodium in drinking water were based on taste rather than health.
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But she said high sodium levels did pose serious health risks, particularly for people with underlying health problems.
“The Australian guidelines do state that medical practitioners who are concerned about people with hypertension should advise that people drink water with no more than 20 milligrams of sodium per litre,” she said.
“The Walgett drinking water is about 15 times that amount … so we need to be thinking about action to address that.”
Chief Executive of the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service, Christine Corby, said high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes were common health issues.
“Unfortunately in our community and particularly Aboriginal people, they have a high incidence of chronic disease,” she said.
“I believe we are going to have an increase in chronic disease here, particularly from the water consumption,” she said.
“In my life here in Walgett for 40 odd years, it’s the first time I’ve never drank straight from the tap,” she said.
“I just worry for people who have to drink straight from the tap.”
Dr Webster said those who avoided salty drinking water by drinking alternatives such as soft drinks were solving one problem and creating another.
“If they are drinking the water it’s potentially a problem but if they are substituting it with other things that is also a cause for concern,” she said.
“Indigenous communities are suffering from greater incidences of diabetes, obesity and hypertension,” she said.
“In general people get a disproportionate amount of salt from processed foods in communities where there is limited access to fresh foods, so compounding that with sodium from the water supply is a problem, and it’s something we need to be looking into.”
Community veggie garden under threat
The Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service runs a community garden which provides fresh produce for its chronic-disease clients.
Christine Corby said the garden was crucial to these people.
“It’s part of good health, it’s part of healthy living, it’s part of prevention and treatment of chronic disease,” she said.
For now, the garden has an exemption from the town’s level-5 water restrictions, but Ms Corby said she was not sure how long that would last. And even with the exemption, the bore water on offer may not be suitable for gardens.
“The research that we’ve received from the University of New South Wales has indicated the long-term effects, the quality of the plants, they will deteriorate, the nutrients will be reduced so it doesn’t work,” she said.
“In the long term we can’t sustain the garden.”
‘It’s going to keep everyone alive’
Walgett’s mayor, Manuel Martinez, said the shire commissioned the town bore to provide water security in the event of shortages just like this one.
“Two years ago, we had the foresight to sink a bore. We’re drought-proofing our whole shire,” Cr Martinez said.
“This is Australia. We’re in a drought and until the drought breaks, that’s the only water supply we’ve got.”
“It’s going to keep everyone alive, and that’s what we’re here to do,” he said.
“The sodium level is a bit high, higher than normal, higher than preferred, but it’s within the guidelines and it’s the same level it is with other bores.
“I’ve lived in Lightning Ridge for the last 32 years with only bore water. Most of outback Queensland is on the Artesian Basin.”
Cr Martinez said that as soon as there was water in the rivers again, Walgett would be back on river water — or at least on a mixture of river and bore water.
He said the bore water was a short-term emergency supply.
“I’m not doubting what they say, long-term effects of anything can be harmful, especially sodium or salt in the water system,” he said.
Many residents in Walgett believe it is not just the drought that is to blame for the dry rivers.
They say the waterways have not being managed properly and that too much water is being taken out upstream.
Chairman of the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service, Bill Kennedy, said it was hard when people saw so much water in the rivers not far up the road.
“We’ve lived through droughts before but there was always some water, and some running water,” he said.
“I guess progress has changed all that with irrigators, farming, and especially cotton further up the river.
“I was driving to Tamworth, Newcastle last week and there’s water in the rivers further up at Gunnedah, Narrabri, Wee Waa.”
The mayor agreed, and said it was frustrating to see so much water upstream in both rivers.
Cr Martinez said the last two water releases from Lake Keepit were supposed to flow down as far as Walgett but they never made it.
“It’s beyond council’s control … we can only apply to push, to get another release, and try and get water to make it down to us.”
He said there was another water release from Lake Keepit on its way and hopefully this one will make it all the way to Walgett.
Spirits at low ebb
Many people in this community were deeply saddened by the state of the two rivers here.
Elder Rick Townsend says it was the worst dry spell anyone could remember.
“It’s a pretty bad state of affairs,” he said.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it in all my life that I’ve lived here.”
For countless generations, the rivers have been a place to meet, fish and swim. But locals said at the moment that was simply not possible.
“There’s no fish or anything in the river any more,” says another Elder, Thomas Morgan.
“People used to come down here and fish every day, catch heaps of fish and crayfish. [They would] come with their kids and spend a good day here with them and be happy, and now they can’t do that.”
For Clem Dodd, a spokesman for the Dharriwaa Elders Group, the implications for the community were dire.
“This place will be a ghost town before long,” he said.
“If there’s no water, everything’s going to die. There’ll be nothing here for people — they’ll all be moving out.”
Walgett’s water crisis: NSW considers options after ‘concerning’ sodium levels found
Berejiklian government may install desalination system for town’s bore water supply
The state government says it is considering options to help resolve the water crisis in the western New South Wales town of Walgett, including installing a desalination system for the town’s bore water supply.
Walgett has been forced to survive on bore water for almost 18 months as the Barwon and Namoi rivers are both dry. One expert said the levels of sodium in the bore water was “concerning”, while locals say it smells and tastes bad.
