DROUGHT conditions in the Upper Hunter have led to the emergence of illegal water carters who have caused damage to water mains and water hydrants.
Thousands of rural families and businesses are being forced to buy water for drinking, bathing, washing and stock as drought conditions worsen in the Valley.
Water carting trucks are working overtime to meet demand with tanks and dams running dry from Cessnock to Murrurundi.
Upper Hunter Shire Council general manager Daryl Dutton said last week the situation had led to a group of illegal operators starting up.
"We have had difficulties with contract water carters who are not licensed," Mr Dutton said.
"Coming with that licence is a process of getting access to our water mains. When you don't access it properly you can fracture or cause a fault in the water hydrant or break the main so we are controlling access to our water mains."
In Scone the council has established 24-hour access to a permanent facility for licensed water carters who use a credit card-like key to gain access, through which they are later billed.
Muswellbrook-based licensed water carter Robert Milwain said he had not been this busy since the last drought three years ago.
His business, K. Milwain & Sons, operates three water trucks from south of Muswellbrook to Murrurundi.
He described the situation as "getting out of control" and said he was having trouble meeting the demand.
In one day last week Mr Milwain delivered 150,000 litres of water to residential customers.
Water carters are charging from $100 to $160 for residential loads. Loads vary from 9000 litres up to 28,000 litres for some commercial jobs, with the average load about 12,000 litres.
There are about 4000 people in Singleton Council area not on town water, and about 3000 in Muswellbrook Council area, and 5000 in the Upper Hunter Shire.