Thursday, December 17, 2009

Lachlan River Valley - things have been worse.

The Sydney Morning Herald recently ran a series of articles on the perilous state of the Lachlan River Valley in central western NSW (Water crisis in west as Lachlan River runs dry, SMH 24/10; Rivers, dams fail Lachlan Valley towns, SMH 26/11 and Everything’s dried up and communities beginning to crack, SMH, 28/11).

While not stated, the implication seemed to be that the current state of the river was unprecedented. Having worked in the area, mapping the geology in 2001 I was slightly suspicious of these headlines and decided to put them to the test.

This has been made much easier thanks to the work of the National Library in Canberra. A search of the National Library’s Australian Newspapers online database, that contains digitised copies of Australian newspapers dating back into the early 1800s, found numerous mentions of past droughts including the intriguing letter to the editor of The Sydney Herald (the for-runner to the Sydney Morning Herald), re-printed below, that suggests things were much more perilous in past times. Indications that Lake Cargelligo actually dried out, prior to extensive land clearing and with CO2 levels much less than they are now, suggests that the role of natural weather cycles has been overlooked as an important factor in controlling water flows down the Lachlan.

While our political leaders are running around in circles searching for a political solution to the so called climate crisis in Copenhagen this voice from Australia’s colonial era serves as a timely reminder that when it comes to the weather, it goes around in circles as well, just a little more slowly.

The Sydney Herald Wednesday 17 April, 1839
Original Correspondence
To the Editor of the Sydney Herald.
SIR,─Having heard a great deal of the fertile banks of the Lachlan River, I left Sydney in the beginning of February, passing through the districts of Argyle and King, to the Narraway River.
The road from Sydney was exceedingly dusty; the water mid feed scarce on the road ; so much so, that parties, to prevent their horse-team from starving, ripped open their straw beds and gave the straw to the horses. In the neighbourhood of Bunowbunow, (the lands of Messrs. Macarthur and McAlister) and from there to Wheeo, the property of Mr. Shepherd, where tolerable good old grass is to be met with, water is very scarce, and many cattle died in water-holes.
Down the Narraway River the water is scarce; the holes dangerous for cattle, the grass scarce, and on passing the Borrower no water to give the horses, nor grass to be found. Came to the Lachlan, below a junction of the Burrower─ no water or grass, the head of the river being sandy and level.
The cattle on the estates of Messrs. Wentworth, Fulton, Redfern, Rankin, and many others, on the upper parts of the Lachlan, are actually starving for want of water and grass. For many miles together the country wears the same dreary appearance; little grass, and less water. For 80 miles down, after which the River becomes narrow and deep, with here and there a deep water- hole; the grass begins to improve, and the, cattle obtain better pasture. The country on the bank of the River for 100 miles down, improves in appearance; large Plains, with a few trees dispersed on different parts; the water still scarce but the feed good. Cattle stations are fixed on the bank of the River, from one to seven miles apart, as water-holes may suit. It is a rule that the River shall be the boundary, and it is common for stations to be placed opposite each other. The whole of the country for l8 miles down the River, was taken up by Bathurst gentry ; latterly Mr. Cartwright, from Bland Plains, went below all with cattle; since which Mr. Shepherd has gone below him; and more than likely there are others below him by this time, as numbers of herds were on their way down the River ─ parties finding it impossible to support their stock on their old runs. The country on the Lachlan is not capable of supporting many cattle, the Plains being thinly grassed, and there being but little forest land, as also very little water.
At present the country is perfectly dry and sound, but should there come heavy rains most of it will be under water. Major Mitchell's track is plain, he kept near the bank of the River as far as I saw; the Lake (as called Cagillowgo), is dry, and nothing but a morass, great quantities of salt rush and a scrub, that is to be found near the salt water, grows on the Plains. The Stockmen and others are in a miserable condition; no sugar, no tea, very little bread, and less meat, the time for supplies being up, and proprietors of stock not having sent their half-yearly supplies. Great talk was about the Blacks. I was pleasingly surprised to find them harmless, peaceable, industrious, and a working people; great numbers are to be seen on the River; at the stations it is common to have one or two men tailing or shepherding a herd of cattle, the women grind, bring water, and do odd work. A bad system is allowed on the Lachlan, as well as in many parts of the Colony, that is, proprietors paying their free men in stock, and allowing them to run with their herd; that system has been a great cause of so much cattle-stealing. A Stockman seeing a good unbranded calf in the bush takes it home and puts his own brand on, being in so distant a part: he can do it with impunity as the proprietor so seldom sees his cattle. A case somewhat relevant occurred the other day, Mr. McKensey has had a free man, a stock-keeper who had cattle. When his master went to inspect his own cattle, he saw a calf with the Stockman's brand on sucking one of his own cows. The man was taken into custody, but on his way to Bathurst made his escape. It is high time that masters do away with the system of paying men in cattle, or allowing them to have cattle. They would find they would gain by giving more wages, (if such be required) rather than pay in stock. The country generally, in the neighbourhood of the Lachlan, is suffering much from the drought, the trees of the forest are withered, and great numbers are dying along acres together for want of moisture. Cattle are to be seen in almost every water-hole, and what is worse the traveller suffers greatly from a similar cause. One of Doctor Ramsay's men, passing in company with a team from one station across the country to the Lachlan, left the dray in search of water, and has not been heard of since. Strict search was made for the unfortunate man, but no remains could be found of him; he was a stranger, and it is supposed that he missed the dray, and perished for want of water.
April 5, 1839.

Original Article available from:

SMH story: Rivers, Dams Fail Lachlan River towns 26/11/2009

SMH Story: Water crisis in west as Lachlan River runs dry, 24/10/2009

SMH Story: Everything’s dried up and communities beginning to crack, SMH, 28/11

National Library Online Database


Roger Vaughan Carr said...

Nice story!
Thank you.
(Picked it up via WUWT?)

the little skeptic said...

The National Library Newspaper archive is certainly a good source of info!