The minister for primary industries and regional water, Niall Blair, has asked for “a full report” from water and public health officials this week, while locals are calling for a royal commission into the mismanagement of water in the Murray-Darling basin.
“We’re doing everything we can to support the shire,” Blair said. “We’re looking at the option of helping them take water from environmental flows upstream. We could extend a pipeline to take that water.”
“The sodium levels are concerning,” Webster said. “300mg a litre is much higher than the Australian drinking water guideline of 180mg/L, and this guideline is based on palatability, not health.
“No health-based guideline value is proposed for sodium. However, the guideline does state that ‘medical practitioners treating people with severe hypertension or congestive heart failure should be aware if the sodium concentration in the patient’s drinking water exceeds 20 mg/L.
“The sodium content of the Walgett tap water is 15 times this amount.”
Earlier this month, the town’s bore pump failed and there was no running water at all. Crowdfunding campaigns sprang up across NSW to send fresh water to Walgett.
The pump was repaired, and the bore water is back, but locals are losing patience.
“We appreciate the water that people are bringing us,” Dhariwaa elder Virginia Robinson said. “But it’s not the solution. We want to advocate for better water management. This is not the drought. It’s worse than that.
“It’s a triple whammy – drought, land clearing and climate change – that means no water.”
However, Blair insists drought is to blame.
“The problem is Lake Keepit is empty and farming communities have zero allocation, they’ve got no water either,” Blair said.
Lake Keepit is the dam upstream on the Namoi river and is currently at 0.5% capacity. Three weeks ago, a series of environmental releases were sent down the Namoi but “it took three releases, four actually, for any water to arrive because the river is so dry, it all soaked into the ground”, Blair said.
Construction to raise the town weir by a metre is going out to tender in coming weeks. This too is a source of tension in the town. At a meeting of several hundred locals last week, there was disagreement. Local Gamilaraay people would rather the weir was removed to allow a free flow of the river while other townspeople say a metre isn’t high enough to trap enough water for the town’s long-term sustainability.
“I know there’s an internal debate about height of the weir,” Blair said. “But the funding is to put another metre on. Anything higher would need us to redesign and reengineer the weir and would need further funding. The shire was adamant that funding for weir for extra 1m was adequate. The locals can debate that.”
Yuwalaraay man Ted Fields has been involved in cultural heritage management for decades and is calling for a royal commission in to the Murray-Darling basin.
“It’s not just climate change, it’s not just drought, there’s something else going on and more has to be done around the security of water,” he said. “This is a government-created problem. It’s a a flawed system and everyone knows the system is over-allocated.
“There’s nothing in the upper catchment. Keepit dam is empty but strangely enough I’ve been driving back and forth from Walgett to Tamworth for two years and there’s some beautiful cotton paddocks up near Narrabri being irrigated.
“We drove past a cotton farm this morning that had the sprinklers on, irrigating their crops, just outside Narrabri. And there’s thousands of acres, it’s not just there and there.
“There’s cultural despair in our people. The outlook for them is quite bleak. Walgett is a town where if you come back here and the river’s running, everyone is smiling and happy, you can feel it. So there’s despair and depression because the people who are supposed to be looking after us are looking after somebody else.”
Sodium Australian Drinking Water Guidelines
“Based on aesthetic considerations (taste), the concentration of sodium in drinking water
should not exceed 180 mg/L….The sodium ion is widespread in water due to the high solubility of sodium salts and the abundance of mineral deposits. Near coastal areas, windborne sea spray can make an important contribution either by fallout onto land surfaces where it can drain to drinking water sources, or from washout by rain. Apart from saline intrusion and natural contamination, water treatment chemicals, domestic water softeners and
sewage effluent can contribute to the sodium content of drinking water.” ADWG 2011
Saltwater solution for drought towns battling brackish drinking water
Bourke resident Fleur Thompson says she’s battled a few health issues this year, including hypertension and kidney stones.
So when she found out her outback town’s emergency drinking water supply was high in sodium she was worried.
“I got some tests done and my kidneys were not functioning at full capacity,” she said.
“The one doctor who I did get to speak to about it was really concerned.
“He was concerned about the rest of town having to deal with it as well.”
Bourke’s drinking water comes from the Darling River.
Last summer it got so low the town had to start using a backup supply of bore water from the Great Artesian Basin, which had elevated sodium levels.
The same thing happened at Walgett, about 200 kilometres away, when the Barwon and Namoi Rivers there dried up.
The Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service and the Dharriwaa Elders Group have both expressed concerns about the potential effect on community health.
Chairman of the Elders Group Clem Dodd said the bore water was not healthy.
“You got to have water. I don’t care who you are — animal or person, you can’t go without water,” he said.
“But too much salt in it [is not good] … you got to get good water.”
The salt in the Bourke and Walgett bore water meets the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines but it exceeds the aesthetic (taste) limit.
There is no health-based sodium limit in those guidelines.
Health authorities contacted local doctors about potential health implications for patients with kidney disease, high blood pressure, heart failure, or who are pregnant.
