Phil Dickie Stories

Sold down the river

Rogue elements of Queensland s farming and fishing communities seem to have a fairly simple approach to natural resource management use, grab or destroy as much of the resource as possible while tying the government up with an endless stream of demands for more and better consultation.

Down on the lower Balonne however, where Queensland s one third share of the Murray Darling Basin slips into New South Wales, the strategy has come suddenly unstuck.

The Queensland government, staggered at the scale of a two year dam building orgy that threatens to completely derail attempts to cap water usage on the river, last month slapped a ban on the bulldozers knocking up dam walls all along the river.

Years of lax interpretations of lax laws has meant that in rural Queensland an outdoor dunny can need more planning permission than a 50,000 mL dam with walls no more than 4.99 metres high.

Around St George and Dirranbandi, cotton growers and water hoarders now have about 40,000 hectares of dams at best four metres deep in an area where the annual evaporation rate is about two metres a year. More than half of this storage has been shoved up in the last two years in such a way that extensive leakage of the water resource is going to be as much a factor as massive evaporation.

Around a third of all the storage is on just one property, Cubbie station, with enough capacity to more than swallow up Sydney Harbour. Cubbie holds licences which mean that in a good year, even more water than this can be taken from the river, for the total payment to the State of just $3700 a year.

"Effectively, their water is free," said Queensland Natural Resources and Environment Minister, Mr Rod Welford.

For St George Irrigation Area cotton grower Ray Kidd the water is anything but free. He pays about $30,000 a year for his allocation of around 1000 mL from the government s Beardmore Dam, and pays even when the government can t supply the water.

Mr Kidd can be ploughing in his dead crop even when the dam that was built to supply him and other channel farmers is full to overflowing. It is not drought but favoritism bordering on corruption and staggering levels of incompetence that is to blame.

Beardmore Dam was a shallow storage developed in conjunction with the irrigation area. In 1979, the dam was considered "slightly over-committed" and this was before discovery of a "surveying error" which reduced the calculated capacity by about a fifth.

In the late 1980s, the dying National Party government began to entertain the bizarre notion of just giving away additional allocations of the "slightly over-committed" dam s water.

Local member and Water Resources Minister Don Neal seems to have revealed the real game in a letter to his electorate council chairperson, Mrs Pat Bonthrone, saying that "the value of a new 470 mL allocation is probably at least $70,000 and possibly as high as $230,000".

This may have been of some interest to Mrs Bonthrone, whose property, which despite being almost impractically upstream of the dam wall, was now fortuitously included within the newly drawn boundaries for the proposed water giveaway.

Throwing consistency completely to the wind, Mr Neal then informed Mrs Bonthrone of his plans to also auction off some entitlements to dam water, saying that "there are many reasons for not continuing to hand out allocations free of charge".

The extent of the insanity is fairly clear in the figures the government gave away an estimated 15,000 mL of water to the owners of river properties up to 70 kilometres downstream and auctioned off 3000 mL.

The graziers down or up - the river just happened to be the strongest supporters of the National Party. The buyers at the auction were irrigation area farmers trying to top up their existing allocation on the basis that 70 percent of a larger amount might end up being as much as 100 percent of an existing allocation that could no longer be guaranteed.

In reality, the situation was much worse. To deliver an allocation at a farm gate 70 kilometres downstream, up to six times the allocation has to be held in the storage to allow for delivery losses. In one case, the department released 400 mL through the dam in order to deliver a 100 mL order to a farmer only halfway down the Balonne. Only 4 mL turned up at the intake of the farmer s pump.

In total therefore, the government for its own political reasons ended up allocating nearly 50 percent more water from a dam stretched to capacity. This was not done unknowingly it has since been discovered that a Sydney resource economist was commissioned to work out how much extra water could be taken from the dam.

Mr Jim Irish determined that the department might get an extra three percent of water from the dam, but would need to compensate the channel farmers for a reduction in the reliability of their supply. The report was well buried, like a number of other reports on management of the St George Irrigation Area.

The election of a Labor government seems to have done little to stop the policy insanity at St George. From 1992-93, the department decided to allow the river farmers to "park" their free allocations in the dam, further dramatically reducing its capacity. Once again, the figures speak for themselves. Initially, with the dam and irrigation area in fine balance enough water could be supplied for a full crop in more than 90 percent of years.

The great water giveaway and the free parking policy now mean that the scheme now supplies enough water for a full crop in just over a third of years.

However, the river farmers have done very well out of the scheme they could sell their properties at very attractive prices to channel irrigators seeking access to water and they could sell water to channel irrigators. Often the water they sold was water parked in the dam, thereby reducing its capacity to supply the channel farmer who had paid for an allocation.

Not surprisingly, St George became a community divided and the issue has been a long running political sore. A succession of ministers have promised to solve the issue by promising to build additional public storage and the new dam at St George has been announced almost as often as the Redcliffe railway.

However, it now appears the dam is dead, at least as an item of public infrastructure. The Beattie government put a fairly cursory effort into justifying the dam to the Commonwealth, which declined to cough up any funding.

Ironically, the dam building frenzy in the area has seen a storage of suspiciously similar dimensions put up on the preferred site in the last few months. It is not yet clear how the consortium on what is now known as "Little Cubbie" propose to fill a 70,000 mL storage and grow cotton with an average annual water allocation of just 10,000 mL.

But then, many stranger things have happened at St George.

Former Water Resources Commission senior engineer Ken Pearce worked at St George when the system was finely balanced and was assigned in the early 1990s to try and sort out the mess. He was taken off the job in record time after suggesting that problems of over-allocation were being compounded by incompetent local management.

Mr Pearce is now a consultant to distressed irrigators all over Queensland, including the St George channel farmers. "You d have to say that governments have created a lot of problems around St George and Dirranbandi and they have since washed their hands of them," he said. "We keep putting up ways to make the system work better, and find that the department keeps walking around in circles."

Another former Water Resources Commission officer has done somewhat better. John Grabbe went from being an advisor "on irrigation layouts for farmers" to being responsible for the largest privately owned irrigation layout in Australia Cubbie Station.

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

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