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Byron Shire
October 25, 2021

Keith Williams puts case for the Dunoon Dam

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Rous County Council Chairperson Keith Williams. Photo David Lowe.

Rous County Council’s Future Water Project 2060 proposal has been on public exhibition for a week now. Echonetdaily caught up with Rous County Council Chairperson Keith Williams to dig into the detail.

Councillor Williams said the responses have been largely positive so far, with people recognising it’s been a thorough process. ‘People can see that there’s a lot of work behind it, but we haven’t had a lot of detailed feedback yet. There’s a lot to absorb there.’

He acknowledged there are concerns about indigenous heritage issues and environmental impacts, and says he expects discussion.

Cr Williams said that there will soon be new interactive graphics on the Rous website to make it easier for people to understand what’s being proposed without going through reams of paper.

‘It’s cutting edge stuff,’ he said. ‘We’re working with QUT, who’ve got this detailed model of the landscape. They’ve placed all this infrastructure in it and showed how it might connect and what it would do.

‘That ability to present it in a way that’s digestible for the community is really important.’

Widjabul-Wiyabal impacts

In terms of the indigenous heritage impacts (there are scar trees and graves in the area to be impacted, with 18 sites identified so far) Cr Williams said, ‘the point is to talk to the local people who are concerned, not just everybody around who’s got an opinion, but the people for whom this is actually a special place, who may have some relationship to the things that are there.’

He said that attempts to reach out to the relevant people, including Mickey Ryan, have so far been unsuccessful, but Rous Water was serious about addressing these issues via its Reconciliation Action Group.

‘We know this is one of the key issues we need to resolve,’ he said, ‘and we have to resolve it directly with people. It’s about being genuine in that process, and saying “if this is the best solution for our community, for our long term water supply, will you allow us to do this?”‘

Why another dam?

Rocky Creek Dam treatment plant. Photo supplied.

Cr Williams said that with a background in environmental studies, he’s ‘not a big fan of dams’ and doesn’t think they’re a solution for a lot of things, but in this circumstance it makes sense.

‘It wasn’t my first choice,’ he said. ‘I  wanted recycled water to come out on top, and I’ve been upfront with people. To me, that was a good long-term solution, but we can’t actually include it in the Future Water Plan because not a single facility in NSW has been licenced for potable reuse, anywhere.

‘Some people are using it for environmental water replacement,’ he continued. ‘That doesn’t work for us because Rocky Creek Dam doesn’t have an actual environmental water release strategy. It was built in the ’50s and it’s a solid wall. There’s no structure for letting water out. So we can’t replace environmental water, it’s not doing that.

‘We can encourage the local councils to do purple pipe systems. That’s happening in Ballina and Byron, and it’s good to see. But there’s limits to what we can do.’

He says the problem is at the NSW government level.

‘There’s a regulatory roadblock at the moment, and we can’t cost it. They’ve said that if we did get it to that standard, for potable reuse, we would be required to put it into the catchment system somewhere upstream, so that it took six months to flow into the dam. Even if you’ve got it to drinking water standard!’

What about desalinated water?

According to Cr Williams, ‘Expense and brine are big problems. The brine is a serious issue. You can’t just pump that back out to sea. It’s also heavily energy intensive. The fallacy is that you can run it only when you need it. It doesn’t work, because the membranes will clog up. There are huge maintenance issues if you don’t keep it running.

‘So you’ve got the most expensive possible source of water you can have, and it has to run all the time, not just in drought conditions. To me, it doesn’t make sense.’

What about extra efficiency?

Cr Williams acknowledged efficiency ‘helps a bit’ but said the situation changed in October last year.

‘That was the point at which we started to hit peak demand, in the dry. Suddenly water carters could not keep up with the demand from people that needed their water tanks filled. Everybody at that point, at the early stage of the drought, was reliant on the potable water supply. People with water tanks were running out.’

He added, ‘We ended up tripling the number of trucks that were licenced, there was a five time increase in the amount of water that was sold to commercial water carriers. We added the ability for households to take 1,000 litres of water at a time.

‘There was suddenly huge demand. Most people can’t have water tanks with the capacity to last the drought.’

Demand vs yield. Rous CC Future Water Project 2060 brochure.

Rous Country Council data shows the next big crunch coming in 2028, when projected population growth and climate change means the Northern Rivers will be running dry, hence the need for additional groundwater to carry the population over to when either the Dunoon Dam is built, or another solution is found.

