Water takes its place at the head of the table
THERE is an old adage that, to avoid heated arguments and acrimony, sex, politics and religion should never be discussed at the dinner table. In many parts of Australia, fresh water should be added to the list.
Australia is the driest inhabited continent in the world, with most of our landmass regarded as desert, arid or semi-arid. However, the far north receives huge amounts of mostly summer rain, with vast volumes of water wastefully flowing out to sea.
Many thinkers have been fascinated by the potential for diverting some of this water to the rivers flowing inland and south, where it could be used to substantially increase agricultural production and support larger population centres.
The most famous of the plans is the Bradfield scheme, named after John Bradfield, the chief engineer for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In 1938 Bradfield finalised his initial plan for diverting water from north Queensland, principally involving the Herbert, Burdekin and Clarke rivers. Unfortunately, long-serving, authoritarian, Queensland Labor premier William Forgan Smith rejected the scheme because of its estimated cost.
Bradfield died in 1943, but his visionary scheme has been studied and debated ever since.
One of the scheme’s highest profile and staunchest supporters is the feisty independent MP for the vast north Queensland seat of Kennedy, Bob Katter, who has been arguing since the late 1960s for its implementation.
Indeed, Katter came close to implementing the Bradfield scheme in 1981 while serving as state minister for northern development in the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government. Katter commissioned a study that found it was feasible in engineering terms, although questions remained about its cost and the volumes of water it would provide to inland areas.
Part of the interest in the Bradfield scheme comes from the fact he was a highly credentialled engineer who had a long history of interest in all things hydrological. Bradfield worked on an unsuccessful plan to build a series of locks and weirs on the Barwon and Darling rivers in the 1890s, which sparked his lifelong interest in better ways of managing this scarcest of Australia’s resources.
Bradfield also worked on the Burrinjuck Dam on the Murrumbidgee River, which underpinned the establishment of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area in 1912. Agricultural production in the region contributes more than $2.5 billion directly to the Australian economy, from a diverse base of fruit, livestock, chickens, wineries, rice and horticulture.
It is not hard to see why proponents of the Bradfield scheme are inspired by the potential of providing more water reliably to greater areas of inland Australia. It also can be argued that the benefits go far beyond increasing agricultural production and that it would encourage further development, in terms of bigger cities and towns. This would potentially take pressure off Melbourne, Sydney and southeast Queensland.
Further complicating elements in the debate about water management include the fact Australia’s largest population centres are located in the southern parts of the country, which regularly face water shortages.
There has been controversy over the construction of a 70km pipeline to bring water from the then parched Murray-Darling system to supplement Melbourne’s water supply. Critics demanded the Victorian government build a new dam, pointing to appropriate sites in the Gippsland where a dam could also mitigate floods. The debate was inflamed by the decision to build a desalination plant at exorbitant cost, particularly in comparison with dam construction.
Sydney also faces water supply constraints. One of the wettest summers in Australia’s history has lifted Sydney’s dams to only an average of 75 per cent of capacity. After severe drought in the early 1900s depleted Sydney’s supplies, two royal commissions were subsequently held to determine the best way to prevent a repeat of the situation.
More recently, Brisbane was facing severe shortages of water before the drought broke in such spectacular, and catastrophic, fashion.
As part of its efforts to deal with water shortage problems, state Labor in Queensland decided in 2006 to build the Traveston Crossing Dam on the Mary River. It was a controversial decision from the outset and there was vocal opposition from various interest groups, including farmers and environmentalists. The proposal was abandoned in November 2009 when federal environment minister Peter Garrett refused approval.
Heavy rain on the east coast has taken the pressure off governments for the short term, but population growth and the inevitable next series of droughts will undoubtedly bring the issue rushing back to the forefront.
Western Australia has experienced a particularly hot and dry summer and Perth’s water supply storages are at 23.5 per cent, with water restrictions in place. Premier Colin Barnett recently restated his long-held belief that water from the Kimberley region should be channelled to Perth.
In 2005, as opposition leader, Barnett committed to building a 2500km canal from the north to the south of the state as the centrepiece of his campaign. He failed to win that election but clearly has not given up on the idea of bringing water from the north.
Barnett may well be inspired by engineer Charles O’Connor, who designed and oversaw construction of the Goldfields Water Scheme in the late 1890s and early 1900s that was designed to support development more than 500km east of Perth in the region around Kalgoorlie. That pipeline continues to reliably supply water to more than 100,000 people and to significant numbers of livestock.
Part of the reason many of our cities are under pressure with regard to water supplies is that for many years there has been a virtual moratorium on building new dams in Australia.
Earlier this year, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott announced that the Coalition would develop plans for new dams across the nation and has begun a detailed review of water policy. Abbott’s announcement reflected the instinctive reaction of many people who, after years of drought, felt that more should have been done to store some of the floodwater inundating large sections of the country at that time.
Australia’s highest profile anti-dams crusader is Greens leader Bob Brown, who rose to national prominence during the campaign to prevent the Franklin River dam, which would have been used to produce low-emissions hydroelectricity. Brown and the Greens presumably would still campaign against new dams, regardless of their location, utility or contribution to climate change.
Population growth and droughts will force difficult decisions on us as a nation. The time to start planning for new dams in Australia is years before we face another huge problem about the lack of water.
Abbott’s welcome review should include the Bradfield scheme as one of many options that should be given serious consideration with a full cost-benefit analysis, before the next, and more severe, water crisis hits our sunburnt country.
The Weekend Australian, April 23 -24, 2011