Flat White

Those damned dams

31 March 2022

4:00 AM

31 March 2022

4:00 AM

While it was very pleasing to this old water conservation enthusiast to hear PM Morrison announce a 5.4 billion funding for the Hells Gate Dam in Queensland, I believe it is important we put this announcement in an historical context and understand where it fits in relation to overcoming our now urgent water shortages. Yes, I know there are floods across Australia and many of our dams are spilling, but this old Bushy also knows that we have had eleven years of above-average rainfall and the next inevitable drought cannot be far away and when it does things will be different.

Therefore, it is important to note that this announcement by the PM comes 46 years after the last major dam announcement, which was Wivenhoe Dam in Queensland, commenced in 1975. During the intervening period our population has grown by eleven million people. Those eleven million people require one million three hundred thousand megalitres of water each year just for municipal use, so it is not difficult to see that despite present flooding we will be in huge trouble come the next inevitable drought. It is also important to highlight that total dam capacity is not as important as annual dam yield. That is the average water that can be released from the dam while maintaining storage capacity for future dryer years. While this yield will vary from dam to dam, and from year to year, it is reasonable to suggest that in most years it would not be above 40 per cent of total capacity. So just to supply the municipal needs of our increased population since the building of Wivenhoe we would need to have a dam or dams with total capacity of over five million megalitres, plus our increasing agricultural needs.

Obviously, these dams have not been built and just to add to our water plight, over two million, four hundred thousand megalitres of our stored water has been given to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, who is flushing this valuable resource to the sea. Again, I know we are presently awash with water, but a couple of years into the next drought many areas of southern Australia will be out of water; including Sydney and likely, Snowy Hydro. Why? Because we stopped building dams over forty years ago and our need for water has not stopped growing. Our forebears knew what to do but it seems we lost both plans for our future and interest in our future.

The first ever Royal Commission in NSW was set up in 1884 and was tasked with how we could provide reliable water for our inland settlements. It was at this Royal Commission that the then Surveyor General Mr. P.F. Adams suggested that we may be able to turn water from the Snowy area inland. This Royal Commission recommended that the settlement had to build dams, but it was not until after the disastrous Federation Drought that destroyed the pastoral industry and sent many banks broke that the government of the day commenced the building of Burrinjuck Dam on the Murrumbidgee River in 1906. Burrinjuck Dam was completed in 1928 and was followed by the completion of Eildon Dam on the Goulbourn River in 1929, Hume Dam on the Murray River in 1931, and Wyangla Dam on the Lachlan River in 1936. Following the success of these early dams, numerous dams have been built across our often-dry land, until the ‘No Damned Dams’ brigade took control of the argument for further water conservation.

It is a sad reflection on our lack of capacity for rational argument and decision making that following the Don Dunstan decision in 1970 to stop the building of the Chowilla Dam on the Murray River and delay the building of Dartmouth on the Mitta Mitta, and the Bob Brown driven campaign against the Gordon below Franklin hydro scheme, that for the next fifty years we have not built sufficient storage to keep pace with our needs. 

It is true that in recent years we have heard politicians like Tony Abbott say, ‘Water is a priceless asset, especially when the vagaries of our environment make it scarce.’ Followed by Barnaby Joyce with, ‘Water is wealth and stored water is a bank.’ These statements have been reinforced by the Australian Water Exploration Company (a not-for-profit company) which has presented the government with plans for dams in all mainland States.

I would like to note here that when I presented these detailed plans by AWEC to the federal government in October 2014 they were rejected out of hand by Barnaby Joyce and Michael McCormack.

However, despite these calls to action it is now 37 years since Australia built our last dam, which was Wivenhoe Dam in Queensland, commissioned in 1984. During the intervening years, the World Bank has funded over five hundred large dams across ninety-two countries around the world. These dams have been built on every inhabited continent, except the driest, Australia. Just to add to the people’s misery our governments have been blowing up our most efficient power production plants and wasting billions of dollars on ‘Renewables’. The result is that our people no longer have ready access to the ‘Tools of Trade’ (water, power, fuel) that they need to be productive.

