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Australia Welcome back, Darling

23:16  08 may  2021
23:16  08 may  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

What drought, fish kills and financial strife along the Darling River taught regional communities in NSW

  What drought, fish kills and financial strife along the Darling River taught regional communities in NSW Those who live alongside the Darling have watched one of Australia's grandest rivers recede under withering drought — but their resilience sees them through.Two more followed in January 2019, downstream of Menindee Lakes. In total, it is estimated 1 million fish perished over a 40-kilometre stretch.

a field of grass with trees in the background: Floodwaters are re-energising drought-hit communities. () © Provided by ABC NEWS Floodwaters are re-energising drought-hit communities. ()

Australia's third-longest river is running a banker once more as floodwaters from March storms bring its first major flush after years of drought.

For some people the water means money in the bank; for others it represents a feed or a place to come together with family.

With a red dog the shape of a wombat by her side, three-year-old Ivy Moore leads her father James to his ute outside their home at Walgett in northern New South Wales.

The farm is a 400-kilometre round trip from the daycare centre Ivy attends once a week.

Big distances don't seem so big out here.

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Ivy is keen to push the boundaries — and perhaps her parents' patience — as she explores a home she's mostly known to be a dry and parched dust bowl.

"It really [was] the one-in-100-year drought. It was pretty devastating," James says.

It meant that for the first couple of years of Ivy's life, the Moores didn't plant a crop.

Now, standing in front of a dam, filled for the first time in five years, he explains that sowing is underway and this year he expects to harvest both a summer and winter crop for the first time since 2016.

Further west at Brewarrina, agronomist Lucy Powell says confidence has spread far and wide across the district.

"It's shaping up to be a pretty exceptional year."

She talks about sheds going up, seeds going in and farmers re-stocking.

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Lucy stands between the Barwon River and her white LandCruiser ute, tucking at her sleeves.

With the sun not long up, a man crosses the nearby tennis courts walking his dog and a goat. No-one looks twice.

A B-double carrying cotton bales rolls past and Lucy continues to reflect on the change of fortune the river brings.

"There's a lot more confidence in finances and cashflow."

For the first time in a long time, she says you can see young people in farming excited about their prospects.

A good season will do that.

"There can be crocodiles in there because the water has come from Queensland," a girl says, her smile mile-wide.

There's no sign of the reptiles this day but the joy the water has brought from hundreds of kilometres north and east is almost palpable at the Brewarrina skate park.

"We use it for fishing, yabbying, sometimes swimming," one boy says.

Another talks about catching yellow-bellied perch with their bare hands.

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"Our fish traps are 40,000 years old. It's older than the pyramids."

It is a good point, but less than two years ago these same ancient fish traps were completely exposed.

The riverbed was cracked and colourless and daylight lit the bones of an old paddle steamer sunken to the mud long ago.

The kids riding their scooters through the skate bowl today could have easily walked across the river.

Now in the autumn of 2021, the river is brown and fast and wide.

For the little girl warning about crocs, it means an extra two-kilometre detour to get home from the park, via the bridge.

"It's not very often we get water flowing through our river systems like this, it's making the town energised again," Burra McHughes says.

The Murrawarri Ngemba man is a natural leader and part of one of the first Indigenous fire crews in New South Wales.

He can see the change the river is having on the people and the country.

"When a human is dehydrated, it's not very energised, it's negative and tired — when it's hydrated, you've got a lot of energy."

Somewhere between Brewarrina and Bourke, the Culgoa and Barwon rivers meet to form the Darling River.

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It takes the name of former NSW governor Sir Ralph Darling. A quick google suggests the man who led the colony from 1825 to 1831 was a bit of a tyrant.

The British army officer now seems a world away from the Kamilaroi Highway as it cuts its way through inundated billabongs and flocks of emus feasting on fresh greenery.

At Bourke, the river licks the leaves of the river gums as it nears its peak; this flush will see the Darling rise to more than 10 metres at the town's port.

It is where one onlooker can be heard delighting at the prospect of a shower that doesn't rely on bore water. Apparently, it's tough on the skin.

On the other side of town is Davidson Park. With a supermoon rising, the Ewes are in training.

Team captain Laura Gordon is feeling good about her team's chances in the first year of this women's rugby competition — that's despite an injury-inflicting draw with nearby (280km) Warren at the weekend.

"We did absolutely amazing, I'm so very proud of them," she says.

It might sound odd, but the confidence is boosted by the floodwaters.

"It's made the community a lot happier … the atmosphere at the moment, you can just tell there's a change," Laura says.

Another Ewe, Emily Bowden, describes a new level of calm across town.

"It really does bring up the happy level in the town.

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"Basically it goes from a 10 to a two with your level of stress, it just drops right down.

"The town is nice and calm and you can see that throughout the town no matter where you go."

