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February 5, 2023

Cusack and Faehrmann talk to Traditional Owners about the Dunoon dam

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A meeting of minds and hearts in the fight to save Country at The Channon Gorge – Cate Faehrmann MLC, Uncle Goongie John Roberts, Skye Roberts, Aunty Leonee Nowta and Catherine Cusack MLC. Photo Tree Faerie.

A meeting in The Channon yesterday will go down in history as one of the major turning points in the fight against the Dunoon/Channon dam.

Elders from the local mob, the Widjabul Wia-bal people, invited MLCs Cate Faehrmann and Catherine Cusack to visit their Country at the site of the proposed dam at The Channon Gorge, and to speak with them about the significance of the area.

Ms Faehrmann and Ms Cusack walked through the gorge with Nan and Terri Nicholson, Léandra Martiniello and Widjabul Wia-bal woman Skye Roberts.

Mrs Nicholson said she hoped that the Elders of the Widjabul Wia-bal tribe would be able to explain to the state politicians the importance of their connection to Country and in particular, to the land that would be drowned by the proposed dam. ‘They spoke so movingly about what those burial sites mean to them.’

A lineage taught to protect Country

Uncle Goongie John Roberts expressed that he is determined to protect Country – that he is part of a lineage taught to protect Country. ‘My Elders, from my Country here – they have now passed on – I was talking to them about the protection of our sacred sites, and they said “we need more young people to know about the sites and know how to protect those sites”. And then they looked at me and said, “You start. You control this Country and these sites”. I said “But I can’t do that”, and they said, “You can do it because we give you permission to do so”. And one thing I learned growing up: when you’re directed by Elders, you can’t say “no”. It has to be “yes” and you have to mean it.’

Aunty Leonee Nowta said she is worried for the future of her people and their very important connection to the past. ‘When I think about them wanting to put in a dam – what happens to our people? Our ancestors? We can’t come and visit, we can’t walk the land.

‘I was pulled aside by my grandfather and told a lot of stuff – I was taught leadership. I am about truth and the truth must be known. It has to be known and we have to protect Country as much as we can – fight to protect it. It’s close to our hearts.’

A better understanding

Channon Gorge, threatened by proposed Dunoon Dam. Photo David Lowe.

After a tour of the gorge and conversations with the Elders, both Ms Cusack and Ms Faehrmann said they felt better equipped to understand what the area means to the local mob.

Ms Cusack said the first thing she discovered was the lay of the land and water. ‘I learned about the landscape – how the creek system works, where it is in relation to the dam, and what the immediate physical impacts will be, particularly downstream, of putting a new dam wall in there.

‘I’ve learnt of the really quite serious First Nations people’s issues, and the destructiveness of this. It is a matter that they haven’t really been consulted with, and it is going to be a major issue.

‘I’m really trying to get my facts together so that I can go back and talk to the agency whose responsibility is to ensure that these matters are properly addressed.

‘Some of these matters are showstoppers. I mean, there are certain issues in relation to Indigenous heritage, that have in the past, completely ruled this project out. I have more research to do to find out how that has been disregarded and what’s going to happen in relation to those matters.’

Is it viable?

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

Ms Cusack says she feels there is a lot more work that needs to be done on the proposal, which doesn’t look viable at the moment. ‘It doesn’t shock me that people are looking at this proposal, because their motivation is to secure the water supply for the region. And I’m happy that we have people wanting to make sure that we address that issue before we run out. It’s incredibly important to our future.’

Cate Faehrmann says it’s not up to Rous water. ‘It’s far beyond Rous water.’ Photo Tree Faerie.

Site incredibly sacred to the Widjabul Wia-bal people

Cate Faehrmann said after the meeting she understood that the site is incredibly sacred to the Widjabul Wia-bal people. ‘It just simply cannot be developed into a dam. It’s not just the sacredness to the Widjabul Wia-bal people, it potentially has statewide and national significance.

‘We have for 250 years almost destroyed Aboriginal heritage, sacred sites and just allowed the wholesale destruction of Aboriginal people and their heritage and culture.

