Bill Ashby is pumping the last of the water out of the homestead pool.
The drought's over for now but the pool hasn't been swam in for years.
It's just another water storage which today is being used to soak the lawn.
The memories of the last drought - the worst on record - still play on the minds of this sixth-generation outback farming family, whose 29,000-hectare property lies on the floodplain about 80 kilometres north of Wilcannia.
We're in Outback NSW as part of journey to listen to the people living along the banks of the Darling River for a four-part podcast special called Forgotten River.
Listen to the full story on our podcast.
Until 12 months ago, Chrissy Ashby explains, Trevallyn Station was still in a critical condition.
It was only because they successfully put down a bore that they scraped through until the rains eventually came and the river starting flowing again in February this year.
"I don't think we could have got more critical. We were down to one pond, which was just rank water," she says.
"That was our only source of water to pump from.
"Our house, all our stock and domestic were on that water. Our troughs were filthy."
The water stank, too.
"You had a shower and learnt to breathe through your mouth pretty quickly."
There were sporadic flows once the drought broke in February 2020 but not enough to call the crisis over.
"It's been a struggle up until February this year," Bill Ashby says.
"February, March this year, the water came down. It's been up and down a bit since then but it's on the rise again now. But before that it was just an ongoing battle.
"It would get some water, then it would dry out again, be back to square one, it was tough."
The battle, they say, is far from over. The river remains the lifeline of their property and they're concerned drought is never too far away. Nor are the upstream demands on the river.
However, trying to be heard as small players in the long running and often confusing Murray-Darling game is a frustrating business.
"We were living in Third World conditions and that's never been accounted for out here," Chrissy says.
"If city folk had to live oneday in that the whole country would be in uproar. But we don't give up and we keep fighting and we've had some good wins."
One of those wins has been the blocking in the NSW Upper House of regulations that would regulate and license floodplain harvesting upstream from them, a practice they say diverts water which should be allowed to flow into the whole river system.
Floodplain harvesting involves the construction of berms and channels to direct water from flood events into large on farm dams and reservoirs for future use.
The NSW government has twice put its regulations to the NSW parliament and twice they've been rejected because of what opponents say is a lack of proper data.
There is also a fear that the granting of licences will only entrench a practice that stops water from making its way through the river system.
A key player in stalling the regulations is Independent MLC Justin Field, who with Labor, the Greens and the Shooters and Fishers Party to send the regulations back to the government.
While he thinks it is inevitable floodplain harvesting will be regulated and licensed, he wants more certainty for downstream people like the Ashbys.
"I don't think we should be handing out billions of dollars worth of licences until we have certainty that the needs of downstream communities and the environment can be met. At the moment the rules and the protections are simply not in place to allow us to let this regulation pass," he says.
As far as the Ashbys are concerned it's the medium and low flows through the river system that are most critical.
"I think the word is getting out there about floodplain harvesting and how much damage it can do, especially downstream," says Bill.
"In a big flood it's probably not that much that they take but it's the small flows that we worry about. The small to medium flows are the ones that we want left alone, so they keep the river connected."
The river is our main water source for everything, we're washing our clothes, we shower in it, it feeds all our livestock, all our animals here. It's our main living source. Without the river, it's not possible.Will Ashby
Those big floods, they say, are becoming more infrequent.
They used to be expected once every four or five years; now it's once in 10 years.
As grim as things got - and despite predictions climate change will see more droughts - the family is determined to stay put, even though the river they once water-skied on, the river which brought their ancestors to the region on paddle steamers, is now more often than not a trickle.
"I'd love to grow up further here and start a family," says son Will. He knows how much that dream depends on the health of the river.
"The river is our main water source for everything, we're washing our clothes, we shower in it, it feeds all our livestock, all our animals here. It's our main living source. Without the river, it's not possible."
And if that means taking the water politics baton from their parents, so be it.
"The more I listen to it, the more of a joke it sounds like it's becoming," says younger brother Jack.
"We're only so little out here compared to everyone further up."
Further north, at Kallara Station near the tiny settlement of Tilpa, Justin McClure is up early, taking a flight in his light aircraft to check on stock.
As the sun rises over the Darling, flocks of noisy corellas gather on the riverbank.
It's the sound of a river that, for now, has come back to life.
Also stirring, probably the last of the tourists before COVID shuts NSW down.
The group of Ulysses Motorcycle Club members are hitching their vans and campers to their four-wheel-drives and heading out.
After 15 minutes, Justin sets his small plane down again, drags it into the hangar and makes his way back to the old homestead, a boisterous kelpie pup at his feet.
"Those date palms were reputedly planted in 1852," he says, pointing to two giant trees casting shade across the lawn.
"In terms of white man's history, they outdate us all. I'm a fifth-generation Western Division man. Our family have been here since the 1870s."
Speaking of the history of European settlement and the pastoral industry in this remote part of the country, he wears no rose-coloured glasses.
"White man did it very badly for 150 years. They introduced the rabbit. They overgrazed it with cloven-hoofed animals."
