COMMENT - by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Snowy River myths need correction
, December 18, 1999
Alarmed at the degree of misinformation circulating about the Snowy River scheme, Professor Lance Endersbee, one of the original team of engineers on the project, believes a better understanding of both engineering and history are required.
This is part of a letter sent to Prime Minister Howard, Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson and Victorian Premier Steve Bracks.
I am concerned about the serious mis-information in the press and in recent politics in Victoria and NSW on the various issues concerning the use of Snowy River waters, and the future of the Snowy Mountains Scheme and the Murray-Darling Basin. On present indications there is the prospect of major harm to the nation which could take years to correct. Many farmers are quite alarmed.
Decisions on the allocations of water and privatisation of the Snowy Authority should be deferred until there is a proper professional study of the potential value of these resources and prospects for continuing development.1. ELECTRICITY FROM THE SNOWY MOUNTAINS SCHEME
The Snowy Scheme has now been operating successfully for 30 to 40 years. That is the normal life of a coal-fired power station. But the Snowy Scheme will operate almost free of costs for another 100 years and more. There is virtually nothing to wear out, and the rain and snow will continue to fall. It is inevitable that the value of the Scheme as a power producer will continue to increase in time.
The Scheme has a special value as a supplier of peak energy in an integrated electricity system.
The interconnected system will continue to grow. The needs for peak electricity will increase. It is ridiculous to compare the costs of Snowy hydro peak power with coal-fired thermal base; the market recognises the premium value.
The need for peak is evident in the proposals for a Bass Strait cable to interconnect Tasmanian Hydro with Gippsland thermal power. I suspect that a Bass Strait cable may not be insurable.
A more economic source of additional peak power would be hydro in the Snowy Mountains Area and nearby. I have been reviewing that hydro potential and think that it may be quite possible to develop another 30 percent more energy while adding about 60 percent in peak capacity. The augmentation is relatively easy because of the large energy storage capacity already available in Eucumbene Dam.
Prospective sites include additions to present facilities, mini-hydropower projects, and dams with power plants on the upper Murray and the lower Snowy rivers.
I am certain that these additional hydro resources in the Snowy region will have their economic place in time.
Potential buyers for all or part of the Snowy Scheme will undoubtedly be very interested in any such prospects for enlarging the Scheme. It is to be expected that the keenest bids may come from existing coal-fired thermal operators, particularly Queensland where the combination of Queensland thermal and Snowy hydro could improve access to the NSW power market.
There is also a proposal for large wind-energy farms in Gippsland. Such wind power is only economic when it is connected into an integrated system with a high level of hydro-power or pumped storage or both. It is just not rational to expect a coal-fired thermal power station to shut down just because the wind is blowing. They would reduce their electricity price to zero rather than allow their powerplant to cool down.
The value of the Snowy will continue to increase in time, and it is inevitable that there will be economic pressures to enlarge the capacity and output of Snowy electricity.
It is my view that these considerations indicate that the Snowy Scheme should not be privatised in part, but retained as a wholly owned government utility.2. WATER FOR THE MURRAY AND MURRUMBIDGEE IRRIGATION AREAS
The inland diversion of the upper Snowy River supports additional agriculture in the Murray and Murrumbidgee irrigation areas.
The additional water is quite valuable, but I think it is underpriced in relation to its potential value. The bid price of water rights is increasing each year. It is reasonably possible for the value of water in the Murray-Darling Basin to increase several-fold over the next two or three decades.
The present irrigation systems in the Murray-Darling Basin are mostly some 50 to 100 years old.
The present system of diversion weirs, main canals, and channels was designed for purposes appropriate at that time, and for agricultural practices, crops and markets as perceived at that time. It is a gravity system, and the concentration of flow towards low areas has led to salt problems. The use of water is now quite inefficient.
If we were to design completely new systems of irrigation for the Murray-Darling Basin, we could take advantages of all the new advances in the technologies of irrigation, and plan for present and anticipated markets, and for a new range of irrigated crops.
With such a completely new system, I think it would be possible to almost double the area under irrigation for the same volume of water. This would have a dramatic impact on the value of land and of water. Salt problems would be corrected simply because it is not economic to waste water and land that way. With the advent of a market for water in the Basin these changes are already starting to happen, but only in a small way.
However, the private sector is unlikely to embark on the complete design and construction of entirely new irrigation systems.
This could involve new diversion weirs, pumping plants, new lined channels totalling hundreds of kilometres, pipe distribution systems, and the opening up of vast new lands for irrigated agriculture.
Such a leap in imagination would be extremely difficult for the government organisations that are now charged with the management of the irrigation areas.
The staff have been selected and appointed to manage existing systems, not to design and construct entirely new systems, or even to make major changes.
Furthermore, the recent policies that government money is not available for public infrastructure have become a convenient reason for taking no action at all on long term planning.
I think it is vitally important that governments retain or have access to the intellectual capacity to plan and build for the future, even in cases where entire projects may be funded by the private sector.
In this critical matter of the continued development of the Murray-Darling irrigation systems, I am of the opinion that there is need for an independent and fully professional assessment of the potential of the basin, and the prospects for new irrigation works which would use water more efficiently.
Our irrigation practices are entirely dependent on the markets for our produce and transport to market, and these are important factors in planning new works.
The advent of the Alice Springs-Darwin rail connection will open up the possibility of a new export route for some Murray-Darling irrigators.
A proposed new rail connection between Hay and Ouyen would enable Murray and Murrumbidgee irrigators to use the new route.
Such a new rail connection could have a dramatic impact in the Basin on choice of crops and the value of land and water.3. SNOWY RIVER BELOW JINDABYNE
Having regard to the increasing value of hydro-power from the Snowy Scheme, and the prospective increase in value of water in the Murray-Darling Basin, it is my view that it would be quite damaging to the national economy to release any more water at Jindabyne.
Furthermore, I am of the opinion that many of the problems that have led to the controversy are readily solved by other means, and quite economically.
There is significant hydro-power potential in the lower sections if the Snowy River catchment in both NSW and Victoria. In 1941, O. T. Olsen of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria looked at possible sites as part of his studies that led to the Kiewa Scheme.
These prospective hydro developments still have their place in time, and it could be very soon if the Bass Strait cable does not eventuate, or if the wind farm proceeds.
With a hydropower dam on the Lower Snowy, it is readily possible to provide pipe distribution of water to all farmers on the plain below. This would surely meet all their concerns about water supply.
On the matter of the bar at the mouth of the Snowy River at Marlo, it would quite easy to design a new entrance that provided safe passage to fishermen and a far better harbour.
The construction of this new harbour and entrance could be included as part of the proposals for the hydropower developments.
The Snowy River controversy is a sad comment on the capacity of Australians to reason together. It is a complex issue, and many other matters must be considered before binding decisions are made.