A perfect storm of climate change, population growth and the demand to set aside vast quantities of water for industry has brought the Hunter to the brink of a water security crisis.
While most of the Lower Hunter looks green, the region's combined storage levels have fallen to their lowest point in 13 years. If current trends continue, the region faces the prospect of having water restrictions for the first time since 1994 in coming months.
Meanwhile, residents of the Upper Hunter town of Murrurundi have been living under Level 6 water restrictions for more than a year and have been reliant on a lifeline of water tankers and an emergency bore since January.
As the worst drought in decades tightens its grip across the Hunter, water policy makers are scrambling to respond to the social, commercial and environmental pressures of supplying a reliable and sustainable water supply.
In addition to rapid population growth across the Lower Hunter, the Upper Hunter has quadrupled its output of coal and experienced the deregulation of the power and dairy industries over the past 20 years.
The Newcastle Herald is today launching an in-depth series that explores issues affecting the Hunter's water security.
"The focus of the 2014 plan was recognising that things are changing with climate change and our historical rainfall records are no longer a good predictor of what the future might hold," Professor of Sustainability at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Cynthia Mitchell said.
"The plan was saying: what happens in the worst of all imaginable situations? From that perspective I think it is a very forward-thinking piece."
While the government pursues a policy of increased recycling and conservation, others believe the time has come to revisit the viability of building a new dam in the region.
"Let's have an open discussion," spokesman for the We Need Tillegra Dam group Michael Dowling said. "Can Tillegra Dam be part of the overall water security solution for the Hunter Valley?"
The Lower Hunter's water security has not been seriously threatened since the early 1980s when storages plummeted from near full to just over 30 per cent in little over a year.
The crisis resulted in Hunter Water becoming Australia's first water utility to introduce user-pays water pricing. The system involves a small fixed charge based on the size of the water pipe ($25 per year for standard 20mm residential connections), and a usage charge based on how much water is consumed (about $1 per kilolitre).
But water experts warn significant change is needed in the community's attitude to water to unsure water supplies remain stable in the face of climate change and population growth.
"I find it disturbing that in the Hunter we use a lot more water per person than they do in Melbourne and then Sydney uses more water than we do and the Central Coast uses less water than we do," former Hunter Water managing director and newly appointed chief water officer for NSW Jim Bentley said.
"People sometimes say to me 'well the reason we're using more than Melbourne is it's a completely different climate in Melbourne' or whatever, but the variation between us Sydney and the Central Coast sort of says to me that between us in NSW we're perhaps not taking water seriously enough, especially in the more urban areas.
"I'm sure in the regional areas where they're really struggling for water supply at the moment they're taking water scarcity and conservation a lot more seriously than we are in the city."
The combined storage level for the Lower Hunter's major water supplies - Grahamstown Dam, Chichester Dam and the Tomago Sandbeds was at 67.1 per cent this week. That compares to 83.3 per cent a year ago.
Lower Hunter dam storages have fallen below 70 per cent 11 times in the past 40 years, with the most recent slide occurring in January this year.
Water levels have hit 60 per cent, the trigger for water restrictions, on three occasions in the past four decades.
On the upside, storage levels rebound quickly. Water levels fell from 95 per cent in June 2005 to 67 per cent within 12 months. The Pasha Bulker storm of June 2006 then took storages from 73 per cent to 100 per cent.
A similar scenario unfolded in April 2015 when storage levels leapt from 78 per cent to full in a matter of weeks due to a superstorm.
In response to storages reaching their lowest point in 13 years, Hunter Water began drawing water from the Tomago Sandbeds in May.
"During dry periods, there comes a crucial time when we need to start drawing water from the sandbeds, because if we leave it too long, the water simply won't be there later in a drought," Hunter Water chief investment officer Darren Cleary said.
Meanwhile in the Upper Hunter, the combined storages for Glenbawn, Glennies Creek and Lostock dams sits at 62.3 per cent.
Singleton, Muswellbrook and Scone started water restrictions last month.
Singleton mayor Sue Moore said community attitudes towards water varied across the local government area that featured urban and rural environments.
"For some people in town it's very distant.
"They see that it has rained last week and the paddocks look green, however, there's no water in the dams and there's no feed in the sheds for winter."
Cr Moore said it was frustrating that Singleton had been deemed not eligible for emergency relief funding because its economy was not solely based around agriculture.
"That doesn't mean we still don't have a significant number of people working in the agricultural industry," she said. "The flow-effect to our local businesses is probably not as obvious [as other areas] but it's still there.
"There are people who are not inclined to go to the hairdresser because there's not that money to spend on those luxury things."
The Greater Hunter Region Water Strategy aims to improve the management of water across the Hunter, Central Coast and Mid North Coast.
At the heart of the strategy is a $4.3 million plan to investigate the viability of a two-way pipeline between Lostock Dam and Glennies Creek Dam and a potable water pipeline from Hunter Water's network to Singleton.
"The strategy provides a framework for us to work with our key stakeholders and agencies to get the best out of the water and infrastructure that is available to service all of the population of the region and in the Central Coast," Mr Cleary said
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