QUEENSLAND: by Ron Munn and John MorrisseyNews Weekly
Afraid of uttering the dreaded 'D' word
, August 5, 2006
Politicians are terrified of building dams and losing the urban Greens vote. But Queensland Premier Peter Beattie is at least examining some options to tackle his constituency's growing water needs, report Ron Munn and John Morrissey.Is Queensland's Premier Peter Beattie biting the bullet on dams or just playing politics? The Beattie Labor Government's apparently decisive step in committing to new reservoirs in response to the water needs of the Brisbane area requires some close inspection.
Why his Government took this step, in a dry election year, is clear. But some of the details of the plan itself are rather murky.
The question remains as to whether the current plan to build the Traveston and Wyaralong dams (which are at the northern and southern extremities of Brisbane's vast hinterland) is the most appropriate solution to the future water needs of the area, or just a political compromise, as much for show as for effect.
From this, no doubt, will come lessons for other states - that is, Labor governments have to finally abandon trendy environmentalism and face up to their states' pressing need for water.Three dam scenarios
There are three scenarios for siting the new Queensland dams:
(1) The sites chosen by the Beattie Government.
(2) The long-favoured but now low-yield sites in the Coalition's established Three Dams policy.
(3) Those sites advocated by farmers and irrigators, who are pragmatic, know the region and are not constrained by political considerations.
When Premier Beattie toured areas being considered for dam sites, great concern was expressed to him by locals whose land, homes and businesses would be lost. Properties and buildings would have to be compulsorily acquired by the state to make way for the proposed Rathdowney dam in the south-west and the Traveston dam to the north of Brisbane.
The Coalition quite reasonably pointed to sites already acquired by previous Queensland governments, and recommended dams at Glendower and Amamoor Creek, as well as raising the Borumba dam wall and building the Wyaralong dam, which is also part of the Beattie plan. As it happened, the Rathdowney dam was dropped from the Government's final plan, leaving Traveston in the north and Wyaralong in the south.
Reactions were mixed. There was relief in the area threatened by the Rathdowney proposal (originally under consideration by Premier Beattie) and anxiety among those to be affected by the Traveston Crossing project, which will be undertaken north of Noosa on the Mary River. The Coalition, which could have made so much mileage from the motives behind the Government's dropping the Rathdowney project, confined itself to observing that part of its own Three Dams policy had been adopted.
It is possible that Premier Beattie never intended to go ahead with the Rathdowney project in the first place. It would have been situated on a low-yielding stream, in an area which has in the past voted One Nation. Beattie's decision not to proceed with Rathdowney is likely to be a vote-winner for Labor at the next election.
There are few Labor votes at stake in the case of the Wyaralong dam. Locals attest, however, that there is little chance of harvesting much water, and the Government will have to rely on pumping in peak flows from the Logan River, which runs to the east.
Of course, nothing in these plans answers Brisbane's immediate needs. At a cost of $1.7 billion, the Traveston dam is scheduled for completion by the end of 2011 and is expected to deliver 70,000 megalitres of water per annum. Not until 2035 is the final stage to be completed, supplying an extra 40,000 megalitres. This is expected to meet the needs of a growing population up to the year 2050.
However, the Government is hedging its bets on the final stage, intending to reassess the need in the light of population growth, water usage and climatic factors.
Still, the Beattie Government faces many hurdles before the plan comes to fruition - and perhaps even before a sod is turned.
Critics have slammed the project for the high average supply cost of $4,790 per megalitre, as estimated by the engineering firm GDH.
More daunting, from an electoral point of view, are the environmental obstacles: the endangered Mary River Cod, the vulnerable Mary River Tortoise, the rare and significant lungfish, the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly, three species of frogs and Coxen's Fig Parrot. Add to this line-up, tourism, recreational fishing and the larger context of the Great Sandy World Heritage Area, and the Government's problem of placating and compensating 500–900 displaced landowners seems like small beer.
Without the constraints of political considerations and environmental objections, a far more feasible, productive and cost-effective solution to Brisbane's water needs lies to the south.
