Tenterfield residents have been hit hard by the drought, with the township on the highest level water restrictions. (ABC News: Mark Leonardi)
In the midst of one of the country’s worst-ever droughts and as towns across Australia run out of water, the National Party is insisting there’s never been a better time to build more dams.
- With billions set aside for water infrastructure, Nationals MPs are frustrated dams are not being built
- But states are using that money for pipelines, recycled water, more efficient water management and repairs to existing infrastructure
- Experts say there has been a “massive failure in our water system” in rural towns
But despite the Federal Government having billions of dollars set aside to support water infrastructure, in the words of Water Minister David Littleproud, “bugger all” has actually been built.
Dams have long been a part of the National Party psyche and its members believe they’re what their constituents want, expect and demand.
But dams are a tricky business. They are ecologically controversial and can take years to reach the building phase because of lengthy environmental approvals, land purchases and business cases.
And more often than not, dams in regional Australia do not provide value for money because they are designed to benefit agriculture.
Dams work according to a user-pays model and in a lot of proposals, such as dams built for irrigation, the price of water required to cover the cost of the infrastructure is simply unaffordable to farmers or local communities.
But in the absence of a comprehensive national drought policy and as pressure mounts on governments because towns are running dry, the Coalition’s promising big on dams.
“It’s been far too long since we’ve built a major dam in this country,” Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack told a meeting of the National Party’s federal council recently.
“So whether it’s the west or whether it’s the east, we’re going to build dams. Our generation will be seen as the one which kicked in and which delivered!
“I intend to be known as the Nationals Leader who builds dams.”
But how realistic is it that?
Water infrastructure is not just about ‘dams’
One of the most significant environmental campaigns in Australian history involved stopping the damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania. In the decades since, governments have been hesitant about proposing that type of project.
“They’ve become politically unfeasible,” former head of the Regional Australia Institute, Jack Archer, explained.
“That’s meant there hasn’t been a lot of work done looking at other options we have in terms of those larger-scale dams.”
In the meantime, “water infrastructure” has evolved so that dams are no longer the be-all and end-all when it comes to storing and supplying water, especially given the risks posed by climate change.
If you look at the water infrastructure projects the Federal Government is currently funding, there is not actually “bugger all” happening.
It is just that the projects being built are predominantly not about dams.
The Coalition has a $2-billion water infrastructure loans facility and a $1.3-billion National Water Infrastructure Development Fund which it uses to fast-track projects by helping states and territories pay for them.
Often those projects are inspired by local councils, businesses or irrigators. The states then apply for federal funding and their expressions of interest are assessed by an expert panel.
There are currently six projects underway that have received funding through the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund, and two more will kick off soon.
Overall, the Federal Government has committed funding to 16 projects, while 40 odd — including proposals for larger dams — are still in the feasibility study phase.
South Australia: Northern Adelaide Irrigation Scheme
The $150 million of state and federal funding for this project will see recycled water from the Bolivar Sewage Treatment Works pumped out to the Adelaide Plains — a prime farming region. That’s tipped to increase water for irrigation by 60 per cent. The money will also go towards building a new irrigation area with pipelines, a water treatment plant, pump station and bore fields.
Queensland: Mareeba-Dimbulah Water Supply
The Mareeba-Dimbulah water supply scheme already exists but Queensland’s water authority, SunWater, is upgrading it with $11.6 million in federal funding help. The money will go towards building pipelines and regulating gates and off-stream storages in the northern Queensland region, which grows crops such as sugarcane, mangoes, avocadoes, bananas and coffee. The water is drawn largely from the Tinaroo Falls Dam, which holds up to 438,920 megalitres.
Tasmania: Scottsdale Irrigation Scheme
Tasmania is one place where it is pretty easy to build dams thanks to high rainfall and because they do not have to be big. This project involves building a 9,300-megalitre dam which will be fed by a nearby rivulet. The water will then be piped via a mini hydro station to the existing Headquarters Road Dam and keep flowing through a pipeline to the farming-rich region of Scottsdale and its surrounds.
Victoria: Modernisation of the Macalister Irrigation District Phase 1B
This will upgrade an ageing system that draws water from Lake Glenmaggie. Open irrigation channels will be replaced by more efficient pipelines and new technology, such as more accurate water meters, will be installed.
Victoria: South West Loddon Rural Water Supply Project
A new set of pipelines in central Victoria will see water piped from the Grampians or Goulburn systems and reticulated to large farms and smaller properties. The State Government is spending $40.6 million and the Federal Government is throwing in $20 million, while landowners and the local water corporations have also contributed. It’s expected to be completed by the end of the year.
Victoria: Sunraysia Modernisation Project 2
This builds on the $120 million already spent to improve north-west Victoria’s existing water infrastructure. Open irrigation channels have been replaced by pipelines and automated pump stations. Under the second stage, irrigation channels in the Merbein and Red Cliffs area will be modernised with better water regulators and by lining and raising channels to reduce seepage and evaporation.
