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'The Fight In Me Is Dwindling': Dubbo Residents Face The Prospect Of Running Dry

Garry Hall rarely ventures into Dubbo, a usually bustling regional NSW city where he can't find a park. Now, the picture is different. 

"I did happen to wander down the main street the other day ... there were a lot of vacant parks," the grazier told 10 daily.

Dubbo is one of many regions across the state in the grips of an unprecedented drought that is now threatening town water supplies.

Projections from the state's river operator and bulk water supplier, Water NSW, predict water supply to communities in the Macquarie valley -- including Dubbo -- could be "insecure" by November.

Based on current modelling figures, seen by 10 daily, water levels will be too low to flow freely out of the Burrendong Dam by then, at which point the remaining water will be pumped out of the dam and down the Macquarie River -- one of the longest rivers in NSW.

Dubbo's river system from above. Photo: Supplied

If there's neither rain nor government intervention, this supply is forecast to last until around May next year, when the river hits 'cease to flow'.

The Macquarie River experiences an average inflow of 1448GL annually but in the past two years has seen just 97GL -- or three percent -- enter the river system, the data shows.

This is 35 percent lower than the previous drought of record, which stretched from 1937 to 1940.

It's been described as a "critical" situation by NSW Water Minster Melinda Pavey, with the government insisting it's doing everything it can to make sure the state gets through.

READ MORE: 'Critical': Parts Of NSW Could Run Out Of Water By November 

And while spirits remain high, local communities are struggling. Ryan Mackintosh, who runs Dubbo's 'Old Bank Restaurant and Bar'  has watched several shops close in the town centre.

"We have a diverse range of people coming through, both tourists and locals, and we've definitely noticed a drop in spend -- in hospitality and retail," Mackintosh told 10 daily.

"We have been through this before, but not like this. A lot of travellers coming through the Central West are commenting just how dry it is."

"The Dubbo economy is being hit hard by this extended drought, and the agriculture economy is the cream on the top," Hall said.

"That cream has been taken off."

The Macquarie River has stopped running. Photo: Supplied

Hall, a cattle grazier, lives about 250km from Dubbo in the Macquarie Marshes -- one of the largest remaining wetlands in inland Australia.

Usually a flourishing haven for waterbirds and wildlife, the marshes are now bone dry and the Macquarie River has stopped running.

"There are still a few puddles left in the river, but within a month, I don't think there will be any water at all," he said.

Hall's property, The Mole, has been in the family for four generations. He said the conditions are the toughest he's seen.

"It's uncharted waters for us at the moment. When we're making decisions, we've got to plan for the worst," he said.

"I don't think it's going to finish us, but in our community, it will absolutely change the future of agriculture, there's no doubt about it."

READ MORE: How You Can Help Drought-Stricken Farmers

Jeremy Walsh, another cattle grazier based at Dubbo, also remembers water lapping at the banks during childhood summer holidays.

"I've always seen these dams at 90 percent full. I've never seen them at 4.5 percent," he told 10 daily.

"There is something going on. We are on underground supply, but when that goes ... it will be terribly scary."

Station work horses at the Hall's property in the Macquarie Marshes. Photo: Supplied

The big question on both these farmers' minds is how we got here, as concerns mount over water management in the northern Murray-Darling basin.

"Politicians like to say we're here because we're in drought, which is an easy solution," Hall said.

"It was only in November 2016 when Burrendong Dam was full. All of a sudden, we're just about out of water.

"The drought is playing a big part, but for me, the message is simple. If we had allocated water more responsibly, we would not be in this position."

NSW Water Minister Melissa Pavey told the Australian the dire projections from WaterNSW had forced the state government to throw millions towards funding emergency infrastructure for new bores, dams and pipelines.

In a statement, WaterNSW confirmed works were underway to temporarily raise the main weir at nearby Warren and prepare the "remnant storage" left in Burrendong Dam.

Melissa Gray, convener of environmental group Healthy Rivers Dubbo, explained the latter meant installing new infrastructure which will provide access to the dam's original riverbed.

Healthy Rivers Dubbo members (L-R): Terry Hynch, Candice Middleton, Edith Hynch, Mel Gray. Photo: Supplied

"That doesn’t sound fantastic for the quality of the water that will be going into the river ... we are expecting it would be oxygenated, perhaps full of algal bloom and perhaps heavy metals  from old mining practices in the valley," she told 10 daily. 

"However, it is water, and it will be coming out of the dam, pending any serious inflows into it."

Gray said it's "extremely stressful" seeing the Macquarie Marshes being severely impacted by large extraction upstream.

"We are seeing the foundations of the river being permanently affected," she said, pointing to freshwater mussels and native Redgum forests being lost. 

"When the rivers are in decline, everything winds down from there," she said. 

"The spirit and the economy of these small towns drops drastically."

This rings true for Dubbo local, Candice Middleton, who has for years been fighting with 'Healthy Rivers Dubbo' to protect their river system.

Dubbo local Candice Middleton has been fighting to protect her river system for years. Photo: Supplied

"When it first came about, I was so strong, but now i’m getting weary," she told 10 daily. 

"The fight that is left in me...  it's dwindling. I can’t see change. I can’t see people listening." 

In the short term, keeping local towns afloat is one everyone's minds.

"We've got to get through to next winter without closing major businesses. From now on, it's about that critical human need," Hall said.

"After that, we all need to sit down and talk about not getting in this position again."

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au