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Queensland water management: sold down the river

By Phil Dickie - posted Tuesday, 15 May 2001

Rogue elements of Queensland's farming and fishing communities seem to have a fairly simple approach to natural resource management - use, grab or destroy as much of the resource as possible while tying the government up with an endless stream of demands for more and better consultation.

Down on the lower Balonne however, where Queensland's one-third share of the Murray Darling Basin slips into New South Wales, the strategy has come suddenly unstuck.

The Queensland government, staggered at the scale of a two year dam building orgy that threatens to completely derail attempts to cap water usage on the river, last month slapped a ban on the bulldozers knocking up dam walls all along the river.


Years of lax interpretations of lax laws has meant that in rural Queensland an outdoor dunny can need more planning permission than a 50,000 mL dam with walls no more than 4.99 metres high.

Around St George and Dirranbandi, cotton growers and water hoarders now have about 40,000 hectares of dams at best four metres deep in an area where the annual evaporation rate is about two metres a year.

More than half of this storage has been shoved up in the last two years in such a way that extensive leakage of the water resource is going to be as much a factor as massive evaporation.

Around a third of all the storage is on just one property, Cubbie station, with enough capacity to more than swallow up Sydney Harbour. Cubbie holds licences which mean that in a good year, even more water than this can be taken from the river, for the total payment to the State of just $3700 a year.

"Effectively, their water is free," said Queensland Natural Resources and Environment Minister, Mr Rod Welford.

For St George Irrigation Area cotton grower Ray Kidd the water is anything but free. He pays about $30,000 a year for his allocation of around 1000 mL from the government's Beardmore Dam, and pays even when the government can't supply the water.


Mr Kidd can be ploughing in his dead crop even when the dam that was built to supply him and other channel farmers is full to overflowing. It is not drought but favouritism bordering on corruption and staggering levels of incompetence that is to blame.

Beardmore Dam was a shallow storage developed in conjunction with the irrigation area. In 1979, the dam was considered "slightly over-committed" and this was before discovery of a "surveying error" which reduced the calculated capacity by about a fifth.

In the late 1980s, the dying National Party government began to entertain the bizarre notion of just giving away additional allocations of the "slightly over-committed" dam's water.

Local member and Water Resources Minister Don Neal seems to have revealed the real game in a letter to his electorate council chairperson, Mrs Pat Bonthrone, saying that "the value of a new 470 mL allocation is probably at least $70,000 and possibly as high as $230,000".

This may have been of some interest to Mrs Bonthrone, whose property, which despite being almost impractically upstream of the dam wall, was now fortuitously included within the newly drawn boundaries for the proposed water giveaway.

Throwing consistency completely to the wind, Mr Neal then informed Mrs Bonthrone of his plans to also auction off some entitlements to dam water, saying that "there are many reasons for not continuing to hand out allocations free of charge".

The extent of the insanity is fairly clear in the figures - the government gave away an estimated 15,000 mL of water to the owners of river properties up to 70 kilometres downstream and auctioned off 3000 mL.

The graziers down - or up - the river just happened to be the strongest supporters of the National Party. The buyers at the auction were irrigation area farmers trying to top up their existing allocation on the basis that 70 percent of a larger amount might end up being as much as 100 percent of an existing allocation that could no longer be guaranteed.

In reality, the situation was much worse. To deliver an allocation at a farm gate 70 kilometres downstream, up to six times the allocation has to be held in the storage to allow for delivery losses. In one case, the department released 400 mL through the dam in order to deliver a 100 mL order to a farmer only halfway down the Balonne. Only 4 mL turned up at the intake of the farmer's pump.

In total therefore, the government for its own political reasons ended up allocating nearly 50 percent more water from a dam stretched to capacity. This was not done unknowingly - it has since been discovered that a Sydney resource economist was commissioned to work out how much extra water could be taken from the dam.

Mr Jim Irish determined that the department might get an extra three percent of water from the dam, but would need to compensate the channel farmers for a reduction in the reliability of their supply. The report was well buried, like a number of other reports on management of the St George Irrigation Area.

The election of a Labor government seems to have done little to stop the policy insanity at St George. From 1992-93, the department decided to allow the river farmers to "park" their free allocations in the dam, further dramatically reducing its capacity. Once again, the figures speak for themselves. Initially, with the dam and irrigation area in fine balance enough water could be supplied for a full crop in more than 90 percent of years.

