Boorowa: the small town near Australia’s capital that has been without drinking water for 26 days

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An hour-and-a-half from the Australian capital, drinking water has become currency.

Residents in the small town of Boorowa, north-west of Canberra, have been on a boil water notice for almost a month. Most have been buying drinking water. And, as one local discovered, it is also accepted as barter.

James Blackwell, an academic researcher, paid for second-hand goods on Facebook Marketplace with some of his water supplies.

“I joked with [the seller] and I said, ‘I can pay cash or I can pay in bottled water’,” he says. “She said she hadn’t been to the shops yet, so she took the bottled water.”

Blackwell has started bringing his own bottles to his workplace in Canberra and filling them from the free filtered water stations in the office.

“I was there with a giant Ikea-type bag with bottles of water and people were wondering what I was doing,” he says. “I’m on week three of bottled water.”

The town of 2,000 people was placed on a boil water notice on 22 January after heavy rains “compromised” filtration systems at the local water treatment plant.

But the Hilltops mayor, Margaret Roles, says water quality has been a concern in Boorowa for more than 50 years.

“It’s always been hard water and, although it meets the minimum standard for potable water, people’s expectations are rising all the time,” she says.

A Boorowa sign regarding water safety. Photograph: Emily Wilde/The Guardian

The council was faced with a choice of either increasing the size of the weir near Boorowa, which Roles says would leave residents at the mercy of the “vagaries of the river”, or lobbying for a pipeline from the Murrumbidgee River, the intake point for which is more than 50km away at Jugiong.

They chose the pipeline. It already services nearby Harden. The estimated cost of extending the line another 10km, Roles says, is $60m. The New South Wales government this month announced a $825,000 grant, jointly funded by council, for a geotechnical study.

Roles says the town’s growing population, thanks to its popularity with tree-changers who left cities during the pandemic, has strengthened the business case. A new housing development is set to bring in another 120 families.

“Because Hilltops is now 20,000 people and a growing area, we have a much better case to plan for the future,” she says.

‘No one serves tap water’

At Jeremy Clarke’s wine bar, bottled water is on the menu for ice, cocktails, dishwashing and cleaning. As he hauls a four-litre jug of water on top of the bar, Clarke jokes that his biggest revenue stream is now from recycling plastic water bottles.

“The thing in bars, you’re always rinsing,” he says. “It’s a massive hassle with the salad greens, rinsing your implements before they go in the dishwasher … no hospitality place around here serves tap water.”

Unforgettable taste: the Boorowa River. Photograph: Emily Wilde/The Guardian

The town water supply comes from the Boorowa River, which flows through farmland. It doesn’t have the tell-tale discoloration or smell of unsafe water, but Sam Jansen says the taste is unforgettable.

“I remember the day we moved into Boorowa, I ran to the kitchen sink and filled it up with a glass of water. I had a sip and said, ‘Oh mum, the water’s no good,’” she says. “Mum had a try and she said, ‘Oh my God no, you can’t drink that.’ That was 20 years ago.”

The new mother has twice developed an infection twice since having a child by cesaerian section in January. Guidance issued by Hilltops council and a factsheet from NSW Health stated that that town water was safe for showering but Jansen disagrees.

“I’ve never had an infection with any of my births but I’ve never had such a horrendous healing process before,” she says. “I 100% attribute that to the water. It’s not because of my lack of trying, it’s because of the water.”

The state MP for Cootamundra, Steph Cooke, says the lack of safe water is “unacceptable and unfair”

“We have the right to safe and secure drinking water and we have the right to thrive and grow,” she says. “Not only are we unable to service current residents, we have even less hope under the current circumstances of supplying [water] to new residents. It’s holding back the growth and development of Boorowa.”

James Blackwell paid for second-hand goods on Facebook Marketplace with some of his water supplies. Photograph: Emily Wilde/The Guardian

The federal member for Hume, Angus Taylor, says water quality in the town is a “longstanding issue” and that the current situation is “unacceptable”.

“It’s imperative these water quality issues are resolved as quickly as possible,” he says.

The NSW water minister, Rose Jackson, says there is “no quick fix” to the town’s complex water issues. But she says technical experts from her department will “work closely” with the local council until the current problem is resolved.

“Delivery of clean and reliable water to the community is a key responsibility of the local water utility but we most certainly all have a role to play and we’re doing everything we can to help them,” Jackson says.

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