After the deluge: Australia’s outback springs to life as mighty rivers flow again

After the deluge: Australia’s outback springs to life as mighty rivers flow again

In late March parts of Queensland were deluged by rain. Cars were swept from roads and flash floods inundated towns as rivers broke their banks.

Billions of litres of water flowed across flood plains into creeks and from creeks into the rivers that stretch like fingers across the region.

Now, nearly two months on and after a journey of more than a thousand twisting kilometres, those tributaries are delivering precious water to the New South Wales outback, finally reanimating life in an area afflicted by four years of drought.

Such is the scale of this country and one of its greatest river systems – the Baaka-Darling – which winds its way from remote northern regions through three states and out into the Great Australian Bight.

With this water come green shoots in the red dirt, a return of wildlife and fish to the billabongs and rivers and a rejuvenation of the small towns dotting its banks. Farmers can now plant crops and restock. Money and tourists flow with the water into those towns.

For the Indigenous people who have lived here for 45,000 years, it is more than that though.

Aunty Beryl Carmichael, a Nyampa elder, explains: “The river is everything to us. It was our food source, our playground and our teacher. The river is our spirit.”

Nyampa elder Beryl Carmichael at her home in Menindee, NSW.

Nowhere is the spectacle of this remarkable rebirthing more astonishing than at the Menindee Lakes, an interconnected ephemeral lake system that is fed by the Baaka-Darling halfway along its journey.

For the past four years the lakes, 1,000km inland from the east coast, have been empty – transformed into broad dusty plains by drought. The Baaka-Darlinghad ceased to flow and native fish died in their hundreds of thousands, bringing the drought and water management issues into the lives of city-dwelling Australians.

Now though the lakes are a vast inland sea covering 475sq km and just a metre or two deep. Birds are returning, fish are once again breeding and grey nomads in their caravans are arriving in droves to see this remarkable phenomenon.

The lakes currently hold about 800bn litres and are half full, with more inflows predicted in the coming three weeks.

Soon they will hold more than 1000bn litres of water – twice the volume of Sydney harbour – allowing the interconnected Baaka-Darling, the great inland river system of eastern Australia, to flow again.

A meandering journey

Before you get to Menindee, the river has to pass through 500km of the outback.

This week the Guardian travelled the River Run, retracing a journey we took at the height of the drought. The dirt road connects a handful of towns that once served as inland ports for paddle steamers that plied the river 120 years ago when the river was high.

For every kilometre, as the crow flies, the river meanders about 5-6km. The water moves slowly as it winds its course across the vast flat red-dirt flood plains. It arrives as a gently swelling surge in the deep river channel, spilling out into billabongs and wetlands along the way.

The communities have been waiting for the flow to arrive. It reached Bourke, the centre of the cotton industry, in early May.

The Darling River at Louth.

And for the past few weeks locals have held tipping competitions at pubs about what height the river will reach.

At Louth, one small town, it was possible to wade across the mighty Baaka (the Aboriginal name for the river) two years ago.

Last week, it peaked at 10.7 metres before receding two metres and settling into a strong flow.

Suddenly, it’s easy to understand why the old bridges across the river have sections that 100 years ago used to open to allow paddle steamers to pass underneath.

The local fishing club set out in boats to help put thousands of fingerlings, mainly native golden perch and Murray cod, into the river that had been bred by NSW Fisheries. It is part of the effort to recover fish populations lost in the drought.

For the graziers at Tilpa, 130km further down the river, it took nine days for the peak to reach them from Louth. The muddy river rose, watering the 400-year-old river red gums that crown the banks.

For those who live along the 500km stretch of the lower Darling – the farmers, the Indigenous communities and the resident of the small towns – the arrival of water is a life-changing event.

They have endured three years of drought and record-breaking periods of up to 300 days where the river had ceased to flow entirely.

Climate change has been blamed, but also the management of the river system by state and federal authorities, which they say favour irrigators upstream.

Darling River farmers Justin and Julie McClure, who own Kallara station near Tilpa.

Julie and Justin McClure’s family have been farming at the Kallara station on the Tilpa floodplain for five generations. They drove 40km from their property to the Tilpa Pub to talk to the Guardian.

“God made green for a reason,” says Julie McClure, smiling. “It just makes you feel happy.

“There’s a real surge in belief that you can make a real go of it, because everything is going in your favour. Our debts are huge – enormous – but we’ve worked on our infrastructure during the drought.

“The amount of money now being spent [by farmers] is incredible, as a result of what’s to come in a good season. It’s a whole different mindset. People’s attitudes are so different.”

During the last three years of drought the McClures sent thousands of sheep to market. They gave up on growing any crops. It became a matter of survival. The river stopped flowing and turned into a series of stagnant pools that filled with toxic blue-green algae. Drinking water for stock and humans had to come from bores or be trucked in. Even showering in the water was dangerous. People drove hundreds of kilometres to the big town or used the precious clean water to bath their children.

Erosion leading into a Billabong on the Darling Floodplain along the Wilcannia-Tilpa road.

Now with the river flowing again, the McClures are in the midst of taking deliveries of 4,500 sheep, trucked in from Western Australia 5,000km away. They have planted 3,640ha (9,000 acres) of organic oats, which will be sustained by the clay soil that will hold the moisture for months.

