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June 24, 2021

Dunoon Dam’s fate debated at Ballina

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Not happening. The view over to what would have been the Dunoon Dam, between Dunoon and The Channon. Photo David Lowe.

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.

Proceedings opened with a Zoom deposition from Bianca Urbana of the Water Northern Rivers Alliance in which she said, ‘Ballina Shire Council has an opportunity to go on the record now, uphold its reputation for innovation and support the steps that Rous County Council is taking to address long-term water security for our region, invite experts from across the country and implement new water supply options like roof water harvesting.

Senior local elder John Roberts and his niece Cindy Roberts. Photo supplied.

‘Will you support Rous County Council as they investigate the groundbreaking science and technology that is now being used in communities across Australia?’ she asked.

‘Will you support the move away from the Dunoon Dam toward innovative solutions?

‘Finally, will you respect the wishes of the Widjabul Wia-bal people and protect the land?’

Cr Jeff Johnson then changed his motion (which originally called on Rous to stop spending on the Dunoon Dam, now redundant) to instead ‘call on Rous to invite a range of water experts to our region from the private sector, government and university sector to hold public meetings and workshops to outline alternative options to the Dunoon Dam to secure our long-term water supply’. This motion was seconded by Cr Sharon Parry.

Cr Johnson said there were a number of alternatives to the dam that did not involve destroying cultural heritage or impacting threatened lowland rainforest, including water harvesting, purified recycled water, dual reticulation, water efficiency, and other options.

Cr Jeff Johnson speaks against the dam recently. Photo David Lowe.

He wondered why the dam had not been mothballed in 2011, saying traditional owners had repeatedly told Rous about the significance of these lands and that they did not want further destruction of their culture.

Cr Johnson said the latest dam proposal had caused a ‘massive uproar’ from the community, including water experts, indigenous elders and the wider community, with response to public consultation showing over 90% against the dam.

‘The backflip from Rous at their last meeting was a direct result of that public pressure and input,’ he said.

Expert submissions

Cr Johnson said expert submissions had made it clear that lots of work needs to be completed to investigate alternative options, including potable re-use and rooftop harvesting (such as the successful pilot project in Warrnambool, in which rooftop water from a new housing development was diverted straight into the system, generating more water than the houses used).

He said dual reticulation could also be ramped up, and that community education needed to be a big part of the next stage, as it was when purple pipes were first introduced.

Cr Sharon Cadwallader spoke against the motion, while not addressing its main points. She said the ‘complete backflip’ from Rous came as a surprise because the dam had been supported ‘in the main’, presumably by the silent majority she discussed the day before, with her Rous hat on.

‘I can tell you now that it wasn’t due to community pressure, it was due to political pressure, and that is a fact. And that really is not in the best community or public interest for decisions to be taken like that,’ she said.

Ballina Deputy Mayor Sharon Cadwallader. Photo David Lowe.

She spoke about the fact that in drought conditions Rocky Creek only had enough water supply for a year, and said Rous had already achieved great things with demand management.

‘In 1991 the 25,993 properties connected to bulk water supply connection used on average 484 kilolitres per connection.

‘In 2019 46,982 properties connected used 247 kilolitres per connection. So despite an 81% increase over three decades, council has overseen a 50% decrease in water being used per connection,’ said Cr Cadwallader.

Emphasising Rous’s achievements in water efficiency, she then said, ‘You can only get people to save so much water. We know on Level 5 water restrictions how difficult that was for the community.

‘Education campaigns have been done, but is that what our community expects us to do, to continue on with no secure water strategy for the future? I think it’s irresponsible that we don’t proceed with the Dunoon Dam,’ she said, especially as ‘groundwater at Alstonville has many demands on it and should not be relied upon as major source of supply.’

Heritage issues

‘Cultural heritage and ecological issues are of concern and always will be, but we have to act,’ said Cr Cadwallader. ‘It does concern me about the ecological and cultural issues, but there’s also European culture there as well as indigenous culture, in that area.

‘I think we need to send a clear message to Rous today that Ballina Council is concerned, and I have a proposed notice of motion that should this go down, and I hope it does, that we do have major concerns about a secure water strategy for the region, and therefore that we ask Rous County Council to continue further investigations into viability of Dunoon Dam proposal.

