Aboriginal people in Walgett describe the Ngamaay (Namoi) and Baawan (Barwon) rivers as the lifeblood of their community, waterways which generations have cared for and lived on for thousands of years. However, in recent years the rivers have been largely dry with a massive negative impact on community health and wellbeing.

"Well the river is our life: it's like anywhere in the world, if you don't have water you don't have life. The river when I was growing up was a good thing for everybody. Not to say we didn't take things for granted but we respected the waters. It was our life through fishing, drinking, cooking but today there's nothing there. It's really sad. I think to me it's greed by people upstream that don't allow the water to come down" (Community member, quoted in Yuwaya Ngarra-li Community Data Gathering Report, 2019).

The drying up of local rivers is attributed by the Dharriwaa Elders Group to drought and poor management of rivers and water infrastructure by government, which has prioritised the interests of farmers and irrigators over Aboriginal people. The lack of respect and understanding for Aboriginal knowledge of river systems and the perspectives or interests of Aboriginal people is an ongoing legacy of decades of institutional racism and has had disproportionately negative impacts on Aboriginal people in Walgett in a number of ways.

The DEG has long held concerns for the health of surface and ground waters of Walgett. Over its 23 years of operation, DEG has become increasingly aware of the vulnerability of Walgett’s water infrastructure and capacity, the lack of planning for climate change, and the low priority given to Walgett community's water security. Our Caring for Country program works for a vision for Walgett where wellbeing of people and Country is vital, and Walgett children have a better, brighter future. We will link Aboriginal culture and science with western science to renew the health of the river systems and groundwaters. We are developing a collection of policies and requirements for management of waters for the social, economic and cultural development of our community.

As a result of our work we will own and manage water for socio-economic development, the environment and Aboriginal cultural practices and wellbeing.

DEG's Virginia Robinson and Norma Kennedy at the now-open gate leading to the Baawan river and weir.
DEG's Virginia Robinson and Norma Kennedy at the now-open gate leading to the Baawan river and weir.

Virginia Robinson, Secretary of Dharriwaa Elders Group at the ceremony we held 1/11/23 to celebrate the opening of the public road to the Baawan Weir at Walgett. "My name is Virginia Robinson and I am a Gamilaraay woman

born and bred in Walgett. I’d like to welcome you here today – near where the Ngamaay joins the Baawan, for an historic occasion. I pay my respects to Traditional Custodians of this Country past and present and to all Aboriginal people attending here today. We are on Aboriginal land that has never been ceded.

Today is an historic occasion because ever since 2003 (That is 20 years ago) Dharriwaa Elders Group has been working with its legal advisors to ensure that the Walgett community and its visitors, have the right to access this road down to the Baawan.

When we first started asking for the locked gates to be opened, we found out that it was a Crown Public Road and had been since the early days of Walgett white settlement. Locked gates on Crown Roads were unlawful, but the NSW Govt would not ensure they were kept open. It is our opinion that its public servants were instead acting in the interests of landholders who did not want our community to access the river. We learnt this from the exchange of legal letters back and forth, and regularly photographing the locked gates.

8 years passed. In October 2011 DEG presented to Council and wrote to the General Manager requesting that Council take over management of the Crown Road in order to keep it a Public Road. We knew that they had been funded to raise the weir so would probably need to use the road for the work. Meanwhile we were doing lobbying and community education to explain why a fishway is absolutely essential at a weir – against a lot of resistance from many in this town.

From 2013 - 2017 the NSW Government tried to close the Public Road and DEG kept objecting formally in writing. In January 2018 DEG was advised by NSW Dept Industry – Lands and Forestry that while nearby Crown Roads to the river were closed (despite DEG’s written objections) this particular road was given to Council to remain a Public Road. The road still remained locked.

In July 2021 DEG wrote to the General Manager of Walgett Shire Council to ask if it was still a Public Road and requesting a community event like this one to celebrate the re-opening of the road and public access to the river. We received a nasty reply threatening trespassing charges. We didn’t give up – and went to Water NSW and NSW Fisheries to find out when the weir and fishladder would be working, and to explain DEG’s desire to have the road opened so all could enjoy the weir and that it become a public place just like similar weirs are in other western river towns. After their intervention, Walgett Council opened the road over Christmas 2022 and ever since then we have been planning this celebration.

We have invited Water NSW, NSW Public Works, NSW Fisheries and our collaborator - independent scientist Martin Mallen Cooper, to join us today to explain how it all works, because we want our community to have the best available information. What we are going to do now is have a small ceremony of opening the gate. The school dance group will perform a dance and then we ask that you all process slowly through the gate down to the weir and we will meet you there for the rest of the ceremony."