Darling River crisis: the farms without safe drinking or washing water
Jan 24 2019
When blue-green algae blooms on the river, everyone is told not to touch it. But in drought, there may be no other water
On the nearly 900km of the Darling River from below the Bourke weir to just above Wentworth, farmers on remote properties are dealing with a water crisis that would usually only be experienced in third world countries.
While there is some water treatment in the small towns along the river, the farmers often have no choice but to ignore the warnings about using the river water.
“It’s just wrong,” says Gabie Le Lievre, a grazier whose property adjoins the Darling between Louth and Tilpa. “Yes, we are in a terrible drought, but this is about a basic human right. I just want clean water to bathe my children.”
For months there has been a red alert for for blue-green algae in the Lower Darling as the river ceased to flow and temperatures regularly topped 45C.
The river has stopped running last August and the remaining waterholes have turned an ugly bright green.
The river has become undrinkable, unswimmable and unsuitable for bathing.
The government warnings say that, when it reaches a red alert, contact should be avoided.
“Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, are the most ancient of all photosynthetic organisms,” the NSW Water website warns. “Some produce poisons harmful to humans and possibly fatal to domestic animals and fish – neurotoxins and liver toxins, and skin allergens.
But for families that live along the Lower Darling on properties, there is often little choice, as that is the sole source of water for their homesteads, apart from very limited rain water.
Some properties have bores that can be used for stock and most have rainwater tanks. But as the drought continues, even these are running out, leading properties to truck in water from nearby towns.
Chrissy Ashby is a fifth-generation grazier on the cattle property Trevallyn, 75km downstream from Tilpa, and above the Wilcannia weir. The property has 65km of river frontage to the Darling, but these days the mighty river is just a dried up riverbed with a few stagnant pools.
She grew up here, so she’s seen droughts before. But this time the river is so low that she and her husband, Bill, are battling to survive.
There have been a couple of environmental releases that have sent a trickle down the river, but it’s now just a series of stagnant green pools. Yet that is their main water supply.
“The water stinks,” says Chrissy. “Its just terrible. It smells like rotting plants.”
Since the algal bloom alerts, she been reduced to washing off in a bucket of precious rain water.
“When we go into town or anywhere with a shower, we grab the opportunity to wash our hair,” she says.
The social isolation is compounded as well. “We are reluctant to ask people to come and stay when they would have to shower and use water,” she said.
For stock, they are using a mobile submersible pump to extract water from the bottom of the pools to avoid the algae. The pool they are using is only knee-deep, about half a kilometre long and 30 metres wide. It’s drying up too.
Some properties have sunk bores, but with the Ashbys’ finances stretched and no certainty that drilling would find water during the drought, they are scrambling for other alternatives.
Tanks have been ordered from Broken Hill, so they can get a tanker of water delivered under the drought relief program. Bill has also bought a solar power system and new piping, so they can extract water at more remote pools down the river and pump it to the homestead.
Further down the river at Tolarno, between Menindee and Pooncarie, Lauren Blunden, the wife of the manager, is in a daily struggle to ensure her seven-month son, Will, does not come in contact with river water.
“It’s been difficult and stressful,” she said. “Even before the heat came, we have been struggling to cope with the lack of water.”
With a red algae alert at Tolarno, Blunden is taking no chances. She uses rain water for Will’s baths and to wash his clothes.
She and her husband are also showering under a camp shower that uses just a few litres of rain water. They have rigged up a submersible pump and a car battery to pump water from an esky that they fill manually.
But they have now reached the bottom of the rain water tank, and last week had to truck water in from Menindee.
“It’s bore water, so it’s not the greatest water. You can’t drink it, and it’s got a funny smell to it, and tastes awful, but it helps with washing and doing dishes,” she says.
They now go to another rainwater tank with large blue water bottles to get water for Will and for drinking. The house’s plumbing is connected to river water.
