ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Federal, state governments veto northern development
, March 6, 2010
Limping through the first crucial sitting of the Parliament in an election year, members of the Rudd Government are a worried bunch, with marginal seat-holders fearing the worst, and others developing doubts about the capacity of the Prime Minister to lead them over the long term.
A Federal Government taskforce has torpedoed the idea of new dams for a northern Australia food-bowl, because the Labor governments in the three states concerned had a no-dams policy.
The report by the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce was originally commissioned by the Howard Coalition Government, but the taskforce committee was changed by the incoming Rudd Labor Government.
The original taskforce chairman, Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan, was removed after the Rudd Government was elected and has now called for a Senate inquiry into the taskforce findings.
One of the new faces appointed was Dr Stuart Blanch, who had previously worked for the World Wildlife Fund and with the Australian Conservation Foundation. He has been a long-time opponent of developing a Top End food bowl.
In making its assessment of the water resources in northern Australia, the taskforce relied on data from the CSIRO's Northern Australia Sustainable Yields project.
The CSIRO's Richard Cresswell told The Australian
(February 2, 2010), "At the time of the study, all jurisdictions [Queensland, WA and the NT] had a no-dams policy, and therefore we did not investigate the opportunities for dams in the north.
"We weren't asked not to investigate them, but we were told it wasn't necessary to investigate them."
(After the report was commissioned, a newly elected WA Liberal government has announced it is not opposed to new dams.)
Consequently, the taskforce wiped the idea of new dams. It concluded that, owing to high evaporation rates and lack of deep gorges for building new dams, only an additional 20,000-40,000 hectares of new irrigation land could be brought into production.
Further, when The Australian
also interviewed Dr Blanch, he said: "Northern Australia can never be a food bowl for Southeast Asia or anywhere else, because we just don't have enough water."
The absurdity of this statement beggars belief.
In 1998, a development proposal for Hell's Gate — a deep gorge on the Burdekin River, Australia's third largest river — surveyed the water and land resources available across north Queensland.
It was prepared by the Hell's Gate Development Council, which included the Dalrymple Shire, Charters Towers City Council, the Queensland Government Water Assessment Task Force of North Queensland and local, state and federal parliamentarians.
It found that west of the Great Dividing Range in north Queensland, the annual surface run-off, which does not include underground water, was 126 million megalitres, nearly one third of Australia's annual run-off.
The region also has 15 million hectares of Vertosol (i.e., black earth) soils, equivalent to half of Australia's entire prime farming land.
In contrast, the Murray-Darling Basin annual run-off is 22 million megalitres, around half being used for irrigation agriculture, which produces 40 per cent of the nation's agricultural output.
The recent taskforce report claims that most of north Queensland's surface water flows across wide flood plains where it is not feasible to put dams.
However, in the northern part of the Great Dividing Range, there are many gorges capable of being dammed, on both sides of the ranges.
The Hell's Gate Development Council argues that Hell's Gate on the Burdekin River is one such site, where a 100-metre-wide dam across this deep gorge could hold 5.72 million megalitres. That is more than can be held by each of the Hume Dam, Lake Eildon and Lake Dartmouth in Victoria.
Hell's Gate could provide at least 1 million megalitres of irrigation water for approximately 40,000 hectares of irrigation land with very high reliability of supply.
The Burdekin River has an annual flow of 10 million megalitres, and currently has one dam, Burdekin Falls (with a storage of 1.1 million megalitres), and the Eungella Weir (with a storage of 0.04 million megalitres).
Another study of the water storage and irrigation potential for this region was done by the Bradfield Study Consortium of consultants for Queensland's Coordinator General in 1983-84.
It examined the major part of the proposal by Dr J.C. Bradfield in 1938 for diverting a small part of the vast northern waster resources for irrigation.
Building on earlier evaluations of this proposal, the consortium found: "Subject to competing demands for hydro-power, there is surplus water east of the Dividing Range in the Tully, Herbert and Burdekin Rivers that could be transferred to areas west of the Dividing Range. ...
"This would allow delivery of 725,000 megalitres per annum to an irrigation area on the Downs south-west of Hughenden. ...
"There is ample suitable land available for irrigation and enough crops of known potential with which to commence. Problems of salinity can be overcome though careful soil survey for site selection and through inducement of proper water management on the farms."
So long as governments have a no-new-dams policy, development of agriculture will be stymied across much of Australia.Patrick J. Byrne is vice-president of the National Civic Council.