“Sh-t. Mate, I wouldn’t drink the water if I were you. It’ll give you the bloody scours,” a middle-aged man yells from his bar stool. It’s 10am at Buckley’s Crossing Hotel and the locals are drinking anything but tap water. “If you’ve come to see the Snowy River, you’ll be disappointed,” the local barman grunts, pointing towards the town’s water supply.

In Dalgety — an alpine hamlet in south-east NSW — the Snowy River exists as a shallow channel with flat beds of sediment and grass running between it. Starting out from Jindabyne, the waterway passes only Dalgety before it heads south-east; piercing the Victorian border where its contents are emptied into Bass Strait.

Among the attributes that might be expected of one of Australia’s major tributaries, it lacks only water. At the completion of the Snowy Mountains-Hydro Electric Scheme in 1967 the Snowy River was left with only 1% of its natural water flow. Masses of immobile sediment began to choke the river channel, leaving little room for the wildlife to survive.

“There are times when the river hardly moves. It gets warm and stinks,” Dalgety café owner Julie Pearson says. “Not so long ago, people couldn’t even do their washing and if you did, you’d be walking around in dirty brown clothes. It isn’t much better now.”

But things may soon change. In a desperate bid to increase Labor votes in the Eden-Monaro electorate, Minister for Water Penny Wong yesterday announced that a re-elected Labor government would return 56 gigalitres of water to the Snowy over two years.

The $13.7 million election promise is a planned compensation payment to Snowy Hydro, the company responsible for storing and diverting water from the Snowy.

Local environmentalists have welcomed the measures, but say the announced flows will do little to improve the health of the river.

“Of course we welcome the announcement, we have been fighting for it for years, but we have to realise that it will only increase the annual natural flows by an extra 2% this year,” Louise Crisp, vice-chair of the Snowy River Alliance said.

In 2002, the Commonwealth, Victorian and NSW governments made a commitment to return 15% of the river’s annual natural flow by June 2009 and 20% by 2010.

But as Crikey has previously revealed, despite a Snowy Scientific Committee report detailing that the river is closer to systemic failure than ever, the ailing Snowy River currently subsists on a mere 4%.

Crisp says that if the recent outcome from the Labor government had arisen from the First Five Year Review of the Snowy Water Licence, no compensation would have been allocated to Snowy Hydro.

“This compensation payment should have arisen from the review and the taxpayers would be $13.7 million better off,” she said.

Back at the river’s edge in Dalgety, the town is waiting for change. Along the main stretch of town, business looks as tired as the river. The caravan park is for sale and the garage next door is closed, leaving the pub and café to service the 70 locals.

“Take a look at the cars that have gone past in the last hour, that’s an indication of just how bad things are,” Pearson says scanning the empty street. “I moved here so that my kids could go to school in a small town. But more and more locals are leaving. We need to leave some sort of legacy here for our kids,” she says.

“The people that are old enough to remember the wild river will die soon and we will have lost our history,” Pearson says. “No one will remember what it was like.”

*This article first appeared on Electioneering, a project from Express Media giving eight young writers the chance to blog on the election campaign