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Exploring a threatened valley

Local landowner Jules Petroff looking over the proposed Dunoon Dam area.

Story and photos David Lowe

Jules Petroff and his family are literally at the centre of the proposed Dunoon Dam, which is intended to supply water to the shires of Byron, Ballina, Lismore and Richmond Valley.

Although their house would gain spectacular water views if the Rous County Council project were to proceed (with 40 hectares of their property on each side of Rocky Creek to go underwater), they remain implacably opposed. Echonetdaily went on a special tour to find out why.

Looking up from the Rocky Creek causeway, centre of proposed dam.

Mr Petroff said the last time the Dunoon Dam option was seriously considered, it failed from a cultural perspective, with important Aboriginal sites and other cultural heritage having to be destroyed, and it also failed in terms of aquatic issues and terrestrial ecology, with only economic grounds in the dam’s favour.

He says it ‘blows his mind’ that anyone is considering drowning the valley, and is still coming to terms with the new threat.

Family history

Mr Petroff has lived in the valley since he was a child. ‘My family moved here in 1973,’ he said, ‘They were very interested in agriculture and agri-forestry, as well as restoration of some of the native rainforest areas.

Petroff pecan plantation.

‘My grandfather Professor Len Webb was a rainforest ecologist and I’ve taken up his interest in restoration of this riparian rainforest.

‘It’s mainly been a cattle property and a run-down dairy farm that’s been reclaimed. We’ve planted a pecan forest here, 35-40 years ago, so these are very mature trees that are producing well now.’

Mr Petroff says the land intended to be flooded is not just farmland, but contains many pockets of well-preserved subtropical rainforest and lowland rainforest.

‘There was some excellent surveying done as part of the original Rous proposal in 2012-14, and that indicated something like 180 acres of vulnerable rainforest,’ he said.

Geology

The valley where the dam is proposed contains a transition between the Mount Warning caldera, with its red soils and basalt in rock flows from the north, and an underlying bed of sandstone.

‘The creek bed below the Fraser Road level crossing is all sandstone,’ Mr Petroff said.

Looking up the valley towards where the dam wall would be, in the Channon Gorge.

‘This stone then rises up towards the Channon end of the Channon-Dunoon ridge, so you get this huge high outcrop of rock which must be about 120m high, and there’s actually a sandy top on that ridge.

‘So we have this creek frontage rainforest that is embedded on sandstone, which is quite unique, at least at state level.

‘Eighty years ago, all the surrounding schools would use some 50 metre sections of the creek where there’s this flat bed of sandstone for their swimming training. It’s mostly smooth on the bottom.’

Mr Petroff said before Rocky Creek Dam was built upstream, the dairy farmer in the valley would sometimes have to bring his cream cans across the torrent on a flying fox.

Land care

Jules Petroff said it’s a strange irony that a major landcare project on his property would be destroyed if the dam went ahead.

‘The first stage is a $28,000 dollar for dollar grant with the NSW Fisheries, for riparian habitat protection,’ he explained.

An expensive Landcare fence built with a long future in mind, destined to be deep underwater if dam proceeds.

‘That involves the removal of camphor and other weed species, bolstering of the flora, and stock fencing so we can have off-creek watering for the cattle.’

Three further stages are planned, but all this work could now be for nothing.

Mr Petroff said he hasn’t had a chance to talk to NSW Fisheries about the proposed dam yet, and while he acknowledges there is a lot of information on the Rous website, ‘it does unfortunately take about five days of solid reading to get through all of that material!’

‘We’ve kind of been taken by surprise with the whole process,’ he said. ‘Individuals have put in submissions and included some of these arguments, but I have yet to put in a submission myself.

‘Things are so busy with the corona lockdown. Life certainly has its challenges at the moment.’

Fish impacts

Rocky Creek in the centre of the Petroff property.

Echonetdaily asked Mr Petroff about the fish in Rocky Creek, and Rous’s claims that the new dam would be a good thing for fish and recreational fishers.

He says the current flush of the creek stimulates aquatic culture to migrate, with numerous species requiring the flows to complete their life cycles.

‘The creek’s almost barren through the winter months, then you’ll get this burst of life, with rainbow fish and archer fish, the two varieties of mullet that migrate from the oceans.

Richmond River Rainbow fish (Melanotaenia splendida fluviatilis). Photo supplied.

‘We’ve also got eel-tailed catfish, they depend on the higher flows of the creek, but they’re usually seen in the shallows.

