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The dam that busted open an old NSW cabinet wound

At the same time as Sydney was being inundated with the biggest downpour in 50 years and its main dam was spilling billions of litres of water, a simmering internal Coalition rift emerged.

On Monday, as water flooded parts of the state, Sydney Water ramped up operations of the city’s desalination plant to run at capacity and provide 15 per cent of Sydney’s drinking water.

With water quality so poor in Warragamba Dam from the relentless rain, the desalination plant – once derided as a white elephant – became critical to supply this week. It had been operating, though not at full capacity, since 2019 and it was continued through last year after much of Warragamba’s catchment was spoiled by ash from the Black Summer fires.

As Warragamba spilled over this week, so did tensions between two cabinet colleagues, Water Minister Melinda Pavey and Emergency Services Minister David Elliott. Flood or drought, water is a divisive issue for the NSW government.

Elliott, the MP for Baulkham Hills, which was facing localised flooding, was furious with his cabinet colleague over what he says was a reluctance from Pavey to release water from the full Warragamba ahead of the big wet. He voiced his anger as the rain bucketed down and thousands faced evacuation from their homes, although Elliott insists he first raised concerns about water levels in the dam when he was elected to Parliament a decade ago.

Pavey, on the other hand, stressed she had no power to do anything about the dam levels because of the strict operating protocols that dictate how WaterNSW manages Warragamba. Releasing water would not have helped in any case, she told Parliament on Tuesday.

“This has been an extraordinary event that the Bureau of Meteorology only saw the significance of a couple of days before it started,” she said. “It was a fast‑moving event.”

Even when cabinet was meeting last year at the state emergency operations centre in Homebush during the height of the COVID-19 crisis, water was bubbling away as a contentious issue. Although Warragamba was full for much of last year, level one restrictions remained in place until December, when they were replaced with guidelines. Fines are still in place for breaking some of those rules, including watering hard surfaces.

Pavey was arguing in cabinet that Sydneysiders had changed their behaviour during the water restrictions and were using significantly less than before the rules were in place. She also worried that country voters, who had gone through a prolonged drought, would not take kindly to Sydneysiders watering their gardens as they saw fit.

It was not a Liberal versus Nationals split, though. Local government minister Shelley Hancock, a Liberal, sympathised with Pavey’s position.

One of those leading the charge to lift the restrictions was Treasurer Dominic Perrottet. While his motivation may have been a desire to wash his family car, it was more likely because water use makes money for the government. The more water we use, the more money that flows into its coffers through dividends from Sydney Water. It amounts to about $20 million a year. No Treasurer would turn that down.

Another flashpoint for the government is its long-held plan to raise Warragamba’s wall by 14 metres as a flood-mitigation measure, championed by Western Sydney Minister Stuart Ayres. Environmentalists warn it would cause irreparable damage, and Deputy Premier John Barilaro thinks the Coalition needs to canvass other options. He suggests a second desalination plant.

Meanwhile, Labor did not forgo an opportunity and seized on the water war, using question time to pick away at the government’s internal spat.

But while water was being wielded by all sides as a political weapon on Macquarie Street, NSW recorded its first death when a man was swept away in his car in floodwaters in Sydney’s north-west. Elliott wasted no time in claiming vindication. “I said I believed the Hills district needs as much flood mitigation as possible. That was a decade ago ... today’s fatality is proof we need to mitigate at every opportunity.”

This disaster – like the bushfires before it – should serve as a catalyst for a more co-operative approach to a decades-old issue. Now is not the time for political point-scoring or internal bickering.

By Alexandra Smith

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