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Outof Water Aussie City*


Aussie city almost out of water

GOULBURN, Australia (AP) -- The rolling hills around this historic city were once renowned as some of Australia's best grazing land. After four years of drought they are as bleached and lifeless as old bones.

Goulburn is perilously close to becoming Australia's first major settlement to see its reservoirs run completely out of water as a Big Dry grips much of the nation.

The crisis in Goulburn is a stark warning to Australia's largest city, Sydney, which is just 200 kilometers (125 miles) away and whose reservoirs should be filled by water running off the hills around Goulburn.

"It's a major wake up call for Sydney," Goulburn Mayor Paul Stephenson told The Associated Press. "If we're dry up here, then there's nothing going into their catchment because we are their catchment."

Drought-stricken farmers have become a big focus for the federal government. Prime Minister John Howard flew to the Outback of New South Wales state Friday to meet hard-hit farmers, who already get millions in handouts to survive but want more.

"When disaster strikes abroad, this government shows compassion and assistance to those who need it," New South Wales Farmers Association President Mal Peters said this week.

"The only difference here is that this drought has slowly sucked the life out of rural NSW over four years. Mr. Howard must decide if this government wants farming communities to prosper or die, it is as simple as that."

Meanwhile, Sydney's more than four million people face their own shortages. City reservoirs are at 40 percent capacity and leaders are considering extreme measures, including a desalination plant to turn seawater into drinking water.

Desalination isn't an option for landlocked Goulburn, one of Australia's oldest settlements. Experts say the water supply in the city of 22,000 will run dry by year's end without significant rain.

Homes are now restricted to just 150 liters (40 gallons) per resident per day -- about enough for a 10-minute shower.

The city's sports grounds have been closed because the grassless, hard-packed surfaces are no longer considered safe. Its major reservoir, Pejar Dam, is down to 10 percent of its 9 billion liter (2.4 billion gallon) capacity. It was brimming in late 2000, but now much of its exposed bed is a patchwork of cracked, baked mud.

Jodie Marnell said the little town water that remains is no longer fit to drink. She spends Aust. $30 ($23) a week on bottled water for her four children, aged 18-months to 10 years.

"It was making the kids sick; it's the bottom of the dam," Marnell said.

Adding to the city's concerns are signs of a developing El Nino weather pattern, caused by fluctuations in ocean temperatures and believed to spur drought conditions in Australia.

"This is our fourth year of drought now," Goulburn's water engineer Matt O'Rourke said, adding that if another El Nino forms, "then we may be faced with the prospect of another couple of years of drought."

Charlie Prell, whose ranch is just outside Goulburn, fears the drought could last another decade.

A fourth generation rancher, he already has sold all his cattle and two-thirds of his 6,500 sheep because he can no longer afford to feed them.

"The big issue for this whole area and probably the whole country is at the end of the drought, are we going to be profitable enough to make enough money to pay back the money that's we've borrowed through the drought?" Prell said. He is considering branching into wind farming.

Goulburn's economy is being buffeted, with key employers such as an abattoir and wool plant recently ordered to reduce water consumption by 30 percent.

While small Australian communities of a few hundred that have run dry have survived by trucking in water, Goulburn's thirst for four million liters (one million gallons) a week is too large.

The mayor believes the longer-term solution is reusing waste water and a pipeline to a more reliable water source.

He wants the federal government to contribute Aust. $30 million ($23 million) for a water treatment plant that could clean sewage sufficiently for it to be used for outdoor watering and some industrial uses.

"I'd be quite happy to put it into our drinking water but I don't think the powers that be in state and local government are quite prepared for Australia to do that yet, even though we are the driest continent in the world," Stephenson said.


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