In December 2018, a mass fish kill in the Darling River made global headlines.
Two more followed in January 2019, downstream of Menindee Lakes. In total, it is estimated 1 million fish perished over a 40-kilometre stretch.
To those who live alongside the river upstream, these grim episodes came as no surprise. They had watched one of Australia’s grandest rivers recede under withering drought.
The mass fish kills, caused by low flows and degraded water, were the nadir of a slow-moving environmental crisis.
Water that smells of death
For New South Wales and the Murray-Darling Basin, 2018 was the hottest year on record.
By March, Bill and Chrissie Ashby, of Trevallyn Station near Wilcannia, were every day shifting pipes into the river’s retreating green pools to pump precious water to their stock and household.
“The water is stenchy,” Ms Ashby told Landline at the time.
But it was their only option. Countless rainless months had left their water tanks dry.
Further upstream at Tilpa, Julie McClure still shudders at the memory of putrid river water.
“The worst thing about the drought was friends and family that didn’t honestly have water to flush their loo with,” she recalled.
There were times when she made the four-hour drive to Broken Hill to have a shower with water that didn’t reek of decaying fish and vegetation.
One Saturday in March that year, the locals played a social game of cricket on the river’s dry, sandy bed.
Its aim was to be a community get-together, a much-needed morale booster and a brief respite from the drudgery of drought.
Landline’s story of the cricket match and images of a dry river gained national media attention. It helped galvanise Australia-wide support. Politicians made promises to address the river’s plight.
Crippling drought was not solely to blame, but in such dry times, over-allocation of irrigation water from the Darling-Barwon system severely exacerbated it.
Mounting financial pressure
For Justin and Julie McClure of Kallara Station at Tilpa, three years of searing drought forced them to draw a line in the sand, quite literally.
“Financial pressure is very extreme, and when you get to the point where you really don’t know where to turn next, it does cloud your judgement,” reflected Ms McClure.
But the couple sought advice, both personal and professional.
“We’re not scared to jump out of our comfort zone,” Mr McClure said.
“That ability to have a flexible mind has been possibly the biggest catalyst to our survival.”
The family replaced their merino flock with hardier dorper sheep, and devised a business plan that involved building a large storage dam to better drought-proof their farming enterprise.
The McClures owned water entitlements that allowed them in years of high flow to draw irrigation water from the Darling.
Getting approval for the dam meant relinquishing some of their water allocation by selling it to the government.
“We’ve got a vision that that water will be used to grow crops so that we can hopefully drought-proof our entire property,” Mr McClure said.
Several million dollars later, the result was an impressive 600-megalitre dam next to the floodplain.
The drought eased early last year and there was sufficient rainfall to plant a large crop of oats on Kallara.
At harvest in December, it yielded well. Now, with an assured water supply, there are plans for more cropping in the future, producing a range of high-value, organic grains.
“We’ve been innovators in that we’ve grown with the organic protein meat market and we’ve now got the opportunity, when we have opportune events, to farm the floodplain and grow organic cereals for a good profit,” Mr McClure said.
The family also plans to build a mill to make organic stock pellets that will combine their own oats with native high-protein pasture species.
The pellets will help their stock — sheep, goats and cattle — to reach peak condition for market.
Breaking down social barriers
Droughts and other adversity have also forged a new ethos among people here.
Ms McClure said it made them a little less stoic and secretive.
“The barriers have been broken down a bit,” she said.
“There’s a lot more conversation about business: the business of farming and the farming business.”
For the Ashbys, coming through drought has also made them better adept at dealing with the inevitable dry times.
“Feeding hay every three days, truckload after truckload, it was pretty taxing on the bank account, that’s for sure,” Mr Ashby said.
When Landline visited Trevallyn Station in 2018, Mr and Ms Ashby had not long taken over the family property from Ms Ashby’s father, achieving her childhood dream.
But the arid inland drought soon tested their resolve.
At the height of the drought, she returned to teaching part-time in Wilcannia. It was vital to the family’s finances, and she admits, for her mental health.
“That keeps my balance healthy,” she said.
“I love working with the people that I work with, the children that I teach, and Bill’s a really good supporter.”
The couple’s three sons came home during the pandemic, providing invaluable support.
And the family sunk a bore for stock water, making them far less reliant on the unpredictable Darling River.
‘How resilience is built’
Now the river — “the lifeblood of the community” as Mr McClure calls it — is flowing strongly again.
Producers are enjoying the best season since 2016 and buoyant prices for livestock and other commodities.
While spirits are high, those who live in the harsh climate are all too aware that more tough times are never far away.
Drought has forged many lessons. But next time they’ll be better prepared physically and psychologically.
“You talk about resilience and that’s how resilience is built,” Ms McClure said.
“On hardship, on tough times, on pressure, on the support of your family.”
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline this Sunday at 12:30pm or on iview.