THE western NSW town of Broken Hill is facing dire water shortages as the drought-hit Menindee Lakes dry out to "big sandpits".
Faced with the prospect of just 10 to 14 months' worth of water and no rainfall on the horizon, the NSW government has begun work to secure an emergency water source for the population of 19,000.
Test drilling has begun to locate a suitable source of groundwater for the town. Without a major rainfall event in Queensland or eastern NSW, bore water might be the only solution to replace water from the lakes, which have become "pretty big sandpits" with dregs of rapidly deteriorating quality, said mayor Wincen Cuy.
But some residents fear that the government's push for bore water signals the start of the decommissioning of the lakes. Located about 100 kilometres from the frontier town, they are a lifeline to the community for water supplies and as an economic driver to the region.
Members of the Broken Hill-Menindee Lakes We Want Action group are also demanding answers over a major drawdown of water from the lakes about a year ago and a lack of communication from the government.
Water Minister Kevin Humphries said the NSW government takes the current water shortage in Broken Hill very seriously.
"We are looking at long-term solutions for a more reliable water source for Broken Hill, something which should have been done years ago," he said.
While the water shortage is a potential crisis, it is reminiscent of the millennium drought, Mr Cuy said.
"That was supposed to be one in 100 but here we are 10 years later with another one, which could potentially be worse," he said.
As part of managing the lakes into the future, he said any plan needs to take into account the apparent increasing frequency and severity of droughts in the region.