What is day zero? What will it mean for residents in Bathurst, Dubbo and Orange? We asked the councils and water experts what all the talk really means.
AS councils stare down the possibility of empty dams, the clock is ticking to put measures into place to shore up water supplies.
NSW regional town water supply co-ordinator James McTavish, who has been working with councils to ensure day zero does not occur, said Bathurst's water situation was the most urgent of the three and the decision to step back irrigators' allocations was not taken lightly.
"The conversation we had was the opportunities to make [the design and approval] more efficient and there's an opportunity to do a lot before spring," he said.
Bathurst Regional Council engineering services director Darren Sturgiss said the council was working well with the state government to progress design and documentation for two short-term critical water projects, including stormwater harvesting and the Winburndale Dam pipeline.
"Once these projects are operational, the day zero timeline is into 2021," he said.
Mr McTavish said Orange City Council had made substantial headway on designs for the pipeline to Cowra, which would ultimately connect to Wyangala Dam.
Orange council also recently voted to buy land in Phillip Street to make way for an expansion of the Blackmans Swamp stormwater harvesting scheme, as part of 19 projects being investigated.
"Where it's going to be problematic over the next six months is getting the projects to deliver tangible outcomes," Mr McTavish said.
He said much of Orange's water supply issues would be handled through careful demand management, which meant residents needed to continue conserving water.
"What you can't say is 'we'll be right' and demand goes through the roof again," he said.
Once these projects are operational, the day zero timeline is into 2021.Bathurst Regional Council engineering services director Darren Sturgiss
For Dubbo, the situation is less urgent.
Mr McTavish said unlike Bathurst and Orange, Dubbo's access to groundwater was reliable and bore fields under construction would sustain demand, although higher restrictions would come into force to avoid drawing the aquifer down too far.
"The issue is their infrastructure to extract that groundwater needs to be substantially improved," he said.
"We're looking at cease-to-flow in the Macquarie by spring and we're looking at having the projects in Dubbo, Wellington and Geurie finalised well in advance of that so from a water user's point of view, they won't see the difference."
Dubbo is also seeking to use treated effluent on sporting fields and to send to Taronga Western Plains Zoo.
Day zero: help or hindrance?
RAIN may be bringing much-needed water, but it has so far made little impact on the region's catchments and talk of towns' so-called day zero deadlines are still proving contentious.
Most Central West towns have a date where water supplies will run out, assuming no rainfall.
Before Christmas, Cabonne Council nominated September as when it would run out of water, while Orange City Council nominated the end of 2020 or early 2021 as the timeframe when dams would run completely dry.
For Bathurst, day zero could come as soon as spring this year, while Dubbo Regional Council does not have a day zero due to its ability to move onto bores once the Macquarie River and Burrendong Dam dry out.
Mr McTavish said there had been some over-dramatisation, but there had been some positives.
"It's shed light on how serious this situation is," he said.
It's shed light on how serious this situation is.NSW regional town water supply co-ordinator James McTavish
Mr McTavish said recent rain had been "very, very welcome".
"For the people getting substantial totals, it's certainly changed the landscape and in some places it's actually quite green," he said.
"The big but is the rain has missed the catchments for every one of those towns - it's a bit better in Orange, it's a bit better in Bathurst, it's a bit better in Dubbo, but the reality is their water security becomes problematic from the later part of this year."
However, Orange mayor Reg Kidd said there was nothing positive to be gained from speaking about day zero.
"When people talk about day zero, it's the same as talking about Armageddon - it's a dramatic way to scare people," he said.
Dubbo mayor Ben Shields agreed.
"It's only negative speak and it's got a downward effect on industry," he said.
"There was talk industry was going to close and it wasn't true."
While Cr Kidd said trucking in water would be considered as a post-day zero measure, Bathurst council discussions have indicated the move might not be economically viable and Dubbo council chief executive officer Michael McMahon confirmed the issue was not currently being discussed in his local government area.
Dubbo has received significant criticism for its handling of falling dam levels, with water restrictions only introduced following demands from Minister for Water Melinda Pavey.
The city is still the only one in the region to allow lawn watering, but Mr McTavish defended its record.
"Orange has been having the conversation for years, but before that kicked off, water use in Orange wasn't that great - Dubbo is not used to having water restrictions and it's much warmer than Orange," he said.
"It's a conversation that happens over years, not weeks."
He said there had been a significant shift in Dubbo in the past year, but said there was still a long way to go and warned against attitudes Burrendong Dam would always have water.
"The reality is it won't always be there and once it's empty, it's empty," he said.
However, Charles Sturt University Adjunct Professor Peter Waterman said day zero was a pertinent discussion topic because low dam levels brought risks to health if water quality dropped, with towns like Wellington and Geurie already told to boil their water.
He said drought was not only measured by the amount of water in dams, but the water in the soil.
"[Communities] will need to understand that poor quality potable water could be a health risk and find alternative ways of disposing of human waste as there will be no sewerage system in operation and we use water to push it around," he said.
Ten per cent of the water consumed in households is for potable purposes.Charles Sturt University Adjunct Professor Waterman
Adjunct Professor Waterman said making individual properties more self-sufficient was the key to long-term water security, as was the way communities used their highest-standard drinking water.
"Ten per cent of the water consumed in households is for potable purposes," he said.
"The biggest is flushing the dunny."
He supported a three-pipe system to homes - one for drinking water, a second of lower quality for showers and washing machines and a third for toilets.
Council dam storage and water restrictions
- Storage: Chifley Dam, Winburndale Dam for park watering, industry
- Total: 28.5 per cent of 30.8 gigalitres, 62 per cent of 1.7 gigalitres
- Water restrictions: Level four-five
- Usage target: 160 litres per person per day
- Allowed: Garden watering by bucket or watering can on Wednesdays and Sundays, four-minute showers
- Banned: Lawn watering, washing cars at home, filling swimming pools, filling water features
Central Tablelands Water
- Storage: Lake Rowlands
- Total: 40 per cent of 4.5 gigalitres
- Water restrictions: Four
- Usage target: 178 litres
- Allowed: Garden watering with hose and drip systems for one hour on Wednesdays and Sundays, washing cars, filling swimming pools.
- Banned: Lawn watering
- Storage: Burrendong Dam
- Total: 1.6 per cent of 1678 gigalitres
- Water restrictions: Four
- Usage target: 280 litres
- Allowed: Lawn and garden watering for half hour on Wednesdays and Sundays with hose or timed system, washing cars, filling swimming pools
- Banned: Untimed watering systems, filling garden features unless supporting fish
- Storage: Suma Park Dam, Spring Creek Dam
- Combined total: 21 per cent of 24 gigalitres
- Water restrictions: Five
- Usage target: 160 litres
- Allowed: Garden watering with hose for half hour on Sundays, three-minute showers
- Banned: Lawn watering, washing cars, filling swimming pools, filling water features
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