Dams are being built, but they are private: Australia Institute



A senior water researcher at the institute said politicians don’t want to talk about private dams because “they do nothing for drought-stricken communities”.
Shutterstock

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

A report from The Australia Institute rejects government claims new dams are not being built, saying at least 20 to 30 large private dams have been constructed in the Murray-Darling basin in recent years.

While information on the number of private dams and the cost of their taxpayer subsidy is limited, the report says “it appears that just two of these dams cost taxpayers nearly $30 million”.

“Over $200 million was spent on dam-related projects [in the Murray-Darling Basin] according to official data, although not all of this will have been specifically on dams,” it says,

Maryanne Slattery, senior water researcher at the institute, said politicians don’t want to talk about these dams because “they do nothing for drought-stricken communities, the health of the river or struggling farmers”.

“These dams have been built on private land and are for the exclusive use of corporate agribusiness, such as Webster Limited,” she said.

“Politicians are reluctant to talk about why millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent subsidising dams that make the problems of the Murray Darling Basin worse”.

Water Minister David Littleproud has repeatedly berated the states for not building new dams. He said recently that of the 20 dams completed since 2003, 16 were in Tasmania.

“If NSW, Queensland and Victoria don’t start building dams, their water storage capacity will fall by more than 30% by 2030,” he said. “We put $1.3 billion on the table in through the national water infrastructure development fund in 2015 and have still had to drag most states kicking and screaming to build new dams.”

The report says new public dams would require public consultation, including with stakeholders who had environmental and economic concerns.

But private dams involved “minimal public consultation and can be approved and constructed based on environmental assessments commissioned from private consultants by dam proponents”.

The report looked at three dams in detail, on properties in the Murrumbidgee Valley owned by Webster Ltd – Glenmea, Bringagee and Kooba Station. The dams were funded out of the federal government’s $4 billion water efficiency program.

The report argues such dams are not the best way to save water. It points to the department of agriculture and water resources saying new dams can save water where they replace shallower ones (which have more evaporation), or where they collect recycled irrigation water.

“However, none of the three case-study dams in this report save water in this way. They are new dams, not replacing smaller, shallower dams. Water stored behind their approximately eight metre high walls would otherwise be stored in public headwater dams around 100 metres deep.”

These dams are designed to divert normal irrigation water and “supplementary water” – not to simply recycle irrigation water, the report says. Thus “they increase both evaporation and irrigation water use”.

Supplementary water is water that is surplus to consumptive needs. It is important environmentally and to downstream users, historically making up almost all the water flowing from the Murrumbidgee into the Murray, the report says.

“With major dams now targeting this water, the Murrumbidgee could be disconnected from the Murray in most years. This has implications for all NSW Basin water users, who are already grappling with how to meet downstream obligations within the Murray’s constraints and with no water coming down the Darling.”

The report says a Canadian pension fund had just been reported as “swooping” on Webster, “with specific mention of a property with one of these new dams”.

“The new dams that Australian taxpayers helped build appear to be highly valued by international investors,” the report says.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

There’s a simple way to drought-proof a town – build more water storage



Inland towns need far more water storage.
Flickr/Mertie, CC BY-SA

Michael Roderick, Australian National University

The federal parliament has voted to funnel A$200 million to drought-stricken areas. What exactly this money will be spent on is still under consideration, but the majority will go to rural, inland communities.

But once there, what can the money usefully be spent on? Especially if there’s been a permanent decline in rainfall, as seen in Perth. How can we help inland communities?




Read more:
Recent Australian droughts may be the worst in 800 years


Let’s look at the small inland town of Guyra, NSW, which is close to running dry. Unlike our coastal cities, Guyra cannot simply build a billion-dollar desalination plant to supply its water. Towns like Guyra must look elsewhere for its solutions.

Running dry isn’t just about rainfall

“Running dry” means there is no water when the tap is turned on. It seems to make sense to blame the drought for Guyra’s lack of water. But the available water supply is not only determined by rainfall. It also depends on amount of water flowing into water storage (called streamflow), and the capacity and security of that storage.

While Perth has had a distinct downturn in its rainfall since the 1970s and has built desalination plants to respond to this challenge, no such downturn is evident at Guyra. Indeed, to date, the driest consecutive two years on record for Guyra were 100 years ago (1918 and 1919).

