With numbers locked yesterday, the Chair of Rous County Council (RCC), Keith Williams, voted to prevent the contentious Dunoon Dam project proceeding, at a not-so ordinary Rous meeting in Lismore.
The meeting began with deputations against the dam from Duncan Dey, Bianca Urbana and Cindy Roberts, who was representing the Widjabul Wyabul traditional owners of the affected area, between Dunoon and The Channon.
Ms Roberts said, ‘As we gather together, and acknowledge Nguthunggali Ngadjanggali our creator, I welcome all my ancestors into this meeting today.
‘In regard to this proposal, from 1995 up until 2020 Rous was consulting with individuals alone, she said. ‘And some of those people were not the right people of the land to even be at the table having this discussion.
‘My family feel like the councils should have consulted more with the traditional owners of the land. In saying that, my people don’t agree with the dam, full stop. We are against the dam proposal. We don’t want the dam. There needs to be another solution and another way forward, without a destructive dam.
‘Water was never meant to be contained, water is spirit, and it belongs to everybody. Water gives life, water is life, and it belongs to the environment, it belongs to the waterways.
‘But not only that, the desecration of my ancestors, my great-great-grandfathers are all buried in these places. And yet you decide that you want to build and bury my people under concrete and flood them out, inundate them. Who does that? That’s immoral.’
Ms Roberts said Rous had been ‘unfair’ in their approach, and failed to meet the traditional Widjabul Wyabul owners as a group until 8 December, 2020.
‘That was the first time in 25 years. But our people still to this day say no to the dam. We can’t afford it.’
She said her people would be punished spiritually if the dam proceeded. ‘Because when our ancestors hunt us down they don’t come looking for you mob, they come looking for us mob.
‘I don’t know if you understand our culture, but our connection to the land is alive and well today. When you kill things, you kill us.’
Ms Roberts said it was a waste of time and money to do a third cultural heritage assessment, when two previous studies had found clear evidence of irreplaceable heritage on the dam site.
‘It’s not right for us, as the Widjabul Wyabul people. I speak on behalf of our ancestors today, who called me home for this fight. But I also speak for those that don’t have a voice out there.’
Things took an unexpected turn in the meeting when Lismore’s Cr Vanessa Ekins moved a motion to remove the Dunoon Dam from the future water strategy, following a community consultation period which resulted in over 90 per cent of respondents opposing the dam.
She said, ‘The first part of the resolution is we note the response of the community and overwhelming opposition to the Dunoon Dam.
‘The second part is we cease the Dunoon Dam as part of our future water options. That is because dams are not the future. They’re old-fashioned, they’re expensive, they’re destructive, and this one relies on rainfall and overflow from the existing dam, and all the experts are telling us that over 50 per cent of future water supplies need to be independent of rainfall.’
Cr Ekins said, ‘We need to get a report back from the General Manager about how we exit from the Dunoon Dam as an option, and look at the disposal of land.
‘The third part of the resolution is quite simple, it directs the GM to revise the Integrated Water Cycle Management [IWCM] Strategy… to focus on Marom Creek/Alstonville groundwater for the next ten years, to give ourselves lead-time to research direct or indirect potable re-use, which I believe is completely the future.
‘Direct and indirect potable re-use is a long term solution, and it can be brought online when and if future development occurs in this area.
‘As we know, this Future Water Strategy is all about future development, it’s not about supplying water for our existing needs. That’s what the groundwater solution is for,’ she said.
General Manager, Phil Rudd said that recycled water was still impacted by climate and drought, and suggested there was not enough water available for this to be the sole solution, with desal the only truly climate independent option, and presenting its own cost and engineering challenges.
The view from Richmond and Byron
Richmond Valley Cr Sandra Humphrys spoke next. Although she said she was supportive of the bulk of Cr Ekins’ motion, she wanted the Dunoon Dam option to be retained as a ‘fallback option if nothing else worked’.
Byron’s Cr Simon Richardson said he would support the no dam motion, ‘but not for the same reason as some others’.
He said, ‘I think we need to be very careful how much we declare that we’re driven by public sentiment. Our position is actually to be community leaders, not necessarily to use opinion polls.’
Cr Richardson said if they were to be ruled by public submissions, there should have been a referendum. ‘Having said that, I do agree that there’s very little social licence, and again I’m one who doesn’t support [the dam] myself.’
He wondered, ‘Are people going to be cool with paying much more for water? I suspect not. Maybe I’m cynical after a few years in public office but I don’t think people really want to spend any more, and they want the same ability to turn on a tap and get water out.’
