Nambucca River oyster farmers are losing three more weeks of business after another likely sewage leak.
The Nambucca Valley Council was forced to self report a probable sewage surcharge to the EPA and NSW Food Authority on Saturday morning after heavy rain caused water levels to peak at some pumping stations.
NSW Food Authority then issued the mandatory 21 day closure for oyster harvests.
Three pumping stations in Macksville and one in Nambucca Heads reached 100 per cent capacity on Friday which triggered council's response. The pumping station in Nambucca flows into a tributary of Swimming Creek.
Long-time oyster farmer James Ford said it's just another "slap in the face" for his industry.
"We end up shut whenever there's a rain event over 30mm, but depending on salinity and how quickly we can carry out necessary testing, we can be open again in two to three days," he said.
"But when there's a sewage spill it's a mandatory 21-day closure.
"The biggest problem is the frequency with which this is happening - there was another huge blowout over Christmas too.
"And in the past we've had to close over Easter. Oyster farming can be quite seasonal, so when you lose both Christmas and Easter, that's 60 per cent of your year gone.
"And it looks bad for your product when the Nambucca River is continually closed.
It makes it very hard to run a business, and no one seems to be accountable.James Ford
Manager Water and Wastewater at Nambucca Valley Council Richard Spain said he understands how frustrating the situation is.
"We realise it's not great for the oyster growers," he said.
"But it's not uncommon - other areas have the same issue of stormwater getting into sewer systems."
Areas in Port Stephens, Camden Haven and along the Macleay River are also currently closed "due to rainfall exceeding the trigger level in the harvest area management plan".
Mr Spain said council had been implementing some changes to its sewage systems over the past few years, including a technology upgrade to a new SCADA monitoring system to detect problems faster.
Overflow storage of around 100kL had been installed at a number of larger pump stations close to water courses including along Riverside Drive, the Valla Beach Tourist Park at Deep Creek, near the Macksville Bridge, and at Swimming Creek.
Sites around the river to the south of Nambucca Heads have been switched from septic systems to a pressure sewage system where each site has its own pump station.
And council staff have been raising man holes where possible to keep them above minor flood levels.
But heavy rainfall can still overload the system.
"Under an intense weather event, we're still going to be put under pressure," he said.
Mr Spain has theorised that storm water might be entering the sewage system through blocked overflow relief gullies in private properties.
He said there is a method of detecting the source of the issue using a smoke test; any sign of smoke escaping the closed pipe system can indicate possible water leakage. But he warned that fixing the issue once it's discovered could be a slow process, with residents being responsible for the work.
But Mr Ford is sceptical.
"They've been going to do smoke tests for years, and we're yet to hear of any results," he said.
Gumma-based oyster growers Delphine and Nicolas Tessier are also becoming frustrated by the pace of change.
We want to work with the council not against them, but if they're not moving at all ... then we can't work with that.Delphine Tessier
The pair has recently invested a fortune upgrading and computerising their systems, so each mandatory harvest closure hurts.
"We're losing a lot of money each time," she said.
She's also concerned there are no public warnings each time there is a sewage surcharge into the river.
"There are no signs up alerting the public and there were people swimming in the river yesterday," she said.
"If we are not allowed to work then I don't think it's safe for people to be in the water."
All three farmers intend to sit down with council and relevant state bodies on March 10 to address the recurrent issue. And local State Member Mel Pavey has been notified.
"This is becoming an increasing pressure on the oyster industry right up and down the east coast. Perhaps it's time to find funding for new sewer infrastructure at a state level," Mr Ford said.
A silver lining
For Nicolas and Delphine the frustration they feel has been tempered a little by some fantastic news.
Their Nambucca Oyster Company was awarded both a silver and bronze medal at this year's Sydney Royal Fine Food Show.
"We've been trying to improve the shape and the quality of our oysters," Ms Tessier said.
"We put in two types of oysters this year and we got two medals, so we're very happy.
"But we'll try next year to get the gold.
"It's good for the river as well because it's a small area with few farmers, so it's good to be seen."