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April 22, 2024

No means no, say traditional owners

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L-R: Auntie Jennifer King, Auntie Lillian King, Auntie Leslie King, Auntie Marie Delbridge, Cindy Roberts, Auntie Lana King-Hunt. Photo Andrya Hart.

As Water Week draws to a close, with a theme of ‘Caring for Water and Country’, a group of Widjabul Wia-bal elders have emphatically said they do not want the Dunoon Dam proposal to be put back on the table by pro-dam councillors.

Rous County Council has just met for the last time this term with Chair Keith Williams at the helm. A new council will be elected following local government elections across the Northern Rivers in December.

Although the Dunoon Dam idea has been clearly rejected in 2021 (and twice before, following extensive public discussion), there are some vocal councillors in Ballina and Richmond Valley who seem determined to push on with the idea.

Last week the Ainsworth Report was published publicly for the first time, making a clear heritage case against the proposed dam. Now a group of local elders have spoken directly to The Echo about the pain and disturbance associated with the ongoing spectre of a dam in the Channon Gorge, which threatens a large number of significant Widjabul Wia-bal sites.

Channon Gorge area to be inundated by proposed dam. Photo David Lowe.

Aunty Leonee Nowta is Chair of Ngulingah Land Council. She is tired of having to explain why drowning the graves of her ancestors is a bad idea. ‘The only thing we can say is, look, we know our history, we know our stories. And at the end of the day, you know, this place is sacred to us.

‘We’ve got people buried there on the site of the dam they want to put in,’ she said. ‘This is going to be very heartbreaking to see such a thing happen, if they go ahead.’

Aunty Leonee is urging incoming Rous councillors to look carefully at the Ainsworth Report ‘and listen to what we’ve got to say. That’s all we’re asking.’

Water is life

This Water Week, as always, Aunty Leonee is well aware of water’s fundamental importance, but says other options need to be considered, apart from another dam on Rocky Creek. She says all decision-makers need ‘to really consider what you’re doing, not only to us but to those already deceased and laying in that ground.’

She told The Echo that many people have been coming to see her at the Land Council office in Lismore with concerns about the dam.

‘I see much that we can come together and agree on, without all this disharmony and animosity that’s going around, especially the racism that we’re copping,’ said Aunty Leonee. ‘We’re a peaceful people.’

An ongoing battle

Channon Gorge, near site of proposed Dunoon Dam wall. Photo David Lowe.

Aunty Marie Delbridge is another local elder with serious concerns about the Dunoon Dam idea. ‘They don’t understand what no means,’ she said.

‘It’s been taken off the table about four times and they keep bringing it back. We’ve been battling for a long time to try and stop it.

‘My family and I have ancestors buried out there,’ Aunty Marie told The Echo. ‘It’s my great grandmother’s country, and my grandmother’s. in 2013 Rous showed us how much land they were going to drown and it’s a hell of a lot.

‘At the last native title meeting I said, “Do you actually know what no means? How long have we been telling you what’s out there? There are scar trees. It’s a very significant place, you know?”‘

From North Lismore Plateau to Rocky Creek

Lismore’s Uncle Mickey Ryan is well known for his long fight to protect the ‘Sleeping Lizard’ in North Lismore from development. He was also involved in some of the early heritage investigations in The Channon Gorge and the valley upstream.

Uncle Mickey Ryan: ‘If they take away our history, we have no future’. Photo Darren Coyne.

‘We’ve come across 20-odd burial sites, and my grandmother’s grandmother is buried out there. My grandmother was born on the Modanville Mission,’ he said.

‘It’s all about respect, mate,’ continued Uncle Mickey. ‘They haven’t shown us any respect.

‘There might be token stuff they say and do, acknowledgement of country and all this business, but it’s about respecting our culture and our heritage and our existence, and in death as well, brother!

‘It just makes me sick in the guts, same as the North Lismore Plateau… I feel like just walking away but I can’t walk away, because it’s my ancestors.’

Protest opposing the Dunoon Dam. Photo supplied.

Uncle Mickey is also concerned for the rare plants and other heritage of the whole Rocky Creek Valley. ‘Our people lived out there and hunted out there. It’s all about the cultural significance of the place.’