“It smells unbelievable. It smells like poo and rotten eggs. You can’t fill up the sink to wash dishes because it is just so terrible,” Blunden said.
“Normally we would bathe in this water, but it’s unbearable. It dries your skin our, makes you itchy and it can cause a lot of health issues.”
A neurotoxin, BMAA, has been found in rivers in NSW that have blue green algae blooms. Studies in America have linked BMAA to a three-fold higher incidence of motor neurone disease.
Blunden says there is basic testing for algae but not detailed testing of water quality. The advice is simply don’t use it or come in contact with it.
She puts their current predicament down the the decision by the NSW government to drain the lakes twice in the last four years.
“Its crazy, because when they are full we have seven years’ supply,” she said. “It’s not fair. We are basically in third world conditions with our water. And this is Australia.
“Everyday we think about leaving. This is our home and we love it so much, but is it worth it? What if Will gets sick?”
Menindee locals worried about water waiver
Rural residents living outside Menindee are being asked to sign a waiver to have potable water delivered to their homes.
In summer the river water at Menindee killed millions of fish.
Now, as the drought drags on through winter, residents outside of the remote NSW town are being forced to sign a document stating they won’t sue authorities if the drinking water delivered to their homes makes them sick.
Rob McBride and his family live on the sheep property Tolarno Station on the banks of the Darling River some 50 kilometres south of Menindee.
For years the family sourced their drinking water from the river and rainwater tanks, but now they are reliant on water delivered by charities, or they buy potable water from the local council.
Central Darling Shire Council will only deliver water to Tolarno Station, however, if the McBrides sign a document guaranteeing they won’t sue the council or the state government if they become sick.
“It’s blackmail and you can’t do that,” Mr Mcbride told AAP.
“If you don’t sign that paperwork then you don’t get any water supplied to your house and your family. We’ve got a gun to our head.”
Mr McBride is worried blue-green algae in the town’s main water sources could be linked to the “soul-destroying” motor neurone disease.
Menindee’s town water, and the water delivered to nearby rural residents, is sourced by Essential Water from Lake Copi Hollow which at present has an amber alert for blue-green algae.
Central Darling Shire Council’s website says its potable water is safe to drink.
The council is responsible for carting the water to the rural residents. It says those who supply the potable water are required to provide the NSW health department with regular samples to ensure it meets Australian guidelines.
Essential Water insists the water it supplies is treated and tested to ensure it complies.
But, according to Macquarie University neuroscientist Gilles Guillemin, some cyanotoxins – which are produced by blue-green algae – are so small they can’t be filtered out.
Professor Guillemin has been working since 2012 on developing technology to help quantify the toxins and identify exactly what it is about in blue-green algae in the water that triggers MND.
“I wouldn’t drink the water, if I go there (to Menindee), I would drink bottled water,” he told AAP.
But council general manager Greg Hill says residents are only asked to sign the waiver because the potable water is delivered “into a tank we have no control over”.
The tanks on most properties previously held raw or untreated water from sources like the Darling River, which means they could be contaminated, Mr Hill told AAP.
“For this reason council asks that waiver be signed as we have no control over the maintenance and the cleanness of the storage tanks,” he said in a statement.
Retiree Dick Arnold lives “a stone’s throw” from Menindee and was also required to sign a waiver before potable water was delivered to his home.
That was the case even though he recently received a brand new water tank paid for by the state government.
“We certainly don’t drink it,” he told AAP. Instead, the water is used for washing.
Mr Arnold says he’s never been asked to sign such a document before.
“It does make you wonder what’s in the water. You can’t trust anyone these days.”
Both Mr McBride and Mr Arnold are concerned the water may contain traces of blue-green algae blooms which are also present in the Darling River and were blamed for the catastrophic mass fish kills in December and January.
“MND is a soul-destroying, debilitative and murderous disease,” Mr McBride said.
“And the government gives us a disclaimer which effectively relinquishes them of all responsibility for future generations.”