Illawarra residents who turned on their taps to save parched lawns and gardens during September’s record-breaking dry conditions have sent the region’s daily water usage rates soaring.
Figures from Sydney Water show consumption rates across the organisation’s Illawarra operational area, between Waterfall and Gerroa, climbed to the highest levels in years last month.
The region’s water use peaked at 131 million litres on September 23 – the highest daily demand for the month of September since 2003, Sydney Water said.
Temperatures on September 23 climbed to an unseasonably-warm 34.4 degrees at Albion Park (beating the previous September high of 34.0 degrees set in 2006) and 31.1 degrees at Bellambi.
September 22 and September 24 were also days of high water use – 122 and 124 million litres, respectively.
Month-to-date water consumption for the first 26 days of September averaged 113 million litres in the Illawarra – 49 per cent higher than the region’s September 2016 demand of 76 million litres.
Sydney’s water use during September was also well above the norm.
However, Sydney Water’s hydraulic operations manager Robert Ius said the Illawarra’s water usage was “even more dramatic than Sydney this September when compared to September 2016”.
“Like the Sydney area, this can be attributable to both drier lead-in months and the difference in rainfall levels between last year and this year,” Mr Ius said.
Just 24.4mm of rain fell at Bellambi during the three months from July to September.
To put that into perspective, more than 10 times that amount (267.4mm) fell in the same period last year.
The Bureau of Meteorology’s Bellambi weather station had its lowest September rainfall in 21 years of records last month, with just 0.4mm landing in the gauge.
The meagre total fell on one of the month’s 30 days. The previous September low was 6.4mm in 2002 and the monthly average is 54.4mm.
The rainfall figure wasn’t the only record broken at Bellambi during September.
The suburb also recorded its highest daily minimum temperature for the month, with the low of 20.6 degrees on September 24 beating the previous high of 19.7 in 2013.
Inland, not a drop of rain was recorded at Albion Park, delivering the driest September since records began at the Wollongong Airport weather station in 1999.
September is typically the driest month of the year at both locations.
The Albion Park and Bellambi weather stations have only operated for about two decades.
The longer-running Wollongong Post Office station, which closed in 1953, recorded two rain-free Septembers – in 1873 and 1882.
No plan to enforce restrictions
Illawarra households will be spared water restrictions – for now – despite the region’s ongoing dry and unseasonably-warm weather.
The decision by Sydney Water not to impose any water-use restrictions comes as the Shoalhaven faces a return to usage limits for the first time in seven years.
Shoalhaven City Council last week warned stage one water restrictions were just six weeks away, due to a lack of rainfall affecting flows in the Shoalhaven River.
However, Sydney Water’s hydraulic operations manager Robert Ius said there were “no plans to introduce water restrictions to our area of operations in the Illawarra in the near future”.
“Currently dam levels across our area of operation are at 87.9 per cent,” Mr Ius said.
Woronora Dam is at 92.4 per cent.
Outlook predicts a shift in weather
There’s little rain on Wollongong’s forecast for the next seven days, but the longer-term outlook does suggest wetter weather could be on the horizon.
The Bureau of Meteorology’s latest weather outlook, for the October to December period, predicts opposing climate influences would compete during the coming months.
A drier signal from the Indian Ocean being counteracted by a wetter influence from the Pacific should see equal chances of wetter or drier than average conditions across Australia, according to the bureau’s senior hydrologist Paul Feikema.
However, Mr Feikema said the one-month outlook for October indicated a wetter-than-average month in eastern and central Australia, including the Illawarra.
The bureau’s outlook has predicted a 66 per cent chance Wollongong would exceed its median October rainfall of 63mm this month.
The longer-term forecast suggests a 60 per cent likelihood the city’s October-to-December median rainfall would be surpassed.
On the temperature front, warmer than usual minimum and maximum temperatures are on the cards between now and December.
The continued warmth has prompted a warning about increased bushfire risk.
“Vegetation that grew in the wet of 2016 is now drying out, raising bushfire potential for many parts of Australia,” Mr Feikema said.
“Significant early season fires have already occurred in Queensland and as far south as Jervis Bay.”
Council teams ready for heat
Preparatory work done by Wollongong council’s outdoor staff has helped the city’s parks and gardens weather the arid conditions that have gripped the Illawarra in recent months.
While many plants – like those living in the dryland area of the Wollongong Botanic Garden – have thrived in the warm and dry weather, others have needed a little extra tender loving care.
The council’s ground crews have spent winter and autumn mulching and watering green spaces across the city – to combat the current dry spell and prepare them for the heat of summer.
A council spokeswoman said plant selections and placements were crucial.
“By selecting plants with less maintenance requirements during the summer months, our teams are able to focus their attention on other priority areas,” she said.
“In areas such as Wollongong Botanic Garden and the foreshore, that attract a large number of visitors, our crews work through winter and autumn to prepare these areas for hot days and to minimise plant stress during the summer months.”
Meanwhile, the council’s draft urban greening strategy is on public exhibition until Friday.
An aim of the strategy is to cool the city and urban areas in summer by using plants that are adaptable to changing climatic conditions, while providing shade and increased amenity.