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Water and future growth: is a new dam the answer?

UPDATE: 3 August 2020, 3.20pm

Rous County Council is now going to consider extending public comments on the Rous Future Water Project 2060 for an extra month at an extraordinary meeting at 9.30am on Friday 7 August.


As the deadline for public responses to the Rous Future Water Project 2060 approaches, the community has been getting more organised, with lots of discussion online and a meeting of the Dunoon Dam Proposal Action Group in the Channon yesterday.

The new 50 GL dam planned downstream of the current Rocky Creek Dam is the centrepiece of Rous County Council’s plan for the future drinking water supply for the shires of Byron, Ballina, Lismore and Richmond Valley, but there have been calls for alternative approaches to be considered, including desalination, use of purified recycled water and greater efficiency.

Business as usual?

Former Byron Shire Cr Duncan Dey. Photo supplied.

Former Byron Shire Councillor Duncan Dey (and the leader of the local Greens ticket for the forthcoming local elections) told Echonetdaily the problem is that ‘it’s a business-as-usual plan’ which is based on sourcing new water from a new dam to meet anticipated new demand.

‘Limiting supply has never been a serious option for Rous,’ Mr Dey said.

He points to the example of Sydney Water using a demand management approach, in which there’s a variable price for water depending on the level of Warragamba Dam, providing an incentive for customers to use less piped water.

Mr Dey suggests Rous could manage demand by simply telling the four councils that it won’t expand the supply of new fresh water. ‘Rous’s current bulk sources could supply drinking water for ten times the current population, if it actively encouraged the use of other supplies for uses where the water is not ingested by people.

‘A human only drinks two or three of the 160 litres allocated per person per day by Rous. Using drinking water to flush a poo is ludicrous,’ he said.

Could Byron show another way?

Whatever happens with the Dunoon Dam, it’s clear that with climate change biting, Australians need to re-think their attitudes to water. Modelling suggests that there will be less water available in the future, and more extreme weather events.

According to Mr Dey, ‘Byron Shire could take a stand and lead the way, by capping its draw to a share that matches the current secure supply. We would then drought-proof ourselves by other means, and there are many.

‘One example is that an average house has an impervious roof that sheds more water per year than the household beneath it uses in a year.’

Mr Dey said that ‘if a decent price were asked of Rous for the environmental damage of its dam proposal, then the numbers would crunch towards a different proposal – a sustainable one that we could all be proud of.’

Desalination – worth another look?

Daniel Peterson. Photo supplied.

Goonellabah environmentalist Daniel Peterson told Echonetdaily that another dam could be avoided if Byron Shire’s water supply needs were decoupled from the other three councils and the region received its water from a renewable energy powered desalination plant.

He has calculated that ‘we need 2.5 hectares of standard solar farm to generate enough water to satisfy Rous Water’s alleged need for an additional 5 gigalitres per year,’ pointing out that the proposed Dunoon Dam, by contrast, would have a 240 hectare footprint.

Mr Peterson said that with desal for Byron, the remaining councils could then have their water needs met into the future by the existing Rocky Creek dam.

He points to successful examples in Perth, the Gold Coast, Victoria and South Australia which have dealt with the brine problem without damaging the environment.

Mr Peterson suggested that if the desal plant was run on renewable energy all year round, instead of just at times of drought, then the problems identified by Rous CC of starting and stopping a desal plant could be removed.

How will it be paid for?

Unless the people of the Northern Rivers start using much less water, whichever solution is chosen for the future water needs of the region is going to be very expensive.

Rous County Council Chair Keith Williams told Echonetdaily that groundwater, desal and recycled water each come with significant price tags. ‘The dam is put forward on the basis that it’s the lowest cost per unit of water produced in the future. It’s a large upfront capital cost but you don’t have to keep spending a lot of capital on it once you’ve built it.’

He said Rous has been putting money away for its future water strategy. ‘We’ve got over $30 million put aside in our long term financial plan, because we knew we were going to have to be doing something.

‘We’re also talking with the NSW Government to make sure we can access the concessional loan rates from TCorp, like other local governments.