‘The nursing females will pick up the pebbles that are river-worn and deposit them in big nest sites with sandy bottoms.

‘They lay their eggs in those and then patrol them ferociously. Some of the swimmers at Whian Whian Falls get a little suction on their legs!

‘My fear with the dam is that life cycle will be broken.’

Mr Petroff says oxygen levels in the water are another concern if the dam proceeds.

‘With the putrification of rotting timbers and the run-off from phosphates you’ll get potentially algal blooms and other issues downstream,’ he said.

‘Large dams are notorious for fish kills. I gather some thought has gone into the environmental flows, but the mind boggles, really.’

A special part of Rocky Creek.

Mr Petroff said the creek is a haven for rare species such as the Clarence River cod and rainbow fish, as well as Australian bass, with risks of local extinction and ‘genetic islanding’ if the dam proceeds as planned.

‘I understand there’s not going to be a fish ladder, that would be prohibitively expensive, so I think that really puts the nail in the coffin for a lot of these native fish.

‘I dread to think what will move in, in their place, whether it’s carp or other introduced species. This is quite a sensitive ecosystem and these migratory fish need the running water.’

Other species also affected

Mr Petroff has concerns for the many platypus and koalas that live in the valley. ‘Platypus require 1-3 metres depth for foraging,’ he said. ‘With steeper creek banks, deep water and potentially land slippage, that’s going to be detrimental.’

He said his family are lucky enough to see platypus all year round in the valley, particularly in November, when they’re mating.

‘The males hold on to the females tails and they do various dances, like figures of eight. They lose their shyness and it’s quite a magical area.’

Large old river gums along Rocky Creek.

While most of the koalas live higher up the valley, around the proposed dam water line, Mr Petroff said there’s an important koala corridor that goes right through the middle of the proposed dam connecting different communities.

If this were to be cut off it would lead to a shrinking of the gene pool and less chances of koalas surviving future droughts and bushfires.

‘The birdlife is astonishing too,’ he says, ‘especially in dry times. This riparian rainforest is their life support system. We have black cockatoos, white-headed pigeons, rainbow fruit doves, wompoo pigeon, the emerald doves.

‘Some of these aren’t common outside this area, so it’s an important habitat.

‘I also understand there’s a rare skink in the area, a legless species, and lots of turtles, although they weren’t in the original ecology report, which surprised me.

‘We even get white-headed sea eagles coming in, at times of adversity on the coast, and the turtles are their primary food source.’

Widjabul-Wyabul heritage

While Jules Petroff says he’s not the best person to speak to about this issue, he is aware that the valley is very rich in Aboriginal heritage, including numerous burial sites and other important artifacts which would be destroyed if the dam proceeds.

Jules Petroff beside a large waterhole in Rocky Creek.

‘It’s quite a beautiful area, there’s a deep permanent waterhole that to my mind’s a bit like a hospital; somewhere you’d take an elderly relative to restore them.

‘There’s deep fishing spots, there’s a plethora of food. I suspect the people would have brought cunjevoi and cultivated certain species in this area.

‘There’s still remnants of large patches of edible plants, which would have been used to look after sick individuals, or for a tribe to have a ceremonial place.’

He said ecologists have been excited by many rare plant species still thriving along his section of Rocky Creek, including large old river gums, pepperberry, hairy joint grass, white beech, red cedar, black wattle, bauple nut trees and kauri.

Spiritual connections

Echonetdaily asked Jules Petroff about compensation for the destruction of all this if the dam goes ahead. ‘I gather they can compulsorily resume at market rates, whatever that is, he said.

‘But this is a sensitive issue that touches the heart strings. I’m nearly fifty and the vast majority of my life has been spent with some connection to this landscape, and I’m watching my children enjoy the creek system as I did, and I hope to one day see their children enjoy this environment, and I think that’s been pushed into jeopardy.

Jules Petroff with his daughters Georgia and Valentina and Honey the dog at the Rocky Creek causeway on his family’s property.

‘After a trip to the city to visit relatives, we come back and think why did we go away? This is so peaceful. To come and have a picnic down here, the stress levels are reduced immeasurably.

‘My work can be quite stressful and I find this a deep spiritual source. When I’ve been at points of my life where I’ve been at crossroads, it’s a place where I really come to reconnect with myself.’

Public submissions open now

Jules Petroff is grateful that the public submission period for the Rous Future Water Project 2060 was extended for a further 28 days last week. ‘That will give us time to get the community on board,’ he said.

