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When the next big dry comes, who in Orange should get first crack at the water?

March 16, 2023

Ophir Campgrounds. Photo: Supplied.

By Peter Holmes

The dams in Orange might be as full as a bull’s bum right now, but Rurik MacKenzie can’t forget the savage drought and bushfires that blended into the start of Covid at the end of the 2019 and into 2020.

He fears for what is coming down the track.

“It will happen again within five years, no question,” MacKenzie told The Orange News Examiner.

MacKenzie lives surrounded by bushland north of the CBD.

His small acreage is near, but not on, Summer Hill Creek, which snakes its way downstream from around Millthorpe in the south via Suma Park Dam to Ophir Campgrounds in the north.

It ends at an intersection with Lewis Ponds Creek, which flows northeast to join the Macquarie River south of Dixons Long Point Crossing.

When it is alive and humming, there is enough water flowing down Summer Hill Creek to keep those on either side of Suma Park Dam happy.

Locals can swim, bird watch, fish, camp and bushwalk. Or just sit and take in the views. A century-old cherry orchard can water its trees. And those who own properties along the waterway (known as riparian landholders) can siphon off small amounts of water for “domestic and stock purposes”.

But when the next big dry spell comes, MacKenzie - who is a member of Summer Hill Creekcare Inc believes Orange is not well-equipped enough to ensure that Summer Hill Creek continues to flow.

The Cascades at the Fourth Crossing. Photo: Supplied.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) says Australia’s weather “is influenced by many climate drivers. El Niño and La Niña have perhaps the strongest influence on year-to-year climate variability in Australia”.

The BOM says that a La Niña weather pattern - with its increased rainfall and cooler daytime temperatures - has ended in the tropical Pacific Ocean.

It says there is a 50 percent chance of an El Niño - with its reduced rainfall, warmer temperatures, shift in temperature extremes and increased fire danger in southeast Australia - in 2023.

“Summer Hill Creek rises around Millthorpe,” MacKenzie explained. “The vast majority of water from Summer Hill Creek ends up in Suma Park Dam, and that is Orange’s water supply.

“Far and away the majority of Orange’s water supply is creek fed and it's from rain. It falls up around the airport around Millthorpe and out around Huntley, and it flows north through Summer Hill Creek past Lucknow into Suma Park Dam.”

It used to be that water would continue flowing north along Summer Hill Creek from Orange into Cabonne Shire.

But now, MacKenzie said, “the water gets sucked out and is all for the benefit of Orange residents … the residents of Cabonne have been abandoned, they've got nothing”.

He is well aware that, politically, an urban sprawl with tens of thousands of people trumps landholders on a creek.

When the creek runs dry. Photo: Supplied.

“That’s the nub of it," he said. "Frankly, I completely get that, and I understand it. I get that the weight of 40,000 Orange residents is probably a fair bit heavier than a handful of disaffected landowners who like a nice creek.”

There are multiple issues at play here.

One is the capacity of Orange City Council’s (OCC) water supply to handle the growth in the city. Another is the city’s willingness to embrace recycled water. And then there is Newcrest’s Cadia Valley Mine, which was founded in 1998, and has been allowed to suck vast volumes of water out of the system.

“Orange City Council has a deal with Newcrest to send around 85 percent of its waste water over to Cadia,” MacKenzie said. “That water used to go down Summer Hill Creek and then they just took it.

“So wastewater that is treated to one stage short of potable standard is sent to Newcrest and council is effectively changing the nature of the whole catchment as a result, because that water is fed into the Lachlan Valley instead of staying in the Macquarie Valley.”

Around Christmas 2022, the four water supplies in Orange were at 100 percent capacity, according to Orange City Council data.

But in a concerning development, as of March 17, 2023, the city's major water supply Suma Park Dam had dropped to around 92 percent capacity, with the water level 83cm below the spillway. It's a trajectory that can't continue if Orange is to avoid water severe restrictions as the year progresses.

When the four dams in Orange are at capacity, Suma Park Dam can hold 77 percent of the city’s water supply.

Spring Creek Reserve near Leewood can hold 18.14 percent of the city’s total water storage. As of March 17, 2023, it had dropped to 98.4 percent capacity.