The great water giveaway and the free parking policy now mean that the scheme now supplies enough water for a full crop in just over a third of years.

However, the river farmers have done very well out of the scheme - they could sell their properties at very attractive prices to channel irrigators seeking access to water and they could sell water to channel irrigators. Often the water they sold was water parked in the dam, thereby reducing its capacity to supply the channel farmer who had paid for an allocation.

Not surprisingly, St George became a community divided and the issue has been a long running political sore. A succession of ministers have promised to solve the issue by promising to build additional public storage and the new dam at St George has been announced almost as often as the Redcliffe railway.

However, it now appears the dam is dead, at least as an item of public infrastructure. The Beattie government put a fairly cursory effort into justifying the dam to the Commonwealth, which declined to cough up any funding.

Ironically, the dam building frenzy in the area has seen a storage of suspiciously similar dimensions put up on the preferred site in the last few months. It is not yet clear how the consortium on what is now known as "Little Cubbie" propose to fill a 70,000 mL storage and grow cotton with an average annual water allocation of just 10,000 mL.

But then, many stranger things have happened at St George.

Former Water Resources Commission senior engineer Ken Pearce worked at St George when the system was finely balanced and was assigned in the early 1990s to try and sort out the mess. He was taken off the job in record time after suggesting that problems of over-allocation were being compounded by incompetent local management.

Mr Pearce is now a consultant to distressed irrigators all over Queensland, including the St George channel farmers. "You'd have to say that governments have created a lot of problems around St George and Dirranbandi and they have since washed their hands of them," he said. "We keep putting up ways to make the system work better, and find that the department keeps walking around in circles."

Another former Water Resources Commission officer has done somewhat better. John Grabbe went from being an advisor "on irrigation layouts for farmers" to being responsible for the largest privately owned irrigation layout in Australia - Cubbie Station.

The rise and rise of Cubbie Station

Cubbie Station, the largest privately-owned irrigation layout in Australia and with few rivals anywhere in the world, has long had a controversial existence in a dry land

Cubbie's waterworks are impressive from any angle, but look their best - or worst, depending on your point of view - from the air. Huge storage dams stretch for 28 continuous kilometres down the trickle that is the Culgoa (or later Darling) River.

Feeding this 12,000 hectares of merrily evaporating water is a diversion channel wide enough to take a landing light aircraft, perched like an open mouth above a weir over the river.

There is enough capacity here to more than swallow the waters of Sydney Harbour although, as general manager John Grabbe says in its defence, "it is only when we have a flood where the Caribous are out dropping fodder to stock that they would all be full - this is something the environmentalists just don't understand".

Cubbie grows about 13,000 hectares of irrigated cotton and brings in about $50 million a year. But cotton industry experts estimate that Cubbie could comfortably do that with about 150,000 megalitres of water.

"We could do that if we had the 150,000 mL in storage at the beginning of the season but we would have no reliability going into a drought, and our river system can have drought periods of up to three years," Mr Grabbe said.

Looking at river flows and the fine print of the Cubbie licences, water engineers estimate that in an average year Cubbie can take about 200,000 mL of water and in a good year, about 500,000 mL. And for the privilege, the station pays just $3700 a year.

For Cubbie, dealing with the government has been easier - much easier - than dealing with the neighbours. Initial proposals for huge dams with 10 metre high walls ended up going all the way to the Court of Appeal.

Mr Justice Fitzgerald, finally knocking back the proposal, delivered a blast to the department for ignoring all environmental, economic and social impacts saying " . . . it would be odd if a referable dam, however vast, may be built as long as it is safe".

Early efforts to regulate the Dirranbandi river users fell apart when Cubbie station successfully challenged the scheme on a legal technicality. Although the technicality was susceptible to easy remedy, the then Goss government - turning to water so to speak -allowed the area a form of self-regulation.

Since then, there is much that needs further explanation in the record of government dealings with Cubbie station.

The Goss government took internal legal advice that Cubbie's dam proposals were of such a scale that Environmental Impact Assessment would be required. It never happened and the record is obscure as to the reasons why not.

