OLD ADAMINABY, Australia (Reuters) - Drowned 50 years ago for progress and the promise of near limitless water, the town of Old Adaminaby has re-emerged from its sunken grave as drought ravages one of Australia’s biggest lakes.
The country’s battle with climate change and the worst drought in 100 years is stark at Old Adaminaby, where looters pick through the relics of a bygone farming town.
On the floor of Lake Eucumbene lie the remains of an old truck stand on what was once a street and the foundations of nearby houses lie covered with cracked black mud.
Old beer bottles and cans litter the ground beside the rusted farm machinery of a past generation.
“I don’t know if it will ever fill again but if the dam ever fills again I will have seen history,” said Sydney worker Robert Simms, scavenging beside a boat ramp which was once on the main street, but is now left high and dry by the shrinking lake.
A conservation order on Lake Eucumbene to stop looters came into force on Tuesday, World Environment Day.
“The old town is coming back as the lake disappears. We’ve had to put a conservation order on it to stop the place disappearing a second time,” said local Mayor Richard Wallace.
Australia’s Snowy Mountains power scheme, which created the giant lake, is the country’s greatest engineering feat and took 25 years to build.
But a near six-year dry spell means the project’s future is now uncertain, as are the ski and fishing grounds around it, and the irrigators who rely on its waters.
“Our income is generated 50 percent by winter tourism, either skiing or boarding, another 20 percent by summer tourism — the lakes — and the other 30 percent comes from farming, which again revolves around climatic conditions,” said Wallace.
“When mother nature isn’t kind to us like this, it’s devastating,” he said.
The Snowy Hydro scheme was meant to be a lifeline for the Murray-Darling River Basin, an area the size of France and Spain which accounts for 71 percent of the total area of irrigated crops and pastures in Australia.
The scheme captures melting winter snows into the two major lakes, Eucumbene and Jindabyne, storing them for release down into huge dams in the foothills below. Irrigators rely on the lakes to water the dry but fertile plains to the west.
But Lake Eucumbene is now almost a relic, like the ghost town it submerged, at around 10 percent of capacity.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard in April warned irrigators that water would be cut off for crops and pastures in the Murray-Darling unless drenching rains restored the river flows and re-fills Eucumbene’s lost capacity.
Australia’s current drought is expected to wipe 1 percent from its A$940 billion (US$786 billion) economy.
Recent rains and snow have restored hope to farmers.
But Murray-Darling Basin Commissioner Wendy Craik, whose organization will within weeks recommend whether to turn off the irrigation taps, said it was too early to tell if the drought was breaking in the world’s driest inhabited continent.
Around 103 gigalitres of rain had flowed into the 2,500 km Murray River in May, compared with a long-term average of 600 gigalitres.
“I’m a little bit optimistic about the breaking weather patterns. But gee, we need a lot more rain,” Craik told Reuters.
Snowy Hydro is confident it can continue to supply water to farmers and generate electricity for the national grid until at least December, even at current dam levels.
The scheme provides 74 percent of renewable energy in mainland Australia’s power market, and accounts for 3.5 percent of the total grid, leading to fears of power cuts next summer without more water through its turbines and to coal-fired power stations.
To help drought-proof Australia, the federal government has called for a A$10 billion reform of water infrastructure, but the plan has run aground like Lake Eucumbene’s stranded boaters amid political wrangling.
In a tourist cafe a half-hour’s drive from Eucumbene’s dry shores, owner Penny Litchfield said the dwindling lake is a stark reminder time is running out for Australia to make tough and lasting water and climate change decisions.
“Until now they’ve had their head in the sand,” she said.
$1 = A$1.20