Cr Richardson said, ‘Rous has unfortunately been thrown into the bad guy category when really, as the GM outlined, we’re dealing with a requirement to provide a lasting sustainable water source, within the current parameters of possibility.
‘What we need to do is shift this debate away from Rous somehow not caring about its community, even though we all live here,’ said Cr Richardson.
‘Rather than turning us into Metgasco and somehow we’re here to rape and pillage the environment for our own profits – which has been a really unfortunate by-conversation in this debate – it’s really about broadening this debate and saying what are the impediments to become a world-class water provision organisation? Why aren’t we doing it now?
‘We’re not doing it now because it’s really really hard to do it now. There’s all sorts of regulatory issues, there’s all sorts of legislation issues. We’ve got a government that really isn’t looking dreadfully hard beyond the dam.
‘If it’s dangling $100m and saying we’ll fund this for a dam but we’re not going to fund anything else, then we’d be a stupid organisation to dismiss that,’ Cr Richardson said.
‘We need to get some of these ministers around the table and get our local MPs to advocate for us and say look, the option of a dam is no longer an option, and that’s why I’m supporting this.
‘The technology exists, we need the political will to exist to make it happen. I think what we’ve done is burned the bridge behind us so there’s no retreat, and now it’s up to us and the state government to find answers, so I think that’s a fight worth having.
‘I would love us as a community to not rely on a dam, but use the water we create ourselves. By this motion we’ve got no other option but to explore this. I’m up for the journey, I hope our community is,’ he concluded.
Cr Cadwallader’s Ballina perspective
Cr Sharon Cadwallader said, ‘It’s been a journey and a half this hasn’t it? it’s been in the pipeline for decades.’
She said 2024 was ‘the critical point when we must do something. Having one year’s water supply in Rocky Creek Dam is scary stuff.’
She thanked the people who took the trouble to make submissions, but said ‘that’s only 1% of our community… so there’s a lot of people out there that haven’t made submissions for one reason or another. They’ve sat back and left it in our hands to secure their water supply for the future.’
Cr Cadwallader noted that the original Rocky Creek dam was built in 1953, and was designed to service 25,000 people. ‘Now it’s more than 100,000, and we can’t wait any longer to do something about it.’
She spoke about the effort and time that had gone into the existing Future Water Plan, and said she doubted that recycled water would be able to replace a dam, as a lot of it was already being used elsewhere (at golf clubs and parks for example).
While speaking in support of Perradenya, she said the council was running out of time to solve the problem without the dam.
‘We councillors have worked this whole term, and the councillors before, for decades. And now we’re going to throw this into the hands of a new council? Is that wise?
She agreed with Cr Richardson that cost was very important to the community. ‘That’s how water first became valued, because there was a charge for it, and people realised the value, and demand was driven down by cost.’
Cr Cadwallader said it was too early to make an informed decision on the dam, with significant data gaps still existing, although ‘cultural heritage will always be a major concern’.
She concluded by saying, ‘We’ve got to have the information on the table, we can’t just wipe it out, right here, right now, after everything that’s been done. I can’t possibly support this motion to get rid of the dam.’
The view from Lismore
Cr Darlene Cook said, ‘I’ve really agonised over this one. For most of my life I’ve supported dams, as the most economic way of providing water. The necessity for a very secure water system like the dam, I can see the value of that.
‘We need to find solutions that won’t impose an unfair cost on future generations, however the community that did respond in the period of public exhibition told us they don’t want the dam but they want all the other options to be on the table.
‘So that means regardless of long term pricing increases for water, we must explore those options that have previously been discarded as economically unfeasible, if we listen to those community submissions.’
Cr Cook then spoke about the non-economic costs that also needed to be considered.
‘We have to think about doing this in an environmentally sensitive way. And there have been a number of ecologists and environmental scientists talking to us about the endangered ecological community in the area the dam will occupy, particularly the rainforest species that are growing unusually on the sandstone shelf,’ she said.
‘They regard that as a really significant and unusual piece of ecology, that would be destroyed if we built the dam.’
She said that while she admired the regeneration work around Rocky Creek Dam, ‘there’s a vast difference between going into a replanted area and the old age forests. You go in the old age forests and you get this amazing sense of awe and reverence, it’s a really incredible feeling to walk through the original forests as opposed to replanted forests… there’s a big difference.
‘Another part of our role today is our obligations to care for and preserve the artifacts of the First Nations people. We cannot acknowledge and respect their ongoing connection to the land they’ve cared for for thousands of years, as we do at the beginning of each meeting, and then propose to bulldoze items of their heritage,’ said Cr Cook.
