Phil Dickie Stories

The rise and rise of Cubbie Station

Cubbie Station, the largest privately-owned irrigation layout in Australia and with few rivals anywhere in the world, has long had a controversial existence in a dry land.

Cubbie's waterworks are impressive from any angle, but look their best or worst, depending on your point of view from the air. Huge storage dams stretch for 28 continuous kilometres down the trickle that is the Culgoa (or later Darling) River.

Feeding this 12,000 hectares of merrily evaporating water is a diversion channel wide enough to take a landing light aircraft, perched like an open mouth above a weir over the river.

There is enough capacity here to more than swallow the waters of Sydney Harbour although, as general manager John Grabbe says in its defence, "it is only when we have a flood where the Caribous are out dropping fodder to stock that they would all be full this is something the environmentalists just don t understand".

Cubbie grows about 13,000 hectares of irrigated cotton and brings in about $50 million a year. But cotton industry experts estimate that Cubbie could comfortably do that with about 150,000 megalitres of water.

"We could do that if we had the 150,000 mL in storage at the beginning of the season but we would have no reliability going into a drought, and our river system can have drought periods of up to three years," Mr Grabbe said.

Looking at river flows and the fine print of the Cubbie licences, water engineers estimate that in an average year Cubbie can take about 200,000 mL of water and in a good year, about 500,000 mL. And for the privilege, the station pays just $3700 a year.

For Cubbie, dealing with the government has been easier much easier than dealing with the neighbours. Initial proposals for huge dams with 10 metre high walls ended up going all the way to the Court of Appeal.

Mr Justice Fitzgerald, finally knocking back the proposal, delivered a blast to the department for ignoring all environmental, economic and social impacts saying " . . . it would be odd if a referable dam, however vast, may be built as long as it is safe".

Early efforts to regulate the Dirranbandi river users fell apart when Cubbie station successfully challenged the scheme on a legal technicality. Although the technicality was susceptible to easy remedy, the then Goss government turning to water so to speak allowed the area a form of self-regulation.

Since then, there is much that needs further explanation in the record of government dealings with Cubbie station.

The Goss government took internal legal advice that Cubbie s dam proposals were of such a scale that Environmental Impact Assessment would be required. It never happened and the record is obscure as to the reasons why not.

National Party minister and local member Howard Hobbs had a very easy relationship with Cubbie station, knocking back a departmental recommendation to gazette Cubbie s new dam plans for assessment and objection.

Forgetting Fitzgerald, the department restricted itself to the safety argument, criticising Cubbie for the rather startling belief that "engineering standards need not be applied if the embankment is kept below 5m".

Mr Hobbs said that rather than gazetting dams, which put property owners to unnecessary expense, he had implemented minimum construction standards for dams. A quick check of dam builders last week revealed that some were unaware of any standards and others knew of a departmental brochure which wasn't regarded as any sort of mandatory requirement.

"A minister is there to run the department, not to give in to every departmental brief that comes along," Mr Hobbs said. "If it was built and it hasn t broken, therefore whatever I approved at the time obviously has worked."

On the mystery of why the decision had gone to him in the first place when the Director-General was the official empowered to gazette dams, Mr Hobbs said, "I guess they were just covering their backsides."

The question of Cubbie s water charges generated another quick if slightly dubious fix. A departmental legal opinion suggested that Cubbie should pay an annual $74,000 rather than an annual $2900 for its 51 water harvesting licences.

The regulation on charges was amended at the next available legislative opportunity to allow multiple licences to be rolled into one licence for the purpose of charging at the "discretion" of the Director-General.

The Director-General appears to have exercised this discretion for Cubbie in an average year now pays $3.70 a mL for the first 1000 mL of water harvested and gets the next 199,000 mL for free.

"We are not tied to any taxpayer funded infrastructure," Mr Grabbe said. "We pay a charge to cover the cost of administration of the licences."

Mr Grabbe denied any knowledge of the internal machinations of the department in relation to the safety of his dam walls or the level of his water charges. He must be taken at his word, although when Howard Hobbs issued invitations to a 1997 meeting of the Coalition Water Policy Committee, John Grabbe was listed as committee secretary and his close Dirranbandi associate Henry Crothers was the chairman.

Out in Dirranbandi and St George, National Party politicians have been thick on the ground recently capitalising on the opposition to the Condamine- Balonne Water Allocation Management Plan (WAMP).

Queensland is now more than three years behind schedule in delivering a cap on water diversions from its one third share of the Murray Darling basin and is facing increasingly strident demands from the Commonwealth and other States to deliver.

The much delayed Condamine-Balonne WAMP proposes holding the line, at best, at a mid-1999 level of development. The farmers are replaying a variant of "We ll all be rooned, said Hanrahan".

Chief spokesman for the farmers is John Grabbe, whose Balonne Community Advancement Committee media releases can run to five pages without one mention of Cubbie Station.

"None of us want to destroy the environment," Mr Grabbe said. "If the river is being destroyed, it is being destroyed because we are doing what we were told to do. We were given entitlements to do things and we are doing nothing but developing those entitlements clause one is that we have to do certain works and clause two is that we have to beneficially use the water."

When interrupted on the basis that the farmers had been given the entitlements because they had asked for them and the government, perhaps unwisely in some cases, had given them, Mr Grabbe changed tack. The river was not degraded, he said, and the science underpinning the WAMP had been shown to be flawed.

Coming soon from Dirranbandi will be a flurry of scientific reports and social and economic impact assessments commissioned by the Balonne Community Advancement Committee. Natural Water Resources Minister Mr Rod Welford had better be ready.

Other scientists and environmentalists don t believe the river is so well off. A world listed wetland just over the border in NSW, which the Commonwealth government is charged with protecting under international treaties, is the current environmental flashpoint.

NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service river ecologist Dr Richard Kingsford is predicting "a major long term ecological collapse" of the Narran Lakes, a world listed wetland just over the border, which hosts migratory birds from Siberia and Western China.

Narran is also one of the last major breeding grounds for the straw necked ibis, known as "the farmers friends" for their appetite for plague locusts.

"The birds need a flood event every five years to breed and the best the Queensland WAMP is going to deliver is a flood event every 14 years," Dr Kingsford said. "The ibis lives for eight years."

Our Group thanks Mr. Dickie for his permission to reproduce his written environmental articles on our web site.

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