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John Ibbotson has proposed constructing a dam at downstream of the juncture of the Mann and Clarence rivers, primarily to mitigate flooding in urban and agricultural areas. Image: Geoff Helisma

Damn it, we need a dam

Geoff Helisma

Damming the Clarence River has long been a controversial subject – and the draft regional water strategy for the north coast rules it out (for now) – but one Clarence Valley man hasn’t given up on the idea, although he’s not talking about diverting the river westwards.

Lawrence resident John Ibbotson has spent considerable time and money developing his idea for a dam located downstream from where the Clarence and Mann rivers converge, despite the North Coast Regional Water Strategy discussing dam proposals under the heading “options not progressed”.

Specifically, the draft strategy addresses an option to build a 250 gigalitre dam on the Clarence River upstream of Tabulam and Duck Creek, “to supply the entire northeast NSW area”.

This option was considered by the National Water Commission in 2007, however, this idea is “not progressed” because the water security it could have provided for south east Queensland and elsewhere has been addressed, according to the draft strategy – “the Gold Coast desalination plant in Tugun … [and] the regional supply scheme in the north coast region – part of which extracts water from the Nymboida River in the Clarence catchment – is reliable and considered secure for the next 20 years”.

“The significant ecological and capital costs associated with this proposal far outweigh the potential benefits to the region,” the draft strategy options list states.

Diverting the river westwards is also “not progressed” in the draft north coast strategy, however, it is included in the “draft regional water strategies for the Border Rivers and Namoi regions, [which] includes options to divert flow from the north coast region’s rivers inland”.

“The impact of these inland diversion options on water users (environment, towns and communities, cultural and industry) in the north coast will be a key consideration in the options assessment process completed for the Border Rivers and Namoi regional water strategies,” the north coast draft strategy options list states.

Mr Ibbotson’s submission, titled, ‘To Dam or not to Dam (it is a question, which needs to be debated?)’, however, is more concerned with flood mitigation.

“Since 1839 there has been a flood event every 1.5 years [120 floods in Grafton] so it is not as though they are a rarity,” he writes in his submission.

“Based on the historic volumes and longevity of the rain events, it is possible to control the damage that each one causes.

“For the Clarence, this can be achieved with a dam, whose primary function would be for flood mitigation.”

Using more recent floods as motivation, Mr Ibbotson writes in his submission: “It would seem that three major floods and some minor ones in 11 years should create some interest in flood mitigation – it’s not as though they’re a rare occurrence.

“…It seems like the responsible departments determining what is needed for our communities either don’t understand or don’t care as long as the rivers are left untouched.”

His submission delves into the pros and cons of the dam he is suggesting and addresses some water-sharing options for non agricultural use, including a small holding dam about 70 kilometres away, at Kneipps Creek.

He concludes that “after providing all of the benefits outlined [in his submission] it would still allow 70 per cent [or more] of the Clarence’s water to just pass in a controlled manner … on its way to the sea”.

A public information session about the North Coast Regional Water Strategy is being held at the Grafton District Services Club on Wednesday April 21, from 11.30am to 2pm; register for the face-to-face information session, which is a covid-safe event, at www.industry.nsw.gov.au/water/plans-programs/regional-water-strategies/public-exhibition/north-coast.

The session will provide an overview of the climate data modelling approach, long list of options, the submission process and a questions and answer session.

Registration is essential due to the enforcement of covid-19 safe practices.

Submissions close on Sunday May 16.

The Independent put a few questions to John Ibbotson, who says the ‘no dams’ debate “has got to the point of being so irrational that the palindrome of dam and mad would seem to be quite appropriate”.

Mr Ibbotson’s provocative statement is a reaction to options posed in the North Coast Regional Water Strategy, which is currently on exhibition until May 16, to “investigate the opportunity to discharge highly purified wastewater [from sewage treatment plants] into existing council storages to reduce council demand on river and groundwater extraction” and “investigate installing fixed or portable desalination plants just above the high tide level”.

GH: Given that dams have been ruled out (or “not progressed” at this time), why are you persevering with putting in a submission that calls for dams?

JI: Just because a particular item, in this case, has been ruled out by someone in an office in Sydney. If you can come up with enough reasons why it should be reconsidered, then it should be reconsidered … it should be re-examined in a fresh light. When they [NSW Government] say to a community, [which] has 95 per cent of its fresh water going out to sea, to process sewage into drinking water, they’ve lost the plot.

GH: You’re just an individual who has spent considerable money and time developing your submission, why do that?

JI: In doing that I have found that the benefits of building a dam will exceed any negative outcomes that would occur.

GH: Given the long-running anti dam campaign in the Clarence Valley and the idea’s rejection by a large part of the population, as well as Clarence Valley Council’s opposition to any diversion, why is it different now?

JI: One big reason is that after this current flood up and down the coast the insurance companies have indicated they may not cover flood-prone premises anymore.

GH: Another concern is the effect a dam would have on the environment and ecology in its immediate vicinity, what do you say to people with those concerns?

JI: Overall, it would be minimal and possibly even beneficial. The reason for saying that is that I was born in western NSW just before the Mulwala Irrigation Scheme was built: it turned a dry and a negative environment into a lush, agriculturally-productive environment. There is more aquatic wildlife in the area as a result; it went from galahs, magpies and crows to having water birds in the bird community – it was quite fascinating growing up with that.

GH: There have also been arguments about the downstream ecology, environment and industry (tourism, commercial and recreational fishing) being negatively affected by a dam above the tidal line, what do you say to that?

JI: The flooding would effectively be of farmland. People say the flood plain needs the flood to rejuvenate it, but these days there are fertilisers that can replace that; and it would reduce toxic deposits and contaminated water.

Note: Mr Ibbotson ([email protected]) said: “If anyone would like me to give a talk about my convictions I would be delighted to do so and attempt to answer any of the questions in a positive manner.”

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