Long-term rainfall records for Perth (left) and Guyra (right). Dashed red line shows the trend and the full yellow line shows 600 mm annual rainfall.
Bureau of Meteorology

Despite the differences, there are some similarities between Perth and Guyra. As a rule of thumb, in Australia, significant streamflow into water storages does not occur until annual rainfall reaches around 600mm. This occurs as streamflow is generally supplied from “wet patches” when water can no longer soak into the soil. Thus, if annual rainfall is around 600mm or below, we generally anticipate very little streamflow.

While Guyra has seen some rain in 2019, it is not enough to prompt this crucial flow of water into the local water storage. The same is true for Perth, with annual rainfall in the past few decades now hovering close to the 600mm threshold.

Importantly, rainfall and streamflow do not have a linear relationship. Annual rainfall in Perth has declined by around 20%, but Perth’s streamflow has fallen by more than 90%.

With little streamflow filling its dams, Perth had little choice but to find other ways of increasing its water supply. They built desalination plants to make up the difference.

Let’s return to Guyra in NSW and the current drought. The rainfall records do not indicate there is a long-term downward trend in rainfall. But even without a rainfall trend, there are still dry years when there is little streamflow. Indeed, in Guyra, the rainfall record shows that, on average, the rainfall will be 600mm or less roughly one year out of every ten years.

Build more storage

So how do the residents of Guyra ensure a reliable water supply, given that they cannot build themselves a desalination plant?

Well, in this case, you can simply get water from somewhere else if it is available. A pipeline is currently under construction to supply Guyra from the nearby Malpas Dam, and is expected to be in operation very soon.

But that’s not always an option. A made-in-Guyra water solution means one thing: expanding storage capacity.

Guyra can generally store around 8 months of their normal water demand (although of course demand varies with the seasons, droughts, water restrictions and price per litre).

To give a point of comparison, Sydney can store up to five years of its normal water demand, and has a desalination plant besides. Despite these advantages, Sydney residents are now under stage one water restrictions which happens when its storages are only 50% full. Yet, even when Sydney’s glass is only half-full, that city still has at least another two years of water left to meet the expected water demand even without using desalination.

By comparison, when water storages in Guyra are 50% full, they have less than six months normal water supply.

It is astonishingly difficult to find accurate data on small-town water supplies but in my experience Guyra is not unique among rural towns. There is a big divide between the water security of those living in Australia’s big cities compared to smaller inland towns. Many rural communities simply do not have sufficient water storage to withstand multi-year droughts, and in some cases, cannot even withstand one year of drought.




Read more:
Droughts, extreme weather and empowered consumers mean tough choices for farmers


Nature, drought and climate change cannot be blamed for all of our water problems. In rural inland towns, inadequate planning and funding for household water can sometimes be the real culprit. Whether Australians live in rural communities or big cities, they should be treated fairly in terms of both the availability and the quality of the water they use.The Conversation

Michael Roderick, Professor, Research School of Earth Sciences and Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We can have fish and dams: here’s how


John Harris, UNSW Australia; Bill Peirson, UNSW Australia, and Richard Kingsford, UNSW Australia

Fish are the most threatened group among Earth’s freshwater vertebrates. On average, freshwater fish populations have declined by 76% over the past 40 years. Damaged fish communities and declining fisheries characterise global freshwater environments, including those in Australia.

Fish migrate to complete their life cycles, but water-resource developments disrupt river connectivity and migrations, threatening biological diversity and fisheries.

Millions of dams, weirs and smaller barriers – for storage and irrigation, road and rail transport and hydropower schemes – block the migration of fish in rivers worldwide.

These barriers serve our needs for water supply, transport and energy. But, by obstructing fish migrations, they also degrade ecological integrity and reduce food security.

This is bad news for those who depend on fish for food. For example, in the Mekong River fish supply over 70% of the people’s animal protein, but catches are falling drastically following dam building.

In our paper published today in CSIRO’s Marine and Freshwater Research, we take stock of the impact these barriers have on our freshwater fish, most (perhaps all) of which migrate, and how we can help them.

Dam it all

There are countless barriers across Australia’s rivers. Roughly 10,000 barriers of all kinds obstruct flows in the Murray-Darling Basin. Flow is unobstructed in less than half of the basin’s watercourse length.

Native fish numbers in the basin’s rivers have declined by an estimated 90% through habitat fragmentation by barriers together with altered flows, overfishing, coldwater pollution and invasive species.

Similar problems also affect coastal river systems. One or more barriers obstruct 49% of rivers in southeast Australia.

Local species extinctions and loss of biodiversity have occurred nationwide in developed regions, especially upstream of large dams.

