Wednesday, 13 September 2006
Beattie Government; Queensland: Dams
The Queensland election was resolved last weekend, as all senators would know. I pass on my congratulations to the Beattie government for being re-elected. I note today the announcement of the new ministry, and I wish all of them well in their various roles.
One of the big issues leading up to the election, and which is still a big issue now, is water and water management in Queensland—particularly in south-east Queensland. The fact that the Beattie government won should not be seen as a rousing endorsement by the people of south-east Queensland for every single facet of the Beattie government’s water policy. The most controversial component of it by a long shot was the megadams the government proposes to build—most notably the Traveston dam on the Mary River, near Gympie. The response of the alternative government, the coalition, was to oppose that dam but to support a bunch of other dams instead. So the suggestion that it was a pro-dam vote by the electorate is one that does not hold water—if you will pardon the pun.
Tonight I would like to talk about not just the Traveston dam but also the other dam that is being proposed by the Beattie government—the forgotten dam proposed for Wyaralong. It is understandable that the planned megadam at Traveston is the one that is getting the most attention—firstly, it is bigger but, secondly, it will impact on a much larger number of people. While there are very strong economic and environmental arguments against that dam, I do not think we should at all underestimate the enormous social harm of having that potential dam hanging over the people of that region. Although it affects those people who are going to lose their homes and their land, there is also a flow-on effect to the wider communities. It is a real reminder of the direct human impact of some of these proposals, which are often not factored into political decision making. People are seen as politically expendable. This dam was in a safe non-Labor seat—it shifted from a former One Nation member to a National Party member, but it was certainly never going to be a Labor seat—although in a couple of the surrounding seats, the Labor Party paid some electoral consequences for that unwise dam.
We also need to remember the other dam, the forgotten dam, the Wyaralong dam. It will not affect anywhere near as many people, but we should not make decisions solely on the basis of where it will cause the least fuss. I would like to draw the Senate’s attention to a report that has been prepared on the Wyaralong dam. It examines the detail: the economic costs, the likely water yield and whether it will deliver what is promised as part of the range of measures to address south-east Queensland’s water problem or join a long line of failed dams—a couple of good examples are almost right next door to the proposed Wyaralong dam.
The report I refer to was prepared by Dr Bradd Witt and his partner Katherine Witt. Dr Bradd Witt has a lot of expertise in this area, as does his partner. It should be noted that they have a personal interest as their family holds property in the area that will be affected, but they declare that quite openly. They used their professional expertise to forensically examine the arguments put forward in support of that dam, and those arguments need to be properly examined. Dr Witt is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Queensland in both environmental management and environmental problem solving. He has research experience in rangeland ecology and century-scale environmental change. Katherine is currently doing a PhD thesis in natural resource governance.
There is no doubt there is expertise there. There is also no doubt that these decisions, whether it is the Wyaralong or the Traveston dam proposal, were made in haste by the Queensland government. They were put forward as a way of showing that the government was weighing up the evidence in a dispassionate way before any work was done. Now that the decisions have been made, a flurry of propaganda has come forth to justify them.
This report that looks at the Wyaralong dam raises some significant issues. Fundamentally, this very expensive project—at least half a billion dollars—will actually deliver the water promised. The proposed dam, which is on the Teviot Brook, is in a relatively small catchment which has extremely variable rainfall—that is before you take into account the variations that are said to be already occurring with regard to climate change. The Teviot Brook is an ephemeral stream with a high, natural variability in annual flow, and there are records going back many decades that establish that. Certainly the evidence put forward in this report is that the proposed dam will fail to produce the expected 17,000 megalitres of flow a year during normal periods of rainfall as well as expected periods of drought.
The report also raises serious water quality concerns in respect of salinity, pollutants and effluent. The dam will destroy more than 1,200 hectares and 32 kilometres of riparian and floodplain ecosystems, most of which comprises the endangered regional ecosystem listed as the eucalyptus on alluvial soils. This is an ecosystem which, according to recent mapping, indicates a remaining extent of only three per cent.
Social and cultural impacts have also been suggested in the report, as well as cost inefficiencies and distributional equity. The proposed dam is currently estimated to cost $500 million—including land acquisition, construction and road reconstruction. That is a very large investment for a dam that is only intended to produce 17,000 megalitres a year. It becomes even more dubious when, according to the data here, the dam is unlikely to produce that amount of water regularly. It should be noted that the surrounding shire, the Boonah Shire, already has two dams that have failed to perform adequately in periods of less than average rainfall such as we are currently experiencing. In the Moogerah Dam, even average rainfall has not been sufficient to ensure that dam is properly utilised.
The report, apart from raising very strong and well-documented concerns that put huge holes in the stated water yield that the government says will come from this dam, also proposes what seems to me quite a viable alternative. Personally I do not believe that alternative water storages would be necessary if the full amount of activity were being done with regard to the recycling of water and providing other water storage facilities and incentives—some of which, I should note, are being done, including water tanks in particular and the repair of infrastructure to reduce water loss and leakage in the cities.
But, if there is a need for the extraction of water and the creation of so-called new water in this particular region in south-east Queensland, the proposal put forward here to harvest water from the Teviot Brook and pump it a very short distance into one of the other two dams that are currently not working—Maroon Dam and Moogerah Dam—using a weir or two if necessary, would be immensely cheaper. It would harvest 80 to 90 per cent of the same amount of water that is proposed with the Wyaralong Dam and would actually make an existing dam, such as the Maroon Dam, more viable not just for water production but also for some of the other functions it was supposed to provide and is not able to because it does not hold enough water, such as recreational purposes.
I commend this report to the Senate and particularly to the environment minister, Senator Ian Campbell, who will need to look at this dam along with the Traveston Dam. I would urge the Beattie government, now that it is re-elected, to look at this issue properly and dispassionately. I urge it to weigh up the data and not just make the mistake of building a dam for the sake of being seen to build one or two. It should spend money in a way that is in the best interests of the state of Queensland and that will produce the most amount of water without the environmental and social damage that goes with unnecessary, unreliable and expensive dams.