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Saving the Mary River

By Jenny Stewart - posted Thursday, 8 May 2008


The story of the Mary River winds on. The Queensland Government’s proposal to dam the river at Traveston Crossing is currently being assessed under the environmental impact assessment policies of the Queensland government.

If the Queensland Coordinator-General is satisfied that environmental and other problems have been addressed, the proposal will move onto the next stage - assessment under the provisions of the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Environment Minister Peter Garrett will then face one of the defining decisions of his political career and the Rudd Government a crucial test of its green credentials.

Environmental impact assessment is our nod towards sustainability. It means that those planning to take action that will damage the environment must, before approval to proceed can be given, investigate the negative impacts, and where necessary make undertakings to mitigate the damage. But how much mitigation is “enough” is never clear-cut. In the case of the Traveston Crossing dam, the stakes are particularly high.

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Three iconic species live in the river - the Mary River turtle, the Mary River cod and the Queensland lungfish. The turtle and the cod are both considered to be endangered; the lungfish, while not endangered, is considered by experts to be vulnerable. In addition, there are many other significant species in the catchment, as well as in the internationally-recognised wetlands of the Great Sandy Strait, where the Mary meets the sea.

One of the weaknesses of the process is that the Environmental Impact Statement, the key document that forms the basis for the decision as to whether or not to proceed, is drawn up by the proponents. The proponent in this case is Queensland Water Infrastructure Pty Ltd (QWI), a company wholly-owned by the Queensland government.

QWI’s Environmental Impact Statement addresses in detail the fate of the turtle, the cod and the lungfish. The turtles will be moved from the area that is to be inundated and their nests relocated on the margins of the dam, and on islands within it. They will have access to a turtle ramp so that they can cross the dam wall in order to reach other turtles.

The cod, too, will be provided with a fish-way to enable it to move from one side of the wall to the other.

As for the lungfish, it is also expected to use the fish-way (there is going to be a lot of traffic across the dam wall). In any case, the QWI reports, the lungfish survives well in dams, anyway.

There is fierce controversy about all these claims. Experts point out that it is habitat reduction and predation that has already reduced turtle numbers to danger point. The dam impoundment will further alter the turtle’s habitat, and that of the plants and animals on which it feeds.

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The habitat of the Mary River cod has already been fragmented by existing weirs on tributaries of the Mary. To fragment it still further could wipe it out completely.

The lungfish, a survivor from the era of the first land animals, would be unlikely to survive unscathed the loss of its spawning habitat. Its fate in the Burnett River, dammed in 2005, remains uncertain.

While public consultation is invoked at a number of points in both the State and Commonwealth assessments, the process is carefully stage-managed. And as activists everywhere have discovered, “they” (the authorities) have everything - time, power, expertise and money - on their side. Nevertheless the locals have poured their hearts (and their own expertise) into the process.

The Mary Valley Voice reported in January 2008 that 16,488 submissions on the Environmental Impact Assessment had been received at the Office of the Queensland Co-ordinator General. Of these, more than 10,000 came from people living downstream of the dam wall. While QWI states that there will be little impact on the fishing industry downstream, and on the breathtaking wildlife of the Great Sandy Strait, many of the residents are not convinced. In any case, the Mary is their river, too.

The people of the Mary River do not have politics on their side. If they voted Labor, the state government might well pause before damming the river. But they are mostly conservative folk, and of the three state electorates that contain the catchment - two (Maryborough and Nicklin) are held by Independents, and one (Gympie) by the National Party. Cate Molloy, the former member for Noosa, which adjoins the Mary River valley, was ejected from the Labor Party because of her strong anti-dam position.

Protest does not come easily to the people of the valley. Nevertheless, determined to fight for their communities, they have turned up in their hundreds to meetings to oppose the dam. Signs in the area are full of fight. But QWI has been buying up properties steadily, knowing that in doing so, it is gradually taking the heart out of the opposition to the dam. Significant sums have already been spent on these acquisitions.

Environmental issues aside, there is considerable doubt as to whether the dam represents the most cost-effective strategy to meet the needs of the projected population of Brisbane. Mary River catchment officer Steve Burgess points out that when rainfall is as low as it was in the 2000-2007 period, there will simply not be enough water to provide environmental flows to the river, deliver the predicted yield via the pipeline to Brisbane, and meet the current level of demand from downstream users.

On the other hand, in years of good rainfall, with Wivenhoe Dam and other storages operating at their normal capacity, the water will not be needed for Brisbane. In these circumstances, the dam on the Mary will be able to provide environmental flows, but these will in no way duplicate the pattern of the natural river, which floods and drains quickly.

The reality seems to be that the planners in the Queensland government are hedging their bets on the dam. If there is little rain, there will at least be some water for Brisbane, although not much for anyone else, or for the environment. If the rains return, the water can be used to support new industries in the Mary River Valley.