‘That’s what white people have been doing for the last 240 years, that’s not something we should be doing today.’
She noted that the Ainsworth heritage report from 2013 stated that no level of disturbance to Aboriginal heritage sites was considered acceptable, especially regarding impacts on burial sites.
‘I took that really to heart,’ she said. ‘I really think that is crucial, and I don’t see having yet another cultural heritage impact statement or assessment is going get different answers.
‘How many times do you ask people, do you mind if we bulldoze your ancestors, and they say no, how many more times do we ask them? Do we hope they will give us a different answer?’
Cr Cook said, ‘For a long term source of water that’s not reliant on uncertain climate change impacts, we have the chance to position ourselves as a pioneer and leader in this field.
‘We’ve talked around the table about indirect and direct potable reuse, we’re all excited about the project at Perradenya.
‘It would be really exciting if we could get this across the entire region, and show the rest of Australia how it can be done. But it also requires a long term program of community education.
‘We need to start the ball rolling now, not wait four years and then tell the community this is what we’re doing, now we’re going to convince you of it,’ she said.
‘We can do better than the dam. We need to put all options on the table, not just the most economically viable. There’s a lot of time and experience in the field, there’s a lot of people out there wanting to help us make the best decisions for our region, to bring the community with us, so I am supporting this motion,’ she concluded.
The view from Casino
Cr Robert Mustow said the proposed motion from Cr Ekins was a big step backwards.
‘I do get disturbed when I hear statements about going forward without a clear way,’ he said. ‘What happens if some of these options fail and don’t measure up? What do we do then? Truck in water like Stanthorpe? Try and do that for 100,000 people.
‘To take the dam out, sell the land off, there is no future way to get that water supply if we can’t identify alternatives. I think that would be very misguided and a bad decision by this council,’ he said.
‘I hear stuff like, dams are old technology. They might be, but every time you turn a tap on in this community, you are tapping into that technology. It’s served us well, and it will into the future.
‘No one wants increases, but here we are bypassing one of the cheapest options available. If people want all options on the table, the dam is an option, and it needs to be retained somehow into this motion,’ he said.
‘What Cr Richardson said was correct, sometimes you get a minority of people, so you really can’t be influenced by the public, just repeating what he said. But there’s still a silent majority out there. I’m getting people saying, and I see it on social media, build the dam, just go and build the dam. Well they don’t realise it’s not that easy.
‘I’m not hooked on the dam, I’d like to see these other studies come back and replace the dam, but we need to do this properly.
‘This was just done on a whim, today, we need a report that says if you get rid of that, this is what could happen to the water supply of our area. No one in this room has an idea because that report hasn’t been put to us,’ concluded Cr Mustow.
A surprising reversal from Chair Keith Williams
Speaking about a ‘fairly difficult process’ Rous Chair Keith Williams said, ‘I’ve got a whole lot of things to say, but I’m not going to say most of them. I have endeavoured as the spokesperson of this organisation to present to the community a balanced view of where we’re at.
‘I’ve tried to make a couple of fairly distinct points, one of these is that our IWCM [Integrated Water Cycle Management] Strategy has involved a lot of work, from some very dedicated people, and I would like to thank them for what they have done. They really had no other choice than to give us the options that they did, and in the order that they did, given the cost differences between those options.
‘In relation to what the water supply options are, I’ve been fairly clear that yes we are lucky that all options are on the table for us, including, I’ve argued, a dam.
‘I’ve also accepted that indigenous heritage and environmental factors are going to be the limiting issues on the dam,’ said Cr Williams.
‘The question we are trying to resolve today, is are those cultural and environmental factors that have been raised of sufficient merit that we should not pursue the dam any further?
‘I spoke to the General Manager yesterday when it became clear to me that there were four votes in favour of an alternative strategy, and that if I was to save the dam I would need to use both my deliberative vote and a casting vote, to do that, and I need to say after wrestling with my conscience and a fairly sleepless night, I’ve decided I cannot do that. I will not use my casting vote in that way on such a contentious issue.
‘I know that whatever way I go, that I will cop some criticism for that, and that comes with the decision. Anyway, I cannot in all conscience use my casting vote to tell the Aboriginal community that they’ve got to suck it up. And that’s what it came down to, for me, in the end.
‘I have a great and deep respect for our indigenous community, for the 50 or 65,000 years that they have lived in this place, where we sit now today. And that we should tell those people that their voices don’t matter, or that the voices of other people are more important than theirs?