Overcoming barriers

One way to help fish overcome barriers is to build fishways (or “fish ladders”).

Fishways are designed to aid fish travelling upstream or downstream at high (dams, weirs) or low (road crossings, barrages) barriers. These are classed as “technical”, with hard-engineering designs, or “nature-like”, mimicking natural stream channels.

The raised Hinze Dam on the Nerang River, Queensland, with Australia’s first trap-and-haul fishway.
Author provided

Recognition that dams threaten freshwater fish communities lagged well behind their construction. Nonetheless, European and American observations of declining fisheries for species moving from the sea to breed in rivers prompted early attempts in Australia to provide for fish passage.

The first Australian fishway was built near Sydney in 1913. By 1985, 52 had been built, but they adopted Northern Hemisphere designs for salmon and trout. These were unsuitable for Australian species, which rarely leap at barriers, and their flow velocities, turbulence and other aspects were excessive.

Seeing the failure of these fishways, New South Wales Fisheries sought advice in 1982 from George Eicher, an American expert, who advised on research to create designs for local species.

This led to expanding fishways research and construction in eastern states. The result was markedly improved performance, for example in the Murray-Darling’s Sea to Hume program.

Fishway performance

Our research shows that regrettably few Australian fishways have yet been shown to meet ideal ecological criteria for mitigating the impact of barriers. Furthermore, fishways are in place at relatively few sites.

In NSW, for example, only about 172 in total serve several thousand weirs and 123 dams. They can be expensive to build and operate, so costs retard mitigation at numerous important sites.

Fishways have seldom been built on dams (fewer than 3% of Australia’s 500 high dams have one); they have generally cost tens of millions of dollars; and most operate, with limited effectiveness, for less than 50% of the time. The need for much greater investment in innovation, research and development is pressing.

How to store water and also rehabilitate fish

To reduce the impact of dams on fish we need to look at resolving problems at river-basin scale; improving our management of barriers, environmental flows and water quality; removing barriers; and developing improved fishway designs.

The modern vertical-slot fishway at Torrumbarry, near Echuca, on the Murray River.
Author provided

One way to accelerate improvements nationally would be to pass legislation for routinely re-licensing waterway barriers at regular intervals. This would mean that older barriers are re-evaluated and upgraded or removed where necessary. Under the NSW Weir Removal Program, 14 redundant weirs have already been removed, with others under assessment.

We are developing an innovative pump fishway concept at UNSW Australia. It combines aquaculture fish-pumping methods for safe fish transfer with existing fishway technology.

Young Australian bass during trials of an experimental model of the pump fishway.

We hope the project may help transform past practices through less-costly modular construction, adaptability to a wide range of barriers and improved effectiveness.

Better fishway developments will mean that we can store and supply much-needed water while also restoring fish migrations. This will be increasingly important as climate change reduces streamflows in many regions, and will help rehabilitate fish populations.

The Conversation

John Harris, Adjunct Associate Professor, Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW Australia; Bill Peirson, Adjunct, Water Research Laboratory, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UNSW Australia, and Richard Kingsford, Professor, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rush to dam northern Australia comes at the expense of sustainability


Barry Hart, Monash University; Avril Horne, University of Melbourne, and Erin O’Donnell, University of Melbourne

Ahead of the election, the major parties have released different visions for developing northern Australia. The Coalition has committed to dam projects across Queensland; Labor has pledged to support the tourism industry.

These pledges build on the Coalition’s A$5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, a fund to support large projects, starting on July 1.

The Coalition has pledged A$20 million to support 14 new or existing dams across Queensland should the government be returned to power, as part of a A$2.5 billion plan for dams across northern Australia.

Labor, meanwhile, will redirect A$1 billion from the fund towards tourism, including eco-tourism, indigenous tourism ventures and transport infrastructure (airports, trains, and ports).

It is well recognised that the development of northern Australia will depend on harnessing the north’s abundant water resources. However, it’s also well recognised that the ongoing use of water resources to support industry and agriculture hinges on the health and sustainability of those water resources.

Northern Australia is home to diverse ecosystems, which support a range of ecosystem services and cultural values, and these must be adequately considered in the planning stages.

Sustainability comes second

The white paper for northern Australia focuses almost solely on driving growth and development. Current water resource management policy in Australia, however, emphasises integrated water resource planning and sustainable water use that protects key ecosystem functions.

Our concern is that the commitment to sustainability embedded in the National Water Initiative (NWI), as well as Queensland’s water policies, may become secondary in the rush to “fast track” these water infrastructure projects.

