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.
Yesterday’s motion was brought by Ballina’s Deputy Mayor Cr Sharon Cadwallader, with the support of Crs Eoin Johnston and Stephen McCarthy.
It called for Ballina Council to ‘send a clear message to Rous County Council that Council has major concerns about a secure water strategy for the region and ask that Rous County Council continue with further investigations as to the viability of the Dunoon Dam proposal.’
The motion also noted that groundwater on the Alstonville Plateau ‘has many demands on it and should not be relied upon as a major source of supply.’
Ballina council staff noted that a similar motion was lost at the last meeting.
Fear and doubt?
Bianca Urbina from WATER Northern Rivers Alliance spoke against the motion, which she said was seeking to divide the community. ‘It is capitalising on fear and using the same strategy that Trump used in the United States.’
She said it was ‘aggravating through misinformation, creating false dichotomies and pitching one community against another instead of moving forward, and it is not in the true spirit of Ballina Shire.’
Ms Urbina reminded councillors that the Dunoon Dam had been rejected twice as it would be ‘criminal to proceed with the destruction of Widjabul Wia-bal cultural heritage, and a rare ecological community.’
There was also a deposition from former Ballina Mayor and former Rous Chair Phillip Silver, who spoke strongly in favour of the dam and against over-reliance on underground aquifers.
Traditional owners present
Present in the Ballina council chamber were ten Bundjalung people, including several elders, amongst them traditional owner Uncle Roy Gordon.
Rous Chair and Ballina Cr Keith Williams told Echonetdaily, ‘I have never seen so many indigenous people attend a council meeting.’
He said that while most councillors acknowledged those present when they spoke, ‘no one really addressed the opposition from the traditional custodians.’
Cr Cadwallader said, ‘Having access to a safe secure water supply for our communities is the biggest most important issue that this council and our three neighbouring councils are facing today.
‘Being able to turn the tap on, fill a glass of water and drink it, cook with it and shower is of paramount importance,’ she said.
Cr Cadwallader said it was ‘sheer madness’ not to keep all options on the table, including the dam, before studies were completed and data gaps filled.
‘The time has come for us to unite and send a clear message to RCC that we are worried about not having enough water for daily living without water restrictions. And that is where we are heading,’ she said.
‘Our region is the wettest in the state with five times the the state’s annual rainfall. It is common sense to collect it!
‘Cost is a major consideration as well with the dam proposal being the lowest cost option,’ said Cr Cadwallader.
‘Families need to have enough money to to send their kids off to school with a good breakfast instead of spending their money on unnecessary water charges.’
She described desalination as the most expensive option, and said ‘the other options including groundwater and toilet to tap will cost an estimated $600M more than building a dam.’
Cr Cadwallader said that the region was looking at a water shortfall by 2060 of ‘5,630 Olympic swimming pools each year’ and said there was not enough definitive data about the Marom Creek aquifer to know if it could be relied upon as a major source of water.
Cr Jeff Johnson told Echonetdaily, ‘Cr Cadwallader is clearly running a scare campaign in her effort to keep the Dunoon Dam on the agenda.
‘There are such a myriad of options available that need further investigation that don’t rely on regular rainfall in a certain catchment area,’ he said.
‘For example the Warrnambool Roof Water Harvesting project has been government funded as a demonstration project to show how an increase in population (new buildings) can actually take pressure off the existing water supply by pumping rainwater into the catchment areas of the existing water storage areas.’
Cr Johnson said there was a ‘huge opportunity’ for similar initiatives in the Rous catchment area.
‘I’m hoping that Rous won’t just rely on ground water and that other options that reduce existing water runoff into our wetlands and other water ways are examined further.’
Cr Johnson said the only result of a scare campaign on water would be delays in further investigation of good alternatives.
The view from Alstonville
Cr Eoin Johnston voted for Cr Cadwallader’s motion to reconsider the Dunoon Dam. Citing a 2019 report from the NSW Chief Scientist, he told Echonetdaily that he opposed taking any more water from the plateau as the data on the groundwater source was inconclusive.
‘Rous Water claims to have determined accurately what is down there but that information, to my knowledge, has not been shared with the State Government.
‘The report states that bore water extraction can potentially impact water within the same aquifer, within a connected aquifer or within a connected surface water body, leading to changes in water quantity and quality,’ said Cr Johnston.
‘The concept of increasing water extraction from the Alstonville plateau to meet growing demands elsewhere should be rejected,’ he said.
‘The farmers and urban residents of the plateau must not be left high and dry when we live in an area with the highest rainfall in the state.’
Rous Chair and Ballina Cr Keith Williams responds
Cr Williams told Echonetdaily, ‘The Groundwater Strategy was fully laid out as an alternative in the Rous IWCM documentation and provides secure water supply beyond 2060.
‘Sharon claimed the Dam was $600 million cheaper. I pointed out the documented whole of life costs over 80 yrs were $650m v $900m. Much of that cost would be increased employment. This is not necessarily a bad thing.’
In response to the ongoing claims that not building the Dunoon Dam would put more pressure on the Alstonville aquifer, Cr Williams said, ‘The plans to upgrade the Marom Creek treatment plant and better utilise existing licences was to occur prior to the building of the dam and the plans are unchanged.
‘The upgrades would actually reduce demand on the Alstonville aquifer by sinking bores to a different aquifer at a much deeper level,’ he said.
Indigenous voices need to be heard
After the meeting, Cr Williams expressed his disappointment with the debate, saying the traditional owners have made it very clear they don’t wish to participate in another Cultural Heritage assessment.
‘They have clearly stated their opposition to the Dunoon Dam and remain resolute,’ he said.
‘There is no doubt the proposal is likely to subject to vigorous legal challenges on environmental and heritage issues.
‘I honestly believe the dam, whatever its virtues, will not be able to be built. Putting all our eggs in that basket becomes an increasingly risky strategy. We have viable alternatives,’ said Cr Williams.
At the meeting there was also a separate motion brought by Cr Phillip Meehan (with amendments supported by Crs Nathan Willis and Sharon Parry) for Ballina to consider an independent water strategy to Rous County Council, with greater use of local water resources locally.
In response, Cr Keith Williams said ‘Ballina should not and could not consider going it alone. We are part of Rous and that is what guarantees our water security. 90% of Ballina’s water is drawn from Rocky Creek Dam.’
Although the Meehan motion and its amendments were lost, Cr Cadwallader’s motion succeeded, with the support of Crs Eoin Johnston, Stephen McCarthy, Ben Smith, and Phil Meehan.
Surprisingly, Cr Sharon Parry also voted in favour of the motion (although she said she was opposed to the Dunoon Dam), saying she wanted more data.
The next meeting of Rous County Council, which will consider a rescission motion on the Dunoon Dam, will take place on 17 February.
More stories about the Dunoon Dam
Cr Cadwallader said earlier this year she’d be running for mayor in the next local government elections and that water security, particularly the dumped Dunoon Dam proposal, would be one of her key campaign issues.
The deadline for the Byron Echo newspaper is noon Friday and letters longer than 200 words may be cut for the paper.
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