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Byron Shire
May 13, 2021

Water Q&A with Austin Curtin from Our Future Northern Rivers

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Since Rous County Council voted to abandon the Dunoon Dam as a potential solution to the future water needs of the Northern Rivers, a new group has emerged called Our Future Northern Rivers. As of this morning, 74 people have liked the group on Facebook and it has 103 followers.

Austin Curtin. Photo supplied.

Tregeagle macadamia farmer Austin Curtin stood unsuccessfully for the Nationals in the state seat of Lismore at the last election. He is the spokesperson for Our Future Northern Rivers.

Mr Curtin agreed to answer a few questions from The Echo on condition that his answers were printed in full.

The Q&A follows.

QUESTION 1: Why is Our Future Northern Rivers running a scare campaign against underground water aimed at farmers and residents on the plateau, when Rous has explained on numerous occasions that their plan to use the deeper aquifer at Alstonville for drinking water will actually relieve pressure on existing aquifer sources for agriculture? Do you not accept their science? If not, why?

Austin Curtin said, ‘Where is the evidence that this is a scare campaign? Rous has to consult with the entire community and the community needs information they understand to make a decision on whether they want to be drinking water from the aquifers, desalination or recycled sewerage and drain water as a permanent water supply into the future. They are the only three options currently being posed in the revised IWCM document.

‘Ballina Shire Council’s Report of the Environment presented to the NSW Government, the Brodie (et al) report written by 30 well known scientists and the Chief Scientist’s report containing the Alstonville Aquifer all state that the Alstonville Aquifer is over allocated and under stress.’

Recycled water in Ballina is not currently treated to drinking water standard, although it is in many other parts of the world.

QUESTION 2: Why are you campaigning against recycled water, when this will also increase water availability in the region, including during drought, and has already been proven to be a boon for agriculture in particular?

Mr Curtin said, ‘We have no objection to recycled water being used for industry, agriculture and sporting fields etc.

‘But why would you use recycled water for drinking and showering when we live in the wettest region in the state with 2800mm annual rainfall? In the past four months the rain that has fallen in the upper catchment, if stored in a dam, would have supplied sufficient water during a four year prolonged drought period.’

QUESTION 3: Are you opposed to the pilot project to create recycled water for potable use at Perradenya?

The entrance to the Perradenya estate. Photo David Lowe.

Mr Curtin said: ‘The residents of Perradenya estate should make the decision on their water choices; but it also needs to be understood that the taxpayer will have to pay $4 million to complete the infrastructure.

‘The project will also require regulatory approval, political will and an opt in ratio to determine whether the project goes ahead.’

QUESTION 4: How does it help the community to talk about ’toilet to tap’ and the like, when purified recycled water is already a proven, safe technology in many places around the world and according to many experts inevitable for Australia, even in the traditionally wet Northern Rivers?

Mr Curtin said, ‘There are two types of recycled water, direct and indirect. Many communities around the world have limited alternatives and therefore have no alternative other than use recycled water. It is our understanding that there is no capacity for indirect water storage in the Rous system so direct recycled water is the only remaining option.

‘The use of direct recycled water is currently not approved by the Health Authorities in Australia. Additionally, there is insufficient sewerage and drain water available to provide the required water to everyone on the Rous grid particularly in drought periods.

‘Most people in the community have no idea what “direct or indirect potable recycled water” means but they do understand “toilet to tap”. And how is the general public supposed to make an informed decision on a long term water strategy for our region when public approval, regulatory approval, and political will have not been demonstrated.

‘There are no costings for the recycled water option in the revised IWCM document. What is evident, however is that recycled water is the most expensive option in a whole of life comparison of all three proposed options.’

Channon Gorge, threatened by proposed Dunoon Dam. Photo David Lowe.

QUESTION 5: Why are your supporters trying to get the Dunoon Dam back on the table now, when the idea has been rejected by vote at Rous, instead of being vocal during the long previous submission period when this was the subject under public discussion?

Mr Curtin said, ‘Due to COVID-19, Rous admits there was very poor cut through and communication with the general public regarding the previous version of the IWCM Strategy on public exhibition. Most people had no idea that public consultation was taking place. This is indicated by less than 1% response from the regional population where Rous supply water.