The other two, Gosling Creek Dam and Lake Canobolas, are minnows by comparison, with a combined total of less five percent of the city’s total storage (Gosling 2.4 percent and the lake 1.86 percent).

Waterhole at Ophir Reserve. Photo: Supplied.

When rain is falling and stocks are bountiful, there is water for everyone. We quickly forget about the last raft of multi-level restrictions. And the ones before that.

But when the dam levels drop, the scramble begins.

It happened, for example, in 2007.

The ABC reported at the time that Cadia, fearing it would have to reduce production due to water shortages, paid nearly $1 million for three months of water from Orange City Council.

In 2010 the state Labor government approved the expansion of the Cadia gold and copper mine. Orange was on Level 5 restrictions at the time.

The Sydney Morning Herald quoted then Greens councillor Jeremy Buckingham as saying the mine’s “voracious use of water and energy is completely unsustainable”.

''Water security in Orange will remain critical for years to come and there will remain incredible tension between the mine and the people of Orange,” Buckingham said.

However the Herald reported that the planning minister at the time, Tony Kelly, said concerns over the mine's water usage had been addressed in the planning process.

In October 2019 Orange City Council announced that the Cadia Mine would “reduce the amount of water it uses from Orange to help the community respond to the drought”.

The average of eight megalitres - eight million litres - of treated waste water a day was temporarily cut to six megalitres.

It was presented by council as Cadia being a generous corporate citizen, but buried in the release was a statement that showed the council had no choice but to claw back water to satisfy government regulations: “Orange City Council will use this extra two megalitres to meet its obligation for environmental flow into Summer Hill Creek.

A colourful addition. Photo: Summer Hill Creekcare.

“Under NSW government regulations covering the use of Suma Park Dam, the dam has a licence requirement to release water into creeks downstream of the dam for the environmental and ecological benefit of Blackmans Swamp Creek and Summer Hill Creek.

“Enough water must be released to produce the required amount of environmental flow-rate (1.75 megalitres a day, assessed on a 3-day average) at a gauge at the 3rd crossing of Summer Hill Creek.”

The falls in full swing. Photo: Supplied.

The general manager of the mine at the time, Peter Sharpe, was quoted in the council statement as saying Newcrest had “agreed” to return the water to the people of Orange.

But for MacKenzie, this was arse-about. It is the people’s water, he said, and Cadia - 25 years after the mine opened - should have by now found ways to source water without taking some of what it requires from Summer Hill Creek and Blackmans Swamp Creek.

MacKenzie acknowledges that Cadia has created thousands of jobs in and around Orange over its 25-year existence, but believes OCC “was commercially inept … [and] got rolled by a big mining company that knew what they were doing”.

“Good luck to them,” he added. “But I still think it’s a significant part of the picture because it’s unprecedented in water management that significant quantities [of water] are taken out of one river catchment and put in another. It’s really weird.”

MacKenzie said there were times that Cadia didn’t need the water. “But there are certainly other times when the creek is desperate for it that Cadia is desperate for it too, and they get it first.”

In a move aimed at securing more water for Orange into the future, stormwater harvesting from Blackmans Swamp Creek “commenced under emergency authorisation in April 2009”, according to a consultant’s report delivered to council in 2021.

“The scheme operated up until August 2010 at which time the combined storage reached 50 percent, halting stormwater harvesting under emergency authorisation.”

The scheme remained unused while an inquiry was held into the granting of licences under the Water Act 1912, the report stated.

The Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NSW) granted a licence for the scheme in March 2015.

Various operational plans were developed through 2015, but Orange City Council “determined that external raw water sources were not required, which continued into the start of the 2017-18 water year”.

The first quarterly review, in September 2017, identified that external water sources would be required, according to the report: “The Blackmans Swamp Creek Stormwater Harvesting Scheme (Stage 1) re-commenced operation in November 2017 and has operated since – coinciding with drought conditions.”

Fishing in Summer Hill Creek is tricky without water. Photo: Supplied.

