Dams too low for survival?
  |  First Published: June 2007

It's easy to get a bit dispirited looking at the water levels in our part of the world at the moment. Despite the fact that we have had a bit of rain here and there, drought still reigns supreme, lake and river levels continue to fall and things are getting pretty desperate for some fish.

Pejar Reservoir, near Goulburn, for example, is still officially empty and all the trout are presumed to have died. Burrendong Reservoir is down to 3% and is a stinking, smelly, blue-green algae-riddled mess in which even the hardiest fish are finding it increasingly difficult to survive. At 6% Wyangala Dam, on the Lachlan and Abercrombie Rivers, is similar and access at the Grabine end is near-impossible because of the muddy lake surrounds.

Blowering Reservoir on the Tumut River was doing well until recently when they let all the water go and the level crashed to 12%. Burrinjuck, on the Murrumbidgee, is the shining light, at least for native fish, because it still has a good head of water at 25%. In the mountains Tantangara Reservoir, on the upper Murrumbidgee, is a joke at 6% and the way things are going there the trout will need bottled water to survive soon.

Jindabyne Reservoir, on the Snowy and Thredbo Rivers, still has a fair bit of water at around 47% but that's a lot lower than it was at this time last year. Eucumbene, Australia's premier mainland trout fishery, on the supposedly mighty Eucumbene River, is at its lowest since it was first constructed in 1959. At 16% and still falling it has passed the previous record low level of 18% set in 1983 and although it still contains about two or three Sydney Harbours of water, there are all sorts of problems of foot access and boat launching as well as food availability for the trout population.

Which makes me wonder, as I have done during repeated past droughts, why the controlling authorities continue to drain these waterways to extinction when, with a bit of thought and some commonsense planning, the fish populations could be better protected against inevitable death. Why, for example, would you deliberately drain a fish-laden reservoir, a massively important and socially useful asset, to such a low level that the fish die?

Why not, for example, listen to and take heed of NSW Fisheries advice and that of many experienced anglers and scientists and stop draining the lake when the fish population becomes critically endangered. What useful purpose is there in, for example, draining a lake from 10% to 5%, then having to stop anyway because no more water can be extracted from the system?

Why not put in place the arrangements that have to be made for domestic water supply and hydro-electric production at 5% at say, 10%, or whatever figure Fisheries experts say is the cut-off point for fish survival, and save the socially valuable sport and recreation facility that the waterway represents? After all, you have to bring contingency plans on line sooner or later, so why kill off the fishery just to gain a few more days of supply before facing the inevitable?

It doesn't make sense to me and never has, but I am aware that a large part of the problem lies in the differing size and political power of the different controlling Government departments in NSW. Those that control water allocation for farm irrigation, for example, or domestic water supply and hydro-electric production, are large departments. What they say goes, irrespective of the logic involved.

NSW Fisheries, by contrast, is a small department. In effect they are a voice in the wilderness. They might argue that it is reasonable to protect a population of fish for sporting or conservation purposes and to provide a socially useful recreation resource in otherwise under-privileged country areas, but that falls on deaf ears of those in other departments.

The irony of all this is that often the same Minister is in charge of each of the competing departments. It goes without saying that words and phrases such as farm irrigation, domestic water supply and hydro-electric production carry more weight, and perhaps votes, than Macquarie perch, silver perch, Murray cod, catfish and trout. More political weight, I would argue, than possibly commonsense.

And it will stay that way until anglers stand up and register their protest.

Perhaps one way anglers could make their voice heard is through their licence purchase. Anglers could argue, for example, that they bought an angling licence in good faith and that the NSW Government should not do anything that wilfully limits or jeopardises their opportunity to fish to the conditions of that licence.

They could argue, for example, that every waterway in NSW should have a pre-set and publicly acknowledged lower limit of extraction set on it. Government would then be obliged to stop removing water from that waterway until the level rises again. That would necessitate developing and introducing proper contingency plans for allocation of water for each purpose, which to me seems like commonsense and the sort of thing that we pay public servants to do as a core part of their job. Give it some thought.


As an example of the above, my son and I recently went to the Tuross River to look for a bass. We put in at the boat ramp at the saltwater end and travelled upstream towards the bass country, only to find the river completely blocked by a large earth weir. It stretched from bank to bank and blocked all the water from coming downstream.

There was no way we could get around or over it so we had to abandon the trip. On enquiring from NSW Fisheries later, it emerged that they obviously did not want the weir blocking the river and hindering fish passage but had no say in its construction. The understanding I gained is that someone in Lands Department had given permission to farmers to build the weir to hold back the fresh water which they could then use for irrigation.

And the fish and the anglers? Bad luck, everybody. They are all the losers and possibly just six farmers gain some water. It doesn't make sense. Surely someone has thought of an off-river storage that farmers can fill in the good times and use in the bad, with a win-win outcome for farmers as well as the fish and bass fishers like me.


Having said all of that, there has been some encouraging fishing in those areas that still have water.

In Burrinjuck there have been a lot of golden perch and a fair smattering of cod on bobbed yabbies and shrimps, deep-diving lures and spinnerbaits. The Main Basin has been the most productive area.

Googong Reservoir has provided some nice golden perch and a couple of outsized cod. The best of the cod weighed 30kg and took a Boomerang lure. StumpJumpers, Jackalls and spinnerbaits were the preferred lures for golden perch.

Canberra's urban lakes have fished well for redfin, many of them small but others measuring around 35cm, on small jig spinners, Celta, Hogback and other spinning-bladed lures. Golden perch have been taken on yabbies, scrub worms and lures.

One angler caught a spectacularly large goldfish weighing about 1kg, on a worm in Lake Ginninderra.

In the higher country, trout fishing has been a series of contrasts. In Jindabyne good browns and rainbows have been taken trolling, especially with lead-core line and yellow-winged Tasmanian Devils, but bank fishing has been hampered by excessive weed and algal growth. Fly fishing has been reasonable, with the best fish late in the afternoon and early evening.

In Eucumbene boat launching has been difficult because of low water but trolling with lead-core line and small minnows or Tasmanian Devils has been excellent. Bank fishing typically yields small, under-nourished rainbows that aren't worth catching or keeping. Fly fishing has been especially poor.

In the immediate future we can expect browns to start moving into potential spawning streams and the native fish slowing down. That will require some interesting adjustments to our fishing techniques, especially if water levels, as expected, continue to fall right across the region.

Unless, of course, the relevant Minister in charge of such things suddenly has a rush of uncommonly good sense and does something about it in favour of the fish and fishers for a change.

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