The work happening now includes lining irrigation channels to reduce leakage, installing more accurate water meters and gates to regulate flows, recycling wastewater to pump onto crops and building pipelines that connect rural communities and farming regions to existing storages.
But “regulator gates”, “automated pump stations” and “efficiency upgrades to prevent seepage” hardly make for sexy headlines or sound bites.
So our political leaders would much prefer to talk about “dams” and, in the National Party’s case, big, bold and expensive ones, despite evidence of other cheaper, more practical options.
Experts say building pipelines to link regions to existing dams might cost tens of millions of dollars, while a new, large dam with a capacity of at least 1,000 gigalitres could cost more in the realm of $1 billion.
Why haven’t more dams been built?
The Federal Government can keep talking about dams until the rain comes, but cash-strapped states and territories are constitutionally responsible for water resources and approving infrastructure.
It means they have to sign off on complex approvals such as environmental impact statements before even raiding their own piggy banks.
As one New South Wales farmer told the ABC earlier this year, “you could be lying on your back in the sun, looking sunburnt and dying of thirst, and no-one will even look at you because you’ve got to get three documents signed before they do.”
Water infrastructure proposals must be economically viable and ecologically sustainable. (ABC News: Lucy Barbour)
While the red tape drives many rural Australians to despair, delays are often worsened by ill-equipped local councils, electoral cycles and political argy-bargy between state and federal governments.
The federal Nationals have recently ramped up attacks on the states for not building enough dams.
“We’ve got $75 million on the table for Dungowan Dam, $75 million!” Barnaby Joyce fumed recently in regards to a proposed upgrade in his New England electorate.
“And I heard they wanted $23 million of it for further studies! I mean, fair go, we don’t need any more paperwork. We need dozers in the ground!”
While the Coalition is quick to criticise states, it rarely explains that all governments are bound by the principles of an agreement called the National Water Initiative.
That document states that all water infrastructure proposals must “continue to be assessed as economically viable and ecologically sustainable prior to the investment occurring”.
Bureaucracy might be infuriating but if dollars spent on dams go down the drain, or there is serious environmental damage, states have to wear the cost.
“[The states] probably tend to be a little bit more cautious because of that,” explained John Rolfe, professor of regional economic development at Central Queensland University.
“Whereas the Federal Government’s very focussed on regional development, the bigger-picture stuff.”
So how does the Government think it can build more dams?
Mr McCormack, who is in charge of water infrastructure, lamented recently there is always an environmentalist who will “find a frog”.
With dams bone dry, the Coalition, and more recently the New South Wales Government, have made it clear they are keen to do what it takes to reduce red tape.
That will please many rural Australians who are crying out for more water, but it also shows a willingness by governments to ignore the guidelines of the National Water Initiative.
Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Nationals Michael McCormack. (ABC News: Sarah Maunder)
The drought is so serious that Nationals say there is no reason an expenditure review committee would not by sympathetic to throwing money at dams, and just last week, the Federal Treasurer donned his boots for a drought tour.
Professor Rolfe said the timing is such that the Federal Government could make a “pretty good political case” for relaxing the National Water Initiative.
“I think that they can probably work within the existing framework to argue there’s some community service obligations that override the requirements for every scheme to be fully economically and commercially efficient.”
While he thought that would be “realistic” for smaller projects, he had concerns about what it could mean for larger proposals.
“The big question is how far the Government is willing to go in walking away from the requirement for schemes to be economically efficient, in order to boost regional development,” he said.
“The danger is that governments will push through water schemes or water projects on the basis of politics rather than good planning and economics.”
But sometimes, even when they do not provide value for money on paper, big infrastructure spends in regional communities are considered worthwhile because of long-term benefits.
The National Broadband Network and Inland Rail are costing Australia billions of dollars (off-budget), but advocates argue they provide employment, better services and they stimulate regional economies.
Mr McCormack would claim the same with regards to water infrastructure, especially given he wants to have at least one “major dam” on his record.
Will ‘big dams’ happen?
Mr McCormack sees potential for larger dams, which can hold up to millions of megalitres, in northern New South Wales and northern Australia.
He will be hoping to mount the case for such projects — as well as smaller ones — through the Government’s newly established National Water Grid Authority, which he announced in April during the federal election campaign.
There is little public detail about the $100-million federal agency, but it will sit within the infrastructure department and it quietly kicked off last week, despite not having a chairman or chief executive.
It is not physically a grid but a statutory authority with an advisory panel, and Mr McCormack has promised it will “ensure future water security” by taking “the petty politics out of building dams” and looking at “large-scale water diversion projects”.
The authority will source information from the CSIRO, GeoScience Australia and the Bureau of Meteorology on where Australia’s untapped water resources are and how they could be managed, and it will identify where that infrastructure is needed most.