‘Additionally, for 25 years the dam had been on the agenda and the community assumed that it would continue to be an option. By informing the public of the issues associated with the current consultation, the outcome should demonstrate the wishes of the entire community.

‘There is currently a population of 110,000 on the Rous grid and the 5-3 vote to exclude the dam and dispose of the land at the December 16, 2020 meeting was a planned, deliberate act along party political and ideological lines.

Cr Simon Richardson as he appeared at the Rous County Council Zoom meeting during COVID.

‘In relation to removing the dam as an option the recording of the meeting hears Byron Bay Cr Simon Richardson say quite clearly, “I think sometimes what we’ve done is, we’ve burnt the bridge behind us so there is no retreat.”‘

QUESTION 6: Considering the well-known native title, heritage, environmental and flood issues with the proposed dam (not to mention the staunch opposition of the local community around Dunoon and The Channon), do you not accept the risk of protracted and expensive legal disputes if the Dunoon Dam issue is pursued?

Mr Curtin said, ‘There are many other issues that need to be considered with all four options and each must be thoroughly investigated. Unfortunately, the Ainsworth report is not publicly available so the community has no way of understanding the indigenous issues.

‘The threat of legal action and protracted disputes should not stop the majority from voicing their opinion and having their preferences thoroughly investigated. Don’t we live in a democracy???’

QUESTION 7. If you do accept these risks, how do you justify large amounts of public money and time being spent on an option which is likely to be a dead end, instead of dealing with the looming crisis?

Mr Curtin said, ‘Perhaps those carrying out the actions should consider this question… and who will be holding up the issue “in a looming crisis” of future water shortages. Each of the communities associated with the aquifer, desalination and recycled water options also have the right to express their opinions and concerns.

‘The Tyagarah aquifers are under the environmentally sensitive nature reserve. The proposed desalination plant in West Byron will have its waste outlet into the Byron Marine Park. Don’t those communities have a right to “have a say”???’

Proposed Dunoon Dam, now scrapped. Rous County Council.

QUESTION 8. Does Our Future Northern Rivers have any interest in pursuing other options to deal with the predicted water shortages in the Northern Rivers, apart from a new dam and underground water?

Are you familiar with Warrnambool’s rooftop harvesting initiative for example? Is this something that could work in the many new developments around Ballina and elsewhere in the region?

Mr Curtin said, ‘There are many water storage mechanisms and options available for new developments. We are currently addressing the water source that is relevant to the area serviced by Rous County Council.

‘At the moment the focus for Our Future Northern Rivers is getting the dam back on the table as an option for our future Water Security. It must be thoroughly investigated because none of the three options currently being offered individually or collectively are workable in the real world operations of the Rous County Council grid.’

QUESTION 9. What is your organisation’s plan going forward with this campaign? Are you planning to make the Dunoon Dam an issue in the forthcoming council elections?

Austin Curtin said, ‘At the moment our focus is getting the dam option back on the table as an option for our future water security. It was an irresponsible and calculated move to exclude the dam at this stage of discussions in the IWCM Future Water Strategy 2060.’

Public submissions are currently open for the latest draft of Rous County Council’s Future Water Strategy here. There is more information about what is being proposed here.


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16 COMMENTS

  1. What sort of answers do you expect from a nationals hack. No answers, no foresight, no reliance on evidence and a scare campaign. He does know the climate is changing? Likely trying to get his name known for next election.

