To Paradise and beyond - Page 5
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 20: Cities on the Edge
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Peter Meredith
IAIN WATT, THE MARY VALLEY'S Uniting Church minister, believes the emotions that the proposal's announcement touched off were akin to grief. I talk with the 51-year-old minister in his airy weatherboard church in the Imbil, eight kilometres south of Kandanga. He is on holiday and wearing shorts and sandals, but this does little to detract from his magnetism: his words flow easily, and I can picture a congregation listening rapt to one of his sermons.
Watt realised there was nothing in his training or experience to help him deal with a community event as shocking as the dam proposal. ‘This seemed to have ever-widening circles of impact and I was a bit panicky ... I've looked at personal grief, and I've been involved in various crises, and I think grief is definitely a large part of what's happening here.'
Sydney University historian Peter Read touches on this issue in his book, Returning to Nothing: The meaning of lost places (Cambridge University Press, 1997). 'Grief for dead places seems much more analogous to grief for dead people than professional carers have allowed,' he writes. ‘We need a second Elizabeth Kübler-Ross to advance place-bereavement as a continuing theme of contemporary distress. It is now time for environmental and heritage assessments to encompass these profound emotions.'
In Watt's view, one of the factors exacerbating the announcement's impact was the lack of warning and information. ‘The real damage was done at the start of the process by having no consultation and just dropping it, like a bombshell. Then the aftershocks just kept coming week after week with further announcements. The way I've responded has been mostly with anger, and that was largely because of the sense that we were being manipulated, that we as a community were being used like a pawn on a chess board for the political advantage of a powerful government.'
Peter Beattie says he understands the valley residents' anger. And he doesn't deny there might have been scarce or wrong information about the dam when it was announced. This was because the kind of information that residents wanted – such as the precise water level and which properties would be affected – wasn't available at that early stage. The dam announcement was the beginning of a process, he says. ‘We went up there and announced we were looking at the site. I flew over it in a helicopter with the local mayor and announced it. We then went back and had a public meeting to brief people. We said we were examining it as a site, that we were doing work on it and doing tests on it ... So, in other words, we didn't hide the fact we were going to look at it.'
The public meeting at which Beattie outlined the dam plan to residents took place at Gympie in July 2006, when he faced an angry crowd of fifteen hundred. It was a difficult encounter that lasted for several hours, during which the Premier sat alone at a table, a water bottle and some papers by his side. ‘When you make tough decisions you've just got to face the people who are affected, no matter how difficult it is. You can't run away. So I was concerned about the people that were there, because they were really worried about some issues. I was genuinely trying to impart information, trying to reassure them they would be treated properly.'
But above all, Beattie says, he needed to show that the government was serious, that the dam was the best solution for providing water. ‘It was difficult. Was I scared? No, because I had faith in Queenslanders that, while they were angry, they wouldn't resort to anything improper or violent. So, while there were some concerns, I didn't share them. I'd been told by the mayor that there was a story going around that I was wearing a bullet-proof vest and that there were all sorts of threats to my life. I wasn't wearing a bullet-proof vest and I wasn't personally concerned.'
Beattie reiterates that he was only interested in talking to the people, that he could understand their worries and wanted to help as much as he could. ‘I wouldn't like my house resumed for a dam either,' he says.
But he does not accept accusations that his government treated residents insensitively after the announcement. He said the government bought potentially affected land during the consultation process and before federal approval purely out of compassion. ‘That was us trying to bend over backwards to say to people, "If you're stressed out of your mind by this thing, we'll buy your property." That wasn't well understood, but that was actually us being extraordinarily sympathetic to the local people.'
YOU CAN SENSE ANGER everywhere in the valley. Some residents express it openly, others keep it to themselves and some, like Kevin Ingersole, use it to fuel their struggle against the project. Glenda Pickersgill, 47, is another who has converted her initial shock, rage and sadness into slow-fuse resolve to beat the dam. Seeking as much information as possible and disseminating it throughout the community is her response to the lack of information from the government after the announcement. ‘We tried to get information, we tried to get facts about that decision-making process,' she says. ‘But we still have not received a decent explanation from the government as to why the decision was made to go ahead with this proposal.'
Pickersgill speaks in measured tones, as though her familiarity with her topic is borne on an undertow of single-mindedness. She wears her blonde-streaked hair in a plait over one shoulder. Her face is lightly care-lined; her skin tanned and her build strong, as one might expect in a farmer and champion kayaker. With help from her 78-year-old father, she breeds cattle on sixty-eight hectares beside the Mary River about a kilometre upstream from the proposed dam site. Her father bought the property thirty years ago and she's owned it for the past twenty. Her house and virtually all her land would be drowned at Stage One. Despite this, she refuses to sell to QWI.
As we bounce through her paddocks in her 4WD, she tells me more than once how much she loves this place and its lifestyle. After a 1992 flood caused massive bank erosion, she says, her family decided to rehabilitate their stretch of riverside by fencing it off and planting native vegetation. Fifteen years on, the rainforest that fringed the river before cattle arrived is returning.
Beside the river, where it's wide and slow and clear, we sit under spreading casuarinas and weeping lilly pillies and contemplate the sweep of green-clad banks. The Mary here has completed about a third of its three hundred– kilometre run to the sea. Rising near Maleny, about eighty kilometres north of Brisbane, it flows through several small settlements and three towns before emptying into the Great Sandy Strait, at the southern end of Hervey Bay. Pickersgill has explored many kilometres of river on foot and by canoe and spent more than two years mapping Mary River cod habitats in the catchment for the WWF.
‘You've got the three iconic species in this stretch of the river – the Mary River cod, the Mary River turtle and the lungfish. In September – October, lungfish spawn all through here. They need particular water plants to attach their eggs to, and it's only in shallow, well-aerated areas that you have the special conditions to allow them to breed. Of course this breeding area will disappear if the dam is built.'
She is acutely aware of how the dam would affect the Mary Valley, both upstream and downstream of the wall. She talks of the threats to river creatures, the risks of extinction, the likely aquatic weed build-up in the reservoir and river, the high evaporation that will be inevitable from the broad, shallow lake and the seepage likely in the alluvial valley floor. She wonders how a diminished river will impact on Hervey Bay, on its fisheries, on World Heritage-listed Fraser Island and on wetlands that have been listed as internationally significant under the 1971 Ramsar Convention. It irks her – and other valley residents – that all the water extracted from the proposed reservoir would be piped to Brisbane. Of the 153,000 ML stored in the lake at Stage One, more than 70,000 ML would be pumped out every year. At Stage Two the lake would hold 570,000 ML (more than Sydney Harbour) and yield anything up to 150,000 ML a year, enough for seven hundred thousand people every day. The government says it can take this much water but still maintain 85 per cent of the Mary's flow at its mouth. Critics claim this figure is misleading because it applies to the mouth, which is downstream from tributaries that swell the flow. Immediately below the dam wall the flow would be much less.