Is drought permanent?
  |  First Published: July 2008

As we go into our seventh or eighth year of drought and with little sign of significant rain, anglers in the Canberra-Monaro district are suddenly faced with a chilling thought: What if this is the permanent situation?

What will be the situation if our future rainfall is the same as we have had for the past eight years – bugger all? Our trout streams, many of which are now in dreadful condition because of poor water flows, excessive weed, shrub and algal growth, sedimentation from soil erosion and trampling by livestock, may never come back to their gurgling best.

Just think of the possibility that they are reduced permanently to isolated pools or streams with minimal flow useless as spawning streams and possibly nothing more than a haven for carp, redfin, mosquito fish and weather loaches. Trout in many of these streams might even be seen as a thing of the past.

In fact stream trout may well be restricted in future years to only the highest streams, those with guaranteed water flow such as from snowmelt or release from reservoirs, or streams where the fish can migrate easily to a reservoir when river conditions become intolerable.

And if you think that is far-fetched, just take a look at the multitude of streams right through south-eastern Australia that in recent years have lost all or most of their trout.


Reservoirs, too, could be in big trouble. In past years we always thought of our reservoirs, especially the larger ones, as inviolate. They always had plenty of water, they always provided a safe haven for fish and when things got tough in the rivers we could always depend on the big lakes.

Now take a look at the current situation. In just this area alone we have lost all or most of our brown and rainbow trout and Atlantic salmon, from formerly productive fisheries such as Wyangala, Pejar and Burrinjuck and there seems little prospect of the populations building up again.

You simply can't lower the level in lakes to 5% capacity, or to extinction as in the case of Pejar, and expect the fish to survive. They become overheated and oxygen-deprived, suffer from silt impact on the gills and from excessive cormorant and human predation. And we wonder why they all die!

Losses become even more meaningful when you add losses from lakes such as Googong, Burley Griffin, Ginninderra and Blowering, where trout used to be large, fast growing, highly active and very catchable.

Admittedly, in some of these waterways there were other factors adding the their demise, but drought always looms as a major factor.

Even the mountain lakes so dear to our heart, such as Jindabyne, Eucumbene and Tantangara, cannot be considered as safe havens. Tantangara has rarely exceeded 8% in recent years and mostly sits around a 6% puddle because the stored water is bled off immediately into Eucumbene. It’s a far cry from the lake that we saw brimming with water and even over-topping some years ago.

Jindabyne, too, is problematic. It will get down to a low level again this year, so low that the planned release of water to the dried-up Snowy River below the dam has been cancelled, despite all the hoo-ha and political promises prior to the last State elections.

And if you think that's bad, just take a look at Eucumbene. This massive body 10 times the size of Sydney Harbour surely is immune from drought, isn't it? The answer is yes, no and maybe.

A few years ago this mighty waterway dropped to an unbelievable 18% of capacity. That, we thought, was the end of civilisation as we know it, the lowest since it started filling in 1957. But at least it bounced back in subsequent years as inflow from rain and snowmelt exceeded demand for hydro-electric production and downstream irrigation.

Now take a look at the current situation. Last year the level dropped to an all-time low of 10.2% and this year looks to be going to be at least that low. And that's despite one of the heaviest snow seasons the mountains have ever recorded.


The reason is simply the massive community demand for water. Irrigators want water. Towns downstream in NSW, Victoria and South Australia want domestic water. Electricity producers want hydro-electric power, which is cheaper, cleaner, more environmentally friendly, more politically correct and faster to bring on line to suit demand than power produced by coal-fired stations.

Everybody wants water and most have more than legitimate reasons but the reality is that there is simply not enough to do all the things we want to do with it. Everybody says let's stop growing cotton and rice, the popular high-water use crops to point the finger at, but it's a lot more complex than that.

If we don't get back to reasonable rainfall we are going to have to design a whole new management strategy for water.

One of the first things we should look at is how to allocate it to different needs. At present, for example, authorities think nothing of draining reservoirs to extinction or near-extinction, irrespective of what it does to the fishery and the social impact of losing a fishery on surrounding towns and villages. Fish simply don't carry much weight in the equation on where water should go.

That needs to change. Why kill off a fishery that has taken years to develop and has massive social benefit for a large proportion of the population just to release a tiny bit more water for other, sometimes dubious purposes and where it is not necessarily going to make a difference anyway?

The first thing we should do is establish a draw-down figure for each of our reservoirs. Make that the bottom line, not just for trout but for native fish also. Make it a level at which the fish have at least a reasonable chance of survival, then enshrine it in legislation so it cannot be overriden for purely political purposes.

Do that and our fisheries may just have a chance of survival; ignore the option and we continue with massively declining trout fisheries and native fisheries increasingly at risk.


Amid the doom and gloom I am pleased to be able to report that there has been some excellent fishing in some small and selected parts of the region.

Canberra's five urban lakes, where water levels are artificially maintained and partially protected from drought, continue to provide some fun.

Murray cod and golden perch have gone quiet and will remain so for the rest of the Winter but redfin will continue to provide fun on lures and bait and carp are great fun on fly.

Small nymphs, mudeye patterns and occasional larger wets are all worth a try for carp and the fish go like the clappers when they are hooked. On some occasions all you see for half an hour or more is your backing.

Fly fishing, trolling and bait fishing in Eucumbene and Jindabyne has been excellent.

Many of the browns are on their way up the spawning streams but there are plenty of others, plus the rainbows, still in the main body of the lakes. With good Winter clothing, it’s highly recommended.

Best flies are Scuds, large wets and mudeye patterns. Trollers should try 11cm and 13cm Rapala minnows and Tasmanian Devils Y82 and Y48. Bait drowners can't go past scrub worms, bardi grubs and PowerBait.

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