From Bourke the bitumen gives way to a track rich in red soil at times, and grey and dusty at others.

There are some goats on the track and fewer sheep.

John McMaster, a shearer born in 1940 and the oldest of 14 children, remembers when there were a lot more sheep in the district.

Standing alongside the Darling at Louth, he recalls how when he first arrived in the region a punt was used to cross the river delivering hundreds of wool bales at a time.

Johnny Mac, as most know him, remembers how he poured the concrete to form the foundations of the bridge that replaced it.

The Western Herald archives show that the last public ferry on the Darling ceased operation at Louth when the bridge opened in 1965.

A white line on the bridge's middle pylon — about six feet above the river today — shows the peak of a flood from the early 1970s.

That was about the time Johnny Mac caught one of the more unusual sites at Louth.

"I was coming back from a shed and I pulled in on the block by the riverbed, and here's a bloody water buffalo in the river, a Territory buffalo, and I thought I'd gone bonkers.

"Anyway, I come in to town and found out there was a travelling show and they'd let him in the river for a drink ... a bloody water buffalo in the middle of the Darling."

Johnny Mac is joined by his son, Ian "Campoven" McMaster, and Dave Matthews, a descendent of the Irish shipwright Thomas Matthews who founded Louth, having abandoned the Victorian goldfields in the mid-1800s.

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Dave explains how his ancestor built a seven-metre granite cross in the town's cemetery to reflect the light in such a way that it "almost creates a fireball" on dusk.

The cross was built to commemorate Thomas's first wife, Mary.

He would go on to marry thrice more.

"I thought you were here to talk about the water," Johnny Mac says, as he pulls the conversation back and explains how the river here came to be rising once more.

"It's got one of the biggest catchments of any river in Australia; the catchment starts at Ipswich in Queensland and goes up the side to bloody Condamine and right around to Bathurst."

The water from hundreds of kilometres upstream whips past, the colour of coffee and sprinkled with black silt.

"The change went through and fell on a fair bit of that shed. The river was virtually dry before then."

The men are part of the Louth Fishing Club. It has more than 300 followers, which is not bad for a town with a population fewer than 40 and a river that doesn't always run.

"Most of the good fishing was done with my father and grandfather," Dave says.

The men talk about times when it was harder to find bait than it was to catch a fish.

"The river was always big and clear; wasn't it beautiful water back then (and) you could go down and catch a yellow belly or a catfish or a cod," Dave says.

Despite the fresh flush and attempts to re-stock the river with fingerlings, the fishermen say the river's health has deteriorated in their lifetimes and some species are no longer caught here.

They speculate about what would happen if the Hawkesbury River or Sydney Harbour went the way of their Darling River.

With the east road from Louth to Tilpa closed, all vehicles are travelling on the western side of the river.

At Kallara Station, Julie and Justin McClure prepare to be cut off as the floodwater builds across the main road in. Stock need moving, pumps checking and supplies re-stocking.

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They don't really have time but they make a cuppa — that's the kind of hospitality out here.

In a kitchen with two ovens, they reflect on the difficulties of the dry times.

They talk about the guests who complained about the colour of the water from the kitchen tap (not clear enough), and the tourists who thought it was fine to park a caravan on the house lawn, the only patch of green grass for hundreds of kilometres.

It was not fine at all.

Justin and Julie talk about the politicians — state and federal, former and current — they believe have contributed to problems on the river, allowing the water to be shared in a way they say is unfair.

"I actually believe there's been more water taken from the system than when the Basin Plan was set up to restore the balance," Justin says.

They also speak about the floods of years gone by, when the Tilpa floodplain turned into an inland sea.

Justin says that's happened "30 times in white man's history".

The McClures don't expect they'll see that this time, but their son James says the water "is going to make it a hell of a lot better".

"We'll be able to stock some country and really have a crack," he says, taking a break from mustering dorpers.

The ewes look to be in good nick, perhaps a bit better than James, who, by his father's account, had a few at the Tilpa Hotel the night before.

From Kallara it is not far down the road to the pub.

Here, the locals — there's a population of six — claim to be at the centre of the universe because Tilpa is equally "a good day's drive" from Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide, and not much further to Brisbane.

Since Telstra put a booster on the tower by the war memorial (two concrete slabs carrying the names of men and women who served from the Boer to Vietnam wars, including Harry "Breaker" Morant), the phone reception is meant to be decent for a five-kilometre radius.

It is a reason for tourists to stop awhile, but publican Phil Mahoney says the water is key.

"While ever the river is up, the people will come, so it's most important, we've got to have water."

Behind him on a corkboard, under a pig's behind that's undergone taxidermy, punters are invited to guess at which height the river will peak.

"The good heights are already taken," Phil says.

He is hoping the river will peak earlier than forecast at Tilpa so he can attend his son's wedding on May 15. It could be touch and go.

