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Lake Eucumbene Is Down, But The Fish Are Still Jumping


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Lake Eucumbene is down, but the fish are still jumping


After the rain stopped and their dam dropped, the people of Adaminaby adjusted - and found new lures for tourists, writes Gabriella Coslovich.

LAKE Eucumbene, in the ruggedly beautiful high country of south-eastern NSW, is a dramatic symbol of the ingenuity of humankind.

The artificial lake is the central storage dam of one of the world's greatest engineering feats — the Snowy Mountains hydro-electricity scheme.

As the locals will tell you, when the lake is full, it holds about nine times the water of Sydney Harbour. They will also tell you that it is has dropped to one Sydney Harbour.

Drought has left Snowy Hydro with so little water that the company's managing director, Terry Charlton, last week told the annual conference of the NSW Country Women's Association, held in the Snowy Mountains, that it was crunch time.

To survive climate change, the company would need to be privatised so it could diversify its power generation and better serve irrigators' needs, he said.

He was a brave man to raise the spectre of privatisation in such company. The last time the government-owned company tried to go private it failed because of public opposition — and among the most vocal opponents was the CWA.

From the air, the effects of prolonged drought are starkly evident — the exposed banks of Lake Eucumbene are deeply scarred with concentric circles of mud and stippled with the trunks of dead gums that look like bent silver toothpicks.

Statistics tell an equally graphic story: 10 years ago, the lake was 85 per cent full, now it is 13.2 per cent full. Most alarming is the rate at which the water is falling. In January last year, the lake was 54.2 per cent full, by January this year, it was down to 22 per cent — and it has taken just four months to fall to its current level.

Fifty years ago, the old town of Adaminaby disappeared like the mythical city of Atlantis under the waters of Lake Eucumbene, flooded to make way for the Snowy Hydro scheme and relocated nine kilometres north-east.

The dramatically receding waters of the lake have caused parts of the old town to resurface — and old wounds and resentments too. Those who lived in the old town and had to uproot their lives retain a lingering suspicion about the Snowy Hydro company and the cause of the lake's falling water level. "That's not the drought, there's no drought here!" insists Ann Kennedy, who was 12 when old Adaminaby was flooded. Her father fought the development all the way.

"They tried to sell Snowy Hydro, we jumped up and down and stopped them, so they sold the water — that's it, the water's all been sold, goes down into the Riverina to the rice paddies and the cotton," Mrs Kennedy says.

Her friend, Jan Leckstrom, chairman of Lake Eucumbene Chamber of Commerce, who gets about in neat jeans and Blundstones, is more forgiving.

"Snowy Hydro's a business and we don't have the water, and the problem is the drought and we all should go to church — it's on at four o'clock, now there's one step we can all take," she says.

Mrs Kennedy replies: "I went to church and church didn't help me one bit."

After their town was flooded, the people of Adaminaby adapted, moving from agriculture to tourism. Trout fishing and skiing have become the economic mainstays — but the drought and last year's poor snow season have cut into the tourism dollar.

"My business is basically non-existent," says Colin Sinclair, who runs a fishing business, the Adaminaby Angler.

"That's my real job over there at the moment," he says, pointing across the road, "I'm the greens keeper of the bowls club."

In the typically resilient style of the town's people, Mr Sinclair keeps his shop in pristine condition. Beneath his glass-topped counter is a kaleidoscope of lures. Above the counter are mounted trout — prize specimens caught in the lake by Mr Sinclair himself — and the flattened fur skin of a Kosciuszko dingo. As far as Mr Sinclair is concerned, there's no good reason for fishermen to stay away.

"The only thing that's not normal is the lack of fishermen … basically they're thinking that Lake Eucumbene's empty," he says.

"Well, you flew over it, it's far from full, but it's far from empty."

Lake Eucumbene has become a symbol of the finely balanced relationship between humankind and nature.

In technological ingenuity lie the seeds of environmental damage.

As the waters of the dam recede, the original landscape is coming to the fore, and attracting tourism and sport of a different kind.

The drought-ravaged lake has a stark beauty of its own — long-dead pine trees underwater the surface of the water, pine cones still attached, nature eerily reasserting itself.

At Anglers Reach, local youths find the cracked bed of the dam is perfect rally-bike terrain. Others pick up 10-centimetre thick mud blocks and hurl them into the re-emerged Eucumbene river — it too vanished under the waters of the dam.

Snowballs have been superseded by mud balls, snowboarding by rally-bike riding.

Near the site of old Adaminaby, the exposed lake bed is like an archaeological dig, scattered with people fossicking for everything from old bottles and cans to drays.

"People have been bringing trucks in," says Mrs Leckstrom, who is having an interim heritage order put on the lake bed.

"They are regarding it like abandoned flotsam and jetsam down on the seashore and are ignorant of its true significance," she says.

The lake may be at its lowest level on record, but the town's not giving up. It recently spent a $10,000 shire grant getting its other centrepiece — a 10-metre-high sculpture of a trout, the world's largest, they say — restored.

"It's an icon, it's one of Australia's big things, and you've got to keep your big things looking good," Mrs Leckstrom says.

The shiny giant trout is a fitting symbol — like the town, it's a fish out of water. A sign warns tourists: "Do not shake or climb on tail of fish, offenders will be prosecuted."

"The number of people we have chased off that fish, we're thinking of electrifying it," Mrs Leckstrom says. Dare we suggest, a job for Snowy Hydro?

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