Protesters are furious at the stubbornness of authorities considering dam options, writes Louise Hall.
While fierce debate rages across Australia over a plan to salvage the iconic Murray-Darling river system, another water war is being waged in our own food bowl.
It’s four years since the state government announced the construction of a dam the size of Sydney Harbour in the Hunter, near Dungog.
Coming a week after the local MP and former Aboriginal affairs minister Milton Orkopoulos was charged with child sex offences, the proposed 450-billion litre Tillegra dam was immediately met with cynicism from the opposition, which accused the government of trying to divert attention from the scandal.
Ever since, Tillegra has been the subject of a concerted campaign by conservationists, academics, the Greens and the Dungog farming community, who argue that taking 60 billion litres of water from the Williams River will repeat the mistakes that have left the Murray-Darling Basin in such a perilous state.
Hardly a week goes by without some new information emerging to put yet another question mark over its need or potential environmental impact, particularly on the internationally recognised Kooragang Island wetlands, near Newcastle.
Condemnation long ago exceeded critical mass, yet the government stubbornly refuses to scrap or delay the dam. Even a price tag nearing half a billion dollars and the embarrassing revelation that the dam is being built for drought conditions predicted to occur only once in every 10 million months, or 830,000 years, has failed to dampen its determination.
The engineer and Greens MP John Kaye, who has helped unearth dozens of damaging documents, blames the government’s ”inertia and bloody mindedness”.
”The proposal to build Tillegra was born of political convenience,” he says. ”It has been kept alive by a malign combination of the government’s inability to admit a mistake and a ‘build it at any cost’ mentality at Hunter Water.”
Phillip Costa, who inherited the project when he took over the water portfolio, told a budget estimates hearing in September that he’d read everything he could and is ”absolutely convinced that Tillegra Dam is the best option”.
He dismissed the opposition’s claims the dam was ”planned on the back of an envelope”, arguing the state-owned Hunter Water Corporation had Tillegra on the drawing board for years.
Damming the Williams River was mooted as early as 1952 and was seriously considered during a severe drought between 1979 and 1981 until the introduction of a user-pays system dramatically reduced demand for water.
A series of planning documents show that until September 2006, building a new dam was considered ”far less cost-effective than many demand management and water conservation initiatives”, and only desalination was considered a less desirable option to secure the region’s supply. Proposed upgrade works at Grahamstown Dam meant a new water source would not be required for 30 years. Tillegra wasn’t even mentioned in the Integrated Water Resource Plan, released in October 2006.
But less than a month later, on November 13, the then-premier Morris Iemma declared the government would build the state’s first dam in 30 years to ”help drought-proof the Hunter and the central coast region for the next 60 years”.
That it wasn’t part of the state plan, released the next day, seemed odd, and it was two years before it was clear why: a memo, dated September 2006, from the managing director of Hunter Water, Kevin Young, to the office of the then water minister David Campbell, showed the proposal had not been properly costed before the announcement. In fact, the dam was just one of four possible projects, and was not under active consideration.
The government had tried to keep the memo out of view, claiming privilege, until the Shooters Party – in dispute with Labor over a ban on hunting in national parks – voted for its release.
”The conclusion is inescapable: Tillegra was then, and remains to this day, a political decision,” says Linda Bowden, a No Tillegra Dam Group spokeswoman. ”It was, and is not based, on need.”
One justification for the dam – the need to solve the water crisis on the central coast – was effectively negated by a federal government decision in May 2007 to fund an $80 million pipeline between Mardi and Mangrove Creek dams.
Hunter Water was then forced to find other reasons for the dam, an investigation by the institute for sustainable futures at the University of Technology Sydney found.
”In effect, the planning process has happened in reverse: the dam was announced and then planning documents were adjusted to incorporate it,” the report, commissioned by the Wilderness Society Sydney, says.
Dr Simon Fane and Professor Stuart White, directors at the institute, believe the available evidence suggests the dam should not be built. ”It is too expensive … and the decision to build it has been made without considering the alternatives,” they said.
But the Hunter Water chief, Kevin Young, says the dam is vital to drought-proof a region already home to half a million people, and predicted to grow by 160,000 more by 2031. ”Tillegra will be so effective that it will not only protect us against near and present risks, but even stack up against our worst possible scenario – four years of our worst drought [1979-81] on record.”
But the lower Hunter is far from an emergency situation, according to Dr Fane and Professor White, who accuse Hunter Water of using a number of ”arbitrary” and ”unrealistic” scenarios in their modelling to justify the need for the dam.
The criticism is repeated in numerous submissions to the Department of Planning, the authority charged with approving the dam, from key government agencies, including water, industry and investment, the catchment management authority and the auditor-general.
Hunter Water’s plan is ”based on outdated information, simplistic approaches to data analysis and in some instances misuse of data”, one says; another warns the dam was a ”dud” that would not be needed for at least 30 years.
Hunter Water and the government have continually dismissed the documents as ”personal views of individual officers”. The NSW Commissioner for Water, David Harriss, told the Herald a ”diversity of views” among his staff was encouraged.
However, in May, an official submission by the NSW Office of Water, advising against construction, was retracted and replaced with a version that omitted concerns about incomplete hydrological modelling and adverse environmental impacts. The original advice to delay approval until the dispute over the impacts on the estuary and wetlands is resolved was withdrawn by Harriss, and replaced by a version ticked off by himself.
The Planning Minister, Tony Kelly, is expected to make a decision on Tillegra by year’s end. In the first sign his department was taking concerns seriously, four independent reviews of the justification, hydrology and social and economic benefits of the dam were commissioned. The draft reports by all four are scathing.
If state planning approval is given, the federal government could still scuttle the project under environmental protection and biodiversity conservation laws.
Hunter Water says its ”detailed modelling and expert analysis indicates that Tillegra Dam will not significantly impact the estuary, the Williams River or the prawn and fishing industry” which relies on the estuary as a breeding ground and nursery. A beefed-up offset package, including the release of an extra 2.5 billion litres into the river a year, addresses all concerns about the environmental impact, it says.
The Coalition has been mostly silent, neither supporting nor opposing the dam. In May, the Opposition Leader, Barry O’Farrell, pledged to scrap it, as long as contracts with onerous exit fees had not been signed.
More than $100 million has already been spent on Tillegra and a further $18.8 million was budgeted this year. But Belinda Fairbrother, the campaign co-ordinator for the Wilderness Society Sydney, said the flak the government would get for wasting $100 million pales against the voter backlash if the dam goes ahead. "If the Keneally government approves Tillegra Dam it will destroy the strong conservation legacy of the Carr years,” she says. ”Why would they … so undermine the one area in which their performance has been outstanding?”
Hunter Water says the consequences of running out of water are so dire that it must act to ensure it never happens, no matter how minute the likelihood.