He said there was ‘steady interest throughout the day’ at yesterday’s community information stall about the Dunoon Dam at the Channon Markets, with the public ‘very unaware of basic facts and curious to learn more about the impacted area’.

Mr Petroff would like to see more discussion about demand management and limits to growth, going forward.

For further information about what is proposed for the dam between Dunoon and The Channon, and detailed modelling of this and other options for the future water supplies of the Northern Rivers, go here.

You can provide feedback to Rous County Council about the Future Water Project here. Submissions close 9 September 2020.

Additional photos


More stories about the Dunoon Dam

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7 responses to “Exploring a threatened valley”

  1. Rossco Phillips says:

    It isn’t that long ago, but many of you ‘new folk’ probably don’t realize that we had to fight to stop Federal Valley and the Wilson’s Creek from being dammed ! They said then it was “essential” for growth !

    On and on it goes… ‘jobs and growth, jobs and growth, jobs and growth’…

  2. John Macleay says:

    Another dam so that people can wash their lawn mover grass-clippings off the concrete and down into the drain…. fantastic! Now, again, carefully …how do you spell conservation and water efficiency?

  3. Jim Richardson says:

    There are so many other better options also on the table – demand management, pure reused water, tanks, and the option to rapidly build desalination plants if shortages are impending. All of these other options are scalable according to need, unlike the Channon-Dunoon dam which is a single massive expenditure relying on estimates of a 2060 population!
    The community must make it clear to Rous County Council that we prize our indigenous heritage and our environment highly, and that we won’t throw them away when there are other intelligent choices.

  4. Philippe Dupuy says:

    Haven’t we done enough harm to this country? A project for 2060 so far ahead in the future is ludicrous.
    Climate Change could wipe out this project in years to come. Massive Bush fires could become the norm and render the dam unuseable as the ash and contaminated soil wash into the dam. Predicted higher temperatures would increase the rate of evaporation, Population projections could turn out to be a farce as male and female infertility continues to climb. And the budget will as always blow out no doubt.
    The alternatives? Desal plants are not just costly but a furfy simply because greed is not solvable by technology we need to reduce consumption in all fields before we are ourselves consumed. Desal plants produce a massive amount of salt which if dumped in the sea will destroy the sea floor as happened in SA.
    So we are left with the humble rainwater tanks which if managed efficiently could cater for years to come.
    How about trying it out right now and monitor the impact on the water supply? It will be very clear over a period of a few years how well this work. I for one would enjoy unfloridated water. And also let’s be responsible for our Sh** flush wisely.

  5. Emily Stewart says:

    You can rightfully take your hat off to Jules Petroff. He and his family are on the edge of despair and need to swear and yell “damn” when the combined shires of Byron, Ballina, Lismore and Richmond Valley.want to dam the Dunoon Valley next to his home and bring the dirty, polluted and corrupted city to where he lives.

  6. RONALD PRIESTLEY says:

    With all the debt that has been incurred with Corona Virus I can’t see funding for a new dam appearing for a long time. This is particularly because we have only had one year of real water crisis ( last year) so the need is not there..Rossco’s right STOP THE GROWTH. STOP THE POPULATION EXPLOSION.and STABILIZE A SUSTAINABLE NON DESTRUCTIVE ECONOMY AND SAVE THE PLANET is the only way to go.

  7. Luis Feliu says:

    A very informative story, thank you for getting it out, this should be posted all over social media and people will soon respond. Shame on the Rous Water councillors (especially the Greens ‘Quisling’, Simon Richardson) who voted for this option ahead of any demand management (reuse stupid!). WAKE UP! Most households on the Far North Coast flush their toilets with good drinking water FFS! This practice should be stopped as a first priority. As a Dunoon local my heart goes out to the Petroffs, being directly affected. I will fight this with them and no doubt hundreds of locals tooth and nail… only this afternoon, reports of Sydney dams overflowing (https://www.smh.com.au/environment/weather/sydney-s-dams-start-to-spill-after-a-saturating-six-months-20200811-p55koo.html) due to the recent downpour should put this into perspective, as we know saturation will no doubt happen here often, the dam area being in one of the wettest parts of the state. But we must speak out or ignorance will rule… I was saddened to hear our local shopkeeper tell me cockily that ‘you can never do without more water’ when I raised my concerns (she was happy to read about the dam plan at Dunoon on the Byron Echo’s front page). I’m sure she thinks they’ll make much more money from all those tradies dropping in for beer and smokes etc during dam construction. I now drive further to The Channon or Modanville for any urgent after hours groceries, so sadly the community may be divided by this.

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