Dams: simplistic, costly and not a quick-fix

December 1, 2020
Activists at the Wyangala Dam. Photo: Tracey Carpenter

The federal government has committed $1 billion to the National Party’s obsession with raising dam walls as a “solution” to the latest drought. Communities say more dams and higher walls are no solution to drought and climate change.

Across New South Wales, three major wall raising projects are being rushed through before assessments are made of their business cases, environmental approvals, water sharing plans and how they will impact on First Nations culture.

One of these is Wyangala Dam, on the Lachlan (Kalare) River, where the walls are set to be raised by 10-15 metres at an initial cost of $650 million. Residents and landholders are concerned about the inundation of farmlands and their houses and First Nations’ culture as well as the impact of reduced flows to downstream users and wetlands.

Water for Rivers activists joined community members at Wyangala Dam, near Cowra, in November, to call for a rethink on the rushed approvals for more dams on NSW rivers.

“Dams are not the solution to the water crisis besetting the Murray Darling Basin and the Lachlan River systems”, Water for Rivers activist Coral Wynter told Green Left.

“Rivers are collapsing and communities are regularly thrown into chronic water shortages because the government has failed to address endemic overextraction from our rivers and ground water systems.” 

Canowindra-based regenerative farmer Pennie Scott told Green Left: “The dam project is a simplistic, costly quick-fix political gesture to a complex situation. A huge dam wall is not the answer.

“The Lachlan Valley, like all river valleys, changes continuously from the upper reaches to the lower end, due to topography, geomorphology and soil types, communities of vegetation, aspect, land use and population densities.

“A holistic approach is needed to include these physical differences, while respecting and incorporating the cultural, environmental and social elements which make up the Lachlan Valley.

“Every natural system is connected and these intimate connections must be understood so the most beneficial outcomes can be enabled.

“Close-up research along the entire valley needs to be undertaken to record all the nuances within the valley including the functions of floodplains, riparian zones, wetlands, open grassy plains, and undulating areas.

“There are many people who can provide this information. However, none has been included in the engineering option of simply building a bigger dam wall.”

Wiradjuri elder Jenny Munro, who joined Cowra community members, called for greater consultation with Traditional Owners and knowledge holders. “Water in dams just means loss through evaporation instead of the water playing a useful role, filling up ground water and cracks in the river beds, keeping the red gums alive,” she said.

NSW Auditor General Margaret Crawford recently issued a scathing report on the water management and administration of Melinda Pavey’s federal water department. The report blames the department for leaving up to 10 towns facing “day zeros” in 2019.

The report said that the department did “not have a clear regulatory approach” and lacked “internal procedures and data” to guide support for local water utilities that service 1.85 million people in regional NSW.

Crawford also criticised the year’s long delays in developing strategic water plans for the state and the regions.

“The problems of mal-administration and overextraction have been documented in dozens of inquiries and reports,” said Wynter.

“The government should turn its attention to addressing its own failure to manage water which has led to millions of litres a year literally vanish — not into thin air, but into private holdings.

“Holding back water from rivers is recognised worldwide as failed 1950s thinking,” Wynter continued. “It leads to over-extraction and injustice in distribution.

“Dams don’t make it rain; they just make water more expensive for most by allowing access to the wealthiest corporate traders.

“The modelling for diverting more water from rivers gives little to no recognition of the impacts of changing climate on rainfall evaporation and natural flows.

“Public funds could be better directed towards upgrading irrigation channels and investing in water recycling programs. Revegetation would also hold water in the landscape rather than turning rivers into empty drains,” said Wynter.

A NSW Legislative Council inquiry into new dams and other water infrastructure is underway.

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