It will assess the concept of the Bradfield scheme, the 80-year-old ambitious plan to divert floodwaters from Australia’s north to its arid centre using a system of hydraulic dams, pumps and pipes — an idea which scientists have since concluded is ecologically bonkers.
Talk of Bradfield’s proposal flares up whenever there is a drought but Coalition sources say there is no way the Government would ever do more than consider it. Australian governments have, however, long pledged to “unlock the potential” of the north.
The catchment areas for the Fitzroy, Darwin and Mitchell rivers in northern Australia.
The CSIRO has already completed, on behalf of the Federal Government, investigations on water resources and storage options across three catchments in Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory.
Its report last year found potential for “major dams”, as well as other water storage options, in the Darwin and Mitchell river systems. But getting local communities on board to support those ideas could be difficult.
The former head of water science at the CSIRO, Ian Prosser, said there is plenty of untapped water in Australia, but that it is debatable whether large dams are always the best way to harvest and store it.
“Whilst we are the driest populated continent on Earth, we are also by far the most sparsely populated continent on Earth and we have a reasonable amount of water,” Dr Prosser said.
“But we have extreme climate variability and that is getting worse with climate change.”
He thinks it “could be smart” to build large dams in some places but in a situation where towns are running out of water, it is better to “look at a range of options” such as groundwater, managed aquifer recharge and improving existing water infrastructure.
Professor Rolfe said the easiest project to make an economic and environmental case for are those where there is an existing irrigation district that simply needs more water.
“Or where new supplies would help provide water for urban areas or industry, which typically have a much higher capacity to pay than agriculture.”
There is no question that rural Australia needs more water, especially given the Government wants more people to migrate to the regions, and to grow agriculture to be worth $100 billion by 2030.
Pejar Dam has benefited from improved infrastructure and Goulburn residents have become more water wise. (ABC News: Lucy Barbour)
But major dams would require significant investment, and even if the Coalition is armed with all the scientific advice in the world, the states are still largely responsible for water infrastructure.
The ABC understands the Federal Government will try to establish a framework or written agreement with the states on what the country’s most pressing water infrastructure needs are.
Professor Rolfe suspects such an agreement could be a way to “speed up the approvals process” and “leapfrog” some of the rules of the National Water Initiative.
If Mr McCormack does want to deliver “major dams”, it is hard to see it happening before the next major drought and he will need big bucks to do it.
Will the National Water Grid Authority ‘drought-proof’ the nation?
Not even new, small dams will solve the current water shortages because there needs to be decent rain to fill them.
The Government’s not pretending the Water Grid Authority will help people battling this drought. Rather, it is counting on taxpayers to trust it will help significantly in the next one.
But it is not clear whether its main focus will be supporting water infrastructure that benefits agriculture or boosting water supply for country towns — a responsibility that, again, belongs to the states and which the Commonwealth has previously stayed out of.
And as the talk and promises continue, many rural Australians are baffled as to how governments at all levels could have left this country so ill prepared for the current crisis.
In New South Wales, there are up to 80 towns the State Government considers to be at risk of potentially running out of water, if they haven’t already.
Authorities there are frantically throwing money at bores, pipelines and weirs to stave off a widespread “day zero” crisis.
As one of the state’s water experts vented privately, “these towns are in recession and all this stuff now is just bandaid solutions … a response to a massive failure in our water system.”
Another, who also did not want to be named, is frustrated the discussion federally is so focused on dams instead of other initiatives such as recycling, pipelines, desalination plants and smaller, off-stream storages.
“What I personally believe and am very upset about is that communities are being misled,” she said.
“Expectations are being raised and fairly large numbers are being thrown around. But actually, it’s money that’s being wasted. The money needed for a single project is more than what’s on the table.
“And irrigators, unless they’re loaded, won’t be able to afford the water.”
Ironically, one of the most efficient and cost-effective ways to save water rarely rates a mention among federal politicians.
During the millennium drought, Dr Prosser pointed out, Sydney saved about 90 gigalitres of water, which is enough to supply about 400,000 new homes.
“It was not just through water restrictions but because the drought changed people’s behaviours, so lower-water-use appliances, less garden watering, people living on smaller new developments and apartments,” he said.
“So water use per person is going down in our cities and that’s how we have managed to maintain a higher population. We’ve just been using our water resources more effectively.”
Water experts are hopeful the National Water Grid Authority will be successful in improving Australia’s water security but say the next step is critical. And almost seven months since it was first announced, there is very little information to go on.
“At the moment, the way it’s set up is it’s going to commit money and guidance and expertise at [the issue],” Professor Rolfe said.
“Whether that’s addressing the real problems behind the scenes, I think it’s too early to tell.”
There is no question rural Australia needs and wants better water security, but the Federal Government should be making it clear that the solution to providing that is not just about building dams.