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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
‘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.
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.
‘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.’
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.
‘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.’
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.’
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.’
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.
‘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.
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.
‘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.
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