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Byron Shire
March 3, 2024

An unexpected vote for two Rous representatives from Lismore Council

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Last night the new Lismore City Council voted for two Councillors to represent Lismore on Rous County Council, even though the agenda was clear that Rous County Council voting had been excluded owing to the requirement for a minimum nomination period of 21 days.

The original advice to Councillors was that nominations would close on January 21. The staff report said that the Rous election will take place at Council’s Ordinary meeting on February 8.

The big one

Cr Rob put forward an Urgency Motion regarding the election of Councillors to Rous. ‘The big one – the Rous nominations and vote. I think this is the most important one of the night.

‘So the reason this is urgent, we’ve been in discussions and questions back and forward, myself and council staff. We realised there were some mistakes made in interpreting and how this was to proceed. So this vote now has to be held before the fourth of February. The next meeting is not till the eighth of February.

‘I think we can finalise the nominations tonight and do the vote. It’s quite easy. I don’t think anyone’s going to be disadvantaged – everyone’s here. And I think we should go ahead with this, without having to spend money on an extraordinary meeting.’

Mayor Steve Krieg agreed. ’I think we can resolve it tonight.’

Cr Rob said that the people of Lismore need to know who their Rous County Councillors are going to be as soon as possible. ‘I think it was the biggest issue coming into this election. The Dunoon Dam for example, is a big one. I think everyone’s waiting on this, and to make everyone wait until February will be quite devastating for a lot of people were quite stressful. And the last meeting is in February, so hopefully, we can just get it done.’

Four candidates for two positions

GM Michael Donnelly said there were four candidates for the Rous positions including Crs Cook, Ekins, Gordon and Rob. Each Councillor would have the opportunity to speak to their nomination.

Three major functions

Cr Vanessa Ekins said Rous County Council has three major functions – weeds and biosecurity, floodplain management and bulk water supply. ‘Water security is very important to our region,’ she said.

‘There’s no doubt it’s been a hot topic over the last couple of years. I have personally been involved in the future water strategy since 2008, when community reps got together with technical experts to look at a future water strategy. That strategy was to decrease demand on the reticulated supply with various strategies such as providing rainwater tanks, consumption charges and various other techniques to try and keep the reticulated supply for when it’s needed.

‘The second strategy was to provide affordable water when it was needed and where it was needed. And that was the groundwater strategy for those areas that are growing rapidly like Ballina, Byron and Evans Head.

‘The next part of that strategy was to look at when development increases significantly, and that’s estimated to happen in 2060. Then we would need recycled, purified water. 2060 is when we need enough big infrastructure projects. Think about how old we’re all going to be in 2060. That’s a long time away. And the other option, of course, was emergency desalination, which consisted of small isolated desal plants along the coast, because the coast is where the water demand is.

‘That strategy was developed in 2008, it was adopted in 2011 and again in 2016, and again in 2021.

‘I’ve been involved in that process that whole time,’ said Cr Ekins. ‘I’ve got a thorough understanding of the technical issues and the economic issues associated with these infrastructure projects and what the demand and the supply is and where that occurs.

‘I’ve been involved in it so long, actually, that I’m the longest sitting councillor that’s been involved in that, and I’ve actually been there longer than any of the staff at Rous who have been involved.

‘I’m very interested in continuing to provide my understanding and skills to that decision-making. It’s really important that we actually have a Lismore representative there because most of the development water demand is on the coast. So we don’t want a situation where the Lismore community is paying more for infrastructure that’s going to service the coast. We need to look after Lismore and make sure that the future water options that we choose are affordable, that they are incremental and that they service everyone.’

Dam position not followed by representatives

Cr Rob said he has been extremely interested in things around our community.

‘A lot of things. One of them is flooding, and flood mitigation is a big one that I’m passionate about. I’ve been doing it for years and I think I’m very well recognised for being involved with that. But another one I got into more recently is water security. I think it’s the biggest issue of the day. So big, that it was the biggest consultation response Rous has ever had with well over 12,000 people involved with that. And well over 10,000 of those supporting a position that wasn’t followed by our representatives.

‘I think the issue you know, there was other issues involved – obviously there was cultural issues and things like that I think need to be dealt with, but when over 10,000 people in the community say they want something I think the councillors representing those people should follow that.

‘I hope to get onto Rous so I can do what the people want and not to destroy any culture or to destroy anything at all, but literally to put it back on the table to be investigated fully so we can understand.’

Cr Rob said he heard Councillor Ekins’ various options. ‘Those options, no one who supports a fourth major option such as the Dunoon dam, for example, you’re saying not to reduce water use or to encourage the use of water tanks and implement water tanks and all those cost-saving measures are part of the process. But we need various options and we can’t choose the best option, if we take out one of the biggest options.

‘So desalination, little desalination plants around the coastline, they’re hundreds of millions of dollars in cost to build and run over their life and, and they use dirty fuel. They need a lot of energy. It’s very hard to get them going on solar so things like that. There’s issues with that. Groundwater. You know, if it’s not going to rain for years, as many say is a reason not to have a dam, well, groundwater is going to be depleted extensively, and that’s going to affect our farmers – we need to look at that.’

