Protecting Wilderness and National Parks

Damning wilderness

by Keith Muir

"We need to not spend years consulting on the environmental impact and how communities feel about where we put dams," the Nationals leader John Barilaro told The Daily Telegraph last September. According to Deputy Premier Barilaro, NSW must build more dams to drought-proof regional Australia – but far more than a few frogs will die; these proposals will inundate entire communities and wilderness areas.

NSW Wilderness areas become dam sites

Since World War II numerous proposals to turn coastal NSW rivers inland have been identified as technically feasible, but all these schemes have been economically unsound and associated with severe environmental impacts.

According to WaterNSW documents obtained by Anne Davies of the Guardian (24 September, 2019), the capital cost of inland diversion projects under study is well north of $6bn[1]. Given the size of the dams and lengths of tunnels required, the Colong Foundation suspects a viable diversion dam would have a capital cost of at least five times that amount, or $30bn. There are also huge operational costs for the electricity needed to move billions of litres of water up hundreds of metres and over the Great Dividing Range. The cost of lifting the water over the range would be greater than $300m per year, with the gigawatts of electricity required coming from unidentified, yet to be constructed sources.

The following northern NSW wilderness areas are at risk from dam diversion proposals being investigated on the Manning, Macleay, Clarence and Border rivers:

  • Curracubundi, where a diversion dam is proposed on the Barnard River to send water by tunnel to Chaffey Dam on the Peel River;
  • Macleay River catchment diversion dams on the Apsley and Gara Rivers, with feeder dams on the Styx River and Georges Creek would flood the World Heritage listed Oxley Wild Rivers National Park and the Macleay Wilderness – these dams are to send half the water from the Macleay catchment to Keepit Dam on the Namoi river;
  • An Aberfoyle River diversion dam would flood the Guy Fawkes wilderness and send water by tunnel south-west to Copeton Dam on the Gwydir River;
  • Various Clarence River diversions would flood the wild Mann river in the Bindery-Mann wilderness of Gibraltar Range National Park as well as the wild Nymboida river, and send water to the Border rivers system of the Severn and McIntyre Rivers in the west; and
  • A Cataract River diversion dam that would flood the Cataract wilderness, and a dam on the Timbarra River are also part of the abovementioned Border rivers diversion proposals.

A proposal to raise the Brogo Dam wall is included in the WaterNSW 20 Year Infrastructure Options Study, published in 2018. This proposal would flood large areas of the Brogo wilderness and is needed WaterNSW says, to make the dam economically viable to operate. Add the existing Warragamba Dam plan to flood the World Heritage listed Nattai and Kanangra-Boyd wilderness areas, and you can understand why the NSW Nationals want to criminalise the right to public protest and curtail environmental assessment, comment and review processes for dam building projects.

Clarence diversion focus

In documents obtained by the Guardian, WaterNSW has flagged diversion from the Clarence River headwaters inland to Border rivers in the Severn and Macintyre catchments as its primary focus. The Colong Foundation can reveal that these proposals would divert around two Sydharbs[2] of water a year inland from this river have been discussed for decades.

To deliver this amount of water, a dam must be located on the Mann River as it provides most of the Clarence River’s flows. A viable inland diversion requires transfers of this scale, for even though it’s massive (one million megalitres), it would evaporate long before it reached Wilcannia on the Darling River. To provide this amount of water, a diversion dam would need to store up to 5.5 million megalitres (that is, eleven Sydharbs) and is costed at $1.8bn, but such a dam would surely cost five times that sum. To grasp the scale of this dam, imagine a new dam two and a half times larger than Warragamba Dam! Such a dam can only be built at tremendous cost.

This Clarence proposal would flood 86kms of the Nymboida River valley; 33kms of the Boyd River valley; 23kms of Cunglegung Creek, and 70kms of the Mann River valley, in total 181kms of wild river valleys, and inundate tens of thousands of hectares of World Heritage listed forest wilderness. The Nymboida and Nymboi-Binderay National Parks, which encompass some of the most diverse and least disturbed forested country in NSW, would be flooded. These parks contain stunning landscapes of granite boulders, expansive rainforests, tall old growth trees, steep gorges, clear wild rivers and magnificent wilderness scenery, which would be reduced to vast valleys of dead, barren, mud-encrusted, weed-infested river flats.

Forest habitats would be further fragmented with road, pipeline and power line easements, and the scheme would produce massive carbon emissions from the destruction of vast areas of carbon-storing, old growth forests, construction works and from the power needed to pump water over the Great Dividing Range. The base of the dam will only be 70 metres above sea level, so water must be pumped from this level up hundreds of metres over the Great Divide. A monumental solar power array over thousands of hectares would be needed to reduce pumping costs.

