There was a mix of good and bad news out of Tuesday's water summit at council chambers, including an astounding assumption that Tenterfield Shire Council will bid for water on the open market to maintain a supply of drinking water to the township.
Thanks to the intervention of water minister Melinda Pavey after representations from mayor Peter Petty and council's chief executive Terry Dodds, the meeting brought together Cross Border Commissioner and Regional Town Water Supply co-ordinator James McTavish and personnel from the Department of Industry & Water (DOIW), the Natural Resource Access Regulator (NRAR) and council to nut out a solution.The first item on the agenda was to define Tenterfield's potable water problem, and the outcome was daunting.
Given a worse case scenario of the Shirley Park bore not continuing to contribute water to Tenterfield Dam, Tenterfield will run out of water in 200 days.
(The bore is already on shaky ground. When in use it's only replenishing at a rate of around two-thirds of the volume extracted so it's operating on a two-days-on/two-days-off basis.)
The calculation assumes the water filtration plant will continue to operate as the dam drops to 10 per cent capacity, a brave assumption given the murkiness of the water at that depth and the age of the plant. Also in the calculation is the current 4.9mm per day evaporation rate, and the town's continuing low water usage.
Mr Dodds said most people are complying with the water restrictions, but that from now on fines will be issued without notice to those flouting the rules.
The scenario gives council 200 days to identify the best bore location, get testing approval, production approval and then install the pump, including getting affected property owners' approval to run a line (ideally two) over their land to the dam.
As of Tuesday the dam was down to 33 per cent, and runoff into the dam is negligible.
Council's waste and water manager Gillian Marchant and project engineer David Wolfenden will head to Coffs Harbour next week to take up DOIW's offer to help them whittle the current 250-day plan down to the required 200 days, but the clock is already ticking.
A contractor began sonic ground investigations on Wednesday to determine the best location for a new bore. Initially a desktop study, the process will move quickly to sonic mapping which can identify water sources to an accuracy of a metre.
Water minister Melinda Pavey is about to sign off on emergency funding of 75 per cent of the cost of the project, but that leaves council to find the remaining 25 per cent from a water budget with limited capacity. The bill for the investigations alone is expected to be $600,000, but Mr Dodds said Tenterfield can't afford to run out of water.
On top of that will be the cost of the pump and lines to the dam, and the cost of a licence for the additional water.
Mr Dodds said he was perplexed and frustrated by the regulator's insistence that council engage a water broker to buy the additional 480 megalitres a day that the new bore will hopefully produce.
"It's like sending out mums and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers and kids to buy water alongside cotton growers and market gardeners."
As the town sits on fractured granite country, Mr Dodds also considers council's licence application to be in a different category to those fighting for their share of a single large artesian water source. He said the bore is more likely to be drawing from an isolated pocket of water, with minimal impact on other water users.
"It's bizarre. We're sitting on top of a mountain," he said.
While he couldn't sway the stance of the NRAR representatives at the meeting, Minister Pavey has the power to exempt Tenterfield from this licencing requirement. Mr Dodds and the mayor are seeking another meeting with her to secure the exemption.
"It's just one obstacle after another," he said.
The NRAR, formed in the wake of accusations of water theft from the Murray-Darling Basin, has strict requirements these days but is attempting to shorten its approval process in Tenterfield's case. A hydrologist will still have to sign off on the project, however, to ensure that council's drawing of water is not impacting other users.