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Byron Shire
September 29, 2023

Byron needs more independence from Rous not less

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The Widjabul Wia-bal people oppose the Dunoon Dam at The Channon. Photo Larissa Roberts.

WATER Northern Rivers believes that water security for Byron lies in becoming more independent from Rous County Council, not less. They say Byron Council needs to focus on good policy and practical, climate-sensitive solutions, such as regional desalination facilities and effective water efficiencies.

WATER Northern Rivers is a group established in 2020 to advocate for a secure water system for the Northern Rivers region in the face of accelerating climate change. They have consistently opposed the construction of the Dunoon Dam.

A WATER Northern Rivers spokesperson said water efficiencies around the world have consistently proved to be the quickest and cheapest way to obtain the most water, even with a growing population.

‘Rous is currently pursuing an extremely expensive and destructive dam that lacks State support, and is absent from State planning.

‘The final Far North Coast Regional Water Strategy, released by DPE in June this year, shows the way forward for water in this region. Byron Council’s priority should be adhering to the State-sanctioned Regional Strategy as it is much more likely to attract funding than Rous’ plans.’

Does Mullumbimby support the Dunoon dam?

WATER Northern Rivers says that if a decision is made to connect Mullumbimby permanently to the Rous water supply it would indicate support for a second dam on Rocky Creek at Dunoon, which is currently Rous’s risky vision of the future.

‘The Mullumbimby community has consistently demonstrated its strong opposition to the Dunoon Dam. A pre-emptive decision to connect Mullumbimby to Rous permanently would lock the community in to a commitment to the dam.

‘This would put Byron Council at odds with the wishes of the majority of its constituents in Mullumbimby. It would effectively hand the decision on water to Rous, not Byron.

‘If the Dunoon Dam went ahead it would have severe economic effects on Byron ratepayers, and on the social and environmental values that Byron claims to uphold. The dam connected to independent supplies, would cost $815 mill according to the DPE and it fails the DPE’s cost/benefit analysis. It would reduce water security and is highly destructive of Indigenous and environmental heritage.’

Will the Dunoon Dam go ahead?

Rous is currently planning to build the Dunoon Dam as part of Stage 3 of its Future Water Project.

Stage 3 starts in 2030. This can be seen on the Rous website.

WATER Northern Rivers says six of the eight councillors on Rous are strongly in favour of the dam. ‘These same six councillors circulated a petition in 2021 which specifically discounted all permanent water supply options other than a new dam, ie, groundwater, desal and “toilet to tap”.  They asked “do you want to drink toilet water or do you want a new dam?”

‘Rous incorrectly counted 1,000s of these kerb-side push-poll signatures as formal submissions to its second public consultation process.

All of the other submission processes since 2020 have been overwhelmingly against the dam:

1. Rous’ first consultation on the Future Water Project in mid-2020: 98 per cent against the dam.
2. DPE’s consultation on the first Draft Far North Coast Regional Water Strategy in late 2020: 95 per cent against the dam.
3. DPE’s consultation on the second Draft Far North Coast Regional Water Strategy in 2022: 97 per cent against the dam.

There is a strong anti-dam social movement and Mullumbimby is one of the communities at the forefront.

However, the dam could still be constructed by Rous, and the DPE have not precluded Rous and the LGAs from going it alone in their pursuit of the dam.

WATER Northern Rivers says Rous has ignored evidence that the dam is not viable economically, socially, environmentally, or in the provision of drought or flood security. ‘They continue to disregard the strongly expressed wishes of the local Widjabul Wia-bal to protect their burial sites from drowning.

What is the cost?

WATER Northern Rivers says the original $220 mill cost of the dam is now estimated by DPE at $514 mill, or $815 mill if the service area were extended to include independent water supplies (p.127 and p.141 of the Draft Strategy Consultation paper). Dam costs habitually blow out by 50 per cent so this figure could rise.

‘This would place a large financial burden on residents who would be paying water storage costs from day one without any benefit for forty years or more.

‘The DPE, in the Far North Coast Regional Water Strategy, has removed the dam from the short list of options, primarily due to the lack of cost effectiveness. The DPE’s cost/benefit analysis in the Draft Strategy found no benefits over costs.

‘With government funding unlikely, the dam would be financed primarily by current and future supply users in the form of loans.

‘Rous has not provided an estimate of the effect of the dam on the price of bulk water to the LGAs, so the cost to ratepayers cannot be calculated. Any decision before this information is forthcoming would be premature.’

 Water security

WATER Northern Rivers says dams don’t defeat drought, especially when global heating has changed the goal posts. Rainfall dependent sources in a drying climate are inherently insecure.

‘With four years of minimal rain and no wet season, both Rocky Ck and Dunoon dams would be empty. Droughts more than a decade long have been recorded in the past and will be more likely in the future.

‘The high cost and the all-water-in-one-bucket approach would preclude other water strategies that are likely to show a higher cost/benefit ratio, i.e. they would cost a great deal less and provide real benefits.

‘The proposed 50 GL dam would have 3.5 times the capacity of the 14GL Rocky Creek dam upstream but has only half the catchment area, i.e. 19 km² of mostly farmland in contrast with 39 km² of forested headwaters. Catastrophic events such as blue-green algae contamination (which occurs at Clarrie Hall Dam occasionally), and dam failure are not inconceivable events.

‘In the 2022 floods, Rocky Creek Dam came so close to over-topping, and hence failing, that downstream residents were warned by text “Dam failure. Evacuate now”.  If an earthwall dam failed and the released water hit a dam with a rolled-concrete wall a few km downstream the results could be unthinkable.

‘Such extreme rainfall events are predicted to occur with increasing frequency.

‘Extensive and intensive water efficiencies on the other hand, as specified in detail by one of Rous’ own consultants, Prof Stuart White, are able to provide more water, more cheaply, sooner and with more security than another dam.

‘This approach has been rejected by Rous.  In fact, the planned phase-out by Rous of tank rebates demonstrates that Rous has little interest in the growing culture of self-sufficiency and water-conservancy that people in Mullumbimby, in particular, are so good at adopting.

Social effects

WATER Northern Rivers says that the Widjabul Wia-bal people have said repeatedly since the dam was first proposed in 1995 that they do not accept it. In 2011, senior knowledge holder Uncle John Roberts, revealed to anthropologists the location of a burial ground and other significant evidence of Aboriginal occupation at the proposed dam site (2011 Dunoon Dam Cultural Heritage Impact Assessment (CHIA)).

‘Two years later, this information was confirmed in the 2013 CHIA in which the eminent archaeologist, Dr Douglas Hobbs, stated that the burials were likely to be pre-European.  This information was never given to the Rous councillors who had to make a decision in 2020 about the future of the dam without being told of the impact on the Widjabul people.

WATER Northern Rivers says that Rous is now trying to force another CHIA on the Widjabul despite their resistance and their determination to follow Uncle John Roberts’ wishes of “No dam, no more studies”.’

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