’Toilet water’

‘Recycled water – I’m one of the guys that calls it toilet water,’ said Cr Rob. ‘I certainly don’t want to drink it and if Lismore starts using recycled water, I’m leaving, or I’m going to drink bottled water, I won’t be drinking out of the tap. And I like Lismore water. I drink out of the tap all the time and I don’t want to see it changed. As much as anyone says recycled, it’s going to be beautiful. My intention is to get on to Rous and then try and do what the people want, and the overwhelming majority of people.’

Short and sweet

Cr Andrew Gordon kept it short and sweet. ‘Water security and a strategy to achieve that goal is so important to the future of this local government area. And I really, really want to be part of that to ensure that the community is properly represented, and that mandate is given to that people of this LGA to ensure we have a sustainable future.’

Not just about bulk water supply

Cr Darlene Cook echoed Cr Ekins in saying Rous is not just about bulk water supply.

‘That is what seems to be the concentration of some Councillors here in their presentation. Rous is about flood mitigation. It is about the river health. The Richmond River from the headwaters way up at the back of Murwillumbah, right through to the coast including coastal zone management. It’s about the black water. It’s about the flood levees, as well as working with volunteers to try and stop black water events happening along the river. It’s about looking at ways and means that we can stop the continued acid sulphur leaching into the river.

‘There are a lot of things that Rous does in this field, but what it is not responsible for is flood mitigation in Lismore. That is the role of the flood mitigation committee and Lismore Council.’

Cr Cook said Rous also looks at weed biosecurity over six LGAs. ‘It’s responsible for coordinating the top third of the state and it is responsible for eliminating, preventing and repairing landscapes and waterscapes that have been invaded by noxious weeds. It’s a massive undertaking and everybody seems to forget that third wing of Rous. It’s a vitally important biosecurity wing and it needs massive support from this council, which it doesn’t seem to get.

‘I’m very passionate about both – the flood mitigation and the river health throughout the whole river system and the weed biosecurity – that’s something I really want to work with and it’s something I’ve been passionate about for a while.’

Cr Cook said as far as water security is concerned, she wanted to remind the Council that it is the position of the Lismore City Council not to support the dam.

Changing the decision at Rous will not make a difference to the dam

‘The New South Wales Productivity Commission does not support the dam. The state government has ordered CSIRO to investigate the full river health as well as urban and rural water supplies, which may include the proposed Dunoon dam and probably will include Toonumbar dam – so changing the decision at Rous County Council is not going to make a difference to the dam because you can’t supersede the state government already allocating to itself, the role of getting CSIRO to do an independent study upon it.

‘And as I said the New South Wales Productivity Commission’s recommendation to the state government was not to pursue any further dams – to build a trial recycled water plant, look at desal water and look at groundwater. The state government has taken that on board to the extent that the premier recently de-commissioned the previous premier’s signature program for four big expensive dams. And he’s taken them off the table because they’re environmentally damaging, and an economic disaster for New South Wales.

‘So there are a few things I’d like you to think of – Rous is a lot more than just whether or not we have a water supply here. It is about flood mitigation. It’s about weed biosecurity. It is a much bigger organisation than a few slogans and a few headlines.’

Missing a chance to retain the valuable experience

WATER Northern Rivers Alliance said that the new mayor missed a chance to retain the valuable experience and knowledge of Darlene Cook and Vanessa Ekins as Lismore Council representatives on Rous County Council.

Spokesperson Nan Nicholson said that unsurprisingly, the new, business-interests-only councillors voted as an ideological block. ‘Rous councillors need to understand the overarching role and responsibility of Rous on water supply, river health, floods, weeds and a wide range of issues relating to water, including cultural heritage.

‘WATER Northern Rivers believes that, given time, the new council will understand that water security is not about simplistic slogans and silver bullets. It is about multiple solutions that provide flexibility, resilience, accountability and sound economics in the long term.’

Mrs Nicholson said that the state government, not Lismore City Council or Rous, will determine the Regional Water Strategy and it has already made clear that new dams are high risk economically and do not provide water security in an unstable climate. ‘WATER Northern Rivers will continue to educate the community about water and will advocate for safe, diverse options for water security.  State government policies, recognised water experts and climate science all point to a future direction of increased diversity.

‘We are delighted that the majority of informed Lismore citizens is increasingly moving towards diverse options and away from the eggs-in-one-basket approach of a new dam.

‘Just like the transition 20 years ago towards rooftop solar we now have a move towards rooftop water and a willingness to change the culture of water use towards personal responsibility.

‘WATER Northern Rivers hopes that the new councillors will be willing to learn about the numerous non-business issues, such as Indigenous heritage, that they will have to deal with during their term on Rous. We are willing to work with them.’

Cr Rob on the Rous response 

Speaking in response to Cr Rob’s claim that this ‘was the biggest consultation response Rous has ever had with well over 12,000 people involved with that, and well over 10,000 of those supporting a position that wasn’t followed by our representatives’, WATER Northern Rivers said pro-dam advocates used kerbside and shopping mall push-polling to gather signatures on a petition.