‘We’re in an odd position because we’re a county council so we’re not automatically included, we want to make sure that’s addressed, so that if we do have to take out loans they will be potentially over 40 years or so, which is more reflective of the life of the asset.’

Rous County Council Chair and Ballina Councillor Keith Williams. Photo David Lowe.

Cr Williams said Rous County Council is ‘knocking on every state and federal politician’s door that we can’, looking for support.

‘State and federal governments have made it plain that they want people to build dams,’ he said.

‘They believe dams are important. We’re saying this is a well-researched, thoughtful proposal, it makes sense for our community and you should be supporting it with large amounts of dollars. But we haven’t got a firm commitment yet.’

Political support?

Cr Williams said Rous has met with federal member for Page Kevin Hogan, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and local state members about the Dunoon Dam.

‘If we’re classed as State Significant Infrastructure, that’s a minimum 25% funding, potentially it could be more like 50% funding. That means this is by far the lowest cost option we could pursue. Without state or federal money, it’s still the lowest cost option,’ said Cr Williams.

‘Even if we ended up having to take out loans for the whole thing and pay for it, this still stacks up financially as the lowest cost for the community over that lifetime,’ he said.

‘It’s the kind of thing state and feds should be supporting. They might say it’s not agricultural water, and no it’s not, it’s for people who need it. We would like this to be supported as a significant piece of infrastructure.’

Duncan Dey argues that the time has come for Australia and the Northern Rivers to begin weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, and also ‘to stop stealing fresh water from a beleaguered environment and throwing partially treated sewage into our creeks, rivers and oceans. The means are there but the will isn’t yet,’ he said.

All parties with an interest in the future water supply of the Northern Rivers are encouraged to make a submission to the Rous Future Water Plan 2060 by 12 August 2020.


More stories about the Dunoon Dam

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5 responses to “Water and future growth: is a new dam the answer?”

  1. louise says:

    Yes,on the driest continent on the planet, it’s ludicrous that we use expensive drinking water to flush toilets and water plants.

    I’m sure it would be cheaper to mandate all new housing have tanks. The cost wouldn’t be a burden for those building McMansions For existing homes surely it would cheaper for governments to subsidize more household water tanks than build new dams.

    Given the (mostly) high rainfall in the area, has any costing been done on recycling storm water to households and how that cost compares with the environmental and economic cost of new dams?

  2. Ken says:

    Loook !,
    The problem is the increasing population. Stop importing them !
    It does seem the inevitable influx of Corona virus ( the Boomer Remover ) will have a positive effect on this issue, especially with so many retirees in Ballina and Byron and with no expectation of a vaccine any time soon, plus the newly discovered debilitating and ongoing effects on those who do survive the initial infection,
    I think we can comfortably predict a decrease in demand.
    Looks like Gaia’s got this in hand. Cheers, G”)

  3. Graham Askey says:

    There really isn’t much of a case for the huge increase in storage promised by the proposed Dunoon Dam because any occasional seasonal shortage can be met by pumping up from Wilsons Creek. There is however a better use for a dam below Rocky Creek Dam. It could become smaller version of the Somerset – Wyvenhoe dams on the Brisbane catchment. That is the Dunoon dam could be constructed but left largely empty. It could then act as a flood mitigation storage which would only fill for a couple of days once every 15-20 years during a major flood. Potentially the temporary retention of 4 Gigs of flood water would reduce major floods at Lismore by 0.5m. The other 1 Gig could be profitably used as ‘pumped hydro’, again similar to Somerset- Whvenhoe. That would give Rous a reliable income stream to finance other water savings measures like subsidised household water tanks

  4. Roy Taylor says:

    Don’t worry about water no need for any storage solutions at all , every one knows you can get all the water you want from Woolworths and Coles also Aldi and IGA, so don’t get uptight about it .

  5. John Lazarus says:

    Decoupling Byron’s water supply from Rous would release funds to support of a local solar powered desal plant, as presently, while Byron is not getting fluoridated water all ratepayer are paying a water rates subsidy to Rous, to Flouridate all other Shires supply from Rous

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