Joyce’s Dungowan Dam election promises overpriced water

Current dams across NSW.

Despite growing dissatisfaction with the Nationals, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce thinks he can shore up his New England seat by talking up the widely-criticised Dungowan Dam project at Tamworth. 

It is said to cost close to $1 billion, but the government has withheld the business case. It is yet to submit an Environmental Impact Statement, but Joyce wants shovels in the ground before May.

At the height of the 2019–20 drought, Tamworth and more than 80 New South Wales towns faced “day zeros” — empty dams and emergency water carting. While claiming it was too early to talk about climate change impacts on rainfall and rivers, the Nationals promised $2 billion for new dams in a state where the top of every viable catchment is already dammed.

The federal government’s dam building promises include Wyangala Dam at Cowra, Mole River in the Northern NSW border and Dungowan at Tamworth — all important federal Nationals seats. 

The evaluation and planning of the schemes was left to WaterNSW: all have failed to meet basic measures of viability and cost benefit. Wyangala and Mole River have been moved to the back burner after WaterNSW warned the three proposed dam projects were not viable and would require a budget subsidy or a waiver from its charter requiring commercial viability.

Management of the dam projects has been shifted from WaterNSW to the Department of Water Infrastructure and away from having to be commercially viable. 

The Dungowan Dam project is still on the table despite a doubling of costs from $484 million to $870 million a Legislative Council Inquiry revealed. Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann, who chaired the inquiry, called for alternatives to help boost Tamworth’s water supply, such as the managed recharge of the area’s aquifers and other water efficiency projects. The report also pointed out that the dam’s proponents had not taken account of climate change when considering the merits of a bigger dam. 

The project to build a dam downstream from the old Dungowan dam and a new pipeline to the water treatment works was originally proposed because of fears the growing town of Tamworth will run short of water. The town has an allocation from Dungowan, but the lion’s share of water is used for irrigation and farming.

Joyce made the announcement at the dam site in early February. But critics, including the federal government’s Productivity Commission, argue that Tamworth’s future needs could be met by spending just $10 million on buying back water entitlements from irrigators. 

The Productivity Commission’s report, released in February last year, said that decision-making on the proposed Dungowan Dam had been “flawed” and that it is a “costly way” to deliver more water to Tamworth.

The Nature Conservation Council (NCC) criticised the Perrottet-led government for its breach of public trust by refusing to release the business case for the Dungowan Dam project.

“If these projects go ahead, they will cost taxpayers billions," acting chief executive Jacqui Mumford said in a media release on February 2, adding there needs to be transparency about the costs and benefits. The NCC wants the government to “release the full business case for all major water projects in the planning pipeline before a final decision is made”.

Joyce’s dam re-announcement has also come under fire by sections of the Nationals' base, including Malcolm Peters, a conservative voter and “regional Australian advocate”. He said on Twitter that as 100% of water in the Murray-Darling Basin is allocated, any water extraction licences will have to be purchased from downstream irrigators, with or without a new expensive dam.

Tony Windsor, the former Independent MP for New England, tweeted that neither the NSW or federal governments have any intention of funding Dungowan Dam near Tamworth. “This is good news as the Joyce thought bubble would be a disaster. The farce will continue up till the next Fed Election, then the project will die.”