With no decent inflows over the past 18 months, the drought is becoming more severe in the Gwydir and Border Rivers valleys, however the good news is we're better off than many other river systems in northern NSW, according to the state's drought coordinator, Michael Wrathall.
Mr Wrathall and other representatives from the NSW Department of Industry-Water and WaterNSW were in Moree and Goondiwindi this week as part of their tour of drought-affected regions in the state.
The team were on hand to talk to communities, providing an updates on surface and groundwater water availability and the proposed management measures if the dry conditions persist.
"In the Gwydir, we're not quite at record low inflows but we're certainly in the lowest per cent of years over the last 100 years or so," Mr Wrathall said.
"Storage still has some water in it, enough to keep the river running periodically over the next year or two and critical needs are still able to be met.
"It's not as severe as other river systems in northern NSW; it's probably actually in the best position. But it still is a shortfall and if dry conditions continue, then in future years may need to consider more severe changes."
With little irrigation water left and zero allocations being made for general security licences, irrigators in the region expressed their concerns about the lack of water available for productive use and the effect that's having on their businesses and livelihoods and, in turn, local communities.
"We haven't allocated water in this valley and in many valleys for 18 months," Mr Wrathall said.
"For those in regulated rivers, the storage acts like a bank and they've got water in their accounts and can draw on it when they want to, and so for the last two years irrigators and water users have been managing their water.
"Now we're at the stage where that water has been exhausted, their accounts are empty and we're not expecting any further allocations until inflows arrive, so the big concerns are when will we get our next allocation and when will we get our next opportunity to extract flow from the river?"
Although irrigators in the region usually have supplementary access to flows during large rainfall events, the department has been temporarily restricting that type of extraction to protect water for critical needs downstream.
As a result, irrigators are concerned that when we do receive our first decent inflow, they won't be able to access the water.
"That's probably their biggest concern," Mr Wrathall said.
"It's a legitimate concern; it means it's a longer period of time before they have access to water they can use on farm and for productive purposes, and the tricky thing for us is that the only way those downstream rivers get flows is from those in the upper catchments.
"If there's enough water to meet all those downstream water critical needs, plus allow access here, then that makes things easy, but if it's a smaller event, then chances are there'll need to be a restriction."
A mixture of irrigators, farmers, industry stakeholders and council representatives attended the consultations in Goondiwindi and Moree, held on Thursday and Friday, May 23 and 24, respectively, and organisers were pleased with the strong turn-outs.
The team also met with Gwydir Valley Irrigators Association during their visit to Moree, during which they had good discussion around allowing irrigators access to water that would otherwise break out of the channels and go out the bank during a large flow event.
"We're really open to that arrangement, it's more of a partial access," Mr Wrathall said.
"So we're really keen to have that dialogue and come up with a practical solution that provides some access without compromising critical needs."
Mr Wrathall said essential water requirements in the Gwydir Valley are currently secure for the next two years, however if we don't receive any inflows or rain in that time, then by 2021 the situation will be critical.
For now though, the department is managing the water through block releases, ensuring high priority needs are met. One of these releases is currently happening, with the Northern Fish Flow event making its way to Walgett.
Mr Wrathall said the water has just reached the Barwon River, which is good news.
"That flow is for the benefit of fish and other ecosystem needs, not for irrigation extraction," he said.
"It can be extracted for domestic needs, for stock needs, for native title rights and for towns, but the main purpose of that flow is to get water down the system as far as possible."
If the drought continues, the team will likely be back for another consultation before the end of the year.
For more information about drought relief and water allocations, go to www.industry.nsw.gov.au/water/allocations-availability/droughts-floods/update.