Drought stages and measures implemented during the 2017-20 drought

Climate overview

In 2019 conditions were drier and hotter than any other NSW drought in the last 120 years. From January 2017 to December 2019, rainfall was the lowest on record. The 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 calendar years were among the warmest on record.

At the end of 2020 we had seen up to four years of drought across large parts of the state - worse than the 1940s drought or the Millennium drought in many areas. While some good rainfall fell in the first months of 2020 across the northern inland valleys, enough to restart rivers and for Menindee Lakes to receive its first substantial inflows since 2016, most of the rain fell below the major storages and conditions remained mostly dry for the rest of the 2020 year.

NSW Murray Darling Basin Storage Status, 9 March 2020.

In the first few months of 2021 most valleys in the north-west and far west were still experiencing low storage levels and flows. However, by April 2021 overall rural storage capacity had improved to over 50% with widespread rainfall and inflows across the state.

Drought stages

The following table shows how valleys progressed through the drought stages of the Extreme Events Policy, from October 2018 when the policy commenced:

Drought stages 2017-20

All major river valleys in the state have remained in Stage 1 – Normal Operations since April 2021.

To learn more about the department's drought stages watch the video below.

What are the four drought stages

Valley drought snapshots

The 2017-2020 drought was the worst over the historical record from the 1890s until now for most river valleys across NSW, with some more impacted than others. Not all valleys experienced the same severity of drought because inflows to major storages, a measure of water security, varied across the state.

The NSW government responded in a range of ways to manage limited water supplies, support rural communities and minimise ecological impacts. How each regulated valley and the Barwon-Darling compared in terms of historical inflows to the major storages, the measures that were applied, and key next steps are outlined in the individual valley drought snapshots below.