11 September 2019

A summer of secure water for Nimmitabel - Lake Wallace Dam full and open

| Ian Campbell
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The first warm, fragrant licks of spring struggled to get up and over Brown Mountain on the day I visited Nimmitabel.

A cold, icy wind (not unfamiliar to Nimmitabel) laughed as I arrived with no jacket or jumper to inspect Lake Wallace Dam southeast of the township.

I was meeting two well-seasoned ‘gents’ of this community, one of which offered me his jacket as the breeze really started to bite.

John Alcock and Howard Charles

John Alcock and Howard Charles

Howard Charles and John Alcock first started pushing for this dam to be built over 11 years ago, and just a few days prior to our meeting it had been officially opened by the NSW Agriculture Minister.

Beaming with pride for what had been achieved, both men were keen to jump the two fences at the main entry to show me a vision they had been living with for a long time, one that was now a reality.

Named after the former owners of the landscape it sits in, Lake Wallace cost $5.3 million to complete and now holds 320 megalitres of water.

An East Coast Low just after the 13 metre high dam wall was completed ensured Nimmitabel, once described as the driest town in South East New South Wales, would have water security this summer for the first time in many summers.

The potential of this site to capture and store water was recognised during some of the region’s driest times.

“I had cattle on the block next door,” John remembers.

“And I was riding around there, in the midst of the 10-year drought, and there were all sorts of springs (water) still out through the bush.

“And then I noticed what a magnificent big catchment area it was,” John says.

Later hydrogeological studies would also find ‘excellent clay’ in the area, meaning a good seal on the dam floor.

The potential John saw was not obvious to everyone, the dam site had a dry creek bed running through it known as Pigring Creek, and only tended to flow into the nearby Maclaughlin River during and after big rain events – an action that would be used in the dam’s design.

From the About Regional Podcast, John Alcock and Howard Charles:

With the people of Nimmitabel only able to wash themselves out of a bucket at the depths of the drought, in the mid-2000’s the case for a dam was building, spurred on by lobbying lead by the Nimmitabel Advancement Group.

But for a dam to work and capture the imagination of government it needed to rain, and that seemed impossible at the time.

The 2007 Federal Election injected some momentum with the sitting Liberal member Gary Nairn committing $550,000 for geotechnical studies and construction of a smaller farm style dam.

Labor matched the commitment but suggested a bigger plan overseen by Cooma-Monaro Shire Council.

Feasibility studies followed and in 2014 the NSW Government through the Member for Monaro, John Barilaro stumped up $5.3 million to build the dam.

Maclaughlin River 2004

Maclaughlin River 2004

Nimmitabel takes it’s drinking water from the Maclaughlin River, which in 2004 all but dried up.

It was said at the time there was more beer in Nimmitabel than water, the local council had to resort to trucking water in from Cooma.

Howard Charles believes a turning point in the lobbying for the dam came with a photo he took of a dry, sad looking Maclaughlin River in 2004.

“We got huge support from the Catchment Management Authority,” Howard says.

“They could see that through this (the dam) not only were we going to solve Nimmitabel’s problem, but we were also going to solve the problem of river health.”

Howard describes the Maclaughlin as a blue ribbon trout stream and home to lots of platypus.

“Fly fisherman come from all over Australia to fish on it, that’s always been part of Nimmitabel’s history and industry,” he says.

Over the last couple of years, good rain has restored the health of the Maclaughlin and now Lake Wallace sits ready to serve it and the 300 people of Nimmitabel.

“It (the dam) doesn’t supply direct to Nimmitabel,” Howard explains.

Maclaughlin River 2016

Maclaughlin River 2016

“Nimmitabel still pumps from the river, but when the river is too low, then all we do is just let the water flow out of this dam and down into the river and supplement the flow in the river.

“And as it flows down the old natural water course, it gives it a natural cleansing, so it is beneficial to the river’s health in two ways.”

Both men see water security as critical to the future of this small farming community and township on the edge of the Great Dividing Range.

During the worst of the drought, families and businesses fled Nimmitabel, but already Howard and John believe that Lake Wallace is injecting confidence into people’s plans.

The next idea for this body of water adds a new dimension to the town’s future.

Howard and John want to see the Lake’s normally locked gates open for recreation.

“What a tremendous place for fishing, this lake would just be the most perfect trout lake you could wish to find,” John says.

Lake Wallace Dam Oct 2016

Lake Wallace Dam Oct 2016

“People are going to drop in here (the Lake) and of course go into Nimmitabel or Bemboka.

“It would be a tremendous boost.”

It sure would, but for the time being and for the first summer in many summers, Nimmitabel will survive the heat ahead, a testament to a community that invests in its own future.

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Great news for Nimmitabel, what a pity the town can not take advantage of the potential benefits by opening up the Lake to recreational activities. Backward thinking by the council, typical.

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