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Byron Shire
January 20, 2022

Water security needed and that means we need to think beyond the traditional dam

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Rocky Creek Dam treatment plant. Photo supplied.
Reducing water use will reduce energy used at the Rocky Creek Dam treatment plant. Photo supplied.

As two professional engineers, each with over 40 years of experience in the water industry, we support Rous County Council’s decision to start tapping into underground water resources to meet the growing water supply needs of our region.

We note however, that Ballina Shire Councillors Sharon Cadwallader, Eion Johnston, Phillip Meehan, Stephen McCarthy, Sharon Parry and Ben Smith do not seem to support the Rous Water strategy.

Instead they voted earlier this year in favour of further investigation of the Dunoon Dam, which in 2020 was estimated to cost $220 million. The dam is actually sized to meet a 70 per cent increase in population, but that cost would have to be funded by the present ratepayers – even though we already have enough water for our present needs.

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

What is a dam?

It is a barrier on a watercourse that floods land, takes water from a river, and prevents the travel of species along the watercourse. This flooding and disruption has a cost. It may not be apparent to a coastal town like Ballina, but Ballina’s fishery is dependent on the health of that river.

Also, in addition to flooding significant cultural heritage sites, this dam requires clearing 57 hectares of predominantly native vegetation including Big Scrub Rainforest.

According to Wikipedia, ‘the Big Scrub was the largest area of subtropical lowland rainforest in eastern Australia. It was intensively cleared for agricultural use in the 19th century by settlers. Less than one per cent now remains’.

The dam will also remove habitat and corridors for a range of important species – for example the koala, glossy-black cockatoo and platypus.

Rocky Creek. Photo David Lowe.

What does our future bring?

All the science points to longer and deeper droughts, plus more intense rainfall events. This is what we will have to live with. This leads to the consideration of water resilience and what it means. In short, it means that water supply sources, to cope with a growing population and a more difficult climate, need to be independent of rainfall.

Aquifer sources are ultimately dependent on rainwater, but have, in our case, large storage areas that do not evaporate. They are therefore more resilient than a dam and yet they offer us a lower-cost resource than the dam option.

Northern Rivers residents relying on tank water faced delays and restrictions as the previous drought worsend.

Independent of rain

The two main sources of water that are truly independent of rainfall are recycling and desalination. Neither is cheap when it comes to energy, but then neither is a dam when you count the energy required to build one.

Desalination uses about 3kW hours of energy per kilolitre of water produced, which is ample for the daily needs of a family of five. By comparison, a small electric household hot water system uses about 5kW hours per day. Potable recycling uses even less energy.

Given the low cost of solar power, desalinated water could be produced at a lower cost than dam water. One of the other key advantages of desalination, recycling and groundwater is that they can be scaled up to meet population growth and they can be deployed together to provide us with more flexibility to respond to changes in climate and technology.

A typical geological cross section of the Casino, Lismore and Alstonville area.

Danger of one solution approach

By comparison, the Dunoon Dam, which is intended to be located immediately downstream of the existing Rocky Creek dam, is a case of putting all of our eggs in the one basket – it provides very little scope to respond to future challenges and it represents a risky strategy with a high upfront cost.

We say to the councillors, let Rous Water provide Ballina Shire with the cheapest and best water supply possible when all of the considerations are taken into account.

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  1. And I’ll also be voting for councillors who want to save our money before building new infrastructure. Sydney Water added almost 1 million new customers by doing a comprehensive audit of waste in their system, and fixing it. Councillors who said they supported the dam as our main water solution (prior to the announcement of CSIRO’s involvement) are obviously not interested in saving our money. Increased efficiency can be combined with the solutions mentioned in this article to give us the most sensible and cost effective water supply solutions.

  2. I wish I could love (heart) this article! Well done Steve and Craig and thank you for the great explanation. It certainly seems a waste to use drinking water for flushing toilets, washing cars and watering gardens. I’m so proud of Ballina Shire Council for rolling out recycled water in our shire. I hope to see more of these types of technologies rolled out in future.

  3. As “professional engineers, each with over 40 years of experience in the water industry,” this smacks of vested interest, would it be possible these two guys are touting for work in de-sal,
    perhaps water mining or solar electricity ?
    Why else would they be presenting such a distorted and false picture, of the options 8their efficacy and the actual state of the site which consists mainly of weed infested, degraded cattle paddocks with very few native trees along the creek, 57 hectares is an outright lie.
    The idea that rainfall on this catchment could be so tenuous , and that aquifers that are just as dependent on that same rainfall, would remain unaffected, is preposterous.
    Climate change will be devestating and with the unsustainable population growth, every extra water storage will be vital for survival.
    Build the dam thing ! G”)

  4. A great explanation of all that’s at stake for Ballina in terms of rates rises and water security and why we don’t need to waste any more money on yet another study. The data is in. A big dam on a small catchment won’t solve our water issues. I agree with the previous commenter, Ballina shire is already doing a great job providing recycled water for gardens in purple pipes and drinking water in blue pipes in the new estates. Those residents can save up to 80% on their water bills. The smart water options, including fixing leaks and installing water efficient fittings will create many more jobs than a dam anyway.

  5. This article is a very useful contribution from 2 very experienced, Professional Engineers.
    “Aquifer sources … are .. more resilient than a dam” – agreed, PROVIDED fracking is competently managed.

  6. OMG, the are wanting to take the water out of the Great Artien Basin which covers parts of Qld, NSW and VIC. This water has taken millons and millions of year to form. If this is used in place of dams I fear for the whole east coast of Australia as the water that sustains all life will be gone.

  7. The Quatinah Barrage or Lake Homs Dam, located in Syria the oldest dam in the world STILL IN USE TODAY built around 1300 bc, rocky creek dam built in 1953 still in use today, building the Dunoon dam will assure environmental protection of the catchment area and water securtiy for centuries to come.

  8. If these guys are engineers then I hope they don’t get to build any dams, or anything.

    Engineering is a profession that engages in serious, quantitative analysis to determine things – not a woeful effort like this is.

    Note that their assertion of which option(s) would involve the least carbon emissions, and which they say would involve the most, is backed up by facts that go no further than A SINGLE NUMBER (for energy use per 1000 litres of water produced using desalination).

    We need a proper analysis of the carbon footprints of the various options over a 100 year timeframe. Not an overtly-politicised statement backed up by nothing more than a single snippet of information.


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