Traveston protesters with Peter Beattie's memorable quote.
Traveston protesters with Peter Beattie's memorable quote. Arkin Mackay

10 years on, why saving water makes dam sense

TEN years after former Queensland premier Peter Beattie announced the plan to build the Traveston Crossing Dam, Mary River Catchment Coordinating Committee chairman Ian Mackay reflects on that announcement, and an earlier dam plan from the 1990s.

It's ten years ago this week that Peter Beattie took Gympie mayor Mick Venardos up in a helicopter and unveiled plans for a huge dam on the Mary River at Traveston Crossing, upstream of Gympie.

It's also nearly twenty-five years since the State Government initiated a lengthy investigation into possible dam sites to provide water for a growing Sunshine Coast.

Neither resulted in a dam being built and it's timely to see just how we've managed in the years since, as construction of a dam was touted as absolutely imperative in both instances.

In 1991, the Baroon Pocket Dam on Obi Obi Ck was not even a decade into its life, yet in October that year, Maroochy Shire Council chairman Fred Murray told the Sunshine Coast Daily that "a new dam must open by the year 2000 when massive population growth would overwhelm the region's major supplier Baroon Pocket Dam".

With the benefit of hindsight you have to ask how Fred Murray got it so wrong and equally how the desperation at the drought that motivated Peter Beattie's announcement would seem to have evaporated.


Baroon Pocket Dam on Obi Obi Creek a major tributary of the Mary supplies water for not only the Sunshine Coast but northern parts of Brisbane as well.
Baroon Pocket Dam on Obi Obi Creek a major tributary of the Mary supplies water for not only the Sunshine Coast but northern parts of Brisbane as well. Ian Mackay

In 1991, there were no water meters installed on the Sunshine Coast and a later mayor, Bob King, went on the record as being opposed to their introduction saying that he preferred the existing system of paying a set water rate regardless of the amount used. Nor were there dual flush toilets or greywater re-use systems and rainwater tanks were generally only found in more rural areas, although the hinterland township of Mapleton managed quite well on tanks.

Fred Murray's pessimism as to the adequacy of existing dams was based on the amount being consumed; for the 1991 study it was accepted as 530 litres per person per day, a figure that incensed hinterland dwellers with rainwater tanks. At that consumption rate, a 5000 gallon (22000L) rainwater tank would serve a family of four for less than a fortnight.

The introduction of the Waterwise program, which tackled what was becoming known as "demand management", as well as the introduction of water meters and a changed pricing structure started the downward turn in water consumption figures. By the time Traveston Dam was on the agenda, planners were talking of consumption of 350 litres per person per day with an aim to lower this even further, to around 270 litres, although a government employee told a dam protest meeting that to take it any lower "would be political suicide".


Goomong water offtake takes water from the Mary upstream of Gympie for use in Noosa.
Goomong water offtake takes water from the Mary upstream of Gympie for use in Noosa. Ian Mackay

Why all the emphasis on a consumption figure? It's the one figure on which all projections of need for a dam are based. You don't need to be Einstein to realise that if people used half as much water on a per capita basis, existing water storages would go twice as far.

At the height of the Traveston Dam campaign, Brisbane had reduced its consumption rate to almost 150 litres per person per day and letters to the Courier Mail at the time suggested that was not a hardship.

When Peter Beattie announced Traveston Dam, it was against a backdrop of drying dams across the nation. The peculiar logic of responding to a string of failed dams by announcing the construction of another one wasn't lost on protesters. Dams don't come filled with water. It was like finding your wallet empty and deciding the obvious solution is to find a bigger wallet.

Two dams were announced, Traveston on the Mary, and Wyaralong Dam on Teviot Brook near Beaudesert. Wyaralong was opened in mid-2011 but by late 2012, the dam, although filled, still had not been connected to the water grid because its water was so mineralised it would have been cheaper to produce desalinated water than to treat it. The Wyaralong water treatment plant is expected to cost A$235 million to construct, almost as much as the dam itself.

If the choice of the Wyaralong site with its potential for mineralised water was a poor one, the Traveston choice was probably worse. The earlier dam site study, eventually released in December 1994, dismissed the Traveston site in a mere paragraph as "considered unsuitable because of high capital cost, inundation of prime agricultural land and displacement of rural population".

Had they examined the site in more detail it could have added the shallow nature of any dam on the site, leading to high evaporation rates but all that would be aired amply during the three-and-a-half years of energetic opposition by a galvanised community with wide support.


Wivenhoe dam in 2006. Worryingly low water levels were being experienced in dams across the country.
Wivenhoe dam in 2006. Worryingly low water levels were being experienced in dams across the country. Arkin Mackay

But in the end it was none of these deterrents that shifted Traveston Crossing Dam from being a "controversial" proposal to being "now defunct". It was federal legislation, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) that promised some protection for threatened species of which the Mary had some outstanding examples.

It's unclear whether Peter Beattie was aware of this legislation when he announced in mid-2006, that "the bulldozers would be rolling by Christmas" but the strategy of buying up properties before gaining federal approval has all the hallmarks of a pressure tactic to force a federal green light.

There's some irony that the dam was announced just after Anzac Day and canned by federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett on Remembrance Day, three-and-a-half years later. Those involved say it brought a totally different meaning to "fighting for your country".

Those in the Mary Valley will never forget Remembrance Day 2009. That simplest of words, "no" unleashed torrents of jubilation but mostly relief. Each November the Mary Valley comes together with the Mary River Festival in Kandanga to celebrate both the announcement and the reprieve it gave for their river and community.

And now, despite Fred Murray's predictions almost 25 years ago, Baroon Pocket Dam not only continues to manage to supply the expanding Sunshine Coast, but its connection to the water grid through the northern pipeline interconnector, has been supplying water to northern parts of Brisbane as well.

As well as this, the pumping station at Goomong supplies Mary River water to Noosa whenever Lake Macdonald (on Six Mile Creek, also a tributary of the Mary) drops a little.

Ten years ago Peter Beattie underestimated the resolve of the people of the Mary Valley. He, along with many planners, was also way off the mark when it came to people's preparedness to use less water.

Thank goodness it such a very different landscape from even 1991. Through challenging assumptions, changing some technologies and simple financial inducement, we have made existing water go a lot further.

And when you think of the high costs, both in dollars and social and environmental upheaval, of building new dams and treatment works, reducing per capita demand for water simply makes the best sense.

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