Inside the pub, campers drink wine and exchange reports of road conditions.

Outside, under the full moon and clear sky, a roo shooter and a farmer drink rum by the fire.

Among other things they talk about the price of goats (very good at the moment) and the need for a school bus in the area.

Last drinks are called just as they settle in.

There are about 40 cattle grids on the two-hour drive between Tilpa and Wilcannia.

At least that's what someone at the pub reckons.

The bridge at the centre of Wilcannia is a reminder that paddle steamers once frequented what was once Australia's third largest inland port.

The town's streets are lined with magnificent, often abandoned, sandstone buildings.

In this part of the system, the river is known by the Barkindji people as the Baaka.

Beautiful fat gum trees with tangled branches line the river and it will be a few weeks yet before the river reaches its peak here.

For Wilcannia River Radio DJs Francis Dutton and Darcy Bates, the water brings family together.

"Since it's come back up again, it's brought a lot of positivity to our community. Everyone goes camping, fishing, swimming," Francis says.

The pair say they haven't seen the river this high since maybe 2010.

Asked what message the women would like to send to those living upstream, Francis hesitates for the slightest of moments.

"Stop being so greedy with the water, because the more water they take, the less water we have."

Darcy nods in agreement. It is a common theme across the region, which is chequered with "Save the Darling" bumper stickers and politically charged artworks and graffiti.

Not far from the Wilcannia Golf Club on the edge of town lives Waddy Harris.

He is an elder and an artist but says he'd like to be known simply as a resident.

In the early-morning light, with stars still in the sky, he drinks tea standing by a fire pit that's been carved into his concrete porch.

They say the sunrise is 22 minutes behind Sydney here.

As the light comes in, Waddy can see the trees on the horizon that mark the river.

"We all got to have water, and that's life to all our people here.

"It's coming back slowly, it's growing, and people are realising now that the river is very important, that it had to go dry to get somewhere …

"We all realise what the river is about and that we should be sharing it proper."

Waddy speaks softly and finishes his sentences with a smile.

He believes people need to take responsibility for their actions and show respect — for each other and the environment.

"The trees and birds that live on the river too, they're missing out, they never get said on the news and all this; they don't talk about them and I think there should be a bit more talk about them."

It is striking to come off the dusty and at times desert-like track from Wilcannia and see the water at Menindee.

The recent rain in the northern catchment means that for the first time since 2016, there is enough water to open the gates between Lake Pamamaroo and Lake Menindee.

The state's water minister recently made the trip more than 1,000 kilometres from Sydney to open the gates.

Not so long ago, her predecessor was chased out of town.

Fish kills in the summer of 2018-19 through a 40km stretch of the river saw simmering tensions turn to a boil.

There would be reports of death threats made against the former minister and he retired from public life not long after.

"There were millions of fish dead, the Basin Authority would acknowledge that," local resident Graeme McCrabb says.

"Three fish kills over six weeks and lots of politicians … still pretty horrific memories for mine."

Graeme speaks about the dead fish — golden perch and cod more than 30 years old — that littered the river, and is almost emotional talking about the irrigators that reversed their pumps in an attempt to save the fish.

The images received global attention.

Wearing a "Save the Darling-Baaka" t-shirt, Graeme doesn't appear to feel the chilly morning air as he sits in a tinnie on the river he loves.

He only moved to the area in 2016 but has fast become an advocate for the river and the town, which is sometimes, but not always, known for being the site of a camp formed by the ill-fated explorers Burke and Wills.

The fish kills are still fresh in the memory of another Menindee local, Amanda King.

"You could tell the river was sick just by seeing the people in community," she says.

"The smell, just seeing all those dead fish, it was wrong, sad … it just broke your heart."

Two years on, sitting by the river at Crick Park, she wonders how the kills could have happened.

"I know that droughts are out of our hands, but it should never have been that bad.

"Menindee was like a ghost town; you could see all the people fighting for this water, and now that we've got it, you can see the change … all the people coming into the community because of the water."

Where Amanda sits is a little more than 700 kilometres from Ivy Moore's home at Walgett, and a little less to Coorong in South Australia where the Murray River meets the sea.

From top to bottom, the Murray-Darling Basin is Australia's largest river system, and home to more than 2 million people, including those from more than 40 different First Nations.

It provides drinking water for more than 3 million people and generates $24 billion of agriculture and $8 billion of tourism each year.

Across the basin there are 16 internationally recognised wetlands.

For Amanda, the river was a "playground" growing up.

"I was here rain, hail or shine. I wasn't allowed to be here, but I was here."

She thinks about the kids in town today and their relationship with the river, about how they will become the caretakers of the river and country.

And then she thinks about those with whom she shares the once mighty river, both upstream and down.

"I think at the end of the day we all need to come together, we're all in it for the same purpose.

"If it's affecting us, it's going to be affecting them as well."

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