To Paradise and beyond
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 20: Cities on the Edge
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Peter Meredith
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Peter Meredith's biography and other articles by this writer
With a sweep of his arm, Dave Murray shows where the proposed dam would straddle the valley. Starting at a distant hill in front of us, his pointing finger moves around to a ridge behind and above us.
The thing seems too gargantuan for this place – and too huge to fit in my head. I simply can't see it. Before I can open my mouth to remark on this, Murray pre-empts me. ‘That's quite a high wall,' he says. As though in mitigation, he adds: ‘It'll end up looking quite aesthetic when we're finished.'
Murray, senior dams project manager with Queensland Water Infrastructure (QWI), a corporation set up by the Queensland Government in 2006 to develop water projects, has brought me here on a tour of South-East Queensland's dams. We've seen dams old and new, and now we're contemplating the rural setting of a dam that's proposed but not begun.
We're on the back veranda of a brick veneer home, 1825 Gympie-Brooloo Road (aka Mary Valley Highway), about a 130 kilometres north of Brisbane, twenty-seven kilometres south of Gympie and six kilometres north-east of Kandanga (population two hundred). More pertinently, we're two kilometres upstream from a tranquil spot on the Mary River called Traveston Crossing.
The property on which the house stands has been bought by QWI. It is one of about six hundred that would be affected if the proposed dam and reservoir grow to their maximum projected size. QWI wants to build the dam in two stages. Stage One would flood 3,039 hectares of land and thirty-six kilometres of river by 2011. Stage Two, due after 2035, would flood an extra 4,096 hectares, creating a lake nearly twice as long as Sydney Harbour and holding slightly more water.
The house is empty but may soon accommodate dam construction workers. Its veranda offers a shallow panorama of the flat, kilometre-wide valley. Behind a fringe of greenery, the Mary River swings through the middle of this alluvial scene. It's a picture-postcard composition, yet an unsettling silence seems to lie over it, as though every living thing is holding its breath in anticipation.
LIVING THINGS SEEMED FAR AWAY a few days previously. It was June 2007; I was making the first of two research trips through the region. Sitting at a conference table in QWI's Brisbane headquarters, I was listening to QWI chief executive officer Graeme Newton brief me on the Traveston Crossing Dam, as the proposed barrier on the Mary River was called. Dave Murray's large frame bulked on the other side of the table, near QWI's media person, Stephanie Wilson. I was there to learn about dams in general and Traveston Crossing in particular.
Urbane and calmly confident, Newton was outlining the government's arguments for the dam. His polished presentation sought to convince me that this dam (together with other planned works) really was the best solution to the water crisis confronting the rapidly growing south of the state in its sixth year of drought. The dam-building rationale (doggedly bonded to the government's growth-is-good mantra) went like this: The population of the area around Brisbane will balloon from just under three million today to more than five million by 2050, and water consumption will rise in tune. At the same time, global warming is skewing rainfall patterns: rain is falling neither as often as it used to nor where dams were once built. Climate change and rapid population growth have created a politically poisonous cocktail: no government can survive long if nothing's coming out of the tap.
In 2007 South-East Queensland was using 480,000 megalitres (ML) of water a year. Government statistics showed that homes were taking about two-thirds of this, so each person was getting through nearly three hundred litres every day. It was a consumption level that couldn't be sustained because, even if the population miraculously stopped growing, this was still 40,000 ML a year more than the government considered prudent. But, given the population growth rate, the government calculated that by 2051 it might need to provide as much as 930,000 ML a year – more than double today's consumption.
This ‘supply-demand gap', added to the possibility of more fickle rainfall in future, pushed the state government of then Premier Peter Beattie into announcing a mix of measures in 2006 to secure future water supply. They included water recycling, desalination, increased efficiency, demand management, boosting the capacity of existing dams and building two new dams – Traveston Crossing and Wyaralong south-west of Brisbane. For dam engineers, who'd been kicking their heels since dam-building stalled in the late 1980s, the good time times looked set to roll again. Further, a nine billion dollar ‘Water Grid' of interconnected pipelines would link the region's seven major proposed and existing dams, allowing water to be moved to where it was needed.
Beattie insisted at the time that building new dams was unavoidable. Data dug up for a June 2006 desktop review of potential dam sites by consultants GHD Pty Ltd convinced him that Traveston Crossing was the best site for the bigger of the two new dams. ‘When all the factors, such as potential yield, cost effectiveness, environmental, cultural and social impact, strategic value and reliability of the sources are taken into account, this is simply the best catchment area available,' he said. In February 2008, as the worst drought in a century looked set to break, Beattie was sticking by his view: ‘We're going to have another million people in the next eighteen years. If they don't have water, they die. It's a life-or-death issue. We needed to build the dam and that was the best site for it.'
Anna Bligh, Beattie's successor, was also convinced. And Graeme Newton, a professional charged with ensuring that the growing population of the wettest state didn't run dry, could see no viable alternative. ‘We've got level five water restrictions at the moment and this highlights the need to drive down demand as well as supplement supply. On the demand-management side this includes rainwater tanks, water-saving devices on taps, dual-flush toilets, front-loading washing machines, subsidies, and so on. But that can only get to a certain level. Naturally, because we build dams, our focus is on the supply side.'
After Newton finished rationalising the water plan for the next forty-three years, he and Murray got down to the nitty gritty of dam-building. The science, the technology and the process are fascinating, the sheer size of the project astounding, but I wondered whether all this might be so dazzling the dam's proponents that they were failing to see its impact on the world beyond the computer screen.
I was also struck by a paradox. Traveston Crossing Dam would need federal government approval, and this could be sought only after QWI had submitted an environmental impact statement (EIS). At the time of my June 2007 visit, the EIS had been in the pipeline for more than six months but was not finalised. Even so, Newton and Murray – and seemingly a host of others inside and outside government – were treating the dam as a foregone conclusion. QWI had already bought more than half the properties the dam would affect. By February 2008, after it had issued the EIS and accepted the public's comments, it had not only acquired nearly three-quarters but also started clearing vegetation near the dam site. Wasn't this jumping the gun, I wondered.