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August 5, 2021

MP steps into Dunoon Dam debate as county council defends and defies

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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

Rocky Creek dam is where most water for the region is sourced from. Photo Rous County Council.

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

Protectors Maddy-Rose Braddon and Hugh Nicholson outside a 2020 Rous County Council meeting in Lismore. Photo supplied
Protectors Maddy-Rose Braddon and Hugh Nicholson outside a 2020 Rous County Council meeting in Lismore. Photo supplied.

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.

Proposed Dunoon Dam, now scrapped. Rous County Council.

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

Ballina Deputy Mayor Sharon Cadwallader. Photo David Lowe.

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

Independent Byron Shire Councillor Cate Coorey . Photo David Hancock

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 Keith Williams. Photo David Lowe.

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’

One state MP is calling on the NSW and federal governments to intervene in water security plans for the Northern Rivers. PIC: Parliament House, Canberra. Photo Wikipedia

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’.


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16 COMMENTS

  1. Ratepayers need to get ready to pay a lot more for their water. Rous borrowed $45million to build the Wilson’s River scheme in 2004/5 and still owes $23million in debt from that, even though Rous raised water charges 3.5x and headworks charges 5x (or more) to pay for it. Rous are going to borrow $173million in the next 10 years, and plan for water charges to double. Based on previous experience it seems water charges will need to be a lot higher. The Lismore mayor (and Rous delegate) said water is “quite cheap” (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-05-27/water-supplies-for-nsw-north-coast/100166944). It seems the Lismore mayor and her colleagues are going to make sure water is no longer “cheap”. Lismore apparently has the highest water charges in Australia (see previous link) but they want to make water even more expensive.

    Rous’s report (p151 of the pdf and p150 of the report) shows the costing for the Alstonville groundwater scheme and there are $20million of negative costs for the Marom Creek WTP (negative numbers formatted to display in red in columns labelled 3 & 4, which are then totalled in the column labelled ‘Total All Years’ which is formatted to display negative numbers in black with a small negative sign to the left of the dollar sign). This is clearly an error because you can’t have negative costs. This means the Alstonville groundwater scheme will cost at least $46million, not the $26million Rous is claiming. There is also required infrastructure not costed (e.g. desalination plants to treat groundwater with a high salt content) that will cause the cost of the groundwater schemes to be much higher than projected.

  2. It’s simply extraordinary, even difficult to believe, how massive are the amounts of rainwater that flow off all roofs in this region.
    If people use more than a certain amount of water via their meters, then their price per kiloliter could easily be raised.
    This would encourage them to put tanks in instead.
    This in turn will enlighten them to the value and wonder of rain, and may also result in far less squandering, like excessive car and driveway washing etc.
    Us humans have got to wake up to many things.
    Water is one of the easy ones to be empowered with.

  3. It IS obvious why State, or even Federal government should have oversight on this crucial infrastructure decision.
    It is obvious that Rous Water has been rolled by a group of well organised professional campaigners, who’ve managed to shift the choice of a long-standing policy of pursuing the cheapest and most logical answer to the hideous overpopulation, resulting from the overpopulation caused by unrelenting immigration.
    Increasing supplies of water and other resources most be found and arguing that the most ideal dam location in Australia be scrapped and a mix of dubious, short-term alternatives will answer for the exponential population and increase in demand are at best fanciful, while the relinquishing of the purposed site is plain vandalisation of another publicly owned asset.
    Cheers G”)

  4. Cr. Cooery’s point is well made. Global warming predictions are for a drier climate into the future which puts a big question mark over relying on dam storage.
    The point that is not being addressed is population growth. 37% increase in population over the next 38 years must be reconsidered, constant growth on a finite resource is a recipe for failure. If , as some water experts fear , the situation will become critical within 3 years, then caps on population growth must be considered and the dam wil be 10 – 20 years in the construction, so it will not solve the water problem even if there is enough rain to fill it and keep it filled.
    We are in a new paradigm, old ways of thinking will not serve.

  5. Mr. Farraway may have had more credibility in his reported call for an independent study as a way to resolve the ‘wicked problem’ of water security in the region, if he hadn’t been appearing to pre-ordain the outcome. No one is disputing the need for water security, least of all those who oppose another dam on the grounds that it is high risk and not drought resilient. Nor is a dam the only way to capture rainfall, as several Australian stormwater harvesting cities have demonstrated.
    An ‘independent’ inquiry that failed to listen to the recommendations of the NSW Productivity Commission, the Australian Water Services Association, and the Widjabul Wia-bal people, would rightly be seen as a fig-leaf, as well as waste of public money.
    Let’s just get on and build a flexible, scalable, resilient water supply, not fight old battles.

  6. The article is misleading on an important point related to community support. The claimed 11, 000 submissions for the revised plan, should be clarified. How many of these ‘submissions’ were not submissions at all, but signatures to a petition. There is clear evidence that the messaging and methods used to gather those signatures was also compromised, in Lismore at least. I can personally attest to the misleading signage and information provided by pro-dam supporters at the Lismore Car Boot markets, resulting in complaints from some petitioners. A signature on a petition, however sincere, is not a submission.

    • Yes, this has been a snow job. People fooled into signing a misleading document are not petitioners.
      Dams are out of favour with well informed engineers worldwide. There are much more viable options.

  7. Well said Miriam, a submission involves writing more than a signature. The future water group I found very aggressive and very casual with their facts like Texans comments on recycled water from effluent and that they are a front for the National party not independent

  8. I am one of the many folks who are greatly relieved at the wise decision Rous has made to stick to the plan and drop the dam, and get on with creating a drought-ready, climate-change ready water supply, whilst taking care of Country and building stronger, healthier relationships with the Traditional Custodians of the land – who have spoken LOUD and CLEAR for their Country and the importance of their cultural heritage. I say a big thank you to the 5 sensible Councillors who have listened to the scientific and financial evidence and arguments and have arrived at the wisest plan forward.