Australia, the continent with the most erratic rainfall and a fast-growing population, has not provided for the extra 41,000 megalitres of water needed each year to service our population growth and as a result more and more water previously used for agricultural production is diverted to municipal use. Unless we immediately build more dams, we are going to run out of water in the next drought and likely face power blackouts as Snowy Hydro also runs short of water.

Following the Don Dunstan decision in 1970 to stop the building of the Chowilla Dam on the Murray River and delay the building of Dartmouth dam on the Mitta Mitta, and the Bob Brown driven campaign against the Gordon below Franklin hydro scheme; dams have been damned.

The resulting shortfall in water storage capacity has now been further eroded by the needless and counterproductive MDB Plan which has removed a further 2,450,000 megalitres of water from productive use every year.

This visionless lack of action on one hand and foolish management of our water and power on the other, will ensure that unless governments act swiftly, Australia will not only be unable to maintain agricultural production but many municipalities will run dry in the next drought and business will be without power.

This need not happen because contrary to what is claimed, most of our reliable runoff is exactly where we need it, between Adelaide and Cairns and we are only using 6 per cent of that water. We are not short of water; we are short of storage capacity and generating capacity. No one has found a better way to minimise flooding and storing water for later use, than the building of dams.

Our recent water shortages and what will undoubtedly be much worse problems in the next drought, are caused by the failure of governments to build water conservation structures to store excess water in flood times, for release to all water users in dry times.

Having at least recognised the need for dams by the PMs recent announcement the government must recognise that this one dam will not solve our water storage shortage. Following is a list of urgently needed water conservation structures not in any priority order.

  1. The Welcome Reef dam on the Shoalhaven River to ensure Sydney’s future water supply.
  2. A weir and major dam on the Mitchell River to ensure Melbourne’s water supply.
  3. Several large weirs on the Darling River and its tributaries.
  4. The Chowilla Dam on the lower Murray. This vast water resource cannot be harnessed without the building of this dam which would benefit three States and turn South Australia into a garden State.
  5. The Lake Coolah- Stony Point off-river storage in the Murrumbidgee Valley.
  6. The upper Clarence storage and diversion which would stop flooding in the Clarence Valley and divert over a million megalitres of water westward into the Darling valley annually.
  7. The Gateway dam above Hume Weir which was originally part of the Snowy Scheme but never built.
  8. Increase the height of the Burdekin Falls Dam to its designed capacity of 8,700,000 megalitres.

Many other Dams have been designed and proposed and should over time be built, but now we must first act on the above list if we are to progress as a Nation.

The building of the Dams above would recognise that unmanaged, water availability in Australia is highly unreliable. The quantum varies from year to year, from month to month and these variables can be vastly different from valley to valley, or State to State at any one time.

Our streams go from destructive valley-filling floods to little or no flow in an unpredictable time frame and it is this variability that necessitates our obligation to future generations, to conserve spare water in times of excess for use by all who need water in dry times.

Recent water and power policy at both State and Federal levels has been unnecessary, hideously expensive, counter-productive, and not in the best interest of the Nation, the environment, or city and regional communities. It is the result of a confluence of visionless, reactive politics and green environmentalism seeking the most expensive solution to misunderstood and often non-existent problems.

We must recognise that dams do not destroy rivers, creeks, or wetlands. They are wetlands. Wetlands that store excess water in times of abundance for release in times of little runoff, for the advantage of man and critter alike. 

Correctly engineered and properly managed, new dams with associated hydro power generation can pay dividends on the investment for a century and more. They are income-producing for the foreseeable future.

Australia has vast areas of fertile floodplain mostly situated in a Mediterranean climate zone ideal for increased food production now required to meet our trade deal commitments. All that is required is adequate water and power and the resourceful, adaptive, and productive people of regional Australia will do the rest.

The wise and visionary management of our vast but variable water resources has the capacity to put Australians back to work, to balance the budget, to generate taxpaying jobs for our increasing population, simply by sensibly using the water, the land, the agricultural nous and the skills that Australia has in abundance but are presently idle.

Failure to build those damned dams will result in damned condemnation of Politicians when we run dry in the next drought.

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