‘We have to secure the water for our burgeoning populations and our community expects us to do that,’ she concluded.

After the debate degenerated into questions going back and forth with no one switching on their mics, Mayor David Wright intervened: ‘It’s getting messy guys!’

When put on the spot, General Manager Paul Hickey said of Cr Johnson’s motion, ‘to be frank, I don’t think it adds a lot to the overall discussion, from my perspective.’

Gorge area that would have been impacted by dam wall. Photo David Lowe.

Cr Ben Smith said ‘I’ll make it easier for Cr [Keith] Williams – sounds like he’s had a pretty difficult 24 hours.’

Cr Smith said he didn’t see any particular bias in Rous’s work to date, but gaps remaining in the date, for example no EIS on the dam proposal.

Skipping over the indigenous heritage and environmental issues, Cr Smith said, ‘I’ve never been terribly supportive of dams, more broadly, but if Rous has gone through a significant process and the data adds up and there’s no other way to approach it then what’s the other option? We just basically die, because we need water to live, right? So let’s be quite blunt about that.

‘My understanding from Rous is that they’ve assessed a bunch of scenarios and tried to figure out a fifty year supply. Groundwater and demand management might give us ten years. For people thinking about an election next September that might be a good thing to think about, but that’s not good governance.

‘Same issue with climate change, we’ve got to start looking at the next fifty years and looking at hard decisions which yield zero benefit today, and are really unpopular for a large number of people, that will benefit people in the future.’

Keith Williams speaks

Rous County Council Chair and Ballina Cr Keith Wiliams. Photo David Lowe.

Rous Chair and Ballina Cr Keith Williams (whose vote scuttled the Dunoon Dam the day before) then took the floor.

He said, ‘I’ve got some explaining to do. This is the most difficult decision I’ve had in my time as a councillor, no doubt about that.

‘The point I need to make really clearly is that with or without the Dunoon Dam, we are not running out of water. Water security is guaranteed.

‘The dam was recommended as the most cost-effective option in the long term, that’s why it was put out for public consultation,’ he said.

‘I have spent a bit of time over the last couple of weeks talking to traditional owners in relation to that site, and it is quite clear that they are implacably opposed to the development of the Dunoon Dam.

‘And not just in a political sense but in a legal sense. They have some rights in relation to that land, and there is a land claim over parts of that site, and that would have significantly complicated the process of approvals, and things that would be needed to be done to have a dam at that site.

‘I came to the view that those limitations on the site were eventually going to prove insurmountable, and that by agreeing to the recommendation, which was really just to proceed with further assessments of the dam site, that that was really just delaying what was eventually going to be inevitable.

‘We would find at some point there was something we would not be able to get past, and the dam would not be viable. And at that point we would have delayed action on a bunch of other activities because we were focused the dam. We would have invested a lot more organisational effort. And we would have invested a lot more of the organisational reputation.

‘Personally that was a very difficult decision for me to vote against the staff recommendation. No two ways about that. But I believe it’s better for us in the long term. There are plenty of options,’ said Cr Williams.

‘The thing that drives me the craziest about this entire debate is we adopted yesterday [at Rous] our largest ever investment in water efficiency, in water loss management, $1.5m…’

He said Rous would proceed with the Perradenya Pilot scheme. ‘That’s one of our most important investments in the future, educating our community and bringing them along this journey.

‘To be honest I don’t think we need to be inviting lots of people to come to a workshop,’ said Cr Williams. ‘We’ll be releasing a re-draft of the IWCM strategy in March, and that will be Rous’s next step in the process. We will have a special meeting to consider that document, which will remove the dam as an option, bring forward groundwater and start to identify some of the other strategies.’

Insulting and arrogant

Cr Phil Meehan drew the discussion back to the Johnson motion on the table. ‘I cannot support this,’ he said. ‘That would be us saying we don’t have confidence in Rous County Council. I do have confidence in Rous and their staff and the years of work they have done in relation to this matter.

I think it’s insulting and arrogant and something that we should reject, to say to another council, “you’re not doing a good enough job, you don’t know what you’re doing.” I think it’s appalling. It’s a real shame that this was even presented to us today.’

Cr Sharon Parry. Photo supplied.