‘We now know how important it is. We have seen the international outrage over the destruction of Jukkan Gorge by Rio Tinto. Everyone has said that’s unacceptable, yet, here it is – burial mounds.

‘We just sat for hours listening to Elders tell us why that is so important – that connection to country. Why, for young, Widjabul Wia-bal kids coming through, how important it is them to their cultural identity, that those burial mounds be protected.

‘So for me, it just can’t happen. Full stop. We’ve got to fight it. We’ve got to stop it, and if that means getting the word out right across the state about this situation, then let’s do it.

‘I’ll be asking questions of relevant ministers as soon as I can. Asking them whether they’re aware of this.’

Other water options

Other considerations are the koalas – this one from Dunoon side of Channon Gorge. Photo Jodie Digney.

MLC Catherine Cusack wants to know about other water possibilities. ‘What are the options? And are there other options that we can consider?

‘In relation to my work for dams – I’ve become pretty convinced that on-river storage systems are a thing of the past. We really know how much damage on-river storage causes to everything. I don’t know what, if any, off-river storage options there are here. I’m sure that the water authority has done a lot of homework over the years. But there’s new thinking and new engineering solutions to all sorts of problems.

‘This community that I live in, and I’m not just talking about Dunoon and The Channon – the whole region is very united in defending the values here.

‘I think that the community values and community opinions here, the communities that are allegedly trying to be assisted in terms of securing their water supply, their views are of paramount concern. So I think this issue has a long way to go. A lot of questions have arisen from today for me. But I do want to approach people constructively.

‘We’ve seen some really big clashes over our region in the past and some really great stands have been taken. If there are better ways of resolving these matters, I would love to go down that track.

‘I really believe that a lot more conversation is needed and I’m very indebted to Nan and her family and neighbours and the First Nation’s people here today, for sharing information with me – I really need to pursue those questions.

It’s not just a local issue

Ms Faehermann said the issue is not just the jurisdiction of local governing bodies. ‘It’s not up to Rous. It’s far beyond Rous.

‘The state government needs to be alerted to this potential destruction. The federal government needs to be alerted to this potential distruction. It should not be up to Widjabul Wia-bal Elders to protect that land. It should be up to all of us.’

Water from destroyed nature and eradicated millennia of Aboriginal heritage

Apart from representing the people of New South Wales, Ms Cusack is a local who lives with her family at Lennox Head, so the issue of the dam is on her home turf. ‘I can only say for me personally, I don’t want to drink one drop of water that has come from destroyed nature and eradicated millennia of Aboriginal heritage. Who wants to drink that water?’

Nan Nicholson said she was impressed that Cusack and Faehrmann were both so ready to listen and learn from the Elders. ‘I was also impressed that they were prepared to brave the Channon Gorge while the water was so high.’

We have to protect that Country

Uncle Goongie John Roberts and Aunty Leonee Nowta say it is upon them to protect Country. Photo Tree Faerie

Uncle was hoping that the visit to the gorge by the MLCs would help them see how important his Country is. ‘We have to protect that. And hopefully, you will listen and say “yes, we have to play a role in saying it has to be stopped”.

‘These sites and sacred places will be protected because this story will go from that mouth to that mouth to that mouth, and they will know why we came and sat and talked about it. The more minds it goes to and the more mouths that say it, means we are getting them to help us to help us with protection.’

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  1. Finally someone is listening to the Custodians of some of the most beautiful country in the Northern Rivers. It was so moving listening to Uncle John Roberts and Auntie Leonee Nowta and to young Skye Roberts talk about the depth of connection to country.

    Destroying priceless heritage sites for an expensive dam that doesn’t deliver water security? It just doesn’t stack up.

    • Booglebah for your incredible support Nan. Thank you for helping to protect country, culture and history for future generations.

    • Nan, while I appreciate that you oppose the dam, for reasons of vested interest having bought a property right below the site, your statement that more water storage “doesn’t deliver water security” is quite disingenuous.

      Sure, it might not create absolute water security, but increasing the amount of water storage certainly does increase water security. In this case, increasing it many times (four- or five-fold as I recall).