Lessons from the past show that the long-term success of large water infrastructure projects requires due process, including time for consultation, environmental assessments and investigation of alternative solutions.

What is on the table?

The Coalition proposes providing funds to investigate the feasibility of a range of projects, including upgrading existing dams and investigating new dams. The majority of these appear to be focused on increasing the reliability of water supplies in regional urban centres. Few target improved agricultural productivity.

These commitments add to the already proposed feasibility study (A$10 million) of the Ord irrigation scheme in the Northern Territory and the construction of the Nullinga Dam in Queensland. And the A$15 million northern Australia water resources assessment being undertaken by CSIRO, which is focused on the Fitzroy river basin in Western Australia, the Darwin river basins in Northern Territory and the Mitchell river basin in Queensland.

Rethinking dams

New water infrastructure in the north should be part of an integrated investment program to limit overall environmental impacts. Focusing on new dams applies 19th-century thinking to a 21st-century problem, and we have three major concerns about the rush to build dams in northern Australia.

First, the process to establish infrastructure priorities for federal investment is unclear. For instance, it’s uncertain how the projects are connected to Queensland’s State Infrastructure Plan.

Investment in new water infrastructure across northern Australia needs to be part of a long-term water resource plan. This requires clearly articulated objectives for the development of northern Australia, along with assessment criteria that relate to economic, social and environmental outcomes, such as those used in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Second, the federal government emphasises on-stream dams. Dams built across the main river in this way have many well-recognised problems, including:

  • lack of environmental flows (insufficient water at the appropriate frequency and duration to support ecosystems)

  • flow inversion (higher flows may occur in the dry season than in the wet, when the bulk of rainfall occurs)

  • barriers to fish movement and loss of connectivity to wetlands

  • water quality and temperature impacts (unless there is a multi-level off-take).

As a minimum, new dams should be built away from major waterways (such as on small, tributary streams) and designed to minimise environmental impacts. This requires planning in the early stages, as such alternatives are extremely difficult to retrofit to an existing system.

Finally, the federal government proposals make no mention of climate change impacts. Irrigation and intensive manufacturing industries demand highly reliable water supplies.

While high-value use of water should be encouraged, new industries need to be able to adapt for the increased frequency of low flows; as well as increased intensity of flood events. Government investment needs to build resilience as well as high-value use.

Detailed planning, not press releases

In place of the rather ad hoc approach to improvements in water infrastructure, such as the projects announced by the federal government in advance of the election, we need a more holistic and considered approach.

The A$20 million investment for 14 feasibility studies and business cases in Queensland represents a relatively small amount of money for each project, and runs the risk of having them undertaken in isolation. The feasibility studies should be part of the entirety of the government’s plan for A$2.5 billion in new dams for northern Australia.

Water resource planning is too important and too expensive to cut corners on planning. Investment proposals for Queensland need to be integrated with water resource planning across the state, and across northern Australia, and with appropriate consideration of climate change impacts.

Fast tracking dams without considering ecosystem impacts, future variability in water supplies, and resilience in local communities merely sets the scene for future problems that will likely demand another round of intervention and reform.

The Conversation

Barry Hart, Emeritus Professor Water Science, Monash University; Avril Horne, Research fellow, Department of Infrastructure Engineering, University of Melbourne, and Erin O’Donnell, Senior Fellow, Centre for Resources, Energy and Environment Law, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Damming northern Australia: we need to learn hard lessons from the south


Erin O’Donnell, University of Melbourne and Barry Hart, Monash University

The push for development in northern Australia is gathering momentum, with the government recently releasing a draft of its Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility to help finance large projects.

The development of northern Australia will crucially depend on harnessing the north’s abundant available water resources. Over the next five years the government will develop plans to manage these water resources.

However we have to get these plans right from the start to ensure the north’s waters are developed sustainably. To do so, we can start by looking south.

Full steam ahead

In June 2015, the federal government released its long-awaited northern Australia White Paper. Among commitments to agriculture in northern Australia, the white paper targets more efficient use of water resources across the north.

Over 60% of Australia’s total surface water runoff occurs north of the Tropic of Capricorn. A 2014 CSIRO review indicates that this could potentially support up to 1.4 million hectares of irrigated land, increasing Australia’s irrigated area by 50%.

Reaching this potential, however, would come at the financial and environmental cost of around 90 new dams and many weirs and other infrastructure.

