A while ago my creek stopped running. Well, it’s not really my creek, any more than the inland waterways belong to the cotton irrigators, but it’s hard not to feel a bit proprietorial about a place you visit almost every day, year after year.
If you’ve been to the Channon Craft Market, you might have noticed the mural on the toilet block at Coronation Park showing all the creeks converging nearby, before they flow, as one, down to Lismore. This water eventually finds the sea at Ballina.
Tuntable Creek is one of those streams, winding its way along the Tuntable Valley from near the community of the same name, where it falls over an escarpment in the Nightcap National Park.
Along with humans and their animals, the creek supports all kinds of life; water dragons, turtles, eels, water birds, platypus, bullrouts (so I’m told) and friendlier fish, as well as countless other living things. The biodiversity a few metres from its banks is exponentially higher than the surrounding country.
Wild to dry
After Cyclone Debbie, Tuntable Creek became so wild and uncontrollable it swept horses away. Now it has contracted to a series of pools connected by a path of beautiful but strangely dry rocks.
Living up the hill with rainwater tanks, I don’t use the water from the creek for anything practical, but I’ve come to realise that spiritually I do rely on it, a great deal. When the creek stopped flowing it was a shock on multiple levels.
I didn’t think it could happen. During the last major drought, the creek never stopped. People who have been in the district a lot longer than me can’t remember seeing it dry, or even hearing that it had ever gone dry.
There’s a scary word for this, and it’s a word we keep hearing as the climate crisis worsens – unprecedented. The fires may be getting the headlines, but they’re only a symptom of the greater catastrophe.
The recent rains, though very welcome, have done little to bring life back to the creek. The country is just too parched. And this is just one of many waterways across the Northern Rivers that have dried up. Spring-fed flows like Minyon Falls and Wilsons Creek have also stopped running.
Farmers walk away
Even major rivers have been drastically affected above their tidal reaches; the Macleay, Manning, and Clarence. Over the border, the Nerang is in the same situation. The Tweed is only flowing at Uki because it’s being supplemented by dam water. The Bellinger has never been so low.
Without functional springs, or water in their dams, some farmers between Kyogle and Nimbin have had to stop growing food and walk away. Cattle are starving.
And it’s not just the Northern Rivers. There are stories about waterways drying up with catastrophic effects in other traditionally wet parts of NSW, such as Gloucester and the Shoalhaven. Greater Sydney’s dam levels are at 44 per cent.
This is something we’ve become accustomed to out west, beyond the Dividing Range. Images of dying fish and blue-green algae poisoned outback rivers have become commonplace, to the point where even ‘creek’ is too grand a name for many of these once-glorious western arteries.
Follow the money
But now it’s our creeks on the chopping block. And as the water crisis deepens, the water-miners are extending their grip, with only community members standing in their way. There are stories of water bottling trucks continuing to ship water out while fire trucks race the other way with lights and sirens.
This drought is particularly hard to process in the Northern Rivers because one of the main reasons people came from all over the world to live here was the water. In a dry and uncertain continent, this corner of New South Wales has always been a comparative oasis. Floods are a much more common problem than droughts. But drought is a silent and less spectacular killer.
Beyond this continent, lack of water is the reason many civilisations have collapsed, with examples including the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, the Mayans, the Tang Dynasty, the Anasazi culture of North America, and the Khmer empire (who had drought as well as monsoons to contend with, sound familiar?) Drought tore apart the Ming Dynasty in the fifteenth century and Syria in the twenty first century. It was a major factor in Western Sudan’s Darfur conflict.
Now climate change is leading to worse droughts in more places, along with other extremes unfriendly to life.
Maybe the stopped creek is temporary? Maybe someone is pumping upstream to replace water lost in firefighting? Maybe the pools will link up again? Maybe the floods will return? Who knows. But hope may not be enough, and if things continue like this, the Northern Rivers will need a new name.
Seven years ago, at Coronation Park in the Channon, a child dressed in flowing blue ran along a path strewn with fragments of blue paper in gentle rain as her community looked on. The path she travelled represented Tuntable Creek. She met other running kids representing other creeks, threatened as they were then by the encroaching CSG industry.
The gas threat may have left these valleys for now, but a changing climate and the burgeoning water mining industry may be more insidious threats.
The creatures that live in Tuntable Creek are trapped in a series of ponds, each of which is steadily shrinking. Whatever happens to them, will happen to us, in time. ‘Water is life’ is not just a slogan.
When we see a dry creek, we need to pay attention to what nature is saying. Because nature tells the truth.
Postscript December 27, 2019: after the glorious Xmas rains, Tuntable Creek is now flowing again, hopefully for more than a few days. Of course many other waterways are still in desperate trouble…