The Coomera gorges behind the Gold Coast carry significant flows, feeding off the National Parks along the New South Wales border. Unlike the existing and projected shallow reservoirs to the north, such a deep body of water would not suffer the drawback of evaporation and, in conjunction with an extended Hinze Dam nearer the Gold Coast, would supply Brisbane's water needs for a long time.
A positive feature of the Beattie Government's plan is the venture into the idea of constructing off-stream storage areas. This involves water pumped from rivers at peak flows and stored in suitable dry creeks dammed for the purpose. The low-yield Wyaralong dam on Teviot Brook would thus become a valuable resource in bad times.
The concept was originally the brainchild of irrigators on the Logan River. A former mayor of Beaudesert, who has witnessed their struggle to gain recognition for their scheme, stresses that it is their genius that should be recognised - not that of the shire or the Queensland National party - and pays tribute to Peter Beattie for being so astute as to see the value of their idea.Water from the north
Even more ambitious than proposals to build new dams and water storage facilities is Premier Beattie's latest announcement that the Queensland Government will conduct an inquiry into the feasibility of bringing surplus water from north Queensland to the south-east of the state.
Coincidentally, just before the Government's announcement, the Queensland state conference of the National Civic Council, on July 23, resolved that the Beattie Government should examine the feasibility of using surplus water in north Queensland to expand irrigation agriculture in central Queensland and to augment supplies for Brisbane.
Official estimates contained in a Senate inquiry into water several years ago revealed that the run-off into rivers in Australia's north-east coastal region amounted to 73,411 gigalitres (GL) and, of this, 69,580 GL flowed out into the sea. (Source: National Land and Water Resources Audit, Australian Water Resources Assessment 2000
, page 25). This information was published in the Senate Report into Rural Water Usage, tabled on August 12, 2004. In comparison, the flow down the Murray-Darling Basin is 22,700 GL.
State president of the Queensland NCC, Ron Munn, told the NCC state conference: "Queensland's northern rivers have an annual flow over nine times that of the Murray and Darling Rivers.
"Irrigation agriculture in the Murray-Darling basin provides much of Australia's agricultural production. Diverting some water from north Queensland rivers could hugely expand Australia's high-value irrigation agriculture utilising the black soil plains of western Queensland."
In relation to the proposed plan to bring surplus water from the north to the thirsty south-east of the state, Mr Munn added:
"One possibility is to gravity-feed water down western Queensland, and then pump the water across the ranges to Brisbane.
"Alternatively, given plans to pipe gas from New Guinea to southern Queensland, the Government should investigate using the same corridor for piping water south."
The Queensland NCC is planning a conference on the state's water resources later in the year.
Queensland's struggle with the complexity of providing water for a growing population during a long dry spell holds a lesson for the whole of Australia.
If our political leaders could see the larger picture, they might be willing to pursue more ambitious schemes, such as harnessing the coastal rivers - not only of northern Queensland, but also of northern NSW and the Top End - which presently pour billions of litres of fresh water into the sea.
Every Australian city could be drought-proofed with only 9 per cent of what the Ord River dumps into the sea during a monsoon season.
We pipe oil and gas hundreds of kilometres, so why not water? It would be less expensive than desalination plants, and those who oppose dams - such as the one planned for Traveston - should support the idea. All Australia needs is the political will which it possessed more than half a century ago when the nation's last great national enterprise, the Snowy Hydro Scheme, was undertaken.Terrified
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Australia, our politicians - terrified of losing the urban Greens vote - tiptoe around the dreaded "D" word and joke about not daring to use it. In fact, they should be ashamed of their spineless refusal to stand up for the greater public good.
Still, there is a Victorian election due in November. Does Labor Premier Steve Bracks have a dam up his sleeve - perhaps on the Mitchell River - ready to produce if the polls suggest that it is necessary?
- Article by Ron Munn and John Morrissey. (Ron Munn is Queensland state president of the National Civic Council).