  2. What a shame Austin Curtin isn’t more straight forward in his answers. Having met and discussed water issues with him, I know for a fact that he should understand there are two aquifers under the Alstonville plateau. Rous intends to utilise the Alstonville Deep Aquifer ( ADA ) , not the shallow sub-surface one that is used by farmers and “under stress”. I can only conclude he doesn’t understand the issue very well, or that he is trying to confuse readers by constantly referring to only the shallow aquifer. He is not alone in this – Sharon Cadwallader, the outspoken dam proponent uses similarly inaccurate wording when she talks about Rous’s proposals for the ADA.
    In fact, using the ADA , and getting out of the shallow aquifer is part of any plan by Rous , going forward, because even if the folly dam were to be constructed, the lead time is such that groundwater must be used. Both Austin Curtin and Cr. Cadwallader know this – that ADA will be used regardless , and that Cr. Cadwallader supported this last year. They just don’t tell farmers and the community- because then folks might start thinking about all the other problems with the dam.
    Austin Curtin, Cr. Cadwallader, and the rest of us have a very simple way of understanding the Indigenous Cultural Heritage issues at stake here – and that is to sit down and LISTEN to the traditional owners and elders. Having been told several times not to build a dam in that place, Rous finally listened. It’s about time Mr. Curtin and Cr. Cadwallader did the same. To repeatedly demand “more studies”, “more studies”, is not just to say “We don’t trust those reports” (yes there are two ) but to say “We don’t trust your words and we don’t care what you say” to the Widjabul-Wiabal who have continuously rejected flooding of that site.
    Mr. Curtin should relax, do some more research on modern water supply options, and let Rous get on with building a truly resilient drought-proof system

  3. Oh another lame duck National born to rule who wont take no for an answer. They are unrepresentative enough even when they do manage to get elected (only ever garner from 2-5% of the vote!) but it really takes the cake when failed candidates rejected at the ballot box keep on pushing themselves into public life. FUME. “OUR Future”? How presumptuous. I don’t think so thanks but NO thanks.

  4. Wow, just wow
    After the season we had last year and rainforests burning, how can any informed, half-sane person put forward these suggestions and notions?
    We clearly have a changing climate and not addressing this and sticking narrow-mindedly to outdated practices is negligent to say the least.

  5. There is a $20million error in the costing for the Alstonville Groundwater Scheme in the Rous Report and the Alstonville Groundwater Scheme will likely cost much more than reported (maybe $20million more, but there may be other errors in the costings).

    Page 83 of the PDF of Rous’s March business paper (page 58 of the consultant’s report) shows the cost of the Alstonville Groundwater scheme as $25,941,000. But the spreadsheet detailing the costs (page 147 of the PDF) shows five items with negative costs in the section labelled Marom Creek WTP with a total value of -$20,446,000 (the first item is “land acquistion (sic) savings” -$2,531,000″). These items are copied from the Jacobs report where these costs where identified (Page 17 of Jacobs’s Report) as “potential savings” from using Marom Creek WTP and are to be removed from Jacobs’s original option that included a new WTP for Alstonville Groundwater (page 16 Table 5) if Marom Creek WTP is used. Rous doesn’t have these items with negative costs in its option so they don’t need to remove these items.

    The costs for the Alstonville Groundwater Option should be corrected and the report reviewed for other errors.

    Rous’s March business paper is available at its website https://rous.nsw.gov.au/page.asp?f=RES-AUU-78-62-44
    Jacob’s report is available at Rous’s website https://rous.nsw.gov.au/page.asp?f=RES-TQK-65-50-21

  6. Thank You eternally Jim Richardson for the informed heads up, I learnt a lot. You obviously have a deep knowledge & understanding of the issue. I bet Mr Curtin will push these issues at the next election, knowing much of his propaganda won’t be challenged by those who don’t know the facts. As you say, it’s not that difficult understanding the Indigenous citizens attitude & concern over this dumb dam issue. Simply JUST listen to them, something that most Australians have not done for some 250 yrs. Why is this so hard to do ? I guess we just can’t expect any better from the Nationals , they are lethal & toxic. Their callous /disgusting attitude towards our long suffering Koalas is just one example of their extreme self interest which is unforgivable. I for one will never forgive them, not that I’m surprised at their arrogance & heartlessness.

  7. Regarding the Aboriginal heritage issue, Austin Curtin says “Unfortunately, the Ainsworth report is not publicly available so the community has no way of understanding the indigenous issues”. Have you thought of listening to the Aboriginal people themselves? Here is their media release about the dam in December 2020.

