In proudly announcing his dam-building agenda, Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said, “water is wealth and stored water is a bank”, adding that he wished to “recapture the vision and purpose of the Snowy Mountains Scheme.” They were noble words, but sadly what the Minister announced was neither visionary nor will it give Australia the “bank” of water we so desperately need.
On Joyce’s short to-do list are some puddle holes in Tasmania and Gippsland, where there is no immediate need for more water. Where the need is now urgent, if we are to produce the goods needed to honour our commitments to the China Free Trade Deal, there is nothing on his agenda.
Nor does Joyce recognise that our “water bank,” like our budget, is in the red because, while our population has more than doubled over 30 years, we have not provided water-storage capacity to guarantee our needs. This escalating water shortage has been further depleted by the needless and counterproductive Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which aims to remove a further 2,750,000 megalitres from productive use every year. Rather than being able to increase food production to satisfy the opportunities flowing from China and elsewhere we have a man-made drought in our major food bowls due to incompetent water policy.
In seeking to emulate the vision of the Snowy Scheme the Minister would be wise to reflect on the words of Prime Minister Ben Chifley, who concluded his May, 1949, speech announcing the government’s decision to proceed with the project with these words, “This is a plan for the nation and it needs the nation to back it.”
Unlike Joyce’s statement, Chifley’s was a brave and visionary announcement. The scheme he proposed, with the determined support of his Minister of Public Works, Nelson Lemmon, was ridiculed by Robert Menzies and the Liberal-Country Party and denounced by both the NSW and Victorian governments, who preferred schemes that benefited their particular states. The parish-pump attitudes of the premiers was further endorsed by a critical medi, led the Packer-controlled Daily Telegraph.
But because of the unshakeable resolve of Chiefly and Lemmon, the nation did ultimately back their vision and the the Snowy Scheme helped transform Australia in ways none of its architects might have expected, most particularly in promoting a progressive, multicultural industrial Nation. Thousands fleeing a war torn Europe found work and Australia prospered grew and prospered on the basis of abundant water and power.
Sixty-five years later we desperately need a stout-hearted politician to rise above the “driest continent on earth” squawking and announce a visionary, practical and affordable plan to control our highly variable water flows. This means new dams, associated hydro-power production, and overcoming the acute shortage of water-storage capacity.
We are in this position because, following SA Premier Don Dunstan’s decision in 1970 to stop building the Chowilla Dam on the Murray and delay the Dartmouth on the Mitta Mitta, Bob Brown and his Greens’ campaign damned dams as environmental evils. In the decades since that eruption of emotional, ill-informed rejection of rational thought our population and water needs have more than doubled. Yet we have done little to increase water conservation and storage, other than building Wivenhoe Dam in Queensland.
By contrast during, the last 30 years has seen the World Bank fund more than 500 large dams across 92 countries, with China presently building a dozen large dams on the Jinsha River alone. Moreover, Beijing has further plans for some 700 additional dams by the end of this decade, all capable of generating carbon credits as a result of their hydro-power capacity. Dams are being built on every inhabited continent except the driest: Australia.
A visionary but achievable plan for Australia, would provide abundant water for our cities, our growth areas, our industries and mining, plus vastly increased food production in regional Australia. That production capacity is crucial if we are to benefit from the China Free Trade Deal. Practical water policy would dramatically increase the Australian aquatic footprint and habitat for water-dependent flora and fauna, also providing recreational facilities (spawning related industries and jobs) in presently dry areas. We would see an increase in regional growth due to increased productive activity, and Australia would be dotted with many more pleasant places to live.
Such a plan would rejuvenate much of regional Australia and allow these presently regressing communities to grow and be seen as desirable places to live, work and bring up a family.
A visionary plan to better manage our water resources must recognise that, if left unmanaged, water availability in Australia will always be highly unreliable. The quantum varies from year to year, from month to month, and these variables can be vastly different from valley to valley, or state to state at any one time. All of our streams go from destructive, valley-filling floods to little or no flow in an unpredictable time frames. It is this variability that necessitates our obligation to Australia’s future, the neglected responsibility to conserve water in times of excess for use by all who need it in dry times.
While Minister Joyce recognises these facts, what he proposes in no way addresses them.
Recent water and power policy at both state and federal levels has been unnecessary, hideously expensive, counter- productive and not in the best interest of the nation, the environment or city and regional communities. It is the result of a confluence of visionless, reactive politics and green environmentalism seeking the most expensive solutions to problems that are, when not misunderstood, entirely imaginary.
We must recognise that dams do not destroy rivers, creeks or wetlands. They are wetlands that store excess water in times of abundance for release in times of little runoff, to the advantage of all, animals and humans alike. Correctly engineered and properly managed, new dams with associated hydro-power generation can pay dividends on the investment for a century and more. While the initial capital requirement is high, management and maintenance after commissioning is minimal and, in many situations, the same bucket of water produces income several times.
Australia has vast areas of fertile flood plain mostly situated in a Mediterranean climate zone ideal for increased food production now required to our north. All that is required to make this dry land blossom is adequate water and power. The resourceful, adaptive and productive people of regional Australia will do the rest and our unemployment rate will fall as a result. Drawing on exhaustive analysis by the NSW Irrigators Council and ABS it can be shown that for every 1M megalitres of water made available for production in this vast area, the economic activity generated is over $2B per annum and 7500 new jobs are created. Importantly the Government gets for its wise use of taxpayer dollars over $50M from sales of water and clean green power and over $200M in new PAYG and GST tax income every year.
The wise and visionary management of our existing water resources has the capacity to do for Australia this century far more than The Snowy Scheme did in the last. We have the water, the land, the agricultural nous and the resourceful people to grow regional Australia and supply market-ready produce to millions of people around the world with money ready and an eagerness to pay for them.
Water policy has pitted commonsense in the cities and regional communities against a rowdy and radical environmental minority. Sadly, politicians have supported the latter at the expense of the former, and now they must amends for getting it so wrong. It is time — indeed, it is long past time — for Joyce to announce a new water conservation plan by paraphrasing the words of Ben Chifley:
“This plan is the greatest single project in our history. It is a plan for the whole Nation, belonging to no one State or any group. It is a plan that will rejuvenate regional Australia, assure water for our towns and cities and dramatically grow our productive capacity.
This is a plan for the Nation at the right time for our Nation and it needs the Nation to back it.”
There will be naysayers and fierce opposition, of course, which is why the crusade needs a man of Joyce’s undoubted resolve and fighting spirit. The greenies will scream, but he will never hear a midge, yabbie, fish, duck or pelican ask “is this a natural wetland?”
Ron Pike is a water consultant and third-generation irrigation farmer