The Hunter's largest drinking water supply facility, Grahamstown Dam, has received an "amber alert" due to potentially toxic blue-green algae.
The alert was given in the most recent update by Water NSW's Hunter Regional Algal Coordinating Committee, after samples were taken on November 24.
A spokesperson for Hunter Water, which is in charge of the dam, said an amber alert indicated that elevated levels of blue-green algae had been detected.
"Hunter Water's tap water remains safe to drink," said the spokesperson in a statement. "We have robust multi-barrier treatment processes in place to ensure its ongoing reliability and quality.
"The presence of algae is not uncommon in drinking water sources and is generally caused by environmental factors, including warm temperatures and calm, stable water conditions."
About half the water in Grahamstown Dam comes from the Williams River and is pumped from a section known as the Seaham Weir Pool. Those along the Williams River have seen the amber alert as a warning sign of a deteriorating waterway.
Digby Rayward, a Dungog Shire councillor and member of the Williams River Care Association, has a property along that section, near Clarence Town. He told the November 18 council meeting that a high load of nutrients in the water was "a clinical sign of a sick river".
"Due to the high nutrient load, there's a slow train crash about to happen in Grahamstown Dam, which will affect the potable water supply for the people of the Lower Hunter," Cr Rayward said.
The river flows through Dungog Shire. At the November 18 meeting, the council resolved to contact Premier Gladys Berejiklian and other relevant state ministers about the deteriorating water quality in the Seaham Weir Pool.
This is not the first time the council has corresponded with the state government about the river's health. The NSW Minister for Water, Melinda Pavey, was contacted almost a year ago, but, as the shire council meeting noted, "as yet, no response has been forthcoming from Minister Pavey".
"I think it's pretty poor," said John Connors, the Mayor of Dungog Shire, about the minister's lack of response.
The Mayor said the water quality issue was not only having an impact downstream but on the economic lifeblood of Clarence Town.
The shire has a caravan park by the river at Clarence Town, and a main attraction is the access to the water - unless it is affected by algal blooms. During last summer, this stretch near the caravan park received a red alert - the highest level in the three-tier system - because of blue-green algae.
"It's incredibly frustrating, when you've got no control over the water," said Cr Connors.
The Mayor said part of the problem was that no single agency was taking the lead on the issue.
"Nobody seems to want to accept responsibility for the problem," said Cr Connors. "It's suggested there's been a lot of buck passing. No one seems to want to put their hand up and say it's their responsibility and look at it."
The council is also trying to find out about the progress of the Williams River Erosion Management Plan, which is coordinated by another state government department, Transport for NSW. The plan is looking at what impact power boats on the weir pool are having on water quality and bank erosion, as well as devising a long-term management strategy. Yet the council said it hadn't received an update on the plan since January 2019.
Digby Rayward is critical of not just the politicians but also Hunter Water about the river's health.
"I just don't think they're taking the deterioration of the environment seriously enough," he told the Newcastle Herald.
The Hunter Water spokesperson said the organisation was working with "a range of stakeholders" in regard to water quality issues within the Williams River catchment.
"We have a strong interest in ensuring the Williams River catchment, being the first barrier in the protection of the Grahamstown water supply system, is as healthy as possible to ensure a resilient water supply system for our customers," the spokesperson said.
The Hunter Water spokesperson said the algae was producing a compound called geosmin, "which can cause water to have an earthy taste or odour".
"There are no adverse health effects associated with geosmin and our treatment processes are effective at removing it," the spokesperson said.
But with the warmer weather, Digby Rayward is concerned there will be more outbreaks of potentially toxic algae that could affect Grahamstown Dam.
"We haven't really got into the main summer period yet," said Cr Rayward.
The Newcastle Herald contacted the NSW Minister for Water's office for comment but is yet to receive a response.
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