Are properties being resumed where the inundation is planned?

Cr Williams said no properties have been compulsorily resumed, but nine properties in the affected area have been purchased by Rous Water by mutual agreement since this particular dam site was identified in 1995.

Another eleven properties remain in private hands.

He said the existing Rocky Creek dam wall cannot be raised because of engineering and environmental issues, and also wanted to emphasise that the areas of the catchment under the control of Rous County Council are the healthiest in the system, according to ecohealth reports.

Cr Williams said the organisation is determined to continue that legacy, with native rainforest vegetative buffers planned for the new dam.

Rocky Creek dam. Photo supplied.

‘This dam would be on the same creek and seven kilometres downstream, he explained. ‘We build a modern dam, with environmental water flows, we run that through a small hydro plant so we recover energy, we power our site from that.’

Cr Williams said the new dam would be designed to minimise environmental impacts. ‘You don’t want cold water stunning fish immediately downstream of the dam. There are things you’ve got to look at in terms of temperature integration and whether you’re drawing water from high enough in the column, so all of those things.

‘If you’re a genuine public organisation you look at that, and you build it in.’

What about the Whian Whian swimming hole?

Cr Williams says the map circulating on social media showing the swimming hole being inundated is wrong, and the proposed dam does not extend that far up the creek.

Rous CC Chair Keith Williams said this map circulating on social media is out of date and incorrect.

He added that Rous County Council owned that area already and would be looking at doing more rainforest restoration downstream of the falls. He also said people would still be able to swim, because the new dam would not be a protected catchment, unlike Rocky Creek.

The Dunoon Dam would be available for public recreation, including swimming and rowing.

What about groundwater as a standalone solution, instead of another dam?

Cr Williams said that was groundwater was the very first approach Rous looked at.

‘The problem is they have to be bore fields,’ he explained, ‘because a single one won’t be enough. So you’d end up with wellheads all over the coastal plain, like at Tyagarah, which is a wetland area that is intensely valuable in its own right.

‘And we would have to stick pumps under it and suck the bejeezus out of them to meet our town water supply. To me as an environmentalist there’s a whole bunch of environmental risks there. I really don’t want to see those ephemeral wetlands suddenly just disappear.’

He said the plan to draw upon the Alstonville aquifer and carry that water to the Marom Creek treatment plant doesn’t carry those risks, but is only a temporary solution, as the population of the Northern Rivers continues to rise and climate change bites harder.

‘With the climate change scenarios and the chance of those longer extended droughts, we’ve got to have more storage in the system and we’ve got to have more water put away for the bad days.

Rous County Council Chairperson Keith Williams. Photo David Lowe.

‘I understand a lot of climate science. It’s not belief, it’s knowledge, that this is going to hit us hard.

‘We’ve relied on being one of the wettest spots in NSW, we get lots of rain, we’ve got a dam that’s well-located, surrounded by rainforest so it gets filled regularly, but we can’t rely on that any more. Last year was the wakeup call.’

He said that when the rainforests started burning, it made the climate change point even more brutal. ‘The future is looking drier and hotter and that’s what it looks like. It’s scary.

‘We have to be prepared. This is coming at us and it’s coming at us fast.’

Public submissions on Rous County Council’s Future Water Project 2060 are welcome. You can get more information and lodge them here. Submissions close 12 August 2020.

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  1. What a load of bollox!! Positive response from community?? No way there are already action groups against this!! Destruction of sacred aboriginal sites and endangered fauna and flora!! Oh hell no!!

  2. What Cr Williams says does not make sense, so the dam does not make sense.
    He says the responses have been largely positive so far but then concedes the indiginous heritage isues and the environment are a concern.
    Therefore there is no credibility in what he says. There are world meetings in Paris and in other places where 100 or more countries are trying to solve impacts upon the environment.
    Cr Williams puts up another two issues to solve in our locality because of huge impacts upon the envirionment.

  3. Forward thinking & planning is required for our future water supplies & its about time these people against the dam pulled their heads out of the middens & came up with some of their solutions.

  4. Keith’s interview was well thoughtout. He I response was well, will oppose it no matter what without reason. Emily’s response again no matter what. If they read the article the dam is the only option due to all the issues identified.

  5. What’s missing in the discussion about the proposed dam is the issue of limits to growth. The project seems to be predicated on further growth of the Northern Rivers area with more and more people to be accommodated, a strategy being pushed by the NSW State government, and its local government servants, all based on ill-informed regional planning strategies.