‘I have been prepared to go with the strategy that we consult with indigenous people further, I’ve got to say I’ve had a very clear message over the last two weeks – please don’t. That’s not a message that I wanted to hear, and that’s not a message that’s very comfortable for the people to deliver, but it’s been pretty resounding.
‘So I cannot bring myself to then use a casting vote to overturn that history, to not acknowledge it, and to not demonstrate my respect for those indigenous people.
‘So on the basis of where we’re at today, I’ve decided I will support this resolution. That’s not an easy decision. But, I don’t believe we’re ever going to deliver it. Even with the commitment of lots of people around this table, we are going to struggle to deliver this against community opposition, and against indigenous opposition, and I don’t think that is worth the fight for the reputation of this organisation.’
Thinking of Rous as custodians
Chair Williams said, ‘we are like the traditional custodians, we are long term custodians of water in this region. We’ve been here eighty years and we’ll be here in another eighty years I hope, and eighty years beyond that, and we have to think like custodians.
‘Now I agree with Cr Mustow’s points that keeping something there is reassuring. But I am also reassured by the fact that we can supply our community with water. Yes there will be a cost. This will cost more. There is no doubt about that. We should not sugarcoat the fact that if we make this decision today in accordance with this resolution, our community will pay more for water than it otherwise would.
‘My apologies to the staff that we worked to this point and then in the last few days decided to pull back. I recognise the frustration in that, but I also recognise it’s part of the decision-making process and that’s why there’s councillors around the table that make the final decision.
‘I’m not going to say more than that.’
Cr Cameron closes the debate
From Byron Bay, Cr Basil Cameron (who seconded Cr Ekins’ motion) said, ‘The alternative groundwater options already identified provide a sound basis to be able to develop a more sustainable integrated water cycle management strategy, together with efficiency, demand management projects, and other measures outlined in this motion, we can achieve a level of water security that aligns with community expectations.
‘In particular, we must lead on the development of indirect and direct potable re-use, and we must lead strongly, taking the community with us,’ he said.
‘We can be the first to show the way and demonstrate to others how to overcome existing challenges. We must do this within this decade to support our community and the ecosystems on which life on planet Earth depends.’
Cr Cameron concluded by paraphrasing JFK:
‘We choose the goal of sustainable water security, not because it’s easy, but because it is hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our abilities and skills; because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.’
Afterwards, Cr Ekins told Echonetdaily, I’m really excited that Rous County Council is embracing the future by investigating recycled water instead of building a new dam. We have enough water now and bringing on groundwater from Marom Creek and Alstonville will give us ten years lead-time to investigate recycled purified water. It’s time we caught up.’
She emphasised how important community engagement on the issue has been so far, and will be going forward. ‘We don’t just turn on the tap, a lot goes into planning for and providing water,’ she said.
After the meeting, Widjabul Wiyabul woman Cindy Roberts told Echonetdaily, ‘Thank you to all who fought to protect my ancestors and our cultural heritage.’
As the Rous CC meeting ended in Lismore, parts of the city were beginning to flood as a result of intense local showers.
There’s now speculation that a rescission motion will be raised at the next Rous meeting on the decision to abandon the Dunoon Dam.
More stories about the Dunoon Dam
Yesterday's meeting of the Rous County Council saw the rescission motion go down 5:3 after another passionate debate, but Cr Sharon Cadwallader said she remained determined to keep the Dunoon Dam as an option for the future water supply of the Northern Rivers.
Both WATER Northern Rivers and the Ballina Environment Society have expressed their opposition to the rescission motion proposed for Rous County Council in regards to the Dunoon Dam.
Widjabul Wia-bal traditional custodians are deeply concerned about a motion proposed for Rous County Council’s next meeting, which would overturn their decision to cease all work on the Dunoon Dam, rezone the land and begin the disposal of Rocky Creek properties.
In our final story about some of the contenders to be Lismore's next mayor, the shire's longest-serving councillor, Vanessa Ekins, talks about her connections with the area, and hopes for Lismore's future.
On the same day that it voted to write to the Prime Minister to change the date of Australia Day, Ballina Council has decided to reopen the Dunoon Dam debate, even though the project was stopped primarily on indigenous heritage grounds.
Three pro-dam councillors have announced a rescission motion to be discussed at the next Rous County Council meeting, seeking to overturn the recent decision to abandon the Dunoon Dam.
Hot on the heels of Rous County Council's decision to stop the Dunoon Dam, Ballina councillors got their say on the latest twist in the future water saga with a motion from Cr Jeff Johnson.