Lush green pastures in western NSW belie the truth: more rain is desperately needed

At Tamworth South public school the oval is no longer a dust bowl. Around the hinterland of Dubbo pastures are lush and green. But appearances can be deceptive.

Farmers and townships in western New South Wales are still hoping that rain that has fallen over winter will continue, filling the dams, and the drought won’t return.

Burrendong Dam, which services Dubbo, is at 46.6% capacity, after plunging to 3% by the end of last summer. Chaffey Dam, which provides water to Tamworth, is at 26.1%, having been all but empty during the drought.

Tamworth South public school.
Tamworth Public School. Image: Nearmap

Although Dubbo is now on level one water restrictions, Tamworth remains on level four, which means gardens can be watered only with recycled water.

Both cities are conscious they still need to preserve town water, and there is an ongoing debate about the sustainability of the Murray-Darling river system in the face of climate change.

The economic consequences of the drought are still being felt too.

Dubbo in May 2020.
Dubbo. Image: Nearmap

“It’s interesting. If you are from the city, you think the drought is over because you see lush green pastures,” Dubbo mayor Ben Shields said.

“But that’s not the case. Most of these farming businesses have had three or four years without income and now they are having to borrow more to restock and to sow new crops.

“They are still doing it tough economically in this area.”

Orange in January 2020.
Orange. Image: Nearmap

This week the Bureau of Meteorology released its October to December forecast and the good news is it’ is likely to be wetter than average for much of mainland Australia.

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It said there was an 80% chance of above average rainfall across much of the eastern two-thirds of the mainland during October because a La Niña event had become established in the tropical Pacific. This usually indicated a wetter than average season.

Glanmire in May 2020.
Glanmire. Image: Nearmap

“All the major models say La Niña will persist until at least January 2021,” the BoM said. “Currently the models are indicating this La Niña will be of moderate strength; stronger than the brief event which developed in the 2017-18 season, but weaker than the strong event which characterised the years between 2010 and 2012.”

Hallsville NSW in November 2019.
Hallsville. Image: Nearmap

The Indian Ocean dipole (IOD) has also exceeded the negative threshold this week, and if it persists for several weeks it too would indicate a wetter than average early summer, the BoM said.

Before and after aerial images of Wallamore
Wallamore. Image: Nearmap

But questions remained about whether the Murray-Darling system will return to its former rainfall patterns.

“2018-19 and 2017-19 had record lowest two- and three-year rainfall totals, respectively, for the Murray-Darling Basin and for NSW,” the bureau said in August.

“Rainfall for the northern Murray-Darling Basin for these periods was lowest on record by a substantial margin, breaking records originally set during the Federation Drought in 1900-02.

“There has been limited recovery in water storage levels in the Murray-Darling Basin with the rain since January 2020. Water storage in the northern basin reached the record low of 5.4% of combined capacity in mid-January, 7.5% lower than at any point during the millennium drought.”



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