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NSW Government's $1 billion 'band-aid solution' for drought-proofing rural areas slammed

By Joanna Woodburn, Thursday September 24, 2020 - 06:39 EST
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A car parked on the bottom of Wyangala Dam shows how vulnerable the storage is during drought. - ABC

The New South Wales Government has been asked to explain why more than $1 billion of taxpayers' money was being spent on two dams without finalised business cases.

Wyangala dam near Cowra is being expanded by 650 billion litres, and a new Dungowan dam will be built near Tamworth to shore up water supplies.

The as towns in NSW faced the prospect of .

There is widespread support for improved water security but concern about the way the works are being fast-tracked.

"The decision was made in a hurry in the middle of a drought," said Ildu Monticone, from the Peel Valley Water Users' Association.

"Somebody had to do something, and it's good that they did, but really it's only a temporary measure."

The current Dungowan Dam, east of Tamworth, has a capacity of 6.3 billion litres, and its proposed replacement will provide 22.5 billion litres.

The Tamworth-based Peel Valley Water Users' Association has described the project as a "band-aid solution" if the city's population grows as forecast.

"Adding another dam of only a net 16 billion gigalitres is really not going to make a significant difference," Mr Monticone said.

The State Government said a new Dungowan Dam was chosen because it had a higher rainfall catchment than alternative projects.

"It's the capacity that's the issue; it's not as a substantial addition to the storage capacity for Tamworth," Mr Monticone said.

Irrigators fear steep prices

The Lachlan River, which runs through central NSW, has the unenviable honour of being identified as being most in need of water investment.

It is fed by Wyangala Dam near Cowra, which does not fare well during droughts.

"[In 2016] we had a major flood, and within 2.5 years we had to start suspending general security [licences] to keep the river flowing," said Tom Green, from Lachlan Valley Water (LVW).

LVW represents irrigators along the river and has backed the decision to increase Wyangala's storage by raising the dam wall.

Mr Green said if that capacity was there during the current drought, it would have insulated the valley.

"You wouldn't have slipped into drought as quick [and] you wouldn't have had to suspend water [allocations]," he said.

Preliminary studies were done as part of the process to select Wyangala Dam's expansion over other options.

But without a business case, water users are not sure whether the proposed expansion will be enough.

They also do not know how much the State and Federal governments will expect them to pay.

"We're very keen to see the business case, because that will fundamentally write down what it's going to cost irrigators and what we're expected to pay for," Mr Green said.

"Is there an expected portion of total cost that's being put into asset base that irrigators will have to repay over time?

"Government needs to provide direction."

Minister talks up benefit-cost ratio

NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey said due process was being followed and the business cases would be ready in early 2021.

"We need to get on with the job of building dams and to give security, and I know that the benefit-cost ratio of these projects are very strong on the initial analysis," Minister Pavey said.

The projects' Environmental Impact Statements also will not be completed until next year, despite preliminary works due to start at both sites in October.

Hugh McLean from Booligal is with the Lachlan Floodplains and Wetlands Group and said he was worried the work to improve water security would only benefit those near Wyangala.

"I think there's better ways to deliver value for money for that huge investment, and that investment could be spread right across the Lachlan Valley, not with one huge infrastructure project."

He said while allowing the dam to hold more water would help with flood management, it could affect wildlife and wetlands downstream.

"We don't know what the effect will be but it could be catastrophic," Mr McLean said.

Dam ownership 'up for discussion'

Cowra Mayor Bill West is confident the project's merits will overcome any concerns about the lack of a business case.

"These sort of processes are being run in parallel, normally they'd be run separately," Mr West said.

"I don't think that necessarily is an impediment or becomes an excuse to delay the process but it does mean that there are some issues that need to be addressed."

The additional water which will be stored in both dams will not be sold but will underwrite existing licences.

However, there is still certainty as to who will own the new Dungowan Dam, because it is being funded by government money.

"That's a matter that's under discussion," Tamworth Mayor Col Murray said.

"I have quite a strong commitment from the minister to continue those discussions, but at the end of the day it probably doesn't really matter whose balance sheet that asset sits on.

"What is really important is that we the capacity there to store the water."


© ABC 2020

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