A consultancy report prepared for the Queensland Departments of State Development and Primary Industry and Fisheries by ACIL Tasman suggests that the new dam will reinvigorate the region’s economy, including intensive agricultural uses downstream of the dam wall. The exact nature of these enterprises is not specified, except that they will, of course, be “sustainable”. Given that, only a few kilometres away from the dam wall, one of the state’s most productive dairy farms will be inundated by the rising waters, the irony is palpable.

Eventually, an even bigger area of the valley may be flooded. The first stage of the project (to be completed by 2011) will impound roughly 153,000 megalitres of water to an average depth of 5m. If the second stage (planned for 2035) goes ahead, it will impound another 400,000 megalitres to a depth of about 8m. The dam wall is being built high enough to accommodate stage 2, although the Queensland government has sworn that the position of the sluice gates means that the water-level will reach only the stage 1 level.

This is a debate of averages. The government says the dam will flood only 4 per cent of the valley, which sounds very small. But over 36km of the river will be affected by stage 1, and 332 properties will be entirely or partly submerged. An average depth of 5m sounds reasonable, except that large parts of the dam will be much shallower than this, so that evaporation will be high, and weed infestation a constant problem.

With so many negatives, it is surely time to consider the main rationale for the dam. The case for the dam is based on continued population growth in South East Queensland. Yet only a fraction of this increase is due to natural increase of the population already living in the area. The population growth which is at the root of the Queensland government's case for this dam, is predominantly fuelled by people moving to South East Queensland from the rest of Australia, and from overseas.

From the government's point of view, population growth and economic growth form a virtuous cycle. More people create more demand, and a bigger labour force with which to meet it. But more people also need more water. Just how much more, depends upon the extent to which they can be persuaded or forced to adopt economies in the use of water.

Brisbane already has Australia's highest take-up of household water tanks (38 per cent of households have one). But beyond a certain point, unless people are to have no gardens at all, and resort to showering only two or three times a week (not perhaps such a good idea in such a steamy climate), there is a minimum below which per capita consumption cannot realistically go.

If the climate continues to dry out, it is a moot point whether we should be encouraging more people to move to areas where water supplies are already stretched. Building dams is ultimately self-defeating, as it simply encourages more people to shift.

Not building them forces us to think about real sustainability, which may well involve population caps. At the very least, it means that towns and cities start learning to live within their environmental means.

Volumetric pricing of water encourages us all to be more economical, but surely in this driest of continents, after two centuries of over-allocating our water, it is time to lay off the few untapped sources of the stuff that remain.

The pity of it all is that, before the dam was sprung on them, community-based catchment management was already well-advanced. Local grazier, environmental scientist and activist Glenda Pickersgill showed me one such project, on the stretch of the river that will lie directly downstream of the dam wall. One reason such unusual animals are found in the river is because of its flow patterns: pools and shallow stretches connected by riffles (fast-flowing stretches of highly-oxygenated water).

Local water care groups had planted trees along the bank, to help restore the pattern of flow at this particular spot. But once the dam gets going, the river will inevitably lose much of its natural flow regime.

While the animals await their fate, the human inhabitants of the valley are already being affected by the stress of an unknown future. The ladies in the gift shop at Kandanga tell me that their community is already unravelling. The QWI has already voluntarily acquired several hundred properties from their owners. Some are leased back, but the effect on the confidence of the district has been marked. The electrician left a week ago, and it is getting harder and harder to find tradespeople.

Even in the somewhat murky annals of Queensland public administration, the QWI is a wonder of administrative opacity and power. It is not a statutory body (which would give it a clear mandate and accountabilities), but a company wholly-owned by the Queensland government and established under federal companies legislation.

This is convenient for a number of reasons. QWI can do whatever the Queensland government wants it to do, yet at the same time, it has an identity separate from government.

QWI has the best of both worlds in terms of public accountability. As a controlled entity of the Department of Infrastructure, its financial affairs are not separately identified in that Department’s annual reports. At the same time, as a “private” company, it does not have to provide financial returns to the Australian Securities and Investment Commission.

Yet if the dam goes ahead, this vehicle of convenience, part land-acquirer, part community strategist, part infrastructure builder, part environmental assessment manager, will be responsible, either directly or indirectly, for the implementation of the mitigating strategies that will certainly be required if the unique fauna of the river are to have any chance of survival.

Juggling these very different priorities is an onerous job. It is worth noting in this connection that the CEO of QWI was also the General Manager of Burnett Water, developer of the Paradise Dam on the Burnett River. A recent audit (by the Commonwealth) made adverse findings on the implementation of a number of environmental strategies associated with the Paradise Dam.

Once the Queensland Coordinator-General has made his decision on the EIS (and it is hard to imagine that it will be other than an approval), the fate of the Mary River will effectively lie in Peter Garrett’s hands.

In one sense, the decision should be clear-cut - there is simply too much to lose if the dam goes ahead. On the other hand, the pressure will be immense to approve the project (even if with conditions).

If the Minister went into politics to make a difference (and one assumes that he did), this will be a crucial test of that determination.

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About the Author

Dr Jenny Stewart is Professor of Public Policy in the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

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