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.
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.
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.
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