Diary Of A Failed Dam

Posted on Tue 11/25/2008 by


Yesterday, in this post, I talked about how millions of gallons of drinking water are flowing into the ocean, when the city of Melbourne is crying out for drinking water, and for want of a dam, are doing without. Four years supply have flowed out in three floods, disastrously flooding the downstream area.

In that post, I mentioned how successive State Governments have repeatedly neglected building dams to cater for drinking water for increasing populations. In this case, that same Government is constructing a desalination plant at three times the cost of the proposed dam, a plant that will only provide 20% of the water the dam would have provided, that dam now forever lost because that same Government has gazetted the area a National Park now.

However in that post, I mentioned that even though Governments in all States have not constructed dams at all for a decade or two, there was one dam that actually had been proposed for construction, and against all the odds, work had even started.

Well, not one day after posting this article, the Premier of the State of Queensland (this is the same position as for a US State Governor) has announced that this dam will be now put on hold for a number of years. Not one or two years, but for a number of years. The Premier has said that there are significant environmental concerns over bird and fish habitats. Man, who cares about the people, as long as the birdies and the fishies are okay.

This dam has a chequered history, and to understand that history, you need to be aware of the history behind the water situation for this area of South East Queensland.

In 1974, there was a disastrous flood in the Brisbane area that I mentioned in this post. As a result of that flood, the large Wivenhoe dam was constructed, mainly as flood mitigation, but also for water supply purposes. That dam is directly downstream from the large Somerset dam that could not cope with that devastating flood. Time and memory have diminished that disaster, and now people have a certain sense of complacency with regard to that flood. The new dam was positively huge and if full, it would hold three times the amount of water of Somerset, but at 100% full, this would be a disastrous situation, because any further inflow would lead to no alternative but to let it go, hence the possibility of another flood. Because the larger dam holds so much, and has never been more than 50% full, the total water in the dam system for the area is skewed towards a low percentage, because it is currently only 25% full, even with Somerset behind it at 92% full and two other dams in the area also at or well above that 90%. To that end, the water supply is always quoted at dangerously low (percentage) levels. Because people are only exposed to the seven second sound byte quoting just that low percentage, the perception is that we really are in dire straits when it comes to water.

The reality is this. That low percentage level always quoted is in fact a considerable amount of water. This water is the supply for an area that has a population of around 4.5 million people. If it was to never rain again, that water will still last for more than 4 years, and that’s not even running the dams completely dry. Therein lies the lie to all this. Those figures are being manipulated for reasons other than running short of supply.

At one stage that percentage did get quite low, down around 18%, but even at that low level there was still 18 months supply if there was no rain. When it was that low, Politicians started to worry, because they knew that they would get the blame for lack of foresight in not constructing new dams. So matters were put in place in an effort to try and alleviate the situation.

First they ran a scare campaign telling us that we were running out of water, and each month, anew and more draconian restriction on the use of water was introduced.

The the Government under the previous Leader decide on measures to solve the problem. These measures included the construction of a new dam, construction of a very expensive desalination plant that was to use an immense amount of electrical power to convert sea water to drinking water, the construction of a new plant to recycle water, this recycling including sewage, and medical waste, and we were told hand on heart that this was okay. There was further plans for the construction of a water grid, a conglomerate of huge pipelines and pumping stations to move the water around the area, an area as large as the State of Texas.

All of these plans were contentious to say the least, but the dam project always seemed to be the most cynical of all of them.

It was planned to build the dam across the Mary River. The dam was really only quite small, was indeed quite shallow, leading to a vast amount of water evaporating because of that shallowness, and was going to add very little to the overall total, be that an actual total, or even in the percentage terms they are so fond of using. The most cynical part of all was where the dam was actually going to be constructed.

It was in a political electorate that was always a sensitive to the incumbent Labor Government. This electorate had actually had the gall to elect a member from the vilified One Nation Party, arch political enemy of the Labor Party Government. The area was considered redneck in the extreme, and all sorts of names were placed on those living in the area. The Government totally ignored every report saying the dam was of little value, and they even conceded that it was such, but they were going ahead with the dam at all costs. Just in evaporation alone, the dam would lose one third of its total supply each year. It was in an area not really that rain intensive, and people could not see the actual worth in the construction. As the political electorate was never going to support them electorally under any circumstances, this would seem the perfect place to put that dam, but for cynical political purposes only.

An earlier Government, known to be not afraid of huge infrastructure construction like these on scales unheard of, actually built dams on a large scale, and (luckily) they were the Government who actually went ahead and constructed the huge Wivenhoe Dam, and three other large dams in the area. Two dams that they had planned but not started were cancelled when they lost the election prior to construction starting. A monster dam a little to the North of here had been constructed to Stage 1 with a further two stages to follow, and this would have alleviated most water supply problems for that area well into the distant future. When the new Government came to Office, stages 2 and 3 of that dam were canned, stages that would have tripled the capacity. This stopping of construction of dams was an appeasement to the green lobby that supported the new Government, so when this new small dam was first planned and then floated, there was round condemnation from all fronts, and even from that same green lobby that supported the Government now so entrenched it thought that the small support they did get from that sector would not be too much of a loss.

This dam has now been in the planning stage for nigh on three years, and until today’s announcement was always scheduled to proceed.

This announcement that to get Federal approval, these new environmental concerns over fish and bird habitats need to be addressed, but the real reason might be something else indeed.

There have been recent and quite rain weather events in the area that have produced immense amounts of rain, and that rain is proceeding to add considerably to the totals, both in actual terms and in percentage terms. The level now stands at 46%, and the forecast is for a wet Summer, so that figure will obviously rise considerably. I stress here that this has nothing to do whatsoever with Climate Change, as these conditions are what Summers used to be like back in the 50’s and 60’s. With the huge dams now filling, and filling with regularity, the real need of this tiny and almost useless new dam is now debatable. Hence, an excuse was needed, and to show their environmental concerns to best advantage, this environmental ‘take’ was hit upon.

The desalination plant is now all but complete, so that will still be a cost we are already subject to, but now not really needed as well. A further media release also mentions that the Premier is now going back to the Water Commission to review the need for the recycling plant. This plant has always been contentious because opposition has always correctly quoted, and highlighted the sewerage and medical waste component of this process, something the Government has always been a little sensitive of. This alone made this part of the process the most contentious and where they were taking the biggest hits from.

Now that water supply is regularly creeping up, the Premier is now looking for an ‘out’, and this might be it. It will be reviewed and a report will come out probably labelling it as a last resort ‘Doomsday’ plan, and it will go the way of the now failed dam, forgotten about, and the political process will move on, with these two albatrosses removed from around the necks of the politicians who proposed them.