‘They asked questions like “Do you want to drink toilet water or do you want a new dam?” It is laughable to suggest that this should be used as an indicator of public knowledge or sentiment,’ said Mrs Nicholson.

‘Councillors would have been derelict in their duty if they ignored the science, the water experts and state government policy in order to obey uninformed opinions with no supporting reasons. The councillors’ job is a lot bigger than following opinion polls, especially bogus ones.

‘They have to be well-versed in a huge range of technical information, policy options, climate data, economic truths, and social and cultural realities. The two councillors elected last night appeared to have little grasp of any of these fields.

‘Should push-polling in the absence of science be used to determine every significant public decision, e.g. a new sewerage works, or action on climate change, or the provision of free vaccination services?’

Mrs Nicholson said that rather than taking account of signatures grabbed on the run, councillors should listen to the people who have read the evidence and provided reasoned arguments on water security. ‘The vast majority of these are pro-diversity of water options and against a single silver bullet solution.

‘Rous’ first public exhibition in 2020 was overwhelmingly pro-diversity and against the Dunoon dam. In the second Rous exhibition in 2021, 72 per cent of those who actually wrote submissions (as opposed to proformas) were against the dam,’ she said.

‘And in the recent release of the draft Far North Coast Regional Water Strategy 92.4 per cent of respondents were pro-diversity and against the Dunoon Dam.

‘Cr Rob says that he will leave town if he has to drink toilet water. In that case he should leave now because he already is. Bangalow’s treated sewerage goes into the Wilson River that is periodically pumped up to the Nightcap treatment plant and recycled into the Rous water system.’

Michael Donnelly was Returning Officer for two ballots for the positions on Rous – the first elected Cr Gordon and the second Cr Rob.

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  1. Vanessa Ekins when she was mayor of Lismore was quoted in the ABC saying “Water isn’t actually expensive — it’s actually quite cheap” (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-05-27/water-supplies-for-nsw-north-coast/100166944). Now the Councillor is talking about her career at Rous since 2008 and her part in the success of Rous implementing a strategy to “provide affordable water”. Lismore has the highest water charges in Australia, if Cr Ekins thinks the cost of water is cheap now, in part because of Councillor Ekins’ efforts, how much more should water cost before the Councillor considers water no longer cheap and affordable?

    Some councillors have lost their jobs, but perhaps it not just the politicians who should properly be held accountable for poor performance especially the infliction of unnecessarily high water charges and poor water security on to Rous’s customers.

  2. So it’s plain that certain Lismore City Councillors want to bulldoze through with their partisanship with the Dunoon Dam lobby group, meaning that the Widjabal Wiabal ancient burial grounds, cultural, sacred, and traditonal sites aren’t worth keeping as far as they are concerned, and neither are those remnant rainforest valleys.
    Well correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t it be government departments or rather their subcontractors doing any dam construction?
    Unlike private corporations, who mostly don’t care about what people think about Aboriginal Heritage and the role of forests in capping global heating, governments of all levels have to care about social contracts, public agreements, conservation legislation etc etc.
    So all these local government people who can only see dollar signs when they look at the misty, sacred forests and ancient water courses, think again, you probably personally loathed the Bentley blockade, but the defence of this sacred forest by the community will surely be enormous and will surely happen if ever these influencers manage to succeed in their Dunoon Dam construction push.

  3. The new mayor Kreig was so keen to appear likeable and not arrogant that he let one new councillor dominate proceedings. Let’s hope Kreig starts being mayoral at some stage and regains some control.

    It is pretty clear that the real reasons for the Nats (‘independents’) push for another dam is to help their mates in (a) the dam-building corporations and (b) the development industry on the coastal fringe. They have managed to suck in a bunch of gullible and uninformed people with one-line slogans about toilet water (that they have already been drinking for years). They are assisted by a stooge who will be discarded as soon as he has outlived his usefulness.

    It is very Trumpian: set up a bogus threat, position yourself as the saviour, attract the people who feel like victims, then push through your project because those people think you are working in their interest. It is not your concern that the same people who supported you will be the very ones who are most disadvantaged by hugely increased water rates and decreased water security.

  4. Water is as precious as air. Our health needs to be prioritised, it counts above everything. It’s about the physical, emotional and spiritual health of every creature. Economic gain is important too, but greed should never be more important than health. Ever. I believe the price we pay is illness: physically and mentally. We already have more than enough of that. I hope that all involved can work together to look after our health.

  5. Yes “gullible and un-informed” stooges.
    That could cover quite a few participants on both sides.
    Unfortunately for your time-hallowed Counsellor elites – this process is simply called ‘Democracy’ .

  6. Amateur hour at Lismore Council meeting, politics, disingenuous misinformation and ideology trump science, experience and common sense. If this is the first outing of Lismore’s new look council then the only positive to come out of the recent election is the reduced term that these amateurs will have.

  7. ‘They have to be well-versed in a huge range of technical information, policy options, climate data, economic truths, and social and cultural realities. The two councillors elected last night appeared to have little grasp of any of these fields’. We need a burn unit sent to Rous County Council, two Councilors savagely burned by Mrs Nicholson.


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