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‘Horrendous’: Hot spell is turning a normally verdant part of NSW dry

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Alex Kean didn't expect to be buying into an arid property when he purchased his 40-0dd hectare block near Merriwa in the Upper Hunter a decade ago.

Now he looks out on a barren landscape that would be more common much further inland, rather than a couple of hours from Sydney.

Alex Kean with his horses on his property near Merriwa in the remarkably dry Upper Hunter region of NSW. Photo: Nick Moir

"There's not a blade of grass in the paddock," Kean says, forcing him to fork out about $4000 a month in feed to keep his 20 horses – a mix of thoroughbreds and broodmares – in fine fettle.

"You talk to all the old fellas, and they can't remember it being this bad," Kean says.

The hobby farmer has already moved his cattle elsewhere, and unlike many of his neighbours, Kean has a job as a mining supervisor in a nearby coalmine to fall back on.

Others, though, such as Steven Tilse who lives near the town of Gundy, see many farmers struggling as dams dry up, requiring water to be trucked in to fill empty home water tanks.

"There's no storage water, there's no feed, and it's bloody hot," Tilse says, speaking on early morning while working on a rooftop to beat another day of heat.

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"It's horrendous," Tilse says of the conditions, adding the season has also been marked by "hot westerly winds, just drying everything out".

Parched farmland near Gundy, in the Upper Hunter region.
Parched farmland near Gundy, in the Upper Hunter region. Photo: Steven Tilse

That it's been a hot summer would not have been lost on many in NSW.

December was notable as the second-warmest on record for minimum temperatures – and the warmest for the Hunter. January was the state's third-warmest for both mean and maximum temperatures.

Dams on properties in the Upper Hunter are drying out.
Dams on properties in the Upper Hunter are drying out. Photo: Nick Moir

Around the Upper Hunter, places such as Scone set records for daytime temperatures.

At Scone airport, the average January day reached 35.7 degrees – or more than four degrees above the site's average over its 26 years of data. The record eclipsed the high mark set just a year earlier.

The dry conditions have been made worse by unusually hot days this summer.
The dry conditions have been made worse by unusually hot days this summer. Photo: Nick Moir

Rainfall on Kean's property would typically reach about 610 millimetres a year but less than half that tally fell in 2017.

According to the Bureau of Meteorology's latest drought statement, a region of eastern NSW stretching from the Manning district to the north down to the Illawarra is now among the driest in Australia, compared with normal conditions.

"There's been an accumulation of rainfall deficiencies over an eight-to-10 month period, but it's also been really hot," Karl Braganza, head of climate monitoring at the bureau, says.

Soils are likely to continue to dry out, with little if any rain forecast for the Upper Hunter in the coming weeks and most days nudging 40 degrees in the shade.

According to the bureau, Scone collected just 5 millimetres of rain in January – compared with 61 mm in an average January – while evaporation totalled 222 millimetres for the month.

With little rain around, streams are drying out and rivers are low in a region stretching all the way to the coast.

Dorothy Gliksman has seen the creek close to her home in Yarramalong near Wyong stop running completely, affecting wildlife such as platypuses and turtles. "Who knows what's happened to them?

"It's the worst I've seen since moving here 15 years ago," says Ms Gliksman, a physiotherapist, shortly after returning from walking her dogs near the dry creek.

"It seems to me, with each year there are more and more days of very high temperatures," she says.

Ray Armstrong, a friend who previously lived in the area for 35 years before moving to the Central Coast, said it is probably two decades since the region around Yarramalong has been this dry.

Mr Armstrong, a real estate agent who regularly visits the area, says locals have begun to worry that coal mines may be making dry conditions worse.

"One wonders whether they haven't gone and pierced some aquifer," he says.

That sensitivity in the Wyong region has only been magnified in recent weeks with the NSW Planning Assessment Commission giving approval of the Wallarah 2 Coal Project despite previous premier Barry O'Farrell promising to oppose coal mining in the water catchment if elected in 2011.

"The major concern has always been the protection of the water … where the mine will be is the most critical part of the water catchment where the water is collected," Alan Hayes from the Australian Coal Alliance, told the ABC last month.

Local angst about water use and coal mining could intensify if the dry spell continues.

For now, there is little likelihood of the mines and powerstations in the Hunter Valley running out of water. Glenbawn – a key reservoir supplying those users – still has about 78 per cent capacity, according to WaterNSW.

Even so, competition for water has been on the increase as mining expands.

"The mines use the water that collects, uncontrolled, in their pits, and when that runs out, they use their water allocations," Georgina Woods, NSW coordinator for Lock the Gate, says.

The Hunter is now "extremely dry", with trees even starting to die, Woods says.

A 2014 Lock the Gate report, Unfair Shares, found Hunter Valley coal mines had water entitlements of 142 billion litres a year, including 81 billion litres of groundwater.

"Coal companies dominate ownership of 'high security' water, including 55 per cent of all 'high security' shares of the Hunter River, which means they will obtain water preferentially during times of drought," the report says.

A 2014 Infrastructure NSW report in fact identified the Upper Hunter as "the highest priority catchment" east of the Great Divide, in part because of its low drought security.

"There are also some observed changes in water demand patterns, with high security water entitlements transferring to mining from agricultural holdings that, as a result, now rely on general security supply, leaving this sector very vulnerable to drought," the report says.

According to measures of vegetation moisture, the Hunter currently stands out a particularly dry region of NSW, according to the bureau.

Apart from the impacts on agriculture and the native wildlife, the ongoing dryness suggests the bushfire season also has some way to run.

Lightning has been a major source of fires during January, responsible for hundreds of blazes, Shane Fitzsimmons, Rural Fire Service commissioner, said. These include a fire in a remote region of the Wollemi National Park that has been active for weeks.

"That's an indication of how dry it is," Mr Fitzsimmons said.

For Kean, the farmer near Merriwa, one frustration has been the months of forecasts from the bureau that conditions for eastern Australia would shift to higher-than-average rainfall.

A weak La Nina in the Pacific – a stage of the natural cycle that sees equatorial winds in the Pacific strengthen and drag rainfall westwards – has yet to make much impact on Australia's eastern states.

That's left Upper Hunter farmers relying on isolated storms to drift over their properties.

One of Kean's mates collected 32 millimetres in a recent event while he "didn't get enough to join the dots up on the concrete".

"Every day we get closer to getting some rain," he says. "It's also another day further from when we last did."

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