A mega-dam on the Mann River would also require another two-kilometre-long, 30 metre high barrier dam on the Layton Range, located above Nymboida village, which would flood the village and 8km of the main Grafton to Armidale road. Approximately 32km of the Old Glen Innes Road would be inundated and need to be abandoned. The largest dam option requires the relocation of a 30km section of the Gwydir Highway.

Clearly this dam proposal is impractical and absurd – all the mega dam proposals on the NSW north coast raise similar large-scale environmental and logistical concerns.

Small diversion dams are ineffective

A modest 100,000ML storage on the Mann River would still require a diversion dam that inundates extensive stretches of wild river and old growth forest, but would only provide just a few weeks water supply to irrigators during drought periods.

To be effective, drought supply is necessary. Even for a modest diversion dam, it follows that the entire low flow of the Clarence River would need be diverted during drought when that water is needed by communities downstream. In this scenario, inland diversion denies water to humid landscapes where it is used more efficiently, and maximises water loss, through evaporation, by using inland rivers as lengthy conduits to remote irrigation areas in arid environments.

Commissioner Peter Crawford of the Healthy Rivers Commission (1999) stated that ‘It is apparent that any proposal to divert substantial quantities of water from the Clarence would present significant risks to the health of riverine ecosystems, and those activities and values dependent on them.’

Water policy muddle

The Federal Government’s National Water Grid has allocated $1.3 billion to a National Water Infrastructure Development Fund to encourage the states to build more dams.  With all inland waterways in NSW fully committed, that is there are no high yield dam sites left, this initiative has created more political pressure for inland diversion dams on coastal rivers – the only problem is that this solution is unworkable.

A bundle of smaller dams (100,000ML in size) cannot deliver the necessary inland flows to support primary industries during drought, while large diversion dams are uneconomic, steal water from coastal communities and cause massive ecological damage. No wonder that the Minister for Water Resources, The Hon. David Littleproud has had difficulty getting State Governments to accept funds on offer to build dams (media conference 1 August, 2019).

The water policy announcements by Barilaro and his National counterpart, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack also direct the anxieties of inland communities toward conservationists, who are alleged to be preventing governments from building dams. The real culprits are successive state and federal governments whose policies have over-allocated our scarce water resources to irrigators. As a result, water security allocations for inland communities and the environment have ‘disappeared’ from the system, just when rainfall is declining due climate change.

Inland diversions are a slow form of political suicide

Not every conservative politician supports inland river diversions. The National member for Clarence, Chris Gulaptis, believes "it's a pie-in-the-sky dream" (ABC News 3 June, 2019). "There's no water to demand and it certainly wouldn't help anyone else and it would do more harm to the Clarence," Mr Gulaptis said. Rather than divert water to the Murray Darling Basin, better economic and community outcomes would be achieved from agricultural intensification in the NSW North Coast.

This current round of wilderness-flooding, dam diversion proposals would cause the white water rafting to disappear overnight and nature-based tourism to markedly decline. The coastal prawn industry to collapse, as water storage will remove the 'freshes' from the Clarence River that trigger spawning runs, and similarly affect spawning by Australian Bass and the Eastern Freshwater Cod. The Eastern Freshwater Cod is an endangered species under great threat of extinction and its best habitat would be lost if a dam on the Mann River is built. In addition, Clarence River water quality will decline as reduced flows concentrate pollution from downstream communities and saltwater moves further upstream.

There are cheaper, more sustainable ways of securing water in the Murray Darling Basin, for example, managed aquifer recharge to sustain inland town water supplies during droughts. This could easily be paid for by replacing the subsidies to the highly profitable 3,000 rice and cotton irrigators in the Basin with a cost recovery program.

This renewed interest in inland water diversions has coincided with the introduction of legislation to seriously curtail democratic rights to protest and protect our land and resources. Peaceful assembly and protest will be criminalised under legislation dressed up as the ‘right to farm’. The directors of conservation groups, like the National Parks Association or the Colong Foundation, who induce citizens to defend national parks from artificial flood inundation would be liable to imprisonment for 12 months. Those who actually hinder dam construction can be imprisoned for up to three years. The same goes for coastal farmers and fishers, and residents of villages like Nymboida, who join conservationists in peaceful inland river diversion protests.

For decades, foolish, short-term political dam building promises have been quietly killed off by a dwindling number of aging professional public servants, and despite a new push by some to establish a totalitarian state, NSW is still a healthy democracy. If the right to have community concerns heard and understood is removed from the adequate environmental assessment and review of new dam proposals, then political parties responsible for bad decision making will secure a long term in Opposition.