Safe until 2060?

Uncle Mickey said his understanding from meetings with Rous is that the Dunoon Dam should now be off the table until at least 2060, but he is tired of a system that won’t take no for an answer and keeps badgering people.

‘They try to wear us down with a lot of stuff, and a lot of our people, they stood up and stood up and stood up and then couldn’t take no more and just wilted away,’ he said. ‘History says so. My grandmother spoke about it, the treatment and the policies.’

Uncle Mickey says the only result of selling out heritage is making people sick, and it needs to stop. ‘Show the people respect, brother. The land is respecting the people who respected the land. If we do that we’ll all survive!’

Widjabul Wia-bal Elders and supporters gather outside Rous office earlier this year. Photo Andrya Hart.

Strong connections to affected country from Roberts family

Uncle Steven Roberts told The Echo that Widjabul Wia-bal country has suffered enough with one dam on Rocky Creek, and doesn’t need another. He said neighbouring councils should find their own solutions to the water problem, if their populations continue to grow.

As one of untold generations on country to be affected by the proposed dam, Uncle Steven said he had a simple message for any councillors wanting to put the Dunoon Dam back on the table. ‘We want to leave our great great-ancestors, grandmothers and grandfathers; leave them rest in peace. Don’t destroy our heritage and all our sacred sites.’

Senior Elder John Roberts and his niece Cindy Roberts. Photo supplied.

Senior Elder John Roberts 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. There is no need for another study. Our opinion has not changed.’

WATER Northern Rivers have issued a statement saying they stand with the Widjabul Wia-bal against the Dunoon Dam. ‘We oppose any further studies and support the scaling up and investigation of diverse water options for real water security in the Northern Rivers.

‘Rous County Council plans to investigate desalination. They will set up the Perradenya pilot project for our very first purified recycled water plant in the Northern Rivers. We embrace Australian innovation and technology.’

A copy of the Ainsworth Report is available on the Rous County Council website.

More stories about the Dunoon Dam

How to supply water to the increasing population?

It is predicted that the next 40 years will see the demand for water increase by 50 per cent in the local government areas that Rous County Council supply with water.

Channon Gorge

Is our drinking water supply threatened by Dunoon Dam?

Most people don’t know that the proposal for Dunoon Dam has never been part of Rous County Council’s 40-year, adopted, strategic plan to increase water supply, resilience and security, known as Future Water Plan 2060.


Will the Dunoon Dam go ahead?    

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  1. A referendum seems the only way to resolve this issue. It is probably too late to hold a referendum at the local government elections, but a federal election is due next year and they can hold the referendum then. If Rous customers don’t want the dam to proceed, they can say that and the issue is resolved for ever. If Rous customers want the dam to proceed, then it can be included in the options to consider.

  2. Thank you David Lowe for this moving article.

    The Widjabul Wia-bal people are citizens deserving respect. Their sacred places are important to all of us. Our country is poorer if we decide that their opinion doesn’t matter, or that they should give up even more than they already have.

    It just doesn’t add up to destroy our common heritage to build a dam that is the most expensive and most unreliable option for solving our collective water problems.

  3. “following extensive public discussion” What rubbish !
    A pressure group and an assortment of aunties an uncles, seem to think they have the final say in what is an important community decision . The need for dependable and affordable water supplies, trumps the interests of a couple of groups idealistically opposed to any improvement of public assets that will greatly improve water supply security into the future.
    A referendum is not required , it is a straight forward obligation of government to provide the necessary requirements of a burgeoning population.
    The land has been purchased , the plans have been perfected. Build the DAM thing.
    Cheers, G”)

    • Like the submissions of 10000 or whatever submitted by the pro dam nationals group this year. Only wasn’t 10000 submissions but a petition which equals one submission. Now ken what do you think about people saying misleading information. One would not like to mention those deliberate lies about water recycling and ground water aquifers being spread, would they?

  4. Maybe as a first step start with a referendum amongst Aboriginal people, to see if Aboriginal opposition is widespread or has been cherry-picked to further a wider campaign of opposition.


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