Speaking in support of the motion, Cr Sharon Parry said ‘it is not asking for Rous to do more homework, it’s saying we as a council want to know more about the options you have already been looking at, because we don’t support the idea of the Dunoon Dam.’

Cr Eoin Johnston said he would oppose Cr Jeff’s motion, ‘but I do have lingering doubt in my mind about whether Rous does need more help.

‘How did we get to the stage after all the preliminary investigations, and all the research and all the planning, from the staff at Rous CC, to all of a sudden at a pretty good hour down the track, items jump out at us that are very powerful; koalas, platypus, archaeological sites, indigenous opposition – why wasn’t this apparent five years ago, or twenty years ago?

‘Why has it come as a surprise to hear Bianca out there today doing a powerful submission, and I give her credit, even if I don’t always agree with Bianca.

‘Cr Cadwallader says it was politics, continued Cr Johnston. ‘Politics is the policy of the people, and the policy of the people in the hills north of Lismore is very powerful, very anti-dam, has been forever. Experienced campaigners. I just don’t get how we get to this stage and have these major items jump out and scare us. And it’s come to the stage where it’s not going to happen.

‘I am in favour of the dam – and that may disturb a lot of people – for a very selfish reason; I live in Alstonville Plateau, and one of the major alternative options to the dam is groundwater taken from the base of the plateau. Twelve months ago, it was under incredible stress.’

Mayor Wright’s angle

Mayor David Wright said, ‘I was pushing the dam 25 years ago, and there might have been a chance then, but the dam hasn’t been an option because of the opposition that builds up.

‘We are all under pressure. I can understand where Cr Williams was yesterday. Not that I don’t think Jeff’s motion isn’t a good one, I just don’t think it’s going to really do much. We all need to stand back and let things calm down.

‘We don’t know what’s going to happen with Rous, but I can’t see the dam getting up now, whether there’s a rescission motion or not.

Ballina mayor David Wright. Photo Eve Jeffery.

‘We’re in the ideal position to have a desal plant here. We’ve got a dam we can pump it straight to, and I believe that if Ballina Shire was completely self-sufficient in water, that would ease up the other three councils to have our spare water.

‘We need a big gun, and the big gun I think is desal. Let’s get some more information on it. If it’s not bad, we could make it the greatest solar powered battery battery powered desal plant in the world. I just want it to be considered,’ he said.

In response, Cr Johnson said ‘a Ballina deal plant would bankrupt the council. I find the idea preposterous.’ He also reiterated he was not in favour of switching straight to groundwater.

‘Rous do need more direction. Studies to date have been inadequate. Experts have been critical. This is a matter of urgency. I can see this will go down but I think it’s the smart thing to do, Rous has clearly failed us to this point,’ he said.

‘The Dunoon Dam was ruled out in 2011 due to cultural heritage issues, and now where are we? Let’s try to get a better plan that community can come on board with to secure our water supply, and not look at these expensive options that aren’t going to deliver.’

After all that, Cr Johnson’s motion was defeated with only Cr Parry in support. Cr Nathan Willis was not in attendance.

The story of Cr Sharon Cadwallader’s dam motion in response will be covered tomorrow.

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  1. Thanks David for a wonderfully informative piece of reporting. As one of the ‘silent majority’ I now feel fully informed about this serious issue

  2. Great Article. Thanks for the info. I am wondering we don’t the echo upload videos of these sessions or other relevant stories.
    Back to the conversation, and I hope someone reads this, there is an innovative way to save water if things get ugly: strategic agriculture. At the designed level of restrictions, watering crops has to be justified for local food supply only. Major exporting crops would have to subsidise their own water supply as they would have to give way to a essential use of water.

  3. A new dam will only happen when there is a major water shortage and the area is in real fear of running out of water, and all miracle solutions are nonviable because of cost (councils will have too much debt) or health fears (recycled potable water has very high consequences if something goes wrong) or other water sources have environmental concerns (just wait until the complaints start about the Alstonville Groundwater – people from 20km away will complain about Rous taking their water).

  4. Thanks to Ballina council and Cr Keith Williams for listening to the community and voting against a new dam at Dunoon.

    Our wicked waste of expensive drinking water to flush our toilets, water our gardens and wash our cars will deprive our children of adequate water supplies, not the lack of dams.

    This is the 21st century we can do better.


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