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Fish deaths cause 'carnage' in NSW river

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Three fish kills in recent weeks has killed off much of the fish stocks on the Darling River and the Menindee Lakes due to low water flows as a result of the continuing drought affecting more than 98% of New South Wales. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

In the 60-plus years Bill Campbell has been in Menindee, he's never seen the Darling River in such poor condition.

Mr Campbell moved to far west NSW as a young boy in the early 1950s and has witnessed his share of droughts and fish deaths.

He remembers the river being so clear you could see the fish swimming at its deepest points.

Now, he can't see past the top of the water.

Algal blooms, rapid temperature changes and low water flows have all contributed to a series of mass fish deaths at Menindee and elsewhere in the Murray-Darling basin.

"I've never seen the river system the way it is now," Mr Campbell told AAP in Menindee.

"When the government allowed the river to be used as an irrigation channel, it was the worst thing they could have done."

The 77-year-old says using the river for upstream irrigators means towns like Menindee don't get enough flows.

He wants meters on pumps and a federal royal commission into the management of water and the river system.

"Otherwise the top end will survive and the bottom won't," he says.

Local Graeme McCrabb says it will take up to 30 years for the river to recover after this summer's mass fish deaths.

He remembers being able to go fishing and never seeing Murray cod because they hid in the depths of the river.

Now he sees dead ones floating at the top.

"Everything has been hammered ... it's absolute carnage," he told AAP.

The NSW government insists the drought is partly to blame for the fish deaths, but Mr McCrabb isn't convinced.

"All the drought has done is highlight the failings of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan," he said.

The final report from a South Australian royal commission into the river system, released in late January, found water allocations in the basin were determined by politics and called for a complete overhaul of the plan.

NSW Regional Water Minister Niall Blair said a meter policy was introduced for irrigators in the northern part of the river last year, in response to allegations of water theft aired on the ABC.

Daily extraction limits are also in place for irrigators after flood events.

"There's still a lot of work to be done in the basin plan, we've just been in the implementation stage so far," Mr Blair told AAP.

© AAP 2019