    Media Release 10 Dec 2021
    Widjabal Wia-bal Traditional Owners have told Rous County Council General Manager, Phil Rudd, that they do not accept the building of the proposed Dunoon Dam. The dam would inundate ancient burial sites and extensive evidence of occupation in the past and in recent times.
    John Roberts, a senior Elder of the Widjabul Wia-bal said, “I was one of the stakeholders consulted in 2011 about the impact of the Dunoon Dam on cultural heritage. In the 2011 Cultural Heritage Impact Assessment prepared for Rous, we stakeholders said with one voice that no level of disturbance was acceptable to us. We still say that. Nothing has changed”.
    “Our cultural heritage is a direct connection to our ancestors. These sites provide us with a link to our traditions, our land and our living heritage. They allow us to educate our young ones in their history.”
    A unanimous decision at the Native Title Services meeting last Tuesday called on Rous County Council to abandon plans for the Dunoon Dam. “So many of our cultural sites have been destroyed. To destroy more is unacceptable to the Traditional Owners,” said Mr Roberts. “We are tired of being ‘consulted’ and then ignored. Enough is enough”.
    Barry Roberts, John Roberts’ elder brother, said that Rous County Council’s plans for the Dunoon Dam are just the same as the Rio Tinto’s actions at the Juukan Cave in Western Australia. “We believe that the Australian people will not allow this destruction of our heritage to go ahead.”

  8. Under a changing climate that is becoming increasingly drier and unpredictable we need smart answers to water issues like water recycling not ancient technology like a dam. Dams lose large volumes of water to evaporation and emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases. Water recycling is proven technology and is the norm in many countries overseas. We need to build smart and resilient infrastructure for a future under climate change. Not another dam. This is outdated technology from last century.

  9. There is some a lot of disinformation in this interview. Here are a few corrections on the recycled water alternative for those who are interested:
    Q4 response: “It is our understanding that there is no capacity for indirect water storage in the Rous system so direct recycled water is the only remaining option.”
    This is not correct. Either of the two existing storages in the system could be used.
    Q4 response: “‘Most people in the community have no idea what “direct or indirect potable recycled water” means but they do understand “toilet to tap”. And how is the general public supposed to make an informed decision on a long term water strategy for our region when public approval, regulatory approval, and political will have not been demonstrated.”
    The term “toilet to tap” is both inaccurate and deliberately inflammatory. Public acceptance of potable reuse is also something that is widely achieved when people are properly consulted and presented with accurate information. Further, in relation to regulatory approvals in Australia (let alone California, Texas, Arizona, Virginia, Namibia, Singapore, Belgium etc. etc.), I’ll just leave this here: https://www.watercorporation.com.au/Our-water/Groundwater/Groundwater-replenishment
    Q4 response: “‘There are no costings for the recycled water option in the revised IWCM document. What is evident, however is that recycled water is the most expensive option in a whole of life comparison of all three proposed options.”
    How is this evident without costings, noting too that the power consumption figures for recycled water options in the Future Water Plan released previously were 2-3 times higher than typical for such schemes.”

  10. Austin Curtin, was recently published in the Northern Rivers Times as stating, “Why do we continue to watch all this rain fall across the catchments and let it run on out to sea? This is quality drinking water in its purest form and can be used to secure our prosperity into the future. Let’s protect and conserve our ground water as a matter of priority.”

    While it may appear that Austin has a minor point here, there’s several points in Austin’s limited, ‘sound-bite’ argument. Sadly, I’m yet to see the purity in our water that he speaks of. I indeed found the black-humour in a recent article regarding the new strain of Richmond Oyster that’s surprisingly resilient in the face of high levels of pollution. This is an oyster that makes it’s home in a river system that consistently receives a D- in purity, and is one of the unhealthiest rivers in NSW. If indeed we were watching our precious water run out to sea in a pristine ecosystem, devoid of water pollution induced for the most part by generations of poor farming and industry practices and management would be a luxury. In fact, under current circumstances it seems a longshot dream of several magnitude.

    As a farmer Austin, and as the spokesperson for the aptly named Our Future Northern Rivers you should know that one of our biggest assets to water storage, drought mitigation and the creation of water that is worthy of the title you bestow it is our soils. You should also know that regenerative agriculture and it’s associated benefits of carbon sequestration and the mitigation of continuing climactic extremes is really the only viable form of farming we have left to offer future generations.

    So yes Austin, let’s conserve our groundwater as a matter of priority. The building of a dam is certainly not the way in which to achieve said goal. As just the beginning of an ongoing campaign I would implore farmers, educators, spokespeople, business persons and others like ourselves to team up and petition, and demonstrate to our local, state and federal governments the need to implement a full scale regeneration of our catchment, our plains and our estuaries.