    These ‘planning porn’ strategies from successive governments are nothing more than real estate development advertisements dressed up in weasel words without the necessary accompanying evidence to support the rhetoric. You have to ask the question cui bono, who stands to benefit and what attention is being given to inter-generational equity and the crap legacy we will leave behind through over development and destruction of the very things many of us value?
    Evidence made available to the public and local government many years ago showed that we were already past the ‘carrying capacity’ of the land yet despite the evidence governments have persisted with the ‘growth- will-benefit-us-all’ myth. This is part of the discredited ‘trickle down’ economics nonsense long past its use-by date.

  6. 1/.‘It wasn’t my first choice,’ he said. ‘I wanted recycled water to come out on top, and I’ve been upfront with people. To me, that was a good long-term solution, but we can’t actually include it in the Future Water Plan because not a single facility in NSW has been licenced for potable reuse, anywhere.
    2/. He says the problem is at the NSW government level.

    Try this on for size…
    How about the Northern River becomes that place where there is a single facility that is licensed for portable reuse water.
    Build the infrastructure..just like London and Singapore…where the from brown water is recycled to become drinking water…
    We need all the the spending at present with the Covid Shite happening… instead of another bloody toll road…

  7. The comment on water tanks is not good enough, that tanks wont completely supply a household. Tanks dont need to supply 100% of water supply for most of us. Tanks in a suburban setting are ideally set up to provide water to toilets, garden and laundry.
    Tanks are not all that great for water supply groups like Rouss, because the water in a tank is free, once the system is set-up. Rouss sells water, so creating infrastructure like dams and even recycled water is what gets them profit. Costly macro engineering are what they are after primarily.

  8. Sounds like Cr Williams has been effectively groomed. When I was in the Chair at Rous I pushed hard for more emphasis on demand management rather than ham-fisted supply-side solutions. They increased the DM budget, but in the usual passive-agressive way, knowing that sooner or later the pesky elected members who advocated a different path would be outnumbered.
    His comments on rainwater tanks don’t make sense. People who use rainwater tanks in urban areas reduce demand from the reticulated supply on an on-going basis. A reticulated supply (say from Rocky Creek Dam) could, indefinitely into the future, be used more as a drought reserve than a mainstream supply, if most people collected their own water. But there would be no big contracts- how boring!
    The proposed Dunnoon/Channon Dam would store some 3 times as much water as RCD. This will allow – in fact require – massive urban development in the County District – to pay it off.

  9. Where to begin Keith?

    “In terms of the indigenous heritage impacts (there are scar trees and graves in the area to be impacted, with 18 sites identified so far) Cr Williams said, ‘the point is to talk to the local people who are concerned, not just everybody around who’s got an opinion, but the people for whom this is actually a special place, who may have some relationship to the things that are there.’

    Nice try. Divide and concor. Straight out of how to write a press release 101. This attempt to de-legitimise opinions before public discussion begins is so transparent.

    All sorts of people have an interest in protecting remnant riparian Big Srub rainforest from being flooded.

    And for what? So McMansions on Tallows Beach can run 10 flushing toilets. How many Rous board members run a composting toilets? I guess not many. There is heaps that can be done with demand side strategies before another dam needs to be built.

    “Dams wasn’t my first choice,’ he said. ‘I wanted recycled water to come out on top, and I’ve been upfront with people. To me, that was a good long-term solution, but we can’t actually include it in the Future Water Plan because not a single facility in NSW has been licenced for potable reuse, anywhere.”

    Gee thanks Keith. Sounds like you cried yourself to sleep. Most of the water usage won’t be for drinking. It will be used to wash the boat or hose the drive way.

    There is no way we should flood Rocky Creek because Rous has commissioned some cookie cutter Cost Benefit Analysis. Send it to me and I will fix it up for you. We can change the discount rate or increase the intangible value we attribute to Big Scrub Rainforest and destruction of rainforest will no longer come out “tops”

  10. I respect that Cr Williams believes that this dam would not impact upon the rainforest. How many times have we seen environmental impacts studies that favour the participate/s over the environment. Really, sure the rainforest doesnt even mean much to him nor council, over what they see as progress

    Nan , has stated that this is particular special rainforest – warm temperate which is very rare at these elevations. Also, we lost over 54% of rainforest was damaged or destroyed in the 2019/2020 fires, so what little remains should be saved, sure they can find another location that is already cleared and such, than destroying rainforest which is can not be replaced


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