  9. The petition that i’ve seen, which has Sharon Cadwalladers name on it, rejects all other water source options except the Dunoon Dam, even though as a Rous Councillor she has previously supported a range of water supply options. It appears to me that Cr Cadwallader is happy to mislead the community and try and scare people with her ‘toilet to tap’ catchphrase that she knows not to be true. It feels like a political strategy to boost her election prospects. Shame on you Sharon.

  10. It is very clear that the State guvmint’s push for population growth is the main force behind the revisit of the Dunoon Dam proposal. Growth has always been the mantra of the major parties in NSW. If you complain you are accused of being a NIMBY….’not in my backyard’…. or against the future of grandchildren who will never be able to live here, a specious argument at best!
    Before any further money is wasted yet again on the Dunoon Dam matter, Rous Council and decision-makers might like to revisit the “Discussion Paper, A Region of Villages” published in 2001 and supported by local councils and promulgated by Northern Rivers Regional Strategy Secretariat. The paper examined the ‘carrying capacity’ of the land, that is how many people can you stick on Far North Coast land sustainably. It concluded that we were nowhere near the carrying capacity of the land. Richmond Valley Council loved that conclusion as it has always been a council addicted to growth. Still is, as the State guvmint’s handmaiden. Richmond Valley Council started holding workshops with the local community with keen developer, the late Cr Sullivan, leading the charge. The workshops came to an abrupt halt when it was discovered that there was an error in the ‘carrying capacity’ calculation. Once corrected, the paper showed that WE WERE ALREADY PAST THE CARRYING CAPACITY OF THE LAND. Nothing more was heard of the paper and its concepts. The workshops ceased. The keen supporters disappeared into the ether!
    It is interesting to observe that when the data appeared to support growth all those with a develop-and-be-damned mentality wholeheartedly embraced the evidence but when the evidence did not fit their narrow view of the world, the evidence was abandoned. Such is the quality of decision-making in our political world.
    We need to revisit the concept of population growth as the Region of Villages Discussion Paper did 20 years ago and ask do we really want a 37% growth in population on the North Coast and if so, can the country sustain such growth ? This is a matter which is in our hands. Macquarie Street needs to stop imposing its developer-driven nonsense on us and future generations, and if it wants to be useful do a proper analysis on the carrying capacity of the land and propose a strategy for the future of the North Coast which is not just pages of empty rhetoric and glossy pictures without hard evidence. There are limits to growth and consequences if you ignore them. Take a look at what’s happening in the rest of world. The Dunoon Dam, if built, will come at a very substantial cost and that cost is not just $$$.

  11. There is a legal requirement that the studies which are not yet complete be completed BEFORE a decision on the dam can be made. The studies are predicted to take 3 years to complete. So, if there is a water shortage coming up in three years WE HAVE TO TAKE STEPS NOW and it cannot legally be to choose, let alone begin to build, a dam.

    Those in favour of a dam must not preempt this decision which hopefully can then be made based on scientific and expert grounds and not the massive scare campaign about drinking unsafe water or draining the top Alstonville aquifer which is not even in the existing Strategy -a huge body of water its in a deeper aquifer which appears to be unconnected to the one Plateau people now use. This fact about the studies to be completed makes a nonsense of the petitions in favour of the dam . Of course the decision to not include the dam means we can get started right now and we can avoid the costly 3 year studies.
    The need for more water by 2024 means that some aquifers and other demand measures, including recycled water, need to happen now. This means the expensive start up cost have to occur whether you favour a dam or not. Desalinated plant is an option for much later should there be a need so why give it undue emphasis? By the way, Cadwallader argues that desalination plants are rusting all over the world . I challenge her to name them?
    As to State Intervention, I for one would welcome the kind of investigation of the pro dam petitions that would then be undertaken. I am 100% confident that those petitions would not stand scrutiny and should never have been included. I am not expecting the State to get involved.

  12. Cr Cadwalladers push for a dam is pure divisive politics to create a platform for her reelection. if ROUS had voted to consider this second dam on the same catchment then they would first have looked at how much water it would catch, which is only the water that spills over from the existing dam. The existing dam was built with no environmental flow, and only overflows an estimated 10 to 30 %of the time. In extended dryer periods there is now overflow, yet it is these drier and extended drought periods when we would need it. Propose building a $M25 Dam without even knowing what water it would catch, or even if it would be useful in extended dryer and drought periods, shows the depths of Cadwalladers politicised nonsense. Cadwalladers cynical dam promotion is purely about her reelection not water security.

  13. There is not a black and white view on the dam as people would have you believe. There are many ecological sustainable people, long time locals, who support the dam as well. The dam can be done to allow for massive scale regeneration of the catchment area, including the area between Dunoon Dam and Rocky Creek Dam, which is currently in very poor condition. Look at Rocky Creek Dam, it was a barren landscape before it was regenerated next door to the big scrub remnant. Consider positive development instead of simply anti-development. Most of the dam inundation area is either open grassland or regrowth vegetation, Yes there will be negative impacts from the dam as well on cultural and environmental grounds, however it can also be used to generate wealth to improve a much larger ecological footprint than just protecting what is there at the moment. Base decisions on the science not the emotion, therefore do more investigations to determine whether impact is going to be more significant than benefit. The anti-dam brigade and the pro-dam brigade are too emotive and get all the media attention, mix in politics and we waste years and millions of dollars with no outcome. Let the science happen, we need more comprehensive investigations then let the people decide. I for one can’t make an informed decision based on the evidence at the moment.

  14. No one can make an informed decision until someone calculates he carbon footprints, over a 100 year timeframe, of all the options available

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