‘Too much salt’
Jacqui Webster, a salt reduction expert from the George Institute for Global Health, has been working with the Walgett community on improving health outcomes there.
She said, while most salt in the average diet came from food, high salt levels in drinking water was a genuine health concern in these communities.
“Too much salt in the diet increases blood pressure, and increased blood pressure is one of the key contributors to premature death from heart disease and stroke in Australia,” Dr Webster said.
“You’ve got a high proportion of the community who are Aboriginal people, and we know Aboriginal communities already suffer disproportionately from high rates of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and kidney disease.
“It’s really important that poor diets — including the high sodium content of the water — are addressed.”
Dr Webster said sodium could also make the drinking water taste unpleasant and people may turn to sugary drinks instead, which could compound health issues.
There is currently some water back in the weirs at Walgett and Bourke.
But that water is only expected to last until the end of the year at most.
Bourke Shire Council general manager Ross Earl said if it did not rain the town would have to switch back to a mix of river and bore water.
“We were extremely hopeful that this time we’d be going back to river water full time,” he said.
“But clearly we’re preparing for the worst-case scenario — yet again.”
Heeding the call, but at what cost?
The New South Wales Government has now heeded the concerns of residents who are worried about sodium levels in their bore water.
It has committed several million dollars to remove salt from the emergency bore water supplies in Bourke and Walgett using desalination technology called reverse osmosis.
Deputy Premier John Barilaro said the Government’s first priority was water security but acknowledged there were water quality issues in some areas.
“We’re now moving away from surface water to groundwater and that, of course, is about making sure we don’t run out of water,” he said.
“We know that there are high levels of sodium and that is of concern.
“We know there are no general health impacts from that … but we do advise that for people with any medical condition to go see a local GP.
“But we want to look at long term resolving this issue and that’s why we’re prepared to put the investment in.
“We hope to have this all up and ready to go by September–October this year.”
The director of the Global Water Institute at the University of New South Wales, Greg Leslie, has also been working with the Walgett community and he said the new technology was a worthwhile outlay.
“Treating the water to remove salt is a standard water treatment procedure,” he said.
“In other parts of the country — Western Australia, the Northern Territory, South Australia — communities that are on bore water would use reverse osmosis technology routinely to take salt out.
“The advantage of doing it in a town like Walgett is that you already have 90 per cent of the infrastructure needed for those systems, and the reverse osmosis is just bolted on to the end.”
Professor Leslie said reverse osmosis units could be switched on and off as required.
But Bourke’s Ross Earl said even if the NSW Government foots the bill for the reverse osmosis technology, there would be additional running costs for his council.
“I agree you probably can’t put a cost on someone’s health, but we’d really need to get the costings to see what it would cost,” Mr Earl said.
Walgett Shire Council general manager Greg Ingham said he welcomed any initiative to improve the bore water quality in town.
But he also expressed concerns about potential additional costs.
“We don’t want council and our community to be burdened with ongoing operational costs to run desalination equipment,” he said.
An issue far and wide
Bourke and Walgett are not the only towns on Great Artesian Basin bore water.
Many places in New South Wales and Queensland have been on this bore water for years, such as Moree, Cumborah, Burren Junction, Barcaldine, Birdsville, and Winton.
While the quality of that water varies substantially between locations, there are town water supplies with sodium levels similar to that of Bourke and Walgett.
Lightning Ridge is an oft-quoted example.
Tourists flock to the town’s hot bore baths, which are famed for their potentially therapeutic benefits. But drinking that water is a whole other issue.
There has been no significant public outcry in Lightning Ridge over its drinking water supply and it is not slated to receive a reverse osmosis plant.
But Dr Webster said the health issue remained the same.
“I’ve been contacted by a member of the community in Lightning Ridge who is concerned about the salt levels in the water,” she said.
“I think it’s important that we are considering the long-term implications of high sodium levels in the water — not just in Walgett but in all of the communities where this is relevant.”
NSW Regional Town Water Supply Coordinator James McTavish said, while the concerns of some residents in Walgett and Bourke were valid, the water was safe.
“I’d stress that the water meets Australian drinking water guidelines for safety, but there is an issue associated with the detectability of sodium,” he said.
Desalination has often been more commonly associated with coastal cities, where drinking water supplies are topped up with treated seawater during droughts.
But as parched towns dig for water, it is looming as a bigger issue for inland populations too.
Fleur Thompson in Bourke hopes the local council will embrace reverse osmosis technology and use it to take the sodium out of the town’s bore water.
“The cost for maintaining these systems may be high but the potential health and human cost is higher,” she said.
2012-17: Walgett (NSW) (Hardness)
Walgett Hardness 251mg/L (max level 2012-17)
“To minimise undesirable build‑up of scale in hot water systems, total hardness (as calcium
carbonate) in drinking water should not exceed 200 mg/L.
Hard water requires more soap than soft water to obtain a lather. It can also cause scale to form on hot water pipes and fittings. Hardness is caused primarily by the presence of calcium and magnesium ions, although other cations such as strontium, iron, manganese and barium can also contribute.”
Australian Drinking Water Guidelines 2011