The white paper promises sustainable development, but the problem is the timeframe. The paper commits, over the next two years, to assessment of the water resources in the initial priority catchments, and within five years, to the development of water resource plans. These plans will include a cap on water use, and a water market to trade water allocations.

But the paper is silent on what we know about northern ecosystems and how water infrastructure might affect them, and makes no allowance for climate change.

Learning from the south

There is much to be learned from the current implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which will result in upgrades to existing water plans in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory.

The past 20 years have seen almost continual reform in Murray-Darling, demonstrating how hard it is to achieve sustainability when water resources are over-used.

Australia is currently spending over A$13 billion to restore the Murray-Darling Basin catchments to something approaching the minimum needed to maintain the ecological health of the system.

Avoiding this will avoid a major overhaul in the future and provide investor confidence.

Managing this risk to wildlife

Northern Australia is home to 301 nationally threatened species, as well as the iconic Great Barrier Reef, already under threat.

In 2004 one of us (Barry) looked at environmental risks of new irrigation schemes then proposed for the north.

He identified four factors for sustainable irrigation, including urgently better understanding the north’s freshwater ecosystems, and developing a risk-based approach to making decisions on infrastructure.

Over the past decade we’ve considerably improved our knowledge of northern ecosystems, for example the Ord river system in Western Australia, Kakadu and the Daly river in Norther Territory, and the Mitchell, Burdekin and other coastal rivers and wetlands in Queensland. Although we know more, this knowledge needs to be synthesised before it can be used for planning.

We still don’t know exactly how irrigation projects might affect these ecosystems. To deal with this we suggest adopting an ecological risk-based approach to planning.

It is trite, but true, that one needs to know the risks before one can set about managing them. Ecological risk assessments assist in identifying the risks, assessing their relative importance, and identifying possible ways to mitigate the risks. This sort of process is a basic component of the requirements for plans being developed as part of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Dealing with dams

The White Paper clearly sees new on-stream dams as part of increasing water use in northern Australia.

The planning process will set a cap on how much water can be used. But current evidence regarding the impact of dams on river flows shows that this will not be enough.

From the start, plans need to include environmental flow: sufficient water at the appropriate frequency and duration to support ecosystems. As well as a cap, this might mean creating legal rights for water held in the storage for the environment.

One of the intractable problems caused by dams in southern Australia has been seasonal flow inversion. River flows are higher in summer and lower in winter than the ecosystem needs.

In the north, flow inversion may occur with higher flows occurring in the dry season rather than in summer when the bulk of the rainfall occurs.

To avoid this, new water infrastructure in the north could be built off stream. This system is currently used in the Queensland section of the Murray-Darling Basin. But, unless planned for at the outset, these alternatives are extremely difficult to retrofit to an existing system.

Figuring out the sustainable level of water extraction for an aquatic ecosystem depends on considerable technical work (hydrological, ecological and modelling). This technical work needs to be guided by a clear set of objectives for each development, including the value the community (including Indigenous Australians) places on the local ecosystems.

The water market

The Murray-Darling Basin demonstrates that water markets are a highly efficient means for ensuring that the available water resource is effectively used. Additionally, the water market is also an efficient means for recovering water for the environment (although the overall process remains costly), and can also increase efficiency of environmental water management.

But to make the most of the opportunities created by water markets, the environment needs the institutional capacity to enter the market. In the south, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder owns and manages large volumes of water across the Murray-Darling Basin. At the state level, the Victorian Environmental Water Holder has also proved effective at streamlining decision-making and using the market to manage its holdings.

If environmental water in the north is to be managed efficiently in the context of a future water market, establishing a legal entity with the capacity to hold water, enter contracts and make decisions will be an essential piece of the puzzle.

The White Paper is a bold vision for developing northern Australia. Australia has learned many lessons about sustainable water allocation the hard way, at the cost of a great deal of time, money and ecosystem degradation.

We need to apply these lessons from the south to the north. Failing to adequately invest in new water resource development plans in northern Australia is effectively planning to fail. And we should know better.

The Conversation

Erin O’Donnell, Senior Fellow, Centre for Resources, Energy and Environment Law, University of Melbourne and Barry Hart, Emeritus Professor Water Science, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Asia: Dams to Cause Environmental Disaster – Mekong River


The link below is to an article reporting on the construction of some 78 dams along the Mekong River system in south-east Asia, raising major concerns for the health of the river system and its fish population.

For more visit:
http://www.scidev.net/en/agriculture-and-environment/news/dams-a-potential-catastrophe-for-mekong-fisheries.html