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.