After years of drought, water reaches parched Menindee

Lisa Cox
·3-min read

“It’s hard to put into words,” Graeme McCrabb says of seeing water flow again into the Menindee Lakes.

“After the fish kills there’s a more emotional viewing of water coming through. The significance of these pools being refreshed and fish getting a chance to survive, it’s pretty moving.”

McCrabb is a resident of Menindee, the town in far western NSW that was the site of mass fish kills in 2019.

For the first time in three years, Menindee has received significant flows into its lake system and water releases have commenced to reconnect the lower Darling with the Murray after the prolonged drought.

WaterNSW estimates the flows will arrive at Pooncarie, a remote township in far western NSW that had been trucking in water, between 8 April and 10 April.

Water is expected to reach Burtundy between 12 April and 16 April. The agency estimates the Lower Darling will reconnect with the Murray a few days later.

McCrabb was one of the first people to alert Australians to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of fish, including 70-year-old Murray cod, in the summer of 2019.

He said the town had been in “a lot of trouble” but felt “more upbeat” after flows started arriving a few weeks ago into Lake Wetherell and Lake Tandure.

Heavy rains in February through the Namoi and Gwyder valleys and the Border rivers have brought the first reasonable flows into Menindee since early 2017.

WaterNSW estimates Menindee Lakes could receive a further 290-355 gigalitres of water in the weeks ahead.

Late last week it began releasing water from weir 32 into the Lower Darling.

The releases into the Lower Darling are the first replenishment flows deliberately sent down the drought-struck stretch of river since weir 32 releases ceased in February 2019.

The rate of release will be increased to 3,000 megalitres a day to push lower quality water through the system. Some fish kills are anticipated as the water makes it way through already stressed habitat.

Richard Kingsford, the director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at UNSW, said the arrival of the riverine flows was “really positive” and it was the best flood that had been seen since 2016.

“We really need a flood of that sort of magnitude,” he said.

“This is really critical for the river and connecting up those fish populations that are remaining in the river which were devastated last year,” he said.

“Lots of the Darling River had dry areas up and down it. That water connects it up and down the system allowing fish to move up and down the river and creating more habitat.”

Kingsford said the greatest benefit would be for the people living on the river system who had been dealing with low water supply and poor water quality, and the toll that has taken on both their livelihoods and mental health.

McCrabb said the water around Menindee had been, until recently, a dark green. What was coming through now was a fresh grey.

“That’s how it should look,” he said.

While the arrival of water has brought optimism, McCrabb said the one trouble for the town was they were now feeling the effects of the Covid-19 crisis, like everybody else. Businesses were struggling and the local hotels had closed.

“The economic impact we would have had from the water is gone because of the virus,” he said.

“But it gives us security going forward that we’ve got water when it doesn’t rain.”