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Byron Shire
July 16, 2024

Should Mullum’s water supply remain locally-sourced?

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The Echo asked mayoral candidates Cr Sarah Ndiaye and Mayor Michael Lyon what their position is with Mullum’s future water supply, and ‘Why the community should trust the integrity of this process, given the optics around consultant conflict of interest, and staff not answering questions from committee members with engineering expertise?’

Public submissions have closed on whether Mullumbimby should retain its water supply from Lavertys Gap Weir in Wilsons Creek, or, as Council staff and consultant Hydrosphere recommend, abandon that in favour of entirely sourcing the town’s water from utility Rous Water.

Water and Sewer Advisory Committee (WSAC) members have previously outlined the questions they say remain unanswered by staff, and say the process is mired in a non-pecuniary conflict of interest by the consultant who supplied advice to both Rous and Council.  

Committee members said of the perceived conflict that the consultant, ‘recommends to Rous that it find new sources to satisfy growing demand. Then it recommends to Byron that it close down Lavertys Gap and connect to Rous, thus adding demand’. 

Mayor defends staff

Cr Lyon replied, ‘I will await the results of the consultation and the debate on the day before making a final decision, but there would have to be a pretty good case made for another option than permanent connection, given that it scored best on social, environmental and financial grounds.

‘I have heard the conflict of interest conversation, I think it is a bit ridiculous, given Rous don’t give a stuff whether we connect or not. 

‘More to the point, no-one has pointed out anything wrong with the analysis done by Hydrosphere. Not on the costings, or any other matter. That is telling’. 

The mayor’s comments are at odds with Greens councillor candidate, and water engineer, Elia Hauge, who provided The Echo with her unanswered questions over the strategy.

 They included why no updated hydrological and climate models were included, and why different criteria were used at the long list and short list options phases. 

She said, ‘the criteria selected placed less emphasis on environment at the long list stage than at the short list, potentially skewing the outcome of the assessment’.

Experts vs experts

The mayor continued, ‘Staff have spent two years engaging with the committee on this, and they disagree. They are also experts and they have an independent expert report outlining a recommendation based on a triple bottom line analysis. 

‘I am yet to hear anything, other than having diversity of supply, to justify the other options’.

Cr Sarah Ndiaye told The Echo, ‘As Chair of the Water and Sewer Advisory Committee, and as a councillor on Rous, I welcome discussions on the future of Mullumbimby’s water supply. I live in Mullum and drink water from our historic Lavertys Gap – it’s the best-tasting water around. If possible, I would love for our ‘Biggest Little Town’, to continue supplying its own water, but there are some real challenges’. 

‘There are complexities with Lavertys Gap, particularly around its heritage listing. It’s very hard to service and repair an existing piece of infrastructure that is still being utilised when it has a heritage order on it. We need to be able to have these conversations well in advance, because water is not something we can do without. 

‘There is the opportunity for some improved environmental outcomes if environmental flows are restored to the lower part of the catchment. 

‘What’s missing from the discussion is detailed information about the potential for off-stream storage. I would like some more information, particularly around cost and what alternatives are possible, so that people can make an informed choice’. 

‘Regarding claims by WSAC members there is a perceived conflict of interest with the consultant providing reports to both Rous and Council, Cr Ndiaye said, ‘I’m not concerned it would impact the outcome. There are processes in place to evaluate whether there is a conflict of interest, and Council does not set that framework’. 

‘Having been on Rous for almost three years, the people who want the dam want it regardless of any Mullumbimby connection to Rous. They seem obsessed with a dam, and I don’t think a local connection here would alter that at all. 

‘The environmental and cultural constraints may wipe out the option anyway, but it’s sad those involved have had to go through this process again. As Chair of the Reconciliation Action Plan Working Group, I can say there are some local Indigenous folks very upset about it. Rous are simultaneously investigating other options which is good. 

In my mind, the Future Water Strategy 2060 needs to rely on a diversity of sources for sustainable and reliable supply. ‘Having another new dam does not achieve that diversity and I hope we are able to work towards other alternatives. If there is a feasible way to keep Laverty’s Gap then I’m all for it. If it’s not, I believe there is the option to restore environmental flows and keep some as a backup, but more information would help’. 

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