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Tenterfield dam plan sparks growing unrest among landholders

By Bronwyn Herbert, Monday February 22, 2021 - 21:43 EDT

Landholders are questioning why taxpayer money would be spent on a $350 million dam near Tenterfield that is unlikely to provide enough water to meet the needs of drought-stricken towns or irrigators.

The state and federal governments committed $24 million in November 2019, to a "final business case" into damming the Mole River, which is in the headwaters of the Murray-Darling, near the NSW-Queensland border.

The Mole River project was passed by NSW Parliament as part of a suite of drought relief and water security proposals that were declared state-significant infrastructure.

But downstream landholders and irrigators around Mingoola are not convinced that fast-tracking the dam will actually benefit their community.

"We see the critical water infrastructure bill of 2019 as a knee-jerk political reaction."

"The bill is a politician's idea of trying to make things better, which in fact might actually make it worse," said Julia Harpham, secretary of Mingoola Progress Association.

'A sickening feeling'

Landholders are questioning whether the proposed 100-gigalitre dam would actually have enough capacity to satisfy the needs of irrigators, let alone towns, during dry times.

"Even the downstream irrigators think it's a waste of time," local farmer Bruce Norris said.

"It's not big enough to satisfy the water needs down there, so for me, it seems like a wasted effort."

Mr Norris and his wife Helen purchased their Mole River property "Ringtree" 18 years ago, although they only recently moved into their dream new build.

"I cannot believe that our home, that we finally built with council approval, is suddenly going to be 50 metres underwater," Ms Norris said.

"To say it gives you a sickening feeling is barely scratching the surface."

Mr Norris said it was paralysing not knowing whether to invest more on-farm with fencing, or whether they would be wasting money.

"Emotionally it is pretty tough," he said.

"It is really worth it if someone is going to take the property away from you?

"It's just killing us," he said.

Idea floated for decades

The Caldwell family, which has farmed on the Mole River for more than 90 years, said the dam idea had been floated for decades.

"Every now and then someone reinvents it and says this will be a good thing," Robert Caldwell said.

If the dam does go ahead, Robert and Ruth Caldwell would lose not only their home, but their livelihood and 1,000 hectares of grazing country.

"They don't seem to want to tell us too much, they tell us they have to finish their business case," Mr Caldwell said.

Mayor says dam is a game changer

Tenterfield Mayor Peter Petty, who has experienced the horrors of leading a community that almost ran out of water, is adamant the dam will bring more benefit than harm.

"The really big benefit is for the Murray-Darling-Barwon system for irrigation users, but the biggest potential in stages two and three of it is for urban water in Queensland," he said.

Although building a pipeline to send water back to Tenterfield is not part of the business plan, the Mayor thinks that it should be considered.

That is despite Tenterfield's elevation several hundred metres higher than the dam site.

"I'd argue any day the technology is there to pump uphill, across flats, not a problem," Cr Petty said.

Irrigators open-minded but struggle to see dam's value

Border Rivers Food and Fibre represents 300 irrigators from northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, stretching from Tenterfield to Mungindi.

Executive Officer, Tim Napier, said the organisation was remaining open-minded about the dam project until the final business case was completed.

"Dams don't come for nothing, they are expensive, and they take a lot of work," he said.

"We just can't see the bang for the buck at this stage of the game."

Water NSW has set a deadline of November 2021 to complete its business case.

A New South Wales parliamentary committee is investigating the government's rationale for new dams and is due to hand down its report in March.

For Ruth Caldwell, who has spent 50 years working the family farm, any decision will be better than none.

"We really hope they either build it or get out of it and just leave us alone."

For the close-knit community, there is an added burden.

"The cost of mental health on people closely affected by the proposal after the drought, the bushfires and now having their lives put on hold for several years is enormous," Mrs Harpham said.


© ABC 2021

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