Recently Echonetdaily spoke to two Ballina men from different generations and of different political persuasions who happen to have the same last name.
Jeff Johnson and Keith Johnson (no relation) are both strongly opposed to Rous County Council’s proposal of a new dam on Rocky Creek between Dunoon and the Channon, to supply water to four councils across the Northern Rivers.
Councillor Jeff Johnson was originally a Green but then became an independent. He was elected to Ballina Council in 2008, and also has a solar energy business.
He said he recently attended a briefing from Rous Water about the Future Water Project 2060, which is currently on public exhibition, and was surprised to find the long talked-about Dunoon Dam was no longer being ruled out on environment, heritage and cost grounds, but was instead now the centrepiece of the plan, and apparently ‘necessary to secure long term water security’.
Councillor Johnson told Echonetdaily, ‘I just think it’s yesterday’s thinking. There are so many options. Ballina’s already leading the way with re-use and that could be greatly increased.
‘Building big dams in our area for a single use strategy is not the direction we want to head into.’
He’s concerned about the ‘massive costs’ of the proposed dam, saying the presentation from Rous suggested ‘it was going to be over $640m in today’s dollars, over the 80 year proposed lifespan of the dam. We know if they build it in ten years time that cost is going to blow out significantly.’
‘Rous are the provider and they can put these costs into it and recover those costs through increased rates and charges for water, so residents and businesses will ultimately have to pay for it. I don’t think that’s the model we should be rushing towards,’ he said.
‘Organisations other than the water supply authority should be brought to the table.’
Cr Johnson said the underlying figures and assumptions need to be examined. ‘Rous are saying that there’ll be a doubling of connections. Well, most of those connections can be on recycled water. If we expanded the recycled water for existing large users, then the future demand won’t be anywhere near as high as that piece of paper suggests.
‘All the new expansion areas around Ballina, why can’t they be on a recycled water supply? If a lot of the new areas are on recycled water, why would there be a need to double our capacity for the fresh single use water supply?
‘The idea that we build a massive dam just so we can flush it down the toilet, and into the creeks and the ocean, in this day and age, it’s not the way forward,’ said Cr Johnson.
Another Johnson’s view
Keith Johnson was formerly in the RAAF (he is a retired Wing Commander) and served 25 years as a Ballina Shire Councillor, including six years as mayor. He was also on Rous County Council for two terms.
Mr Johnson is as concerned as Cr Jeff about the price of the proposal.
He said the cost of the dam will become a charge against the community in a variety of ways. ‘One, it will be built into the price of a block of land people buy to build their house on, and it won’t be cheap. Because you’ve got to cover a fair slab, $250 million up front. And bear in mind that the number of people that this will provide water for won’t be here yet!’ he said.
‘Of course they’re going to have to borrow the money, so that cost component is going to be borne by the consumer community, no matter what the councils do. In the end, the big costs and the small costs will all be borne by the consumer.’
Keith Johnson would like to see a closer analysis of the alternatives, particularly groundwater and tanks. Of Rous he said, ‘They’re not interested in getting the best answer, they’re interested in getting the straightforward answer, and they don’t want to do the work involved.
‘There’s no reason at all why they can’t look at and develop a system of households having domestic tankage. People who live on tanks are very careful about how they use the water.
‘That won’t alleviate the need for reticulated water, but it will alleviate the need for a huge bloody dam! And it gives people control over how much water they’re going to use,’ he said.
‘I know a country where there’s eight and a half million people, and they don’t have a dam. That’s Israel. They have mapped the aquifers from stem to stern. They’ve also got the Sea of Galilee. They use that. They’ve also got bores, and they do solar-operated desalination, and a few other things. But they don’t have dams.
‘They’re not the only people managing like that. Right around the world there are numerous techniques that can be applied to get water.’
Double or nothing?
Cr Jeff Johnson told Echonetdaily he finds the gross projections with doubling connections ‘just bloody horrendous.’
‘We need to have a serious look at whether that’s the direction we want to take the Northern Rivers,’ he said.
‘There’s already peak hour traffic jams. Infrastructure is struggling to cope with the existing urban growth in Ballina.
‘To ramp it up to that level, because the NSW government says there’s room to grow in the north, I just find there needs to be a lot more discussion on what sort of future do we want around here? That’s not the future I see for our region.’
Mr Keith Johnson said, ‘We need to look at innovation, not just apparent approaches, and analyse them sufficiently to work out whether you can reduce the cost of infrastructure. In terms of the economic merry-go-round, the numbers suggest it’s time to do a bit more homework.
‘The key message I get from what I’ve read so far is the analysis to date is incomplete. The bits that have been left out ought not to have been left out. They need to examine closely the pros and cons of domestic tankage and analyse how much it would really cost.’
Mr Johnson added that based on his experience, Rous were underestimating the potential quality and quality of available groundwater, especially around Alstonville, with an additional dam to be considered as a last rather than first resort.
‘You can’t solve every problem that comes along by spending huge amounts of money. We’ve got dams now, and people still have problems during droughts. The first responsibility in this day and age for governments of all shapes and sizes, is to spend their money very wisely, because debt is approaching a trillion dollars now,’ he said.
‘It’s not going to be easy in the future to borrow $250 million for your dam. And it will be expensive over time. So part of good economic management when it comes to infrastructure is to get the best deal possible.’
Cr Jeff Johnson asks, ‘What’s the rush? There’s no need to lock it off now. It seems like there’s a real push to get this happening even though NSW is currently doing its own review of the water demand for both urban and agricultural purposes in our region, and beyond.
‘Why would Rous want to lock into a long-term option when there’s further studies being done that may come up with other solutions?’ he asked. ‘If they’re looking to get grants or move to a more sustainable system, then we really need to be working with the state government, not Rous going with its own strategy when there’s more work to be done.’
Cr Johnson says water re-use has to be a priority, both in the Northern Rivers and beyond.
‘If we need another dam to cater for our increased use with such a high rainfall, how are all these rural centres in other areas going to survive? There’s lots of areas where they can’t possibly build dams.’
He suggested the NSW government will have to change its position on recycled water sooner rather than later. ‘To say we’ve got to build a dam because the regulations don’t allow us to use recycled water, that’s a pretty average situation,’ said Cr Johnson, ‘We’d have a gasfield up here now if we had that attitude!’
You can provide feedback to Rous County Council about the Future Water Project here. Submissions close 9 September 2020.
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