The lightbulb moment, he says, came in the 1980s, when drought hit and the bottom fell out of the wool market. There was a realisation among graziers they had to look after the environment which sustained them.
In his 56 years, he has watched attitudes and practices change and the landscape recover.
"I've seen a resurrection of native plants and shrubs that have reinvigorated this country and made it more sustainable."
Justin's outlook is positive but for one factor.
"The global demand for food is huge and we've got the land to do it. Low rainfall, low stocking densities, clean and green. We've actually got everything we need but the one key element we really, really need is water. Without water, we will perish."
So, like many in the Lower Darling, he is looking closely at the proposed regulations surrounding floodplain harvesting.
And the key question is, will it remain within the cap set by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority?
"This is a cap on the extractions of water from the system. Floodplain harvesting is part of that water source," he says.
"My understanding is that floodplain harvesting has to be within that cap so I can't for the life of me see how can they can potentially issue new floodplain harvesting licences."
Debate and shenanigans
Former Murray-Darling Basin Authority director Maryann Slattery says measuring and regulating floodplain harvesting is great, in principle at least.
But the sticking point is how can it be proven to be within the cap set by the Basin Plan.
"That's where there is a lot of debate and shenanigans going on at the moment," she says.
"The question, I think, is not whether it should be regulated but the volume of what we're going to allow as floodplain harvesting. That's not a policy question, it's a legal question. And the answer is it has to be within cap."
Slattery says the NSW government and MDBA acknowledge floodplain harvesting has been allowed to grow unchecked, "so miraculously what we're going to licence is going to fall within the cap when it was never included in the cap in the first place".
More from the Forgotten River team:
NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey is quick to defend floodplain harvesting in the northern basin.
"The evidence shows that even completely removing floodplain harvesting in the northern basin it would only increase flows in the NSW River Murray by less than 1 per cent on average."
She's also quick to defend her state's record on water management, despite the damning findings of the 2018 South Australian Royal Commission into Water, which were highly critical of NSW's management of water.
"We are doing a lot to ensure the sustainability of the system and in terms of the original plan for Murray-Darling Basin we've exceeded those expectations."
The minister said proof of how well NSW had kept its part of the Basin Plan was the fact Adelaide did not run out of water during the last drought.
The never-ending struggle between two water management narratives will get renewed airings with a NSW Upper House inquiry into floodplain harvesting regulations commencing hearings.
There's the government narrative, that drought happens and floodplain harvesting in times of flood simply captures water that would otherwise be lost.
The water activists' counter-narrative is that the cotton industry in particular, the biggest floodplain harvester, is denying downstream communities of life-giving water they say would make its way into the river system if not diverted into storages.
As for the future of the overall Basin Plan, that will be up for review in 2024 in accordance with the federal Water Act.
It will test whether we have matured sufficiently to put state interests and political calculus aside to work co-operatively for the benefit of the environment, for the whole country. Sadly, the prospects are not good.
For as long as humans have settled by rivers, there has been conflict between upstream and downstream.
"There's a saying that originates in Queensland," says Justin McClure, "that what water I can't harness is a waste. So it's basically, very simply, human greed. I look after myself and my own communities and bugger the guy next door."
Perhaps, then, as Independent MLC Justin Field suggests, it would make more sense to flip the way we have traditionally looked at the river system, to view it from the bottom up.
After all, that was the intent of the federal Water Act in the first place.
Historically, the biggest floodplain harvester at the northern end of the Lower Darling is Toorale Station.
The station was one of the biggest and most successful on the Darling River - Henry Lawson even spent time there working as a roustabout - but at huge cost to the river system downstream.
An 80-kilometre network of levees and dams effectively blocked water from the Warrego River to the Darling downstream.
In 2008, then federal Water Minister Penny Wong bought the property and its water licence for $24 million. It was in turn handed to NSW.
A source of great frustration since has been the glacial pace at which the water infrastructure has been either dismantled or modified to allow this water into the Darling.
Strangely, it's the one piece of the river system not managed by Water NSW, which apart from floodplain harvesting regulates and measures all water taken from the system.
"When I first got the role as Water Minister I knew it was an enormous amount of frustration for the community out there," says NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey.
"Once it rained in 2019 much of that water stayed behind the gates at Toorale."
Read more about the Forgotten River:
- Learn about Wilcannia. Before it was a COVID hotspot.
- Find out what happened after the historic Menindee Lake fish kills
- Hear the stories of those challenging water policy to save Australia's outback river
- See the mighty Darling River for the first time through a photographer's lens
Graziers have insisted that, like every other water licence holder, the water kept or released at Toorale needs to be regulated and needs to be measured.
"I'm working with [NSW Environment Minister Matt] Kean to ensure that water does make its way into the system on a more regular basis.
"I believe it needs to be measured and we'll be supporting that."
The Minister concedes it's taken too long for the infrastructure at Toorale to be removed or modified to allow that water to flow.
"There's more work to do there but we've moved a lot in two years from where it was - it sat dormant for 10 years," she says.
Contractors moved onto Toorale in July and have commenced work on modifying the infrastructure.
There is, finally, movement at the station.