Australian politics, society & culture


Drought essay: Goulburn, NSW

Cover: August 2005August 2005Medium length read

Conversation overheard between two men on Auburn Street, Goulburn:

“Didya hear? Council’s lifted the water restrictions from Level 5 to Level 5 extreme.”

“What comes after that?”

“That’s when you drink your own piss, mate, with a twist of lemon.”

Over the last few months politicians of all persuasions have been televised cavorting on the mudflats of Pejar Dam, major water source for the city of Goulburn in the heart of the drought lands of New South Wales. Unilaterally the pollies cry: “Something must be done!” The accompanying media swing their cameras onto the grimy base of Pejar’s observation tower. Like your granny’s underwear, the bottom of a dam should never be seen. As the politicians and media depart via helicopter, one last panoramic view sweeps over naked paddocks where dead trees outnumber livestock. The farmers of this famous wool-growing area are keeping their breeding stock alive by selling their souls to the banks.

This is the fifth year of drought. In the past flooding rains have followed times of drought. But since the 1950s each decade has been drier than the one before, and talk around the pubs, clubs and dinner tables is now edging towards the scary possibility of permanent climate change. Pejar Dam is at less than 10% capacity – enough for six months. When it was completed in 1980 Pejar and another dam, Sooley, were trumpeted as meeting the water needs of Australia’s “first inland city” well into the 21st century. Goulburn has a population now of 25,000. It is expected to grow to 40,000 in the next few years. Housing estates around the edges of town are carved up, ready and waiting … waiting.

Money from wool created Goulburn. In a city of overblown Victorian buildings the courthouse, finished in 1887 to coincide with Queen Victoria’s jubilee, is by far the most palatial. It has a copper dome and is topped by a crown. Queen Victoria’s fat face is encased in a Roman wreath of laurel near the entrance. Among dead rose gardens is a spot where the gallows once stood.

Across the road in Belmore Park, the fountain and rotunda are Victorian too. I can’t remember when I last saw the fountain flow. The big oaks and other exotics were planted in 1869. Trees are held fast in ground set like concrete. On the other side of the park, opposite the Soldier’s Club, a memorial to Goulburn’s war dead carries the subtext of another dry. In the 1940s young men left drought-raped areas of rural Australia and volunteered to fight for their country, thus giving their families one less mouth to feed. The memorial will survive this drought. The 140-year-old trees are probable casualties.

The banks, like the supermarkets, deserted their Victorian buildings long ago in favour of grey brutal constructions that seem unaffected by drought. The future of the glorious architectural stock of Auburn Street, the main street, is not so assured. My favourite building is the AMP office, a 1928 structure whose insides are guarded by massive cedar doors. From the footpath you can study the thin, fine brickwork and follow the hairline cracks that years of drought are etching into the fabric of the building. A couple of wet years will close the gaps. If rain doesn’t come, the implications do not bear thinking about.

In good times the Anglicans and Catholics built massive cathedrals in Goulburn. The Catholic cathedral is surrounded by Georgian workers’ cottages, the Anglican by two- and three-storey Victoriana. The writer Miles Franklin was often seen at either cathedral during the 1890s, yet another decade of drought. Then, as now, the sportsgrounds were baked so hard that players had to be warned not to fall – or else “you’ll be skating on your arse!” But the fixtures continue.

On any Sunday morning the bells of the cathedrals draw your eyes up along the spires to a cruel blue sky. The autumn just finished, bleeding into winter, was the driest on record. The high-pressure systems sitting over the centre of Australia delivered day after sun-drenched day. Night-time temperatures of -5 and -7 were recorded yet the frosts were lacklustre. The land is too warm and the soil not moist enough to produce the rollicking blankets of white usually seen at this time of year. The screaming westerlies that accompany drought have been absent too. The autumn was red, gold and silent.

In early July, winter, rain and floods came to parts of New South Wales. Lismore, to the north, received more than 500 millimetres. Other areas reported drops of between 50 and 70. Goulburn received about 14. A couple of weekends later a whole 56.2 millimetres fell in Goulburn. “Goulburn’s fortunes have changed dramatically,” trumpeted one of the papers. All it really means is that Goulburn received enough water for an extra six weeks’ supply, enough to keep spirits up. The drought might have broken in some places. Not around here.

On June 3 the Goulburn Post reported that all three tiers of government will combine to build an effluent recycling plant, Australia’s first, to “effectively drought-proof Goulburn”. Figures of $300 million have been mentioned. There is no time frame for this grand plan. The right forms have to be filled in. Working parties have to be established, project officers appointed. The site, below the maximum-security prison and the sewerage treatment plant, and well out of view of the historical part of the city, has been selected. It has yet to be approved.

How long does it take to build an effluent recycling plant that will produce water of a drinkable quality? What if there’s a gap between the time when the plant comes on line and the end of the water? Bores have been sunk and pipes laid to the depleted Mulwaree Ponds, to eke out Goulburn’s supply a little longer. But no one will be surprised when the convoys of trucks and trains appear over the horizon bringing water to this desperate city.

Yesterday, under a cloudless sky, I walked around the Anglican cathedral trying to poke a stick into the ground. No joy. The latest figures for Pejar Dam have just been released: despite the recent bit of rain, capacity is down to 7.6%. Whether you live in the exclusive residential precinct surrounding the cathedrals – Church Street, Montague Street, Shepherd’s Court – or down on the flats, everyone’s gardens are dying. Under a regime of 150 litres per person per day, residents cannot water. And yet in street after street, houses are surrounded by neat patches of dirt. Edges around the memories of lawn are sharp. Barbecued shrubs are clipped into water-saving round shapes.

We’re prepared to drink our own piss, mate, with a twist of lemon, and we’re prepared to like it. But Goulburn is not at five to twelve, we’re at five past. So if you could hurry …

About the author E.M. Holdsworth