National Party minister and local member Howard Hobbs had a very easy relationship with Cubbie station, knocking back a departmental recommendation to gazette Cubbie's new dam plans for assessment and objection.

Forgetting Fitzgerald, the department restricted itself to the safety argument, criticising Cubbie for the rather startling belief that "engineering standards need not be applied if the embankment is kept below 5m".

Mr Hobbs said that rather than gazetting dams, which put property owners to unnecessary expense, he had implemented minimum construction standards for dams. A quick check of dam builders last week revealed that some were unaware of any standards and others knew of a departmental brochure which wasn't regarded as any sort of mandatory requirement.

"A minister is there to run the department, not to give in to every departmental brief that comes along," Mr Hobbs said. "If it was built and it hasn't broken, therefore whatever I approved at the time obviously has worked."

On the mystery of why the decision had gone to him in the first place when the Director-General was the official empowered to gazette dams, Mr Hobbs said, "I guess they were just covering their backsides."

The question of Cubbie's water charges generated another quick if slightly dubious fix. A departmental legal opinion suggested that Cubbie should pay an annual $74,000 rather than an annual $2900 for its 51 water harvesting licences.

The regulation on charges was amended at the next available legislative opportunity to allow multiple licences to be rolled into one licence for the purpose of charging at the "discretion" of the Director-General.

The Director-General appears to have exercised this discretion for Cubbie in an average year now pays $3.70 a mL for the first 1000 mL of water harvested and gets the next 199,000 mL for free.

"We are not tied to any taxpayer funded infrastructure," Mr Grabbe said. "We pay a charge to cover the cost of administration of the licences."

Mr Grabbe denied any knowledge of the internal machinations of the department in relation to the safety of his dam walls or the level of his water charges. He must be taken at his word, although when Howard Hobbs issued invitations to a 1997 meeting of the Coalition Water Policy Committee, John Grabbe was listed as committee secretary and his close Dirranbandi associate Henry Crothers was the chairman.

Out in Dirranbandi and St George, National Party politicians have been thick on the ground recently capitalising on the opposition to the Condamine- Balonne Water Allocation Management Plan (WAMP).

Queensland is now more than three years behind schedule in delivering a cap on water diversions from its one third share of the Murray Darling basin and is facing increasingly strident demands from the Commonwealth and other States to deliver.

The much delayed Condamine-Balonne WAMP proposes holding the line, at best, at a mid-1999 level of development. The farmers are replaying a variant of "We'll all be rooned, said Hanrahan".

Chief spokesman for the farmers is John Grabbe, whose Balonne Community Advancement Committee media releases can run to five pages without one mention of Cubbie Station.

"None of us want to destroy the environment," Mr Grabbe said. "If the river is being destroyed, it is being destroyed because we are doing what we were told to do. We were given entitlements to do things and we are doing nothing but developing those entitlements - clause one is that we have to do certain works and clause two is that we have to beneficially use the water."

When interrupted on the basis that the farmers had been given the entitlements because they had asked for them and the government, perhaps unwisely in some cases, had given them, Mr Grabbe changed tack. The river was not degraded, he said, and the science underpinning the WAMP had been shown to be flawed.

Coming soon from Dirranbandi will be a flurry of scientific reports and social and economic impact assessments commissioned by the Balonne Community Advancement Committee. Natural Water Resources Minister Mr Rod Welford had better be ready.

Other scientists and environmentalists don't believe the river is so well off. A world listed wetland just over the border in NSW, which the Commonwealth government is charged with protecting under international treaties, is the current environmental flashpoint.

NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service river ecologist Dr Richard Kingsford is predicting "a major long term ecological collapse" of the Narran Lakes, a world listed wetland just over the border, which hosts migratory birds from Siberia and Western China.

Narran is also one of the last major breeding grounds for the straw necked ibis, known as "the farmers' friends" for their appetite for plague locusts.

"The birds need a flood event every five years to breed and the best the Queensland WAMP is going to deliver is a flood event every 14 years," Dr Kingsford said.

"The ibis lives for eight years."

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This article was first published in The Brisbane Line, web Newsletter of the Brisbane Institute, on September 13, 2000.

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About the Author

Phil Dickie is editor of The Brisbane Line, Newsletter of The Brisbane Institute. His investigative journalism in the 1980s led to the Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption in Queensland.

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