COVER STORY: After the deluge, build new dams!
by Patrick J. Byrne
News Weekly, February 5, 2011
Recent massive deluges and floods demonstrate that Australia has the periodic rainfall to secure the nations growing water needs, if there is the political will to build new dams.
The floods across the eastern states have inflicted a terrible loss of life, and major damage to towns, cities, farms, infrastructure and industry.
In the wake of the floods, a truly Australian spirit has been demonstrated as tens of thousands of volunteers have turned out to help with the massive clean-up of homes, businesses and rural communities.
The scale of flooding captured sympathy worldwide, particularly when in mid-January the area of Queensland in flood was described as being larger than France and Germany combined.
Since December, the floods have engulfed first north Queensland, and later central, southern and western Queensland, northern NSW and then one-third of Victoria.
These floods are associated with one of the largest La Niña events recorded in the south-west Pacific Ocean. Such events involve warm ocean water generating large rain events, including super storms and cyclones.
Newcastle University hydroclimatologist Dr Anthony Kiem and his colleagues have documented Australias predominantly El Niño (dry) periods followed by predominant La Niña (wet) periods back to the mid-1600s. These events can extend for 30 or more years. Typically, a long dry can end quickly with very large wet seasons. (Weekly Times, December 26, 2007).
The long dry period, which started in Australia in the mid-1970s , was replaced with big wet seasons in 2010-11.
Many of the environmental scientists who have been documenting the decline of species numbers and other environmental changes over the past 30 years have never experienced an extended wet period in Australia.
As the deluge has filled the rivers, flooded the landscape and soaked into the dry subsoils, there has been an explosion of wildlife and flora across much of the previously drought-stricken eastern parts of the continent.
The floods appear to have shifted the sentiment of Australians in favour of building new dams.
Due largely to the influence of the green lobby over the past quarter-century, few new major water storages have been constructed, despite the growth in Australias population and industry.
The failure to build new dams has had a number of major consequences.
First, consider the debate underway over the Brisbane-Ipswich floods.
Following the disastrous 1974 floods, the Joh Bjelke-Petersen Government built the Wivenhoe Dam downstream of the existing Somerset Dam.
Wivenhoes role is partly to supply Brisbanes growing population, but it also has the ability to hold double its normal operating capacity as part of flood mitigation in the event of a deluge.
Later, the Wayne Goss Government attempted to build the Wolfdene Dam south of Brisbane for the rapidly growing south-east corner of Queensland. Local protests saw the project scrapped.
With no new dams built since Wivenhoe was completed in 1984, Brisbane was forced to continue relying heavily on Wivenhoe for Brisbanes water.
As it stands, Wivenhoes flood mitigation saved Brisbane from a 1.5 to 2 metre higher flood peak.
Had Wolfdene been built, Wivenhoe could have more readily adjusted its operations to carry less water for Brisbane and, in an emergency, use more of its storage space for flood mitigation - in which case, Brisbane in 2011 might have experienced a minor rather than a major flood.
Also, Brisbane would not have needed severe water restrictions during the recent long drought, according to Professor Neal Ashkanasy who oversaw the planning for and the construction of the Wivenhoe Dam. (The Australian, January 22, 2011).
Second, no new dams have been built in the Murray-Darling Basin since the Dartmouth Dam was completed in 1979.
As the long dry period that began in the mid-1970s progressed, governments came under pressures to guarantee more water for growing towns and cities and to supply more water to the environment.
The urban green lobby convinced voters that it was irrigation-farming, rather than the ravages of one of natures periodic, extended droughts, that was causing environmental degradation in the Basin.
Instead of building new dams, which the green lobby opposed, the Commonwealth and state governments agreed to detach farmers permanent water entitlements from their land titles, making farmers water entitlements tradable to the highest bidder.
Water reform was in fact a means to redirect water from farming in Australias major foodbowl to the environment and cities. Governments buying this water can afford to pay a far higher price per megalitre than can farmers.
Third, some commentators have argued that, instead of building new dams in the Murray-Darling Basin, agriculture should be shifted from the Basin to north Queensland.
However, much of the agriculture produced in the Basin cannot be produced in north Queensland.
Furthermore, Australia needs a wide spread of agriculture across the states. Concentrating farming too much in any one region leaves the nations food supplies at risk of Australias variable climate and extreme weather events that could threaten essential supplies and result in very high food prices.
Fourth, governments, instead of building new dams, have been building desalination plants. These are big consumers of electricity, and can supply water to the cities only at a high cost.
In the wake of the floods, federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott has announced the formation of a committee to examine the feasibility of building new dams.
Plans that governments made decades ago for new dams need to be dusted off and re-examined.
Where will the money come from to fund new dams?
For a start, the $9 billion that the Federal Government is wasting in the Murray-Darling Basin - a scandal on a par with the home insulation debacle - should be redirected into constructing new dams.
Of this sum, $5.8 billion is for "infrastructure upgrades", which the Australian Productivity Commission says cannot produce any more significant water savings in the Basin, because all the major savings have already been achieved (See Market Mechanisms for Recovering Water in the Murray-Darling Basin, 2010).
Another $3 billion has been allocated to buy water from farmers - that is, $3 billion devoted to shutting down farm industries in the nations major foodbowl.
These funds should be redirected to build new dams for farms, cities and industry, and should include "environmental dams" for environmental flows into rivers when needed.
New dams will also save governments many billions of dollars in drought relief to farmers.
Patrick J. Byrne is vice-president of the National Civic Council.