Water Infrastructure in Central Queensland

I was just speaking to Senator Day, from South Australia, about a fellow state person of his, Bert Kelly, who used to be the member for Wakefield for a long time. He would be familiar to many people in this House. Along with his many other achievements, statements and successes over time, Bert Kelly also had an aphorism that, when you heard a politician or a government announcing a new dam, you could smell an election just around the corner.

That was very true perhaps in Bert's time, but things have changed greatly since that time. It is not the case now that you would be able to time elections on the announcements of dams. This is for the simple fact that we have not built—nor announced the building of—a major dam in most parts of this country for more than 20 years.

There have been a few dams built in that time—the Burdekin Falls Dam in North Queensland is one—but they were generally announced a long time before that. Dams take a long time to build, they take a long time to think through, they have a big impact on the environment and communities and they need to be thought through. That is why governments need to show vision and foresight in getting behind these projects so that we can have a strong agricultural sector, so that our mining sector can have water and so that our towns and communities—particularly in regional areas—can have access to affordable water too.

I want to spend a bit of time tonight talking about the prospects for new dams in one part of our country—that is, in central Queensland in and around the Fitzroy Basin. The Fitzroy Basin should be better known to all Australians, but it is probably one that most would not be familiar with. It is alone the biggest water catchment on our eastern seaboard. More water flows out of the Fitzroy River into the Pacific Ocean than from any other river in this country. Most people would not know that. The flows in that region of itself equal about one-fifth of the Murray-Darling.

The Murray-Darling is a huge area which covers four states—and services the ACT, where we sit tonight—and its flows are only five times larger than that of the Fitzroy Basin, which is a much smaller area. We have developed the Murray-Darling over many years and now have the capacity to store around 70 per cent of the flows of the Murray-Darling. Each year around 33,000 gigalitres flow out of the different areas of the Murray—most of them eventually find their way down to the mouth in South Australia. We can store around 80 per cent of that flow, and that gives us great security in this part of our country, because we can store water in the wet times so that we can use that water in the dry times to grow food.

We need to do that in this nation, because we have very variable water flows. The city of Melbourne can store enough water for 10 years. If it got no rain for 10 years and all its dams were filled, it could still supply itself with water. In London, they can only store for a couple of years. It rains a lot in England, so they do not need that storage. We need that storage here in this nation because of that variability. But, in the Fitzroy Basin, we can only store around 30 per cent of the flows of the Fitzroy Basin. It is an undeveloped and untapped resource for our country.

A couple of weeks ago when we were on a break from work and from down here, a few members of the LNP did a tour around the Fitzroy Basin: me; the member for Capricornia, Michelle Landry; and the member for Flynn, Ken O'Dowd. We jumped in a plane and flew around some of the sites in this catchment. We also went to see the towns of Moranbah and Emerald to talk to those communities about what they wanted in terms of water storage. I want to briefly describe some of the potential opportunities. You hear from people that all the good dam sites in this nation are gone—all developed. That is rubbish. Some of the good sites have gone, in some parts of our country. But there remain untapped areas on the frontiers of our nation where we can grow new food bowls.

We have one very good food bowl here in the Murray-Darling, but I think we need a second food bowl in our nation. I think we are big enough to have a second food bowl somewhere in our nation, and I think the Fitzroy Basin could potentially be that place. There is a dam site on the Connors River, which is in the northern part of the Fitzroy catchment. It is a dam that could potentially store 375,000 megalitres, a pretty big dam—not the biggest, but a good size dam. It has already achieve state and federal approval for environmental purposes. So, it has already gone through all the environmental assessment processes. Most senators would be familiar with how onerous those are these days. It took years, but it has gone through those processes, so even the Greens should be supporting this particular dam.

That water could be used for some agriculture in the local area, but it will also be very crucial for coalmining in the Galilee Basin. Coalmining needs water too—about 100 or 200 litres for every tonne of coal you mine, to wash that coal. There are some big projects going ahead in the Galilee Basin. But because this dam is going to be used for that, I am sure the Greens will oppose it. They do not want to see those 10,000 jobs that would be provided in Central Queensland. But if we want those jobs we need the dam.

There is another site called the Nathan Dam, which is on the southern end of the Fitzroy Basin. It is a much bigger dam. It could potentially store almost 900,000 megalitres—quite a large dam. It does not have its environmental approval yet, but the Queensland government is hopeful that it will receive that next year. The dam has been held up for about five years because of a snail—a community of Boggomoss snails that was discovered in 2008 or 2009 on the site. They discovered 850 of them, and I do not have time to go into the whole sage, but they have since discovered 18,000 nearby. I do not understand how they missed the 18,000 snails on their first pass, but the dam has been held up for five years because of this environmental red tape.

Senator Mason: "It's moving at a snail's pace!"

That comment has been made before, Senator Mason. It is indeed moving at a snail's pace; you are absolutely right. But with the new one-stop shops that the government has implemented, we have signed an agreement with Queensland. Unfortunately the Labor Party do not want to see dams built; they do not want to see a streamlined environmental approvals process. We have not got the legislation through this place, but there should be some benefit through that one-stop shop that Minister Hunt has put in place. That dam will be used for agriculture and is very important for the cotton industry in Central Queensland, around Emerald. It could really increase the efficiencies and scale of that industry.

Two other sites I want to mention tonight are Eden Bann and Rookwood. Eden Bann is already a weir, but we can expand that weir, and Rookwood would be a new weir. All up they would store around 200,000 megalitres—pretty large. And they principally would be used for local agriculture in the Rockhampton region, largely horticulture, and also to supply Gladstone with water for its industrial needs, which are getting to be pretty scare at the moment.

All in all, there are plenty of very good sites in this region. It is an untapped resource that I hope the government will now focus on. The Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce, released a green paper last week in which he says he wants to build dams. All these sites are listed among those 27, so I hope we can see them come to fruition—and so do the people of Emerald and Moranbah; they want these dams to come to fruition as well. Firstly, they will be great construction projects to provide jobs in this region—jobs that are sorely needed given the slowdown in the mining sector and the coalmining sector in Central Queensland. More importantly, these projects will provide reliable, consistent and affordable supplies of water for these towns and communities. In Moranbah they rely on mining companