The Rous County Council has again voted against including a new dam in future water security investigations but new state political pressure suggests the debate is far from over.
Five of the eight local government representatives on the council voted in an extraordinary meeting on Wednesday to adopt and confirm the Integrated Water Cycle Management Strategy [IWCM] as earlier resolved in March.
The document outlines four key areas of investigation for future water security on much of the Northern Rivers, with experts predicting demand in the region to outstrip supply in just three years.
The future of the region’s water supply in four corners
Most water supplied to the Byron, Ballina, Richmond Valley and Lismore local government areas comes from the Rocky Creek Dam, under Rous County Council management.
But with a 22 per cent decline in surface water predicted by 2060 at the same time as an expected 37 per cent increase in the population’s demand, the Northern Rivers could run dry unless pressure on the Rocky Creek Dam is mitigated.
The IWCM features four key areas of exploration: connection to the Marom Creek water treatment plant, currently owned by the Ballina Shire Council; groundwater from Tyagarah in the Byron Shire and Alstonville in the Ballina Shire; desalination; and water recycling.
But an earlier version of the council’s Future Water Project 2060 featured a fifth option for investigation: a new dam in the hinterland, not far from the Rocky Creek Dam.
A tale of two petitions
Debate over the dam has been loud, passionate and determined on all aspects, from environmental and cultural heritage concerns to costs, flood risks and water purity.
Protestors against the idea of a new dam could be heard over the live-streamed council meeting yelling in the background, while most people who spoke during public access were either experts speaking against the dam or community representatives like Richard Tevan from the Our Future Northern Rivers group and Lismore personality Big Rob speaking in favour of the dam option.
The council last year received more than 1,200 submissions on its FWP 2060, mostly opposed to the idea of the Dunoon Dam, and voted in December to remove the option from future considerations.
But once news of the council’s decision spread, a campaign to revive the Dunoon Dam option started and by the time the revised version of the FWP had finished its exhibition period, the council had received more than 11,000 submissions, this time mostly in support of the dam.
Dunoon Dam divides councils
The council itself is almost evenly divided: the traditionally more conservative Richmond Valley Council representatives further south want to consider a dam (and also want to connect Casino up to the Rous County Council water supply) while Byron’s representatives in the north are publicly opposed to the dam and Lismore’s progressives have cited concerns over cultural heritage.
Ballina is less cohesively represented in the Rous County Council, with each of the shire’s two representatives taking opposing sides on the dam idea.
‘Ignoring’ petition for dam ‘just wrong’ says independent mayoral candidate
Independent Ballina Shire Councillor Sharon Cadwallader has listed the Dunoon Dam as one of her key concerns in her bid for mayor in September’s local government elections.
Cr Cadwallader described the petition signatures in support of investigating the Dunoon Dam as an ‘astounding result’ of public engagement with the IWCM.
‘It surprises me’ and is ‘quite alarming’ that [Country Labor Lismore City Councillor] Darlene Cook would ‘ignore 10,000 plus people who said they wanted the dam to be considered again,’ Cr Cadwallader said during debate on Wednesday.
‘People did want to have skin in the game in this,’ Cr Cadwallader said, ‘it’s important to them.’
‘That’s the majority that I’m representing here today… those who haven’t had their voices heard.’
Cr Cadwallader said the council had spent ‘well over’ $200,000 ‘and counting’ on public consultation and ‘to ignore’ 80-85 per cent of submissions calling for dam was ‘just wrong’.
Byron councillor calls for climate change considerations
But newcomer to the council representing the Byron Shire, [independent] Cr Cate Coorey, outlined concerns the majority had with the Dunoon Dam option.
Cr Cadwallader says technical advice over the past 25 years shows the Dunoon Dam is the most cost-effective water security option but Cr Coorey said on Wednesday that most people knew ‘bugger all’ about climate change thirty years ago.
The independent councillor referred to the unprecedented burning of Gondwana rainforest on Mount Nardi in the so-called Black Summer of 2019–2020 and said rainfall couldn’t be relied on to meet future water demands.
Cr Coorey has previously said she doesn’t think new dams are the answer to water security concerns and on Wednesday said she thought dam supporters were ‘driven by fear’.
‘And I understand that,’ Cr Coorey said, ‘but this dam is not the silver bullet, we need a secure and resilient water supply.’
Water security decisions shouldn’t be made in ‘Alstonville shopping centre food court’, says Chair
Cr Coorey also said of the Dunoon Dam that the ‘economics don’t stack up’.
‘Why would you spend an enormous amount on this when you can spend smaller amounts?’’ Cr Coorey asked.
The Byron Shire councillor, who announced her intention to run again for the council late last month, questioned whether the recent petition was truly reflective of the wider community and said of all who had contacted her about the dam, none was supportive.
Independent Ballina Shire Cr Keith Williams, also Rous County Council Chair, referred to the petition as happening in ‘an Alstonville shopping centre food court’ and said important decisions on the IWCM shouldn’t be made there.
Ratepayers, Traditional Owners, experts… and won’t someone think of the children?
Cr Williams and fellow Ballina Shire Cr Cadwallader exchanged rebukes at various times throughout the Dunoon Dam debate, with Cr Cadwallader calling for a point of order when the chair interrupted her speaking time.
Cr Coorey challenged (independent) Richmond Valley Cr Robert Mustow’s use of the word ‘contempt’ when describing the majority’s response to the recent petition, questioning how the Traditional Owners might have viewed his response to their claims on the Dunoon Dam land.
Studies on the Dunoon Dam and water security for the region were complex, Cr Coorey said, but the council had the advantage of expert advice from more than one qualified person making submissions.
The advice went against hopes for a Dunoon Dam, she said.
Cr Mustow had earlier said he wouldn’t ‘be around’ to see the dam in 2060 but that he was fighting for it as a ratepayer on behalf of his children and grandchildren.
‘I am a ratepayer and I also have children,’ Cr Coorey said, arguing against the dam, ‘so I’m doing this for them as well.’
Belongil water plant touted as future supply option
Fellow (independent) Byron Shire Cr Basil Cameron backed Cr Coorey’s arguments, saying climate change had to be taken into account.
The mayoral aspirant repeated his earlier stated argument that when it comes to cost versus security, ‘water security is paramount’.
Cr Cameron noted Cr Coorey’s suggestions for investigating Byron’s water treatment plant in Belongil as a future water supply option.
Water from the treatment plant is flooding neighbouring wetlands and farmland, Cr Coorey had said.
‘In Byron we have an excess of water,’ Cr Cameron said.
Rous County Chair denies misrepresenting community
Speaking after the meeting, Rous Chair Keith Williams said Dunoon Dam arguments were finished as far as the council was concerned but that he doubted the community was done.
Cr Williams denied accusations from Cr Cadwallader that he had failed to represent constituents by voting against the Dunoon Dam, saying the council’s decision to postpone selling the land reflected community wishes expressed in feedback.
The independent Ballina Shire councillor also dismissed suggestions the state government could take over a future Dunoon Dam project.
‘I cannot see any way that the state government can intervene in this matter,’ Cr Williams said, ‘this is clearly in the province of Rous County Council.’
‘We’ve complied with state legislation and we have really done a very thorough process,’ he said.
State MP says council vote ‘outrageous’, calls for ‘independent study’
But later Cr Cadwallader pointed to a media release from NSW Parliamentary Secretary for Water Infrastructure Sam Farraway calling for the NSW and federal governments to arrange an ‘independent study’ into future water security on the Northern Rivers.
The upper house MP had sat through the Rous County Council meeting and said it was ‘outrageous’ councillors had ‘ignored’ community consultation and staff recommendations.
Infrastructure was key to economic growth in the region, Mr Farraway said, and to ‘capture rain when it fails to sustain us during periods of drought’.
Mr Farraway said the community had ‘rightfully lost confidence’ in the councillors and called on the state and federal governments to ‘secure the long term water needs of the Northern Rives’.
Cr Cadwallader said the MP’s interest in the region was ‘very pleasing’ since the the five-councillor majority had ‘wiped the floor with the 11,300-plus people that wanted the Dunoon Dam back on the agenda so that it could be fully investigated’.