IT may feel like a long time since summer wreathed most of NSW in smoke and ash given the intensity of focus on the pandemic before us. Similarly, from Newcastle's coastal perch the parched conditions that saw dam levels in the region hit a four-decade nadir also seem like a long-ago memory.
The truth, of course, is that they are not challenges that are behind us. The cycle of the seasons and Australia's arid nature means that water will always be at a premium.
Through both fire and drought, much of the Hunter has been insulated from the worst. The worst of the fires scorched earth elsewhere, and we have avoided the horrific conditions as close as the Upper Hunter, where major infrastructure has been put in place and farmers have struggled to keep their livelihoods afloat.
Perhaps because we are aware of this, and because greater constraints due to the pandemic have been in force since March, there has been little public outcry about the imposition of level one restrictions. That said, the savings made under those conditions have been significant since February's downgrade from level two.
Hunter Water said the 15 per cent drop in usage was equivalent to 52,000 households. The utility has also been more vigilant around leaks, ensuring even less wastage.
Projects including the Belmont desalination plant continue to move towards realisation. While drought has eased its grip, now is the time to prepare defences to keep it at bay when it next threatens.
Naturally that involves infrastructure, but when dams are not replenished it is usage that draws their level lower. If rains do not fall, empty dams will not help us. A greater respect for water will.
Vigilance about our usage must continue, or we will end up back where we started when rain is again at a premium. There is ample precedent of drought in our part of the world, and so we must be ready to do what it takes in council chambers, Macquarie Street and our own homes.
Storage stood at 79.2 per cent across Hunter Water's catchment on Friday, up 14.9 per cent compared to the same time last year. That gives us a head start when drought inevitably comes again, but it is worth noting that in some parts of the state it is yet to leave. We have been spared the worst so far, but it is clear that prayers for rain are no longer enough. We need eternal vigilance.