    The one thing we all have in common is the land base upon which we stand and the precious resources associated with it. In this case it’s the most precious of all; our water. If you and your team of concerned constituents are indeed genuinely perturbed regarding our collective prosperity into the future I suggest you look beyond throwing tons of concrete over another creek and begin walking the talk on your own farm.

  11. The “toilet to tap” is just false propaganda – Rous Options are for recycled roof water, of which there is successful expanding Australian subdivision projects which catch the water, send it to be cleaned up and then into the potable water supply, which effectively provides 100% of the subdivision and expanding areas water supply. This also increases the catchment, which would include Ballina, Byron Bay etc, that presently supply no water to the system. It would also be cheaper to the general population as the developers provide the subdivision infrastructure, and general Developer Contributions pay for the Councils infrastructure. The Nats like big infrastructure projects that use the publics money to benefit their developer mates.

  12. Has anybody in this argument actually ever measured and presented, let alone talked about, the whole-of-life-cycle carbon footprints associated with each of the water options being considered (Dunoon dam, versus desalination, versus aquifer use plus desalination, versus dam plus desalination, versus 2.2 million plastic 22,000 litre water tanks plus desalination, versus recycled water (or any other possibilities?

    If we cared about carbon footprint we would, wouldn’t we?

    • Good point. The Submissions supporting desalination all stated desal plants powered by ‘green’ energy. Certainly the worst greenhouse result would be the increased dam – re embedded greenhouse construction pollution from cement and construction works, with a permanent annual increase of emissions by the loss of flooded forest.

  13. 1. Mr Curtin said “‘Ballina Shire Council’s Report of the Environment presented to the NSW Government, and the Chief Scientist’s report containing the Alstonville Aquifer all state that the Alstonville Aquifer is over allocated and under stress.”
    Yes, but “Rous has explained on numerous occasions that their plan to use the deeper aquifer at Alstonville for drinking water will actually relieve pressure on existing aquifer sources for agriculture.”
    I guess he didn’t hear that part of the question.

    2. Re. the pilot project to create recycled water for potable use at Perradenya:
    Curtin said: ‘…the taxpayer will have to pay $4 million to complete the infrastructure.”
    He did not mention that the taxpayer has already spent $millions on two reports about the feasibility of a new dam at Dunoon.
    A new dam has not been built to date because of the findings of these reports.
    Mr Curtin and co., including “Big Rob” (who is incidently running for the next Lismore Council election*) and Rous Cr Cadwallader, would like to spend yet more of our public money on ANOTHER report about the viability of a new Dunoon dam.
    Also, the dam will cost at least $200 million (Ros Irwin, former Rous councillor) – letter to Lismore App, https://lismoreapp.com.au/news-sport/blogs-letters/letter-to-the-editor-ros-irwin-on-our-future-nr-and-a-dam-option?id=6080c720d5bdf708ad2828f7

    Curtin also says “There are no costings for the recycled water option in the revised IWCM document. What is evident, however is that recycled water is the most expensive option in a whole of life comparison of all three proposed options.” These two statements contradict each other.

    3. *Incidently, one of Mr Robb’s (Mr Big’s?) key policies if elected to Lismore Council is to “Protect culturally significant or sacred sites and matters of environmental significance through suitable consultation during the decision making process.”
    http://www.bigrob.com.au/policy.html

    Why then is he trying to “save the dam” (er, the one that hasn’t been built), when local indigenous groups have repeatedly been consulted as part of the aforementioned reports, and have said they do NOT want a dam built on this culturally significant site?

    4. When asked “Does Our Future Northern Rivers have any interest in pursuing other options… “, eg., for new developments on the coast, Mr Curtin said, “There are many water storage mechanisms and options available for new developments. We are currently addressing the water source that is relevant to the area serviced by Rous County Council. At the moment the focus… is getting the dam back on the table…”
    Curtin appears to think that innovative water collection systems being used successfully in other parts of Australia are irrelevant. Also, he seems unaware that Rous supplies the coast, from Ocean Shores to Evans Head, and that large population increases are forecast for the Ballina area.

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