Yesterday’s extraordinary meeting of Rous County Council included two more attempts to get the Dunoon Dam back on the table, both of which were defeated, 5 votes to 3.
The purpose of the meeting was to decide whether to put a revised draft of the Future Water Project 2060 on public exhibition, but Crs Sharon Cadwallader of Ballina and Robert Mustow of Richmond Valley each suggested amendments.
Ignoring the fact that the Dunoon Dam had been out-voted at two previous Rous meetings, Cr Cadwallader’s amendment called for Rous to concurrently consider the dam with other options, and continue geotechnical and other work, while delaying disposal of the land for at least three years.
She spoke about her concerns regarding over-reliance on underground water at Alstonville and said the next Rous Council (which would be responsible for implementing the later stages of the Future Water Plan) would need to have detailed information available about every option, including the dam.
Cr Cadwallader reminded councillors that ‘recycled effluent’ was not currently lawful in NSW, and compared the Dunoon Dam with the Pacific Highway upgrade, which she said had saved lives despite heavy environmental and other costs.
Pro-dam councils snubbed?
Cr Sandra Humphrys of Richmond Valley Council said investigation of the dam should continue ‘until other scenarios have been proven to be feasible’.
Expressing her disbelief that Rous was considering selling off the dam land, she described Alstonville farmers and two councils as having been ‘snubbed’, saying there were significant environmental and financial risks associated with non-dam water options.
Speaking against the proposed amendment, Byron Bay’s Basil Cameron said the Dunoon Dam was an ‘all our eggs in one basket’ option, and called for Rous to move towards decentralised water options and new approaches. ‘We do need to diversify, that’s our best protection in the long run,’ he said.
Ramping up the hyperbole, Cr Mustow said the community was in for ‘a world of pain’ if the dam was permanently taken off the table, and there was no certainty that Ballina Council was going to release the Marom source to Rous.
He suggested some of the other options ‘wouldn’t float’, including groundwater from new sources, desal and ‘recycled sewer’. Cr Mustow then proceeded to suggest that councillors who were members of the Labor Party had responded to pressure from Bob Carr, rather than the best interests of their communities.
Into the trenches?
After some heated argument, and a partial withdrawal from Cr Mustow, Byron Bay’s Cr Simon Richardson waded in, saying he was concerned about the risk of divisions widening in the community as different interest groups ‘jump in trenches and smash each other.’
‘That would be an incredible shame for this region if we allow that to happen or goad it into happening,’ he said.
Cr Richardson urged the involvement of ministers at a state level now that the path forward was becoming clearer.
‘This issue is multi-generational, it covers the whole region, and has state and national implications,’ he said. ‘We need those decision-makers around the table.’
Cr Richardson said he was ‘staggered’ that the Lismore local member had not managed to advance the issue or even respond to Rous in a month.
‘We need to go beyond pitting Alstonville farmers against Dunoon environmentalists,’ he said. ‘We’ve failed if we can’t manage this discourse in a civil way, to inform people about the implications.’
Cr Richardson said he was content for the revised plan to go out to the community for feedback. ‘I’m interested to see how many will get out of the trenches and explore the nuances of this.
‘We’ve made our decision and it’s incumbent on us to let the next council have the courage to go beyond loud voices and act for the whole community.’
Cr Darlene Cook said that the community had responded to the last draft of the Future Water Project, and paid attention, just as Rous had asked them to. She noted that concerns about the dam, groundwater and indigenous heritage had all been prominent in feedback.
‘This amendment looks like it’s trying to put a back door into the whole process,’ she said.
Cr Cook said it was undermining to sneak the Dunoon Dam back into the future water debate, and noted there were campaigns being orchestrated on social media against recycled water, ‘but also people out there who believe we should be looking at new options; stormwater reuse, potable reuse, better catchment off new developments, better demand management.’
Cr Cook noted that dams were increasingly regarded by the Productivity Commission as a waste of resources and money, after substantial cost-blow-outs with little water security to show for it.
With discussions currently taking place about a demonstration water recycling plant in Sydney, she said Rous was well placed to lead with the Perradenya pilot.
Rous Chair Keith Williams said the Dunoon Dam had already been put out to the community as an option, and ‘we got a clear message back from community that they wanted us to look at other options’.
Noting that Rous had a detailed groundwater strategy in place since as early as 2014, Cr Williams said it was now appropriate to ask the community what they thought of the revised strategy.
He described the proposed amendment as ‘just a way of keeping the dam project alive’, saying it would be ‘terrible if we were to go out with one document, but continue to do a range of other things in conflict with what we’re asking the community for feedback about.’
After Cr Cadwallader’s amendment was lost, Cr Mustow put forward another amendment at short notice, which was to poll all the constituents of the four councils regarding the dam and its alternatives.
Cr Mustow said, ‘They have to understand they will be drinking bore water, desalinated ocean water, and recycled sewage water. I see it as a grassroots poll for everyone to have their say.’
Most of his fellow Rous councillors did not share his enthusiasm, questioning the price tag of such a poll and the electoral commission complications.
Cr Mustow’s amendment failed.
Back to the future
In returning to the original motion, Lismore’s Cr Vanessa Ekins said that while she wasn’t entirely happy with the wording of the new report (which had some ‘questionable’ costs and not enough about recycled water) it did ‘send a clear message to our community and government that we support groundwater and recycled water and doing further research.’
She reminded her fellow councillors that only 2% of the water they were discussing was actually going to be used for drinking, with the rest used for things like ‘washing dirty socks, flushing toilets and watering gardens’.
Cr Ekins said she was keen to see what the public thought of the revised water plans for the next decades, with the next task after that to go to government to get it funded.
The motion to put the revised draft Future Water Project 2060 on public display was finally passed unanimously.
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