A transformation for Indigenous communities

Further down the river is Wilcannia, a once prosperous river town that now hovers in a twilight between ghost town and tourist destination. Its streets are full of elegant 19th century sandstone buildings and it has a rich Indigenous heritage, but many shopfronts are boarded up.

The lack of water has dulled its spirit.

The local Baakindji people (the people of the river), who make up 75% of the 550 residents, talk of the heartbreak they feel about the river and its impact on their young people.

Brendon Adams works in suicide prevention and says the lack of water is closely linked to levels of depression among the youth of Wilcannia.

“It’s amazing how many people went to the river to watch the first water go over the weir. It tells you what it means. It brings families together,” he said.

“There were grandfathers and grandkids fishing again, playing cards, and groups playing bingo by the river. They were living their connection with the river again.”

The lack of water has had other consequences. Sports had to stop because the town’s oval became a dustbowl of hard-baked dirt and too dangerous to play on.

Brendon Adams, a communtiy leader at Wilcannia River Radio in Wilcannia, NSW.

Frances Dutton, a young mother who works as a broadcaster at Wilcannia River Radio, puts it simply: “It gives us something to do.

“To the youth in the community, it is very important to us.”

Wilcannia has one of the highest crime rates in NSW.

“If the river wasn’t up, we’d just be roaming the streets or sitting at home doing nothing, which is the time when a lot of my mates get into drinking alcohol and stuff like that,” Dutton said.

“When we have the river, we want to go to the river and fish or swim instead of sitting around.”

Frances Dutton and her daughter Mahlia.

Dutton’s family owns a motel in the town and lately it’s been full.

“When the river’s up, it brings more visitors to the community, which brings opportunities as well,” she says. “It keeps the town running, it keeps people in jobs and people come to town do workshops at the schools. It means we’re not left with nothing.”

The magic of inland water

Menindee, population 551, is the final stop at the lakes and has also done it tough. In 2019 temperatures soared to the mid-40s , and then fell back to the 30s, resulting in stratification of the remaining stagnant waterholes and weirs along the river.

Hundreds of thousands of fish died. Australians were deeply shocked at the environmental catastrophe and it brought the issue of how water is managed in the Murray-Darling basin into sharp focus.

Tourists on the weir as the sunsets over Menindee Lake.

There have been multiple inquiries and scientific reports, and a general recognition that the lakes, which have gates to control inflow and outflow, needed to be managed differently to ensure the health of the Baaka-Darling.

Kellee Dederer, the caretaker of Copi Hollow caravan park, says the park is booked up most nights, “but it’s just fantastic for the whole town. Everyone is coming out to see the water.”

At Maidens Hotel, the only pub in Menindee, business had already picked up thanks to Australia’s international travel restrictions, but it has boomed since the water returned.

“We’re run ragged,” said the publican, Karen Gasmier. “Last Wednesday there was a two-hour wait for dinner. We only have a tiny kitchen, and it’s really hard to get staff here.

“After the fish kills, it was just doom and gloom. Whoever thought we would come back like this?

“I think it will continue for a while. The town is just thriving. It’s just bubbling.”

Sunset at Copi Hollow near Menindee.

The management of the lakes is complex and shared between the NSW and federal governments. The gates to regulate the flow in and out of the lakes were installed in the 1960s, so the lakes are not as they were before European settlement.

But the management regime has also changed and the people of the lower Darling say it has been for the benefit of other parts of the river system. The gates have been allowed to empty more often, sending water down to South Australia for environmental flushing and allowing more water to be extracted upstream for big agriculture.

That has left the lower Darling communities more vulnerable to drought and angry about not getting their fair share.

Now that the lakes are filling, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has taken over management from the NSW government.

“We’re keeping the daily releases from Menindee relatively small to ensure roads and private river crossings remain open for local landholders and the community,” MDBA’s executive director of river management, Andrew Reynolds, said.

The plan is to release 30bn litres over a three-week period – about 4% of the total volume expected to arrive.

Water pours into Menindee Lake from the open weir.

“The releases will start slowly to mimic natural river systems, providing connectivity between the Darling and Murray systems – something that would have occurred to a much larger extent if the water wasn’t captured in the Menindee Lakes,” Reynolds said.

But the issue of how fairly to manage the river is never far from the surface.

Doug Knight and his wife Mary were enjoying a beer and the sunset with newfound friends Carmel and Matthew Rigby, whom they had met at Copi Hollow caravan park.

A rice farmer and irrigator in the southern part of the Murray-Darling basin, Knight had some strong views about water.

“We have got a farm at Deniliquin and we grow rice, so we are just wondering where all of the water is going,” he said about his sojourn to Menindee, adding with a frown: “South Australia is going to get most of this water for natural purposes.”

Campers from left to right Mary Knight, Carmel Rigby, Matthew Rigby and Doug Knight watch the sunset at Copi Hollow camping area near Menindee NSW.

Knight continued: “The main concern is there is too much water going out to the ocean and we are not getting enough water for the food bowl. The water that goes out in the ocean, it’s gone.”

Meanwhile, Graeme McCrabb, a local farmer and water advocate, wants to see Menindee managed differently – as a genuine drought reserve for the 550km of the Darling downstream.

“Rivers need to run,” says McCrabb. “We can’t sit here and pretend that we can keep water here for multiple years. But we need to protect the river so we have a connected Baaka-Darling most of the time.”

Climate change will make the river basin hotter and drier and could reduce flows in the river system by up to 30%.

In a landscape where water is life and money, how to share the river will be hotly debated.

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