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Byron Shire
June 18, 2024

When the river runs dry – civilisations have ended

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River of stone. Image – David Lowe.

David Lowe

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.

The original image of The Channon Creek Girl – a child dressed as water runs along a virtual creek at the Channon CSG-Free Celebration, 14 April 2012. Photo David Lowe.

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…

David Lowe

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  1. Great paper David.
    The biggest issue here is plants seed precipitation. In “ drought “ and in their absence most of the rains happen off shore where evaporation seeds rain.

    The old people used to talk about the tannami winds that carried the rains inland overcoming the west to east patterns.
    Rain forest from cape trib to Victoria, from literal, near the beach up to 100 km inland. Of course, that all failed not long after the removal of the original forest.

    Because of the nature of the earths heat management ( heat will always move to cooler reigons) not only will the inland heat plume hold precipitation off shore but the remaining rain forest being cooler than the surrounding area will draw heat into it. This includes fires .
    Because of your position, being respected in your community and people listen to your opinion I feel it important you reach out to them.
    The best thing that can be done right now is to try to reactivate the daily water cycle.
    We’re we to strategically place creek structures that become a trellis for wetlands plants the losses of water to the sea would be minimised.
    There’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate this is how it Once worked. There an ecological plug in the watershed.
    Water once took 100 days to move through. After removal it took 6 days.

    Happy to discuss this further at any point.

    Kindest Regards
    David Maher

  2. Beautifully written piece . Made me cry for a lot of reasons. I’m 82 and locally born and raised. Never have I felt so hopeless and helpless. I remember living through the war years and picking up on the dread of the adults that the Japanese would land on our coastline and overrun us . We became one . There was an Aussie version of Dad’s Army. Mum became a official aircraft spotter . Knew all the badging of the planes and their shapes . Dad closed his medical practice and at age 40 went to NewGuinea. I had a little Red Cross uniformed was always volunteered as a patient for air raid practice. There was plenty of fight in us. Now I don’t know where to start. Then we had wonderful government leadership. They made us feel perhaps we could hold out and win.
    Where is our leadership,where is our hope? I think we have got to do it for ourselves and soon.

  3. Well said Dianna and David !
    But it was a bygone era , when the government showed the least interest in the “Common Wealth” and the good of the people. This government has sold out to the Multi-nationals and the mining industries. They only have an interest in profits, the environment and the people living here are merely an inconvenience to be bulldozed out of the way. If only it was as easy as to fight against an invading enermy, but this enemy is from within, it is the government , modern life style and all that relies on the destruction of the planet to make a quick buck. …and the competition is fierce and usually government supported.
    If anything is to be done about this catestrophic state of affairs it it will be ourselves and those who care.
    Cheers G”)

  4. As I get old my joints do creak, so I do not run any more and neither does the creek that I visit that I stare at because the water that was once there is not there any more.

  5. ” The loss of moisture from deforestation is a bigger threat than global warming”
    ” Transpiration moves more water than all the world’s rivers combine”

    Google : Rivers in the Sky

  6. I have only spent 2 weeks in the tuntable falls community, 10 years ago. You would not believe it but the place has left a mark in my heart. How many months have I dreamed of moving there, and years after I decided that as an austrian with an unclear Visa situation it would be too hard I am still connected to that place.
    I have painted my face with the colours of the stones there, like humans did for thousands of years, and than I walked up to the holy place alll along the river bed. I did not stay long there as I felt the place was too powerful and pristine to pester long with my being there.
    I would have always thought that this would be the last place where people would suffer since it is the place where most people try to live together with an intact forrest. Where people love the land.
    It makes my heart bleed. All my love goes out to you, my tribe in a parallel universe, I am sure.
    Stay strong, get together, let anger subside or turn into action to safe this paradise!


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