The consultant’s report stated, regarding subsequent water flow along Summer Hill Creek: “Monitoring … continues in order to build a dataset that will allow for the identification of trends over time.

“At present, it is not possible to draw any conclusions in relation to the effect of environmental flow release on the health of [Summer Hill Creek] or Macquarie River.

“To date, drought has obfuscated detection of any impact and there is only a four year data set.”

If the second stage of the harvesting scheme is implemented, MacKenzie fears Summer Hill Creek will effectively become “a drain”.

“That’s the best way to describe it,” he said. “Water will be there, on and off. Years like we’ve just had, it’ll run really well. But years like 2019, when it dried up down to the fourth crossing for a month, that’s going to become far more regular.”

He paints a miserable picture of a “dry creek bed”. Riparian land holders would lose the ability to pump water for their stock, and the platypus population “is going to go away. There is no way that population can survive another 2019, let alone a series of 2019s”.

For MacKenzie, who wants his son and future generations to experience the wonder of spying a platypus while exploring, it would be a tragic outcome.

The Summer Hill Creekcare Inc community group believes the solution to appeasing both the tens of thousands of urban dwellers, and those who’d like the tributaries to flow, requires Orange City Council to build more dams, wean Cadia off the city’s water supply, and convince the public to drink recycled water.

Summer Hill Creek flows from the south into Suma Park Reservoir, where a dam wall has been built. The creek then continues north. Google Earth.

“What they really need to do is sell the concept of recycled water to the people of Orange. It’s a tough sell, but we’re at the top of the catchment - there isn't any extra water that is going to come into this catchment system where we are, so we have to make more out of what we already have.”

The Orange News Examiner put a series of questions to Orange City Council on January 30, 2023.

1. What is Cadia's annual limit on water from Orange City Council?

2. Has the maximum limit changed in the last five years?

3. What percentage of this limit has been reached in the last five years?

4. How much, if anything, does Cadia pay for this water?

5. Does this arrangement last for the term of the mine, or does OCC have flexibility in what it provides to Cadia (i.e., could OCC stop the flow altogether if required? If so, would there be a financial impost on ratepayers?)

6. Does OCC have a comment on the concerns of the those living along and near Summer Hill Creek downstream and Blackmans Swamp Creek, that the water siphoned to Cadia has in the past, and will into the future, have a negative impact on the wildlife, recreation and the access to water for riparian landholders?

At the time of publishing no response had been received.

On February 22, 2023, OCC released a media statement saying the people of Orange were “open to purified recycled water (PRW) being part of the city’s water supply in the future”.

“The survey, commissioned and independently conducted by international design, engineering and advisory business Aurecon, found the Orange community has a high level of trust in Orange City Council to deliver a high-quality water supply,” council said.

The Aurecon survey was conducted in 2021, asking 393 residents in a telephone poll “about their attitudes to purified recycled water”.

OCC said that “Aurecon has been compiling the results and finalising the report”.

“The survey found … [a] hgh level of community satisfaction with the water services provided by council, and that while most people prefer to drink water from their tap, most people don’t particularly care where that water comes from.

“There is a community perception of a risk to water supply security, due to previous droughts and population growth … while PRW is not currently the community’s preferred option, people are still supportive of PRW, or at least having a serious discussion on it.”

There was no breakdown of the questions asked and the responses received.

Council said that “for many years Orange has sent its treated effluent to Cadia Valley Operations, although for the last 15 months the mine hasn’t needed it due to seasonal conditions. Instead it has been released to Blackmans Swamp Creek and onto Summer Hill Creek and the Macquarie River”.

Orange deputy mayor Gerald Power said in the media release that the “survey comes as a good reminder for the council to continue to work on our long-term water security. Now with weather warming up again, Cadia have requested treated effluent to be directed to them again. It’s expected it will start to flow in the coming weeks.

“If conditions changed in future, it would be good to be able to explore how that source of recycled water could be purified to a higher level to benefit both the mine and also to supplement our growing city’s water supply,” Power said.

Council says that if it can convince the residents of Orange to drink treated effluent, it could potentially be processed at a new facility before flowing through to Suma Park Dam, where it would be treated to drinking water standards for community use.

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