The future of western region water at a crossroads

The Dubbo Photo News – 7/1/2021

Mel Gray – Convenor Healthy Rivers Dubbo and the Wambuul Alliance.

People love rivers, and I am no different. Growing up on a vegetable farm on the Clarence River and camping on the Upper Clarence every year, the river was central to our lives. After moving to Dubbo in 2011 to be close to my family, I became involved in river habitat regeneration and learnt about the challenges facing the Wambuul-Macquarie River and the Northern Murray-Daring Basin.

I saw a need for voices in the Dubbo community that spoke on behalf of the river. Healthy Rivers Dubbo formed in 2017 after the shocking revelations from the Four Corners episode “Pumped”. Our group held several events in Dubbo to promote equitable water management, including a Town Hall meeting at the Garden Hotel, and a rally through town. My involvement in water management grew. I joined several groups and committees involving water management, threw myself into submission writing and built a social media presence.

Running a busy freelance bookkeeping practice, I had a choice to make. There was much that needed to be done to understand the complexities of water management, and it would take time. I made the decision to restructure my practice so that I could spend as much time as possible advocating for rivers, while still maintaining enough bookkeeping work to meet my expenses.  

Healthy Rivers Dubbo continued to evolve as a group, raising the profile of river management issues in the community and developing relationships with politicians and other river advocate groups in the Basin.

In 2018 plans were announced by the NSW Government to dam the Macquarie-Wambuul River again by building a large re-regulating structure at Gin Gin between Narromine and Warren. It wasn’t until November 2019 that WaterNSW consulted the general public and Healthy Rivers Dubbo was included in the consultation process.

Since then Healthy Rivers Dubbo has been overwhelmed by people and groups wanting to work together to oppose the project. It has been necessary for Healthy Rivers Dubbo to become the facilitator of a much broader “Wambuul Alliance”.

The future of the Macquarie-Wambuul River and the Ramsar listed Macquarie Marshes is at a cross roads. The gates on the planned Gin Gin re-regulating structure would be 8.5m high – that’s two and a half stories – and would back the river up for 32 km. It’s not surprising that the developer of the project and the Local Member for Dubbo are not being forthcoming about how enormous this structure would be. Once people learn the real nature of what is being proposed they are furious.

Many locals in the Mid-Macquarie area grew up camping and fishing at Gin Gin. The place holds generations of happy memories and cultural significance. If this project goes ahead, a popular camping and fishing site would be up to 8.5 metres under water, and a registered First Nations Site would be inundated.

There would be no coming back for river life including Murray Cod and Silver Perch after the loss of so much habitat. Recreational fishers would be packing their eskies and stocking up on supplies in other valleys, and not making the trip to the Macquarie. Kayakers would avoid traveling to the Macquarie if they knew a 32 km still weir pool lined with drowned red gums was ahead of them.

The internationally significant Macquarie Marshes have shrunk by up to two thirds since river regulation and over allocation. Despite being expertly managed with an ever shrinking bucket of publicly owned water, the fate of the wetlands would be sealed if the Gin Gin project went ahead.

The Wambuul Alliance understands the need for a sustainable irrigation industry and many recognise the potential for the Macquarie-Wambuul valley to be a food producing hot spot. However, right now there are serious problems in NSW with the rules that share water. The recent Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) review into water management in NSW found the government favours large irrigation over all others and the environment in ways that go against its own laws.

The decision to plough tens of millions of dollars of public funds into a project that will only benefit large scale irrigation to the detriment of all others who have cultural, social and economic reliance on the river is yet another example of the unwarranted bias from NSW water agencies that the ICAC report highlights.

Faced with the decision of whether to allow the river to be turned into nothing more than an irrigation delivery channel, many in the community have come together and dug deep to support the Wambuul Alliance and oppose the Gin Gin re-regulating storage project. It has been a privilege to lend a hand.

Contact healthyriversdubbo@gmail.com

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