      There are well documented things we can do to work on the demand side of the equation, for household and commercial/industrial uses, but they don’t ensure water security either (except desalination and pumping uphill hundreds of metres above sea level). Plus, there are no things we can do to remove the need to use very large amounts of water to get through the longer, hotter droughts that are coming our way without losing our agricultural production. I’m sure the Aboriginal elders will be part of the group that wants to keep eating.

      I have been asking for a long time, including asking Rous Water by formal submission, for interested parties to investigate, calculate and publicly outline the carbon footprints over a 100 year timeframe of the proposed dam and the various alternative options being considered. This information is critically important in the climate emergency we are facing – one which threatens to first make having a bigger water storage desirable, then probably necessary, then, if we keep supporting increased population and tourism as a community, eventually possibly a useless white elephant. Albeit that may be irrelevant by the time we succeed in advancing climate change that far.

      I believe I have already asked you to address this issue (directly) and I have certainly asked this of the community here where you congregate to campaign against one of the options. But I have not seen you show any interest in this.

      Is this because you don’t care about climate change? Or because you don’t believe in it? Or because this is just a NIMBY campaign to you, do you don’t care or bother?

      I put it to you that for as long as there is no modelling/calculation of the CO2 footprints of the various proposed options, over a 100 year timeframe, none of us can make an informed decision about what truly is the best option for our (whole) community.

      And yet you continue opposing it regardless.

      I write just to call you out, and the whole of this campaign against the dam, for being too disinterested in our food security to actually gather and consider all the relevant evidence to be able to make an informed decision.

      Instead this campaign continues with emotion and identity politics, and individual vested interests, in lieu of proper consideration of the evidence of our biophysical reality.

      This is shameful

  2. What a wonderful coming together of diverse people. Uncle Goongie and Auntie Leonee are true protectors of country, and teachers too. Catherine Cusack impresses with her understanding of our region’s values, and grasp of the complexity involved in delivering water security, while protecting country and culture. Cate Faehermann is right – this is a state issue, bigger than Rous!
    Let’s all work together to protect this country – there are many better ways to deliver water security than a second dam on Rocky Creek.

  3. The proposed dam is destructive in multiple ways, many of which are covered in this article. Then there’s the economic cost – imposing massive up-front build costs on current water users. The alternative is investment in purified recycled water, desal and diverse smart water options. These can be scaled up as the population increases, and as they are needed.

  4. Great article & many Thanks to Cate & Catherine for taking the time to speak to First Nation elders. We can not allow this and proposal to go ahead.This is not only a scared site to First Nations people BUT the wildlife DESPERATELY NEED THIS AREA TO REMAIN AS IS. A DAM WOULD BE SACRILEGE & IS NOT NECESSARY. LONG TERM SUSTAINABLE /Recycled water systems & so on must be adopted. THIS AREA IS TOO PRECIOUS on a multiplicity of issues to be destroyed.

  5. Sounds like a great win for obstructionists, no reference to infrastructure planning , no need to consider science, practicality or the natural fitness of the site for ease of construction and volume of stored essential water resources , just have a little secret get together and ask Uncle Goongie .
    God help us, G”)

  6. Sorry Ken. You are talking about a completely different issue. The suitablility of the Site for a Dam can be discussed with people, as you say, scientists and a few engineers of course. Unfortunately, this type of take on the issue has been happening right through the 20th Century. Technology has moved on and so have attitudes. The dinasoar approach of “let’s just build a dam” no longer works. There are better ways to do Water security. These alternative ways have been investigated for years, by Rous. I think we should follow their recommendation, and at the same time, save a priceless culture from being destroyed. BTW, isn’t one dam (Rocky Creek) on the same river system enough? Unbelievable this Dam is being considered in that place at all.

  7. Excellent article: thanks to all of you for your great work + leadership on this deeply important cultural + ecological matter. A time follow the lead + research of WATER Northern Rivers.

  8. Protest gathering against rous water considering the dunnon dam again, cos we have new councillors making up rous water now, will be held at 9 am on this Wednesday 16th of February at their building in molesworth st , Lismore.


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