Only being able to drink bottled water or droplets squeezed out of the head of a kitchen tap sounds like a scenario confronting a third world country.
But this is the reality large communities in some NSW regional towns face in a matter of months as they count down to the dreaded ‘day zero’ – when the water runs out and their taps are shut off.
Veteran farmers are experiencing the worst drought of their lives, with some forced to close up properties that have been in families for generations
But the effect of the drought extends beyond the farms in large regional centres, with hairdressers losing regular clients, rural supply businesses and other retailers forced to either close their doors or reduce hours.
Local Government NSW president Linda Scott told Yahoo News Australia areas in the Central West like Bathurst, Orange, Dubbo along with other regional centres like Armidale and Tamworth were facing day zero in the next three to four months.
“Reported by the Bureau of Meteorology, this is one of the worst droughts in living memory,” she said.
“We could see large centres, a place like Tamworth with a population of 55,000 people, run out of water in three to four months.
“It’s a significant event and very serious.”
‘The real big threat is the hot, dry summer’
Speaking from his ute on his farm in the Central West town of Parkes, chair of NSW farmers drought taskforce, Wayne Dunford, said it was hard to imagine exactly what a town without water would look like.
“It’s hard to envision running out of water we take for granted,” he told Yahoo News Australia.
“They’d have to stop selling coffee for a start.
“Everyone would have to go buy water bottles down at the shop for a drink I’d say. And you still have to have the water for a lot of other basic things.”
While Mr Dunford said Parkes had the foresight to install bores near the Lachlan River and a pipe to supplement the town in such events, other towns weren’t so lucky.
“This has been the worst drought on record and there have been some improvements to towns’ water supplies after past droughts which are obviously getting them through this time, but there are still plenty on the knife edge in a few months time,” he said.
In Tenterfield, in the northern end of the New England region in NSW, water is already being carted in as the drought refuses to loosen its grip on country areas.
Mr Dunford said the hot, dry summer expected to hit in the coming months too will likely just make the drought worst.
“The real big threat is the hot, dry summer when dams evaporate fairly quickly,” he said.
“I’d hate to think of those bigger places running out of water.
“It’s one of those things you see it happening and the answer is a horrendous cost. I would think personally those larger cities just physically couldn’t bring the water in quick enough to meet the needs of everyone.”
‘Businesses are really starting to feel a bite’
Mr Dunford said the water supply from the sky had shut down for more than two years and the repercussions were starting to have a significant impact in the towns affected.
“The northern half of the state is not going to have a season at all and on the back of no crops last year and nearly none the year before – croppers have never seen that in our lifetime,” he said.
“The businesses are really starting to feel a bite and it’s not what we want to see happen but the reality is out there and it’s going to be another difficult 12 to 18 months.
“If nothing whatsoever is done for these towns there will be a massive decline in contractors, who will leave shearing or harvesting contracts, and once they leave they take their family with them and then schools lose numbers and we don’t need as many policeman or teachers.
“There’s a real flow-on effect and it can become serious if let go too far.”
How towns are bracing for ‘day zero’
Linda Scott told Yahoo News Australia most of the towns in NSW were on significant water restrictions.
“They are not watering gardens and are using bore water under the ground, which obviously tastes very different,” she said.
“People are having short showers and using the least amount of water possible. It’s made a significant difference in Cobar where they have cut daily use by a third to two million litres a day.
“Parts of NSW are down to drinking bore water, not drinking from the dam or treated water. If some of those supplies run out, or supplies in dams run out in the next three to four months then only bottles of water will be available.”
Ms Scott said the best thing people could do to help was book a holiday to regional NSW to inject much needed funds into drought-affected areas.
Responsible use of water in country towns
Orange mayor Reg Kidd told Yahoo News Australia in a statement the town’s water supply was just under a third full and assuming there’s no rain, the city had enough to last 12 to 18 months.
“The fact remains the whole country is in a drought and everyone, everywhere is affected in some way. While the situation is serious, we also need to acknowledge the work our residents are doing,” he said.
“When you compare the water use of Orange residents to other comparable cities, it’s clear Orange residents are using water responsibly and sensibly and with great care. We’re using far less per person per day than other local government areas.
“We’ve been in this position before and we have worked hard in recent years to develop infrastructure to help sure-up Orange’s supply.
“We’ve raised the dam wall, we’ve built the storm-water harvesting schemes and we’ve built the Macquarie to Orange Pipeline. All of these infrastructure projects have led to a significant increase in our storage and without them we might have very well been looking at only a few months’ supply left.”
Director of water and waste at Tamworth Regional Council, Bruce Logan, said water was sourced from the state-owned Chaffey Dam and the council-owned Dungowan Dam.
Level 5 water restrictions imminent for Tamworth
The Chaffey Dam is currently sitting at 21.1 per cent capacity but if it drops to 20 per cent, Tamworth and some surrounds will move to level 5 water restrictions.
“We have been very proactive when it comes to educating our community of water use and this has seen our residents reduce their water usage exceptionally as higher levels of restrictions have increased,” Mr Logan said.
“As the current situation is ongoing, council is continuing to educate residents on how they can reduce water consumption to meet daily usage targets.”
In June the NSW Government announced more than $355 million extra would be allocated to extend emergency drought support for farmers, bringing the state’s total investment in drought support to more than $1.8 billion.
“The impact of this drought has spread quickly off farms and is now being felt by businesses and households in towns and cities across regional NSW,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said.
“When farmers can’t contract tradies and other workers, there is a flow on effect felt throughout local businesses such as cafes and local stores. This funding package will support these rural communities in their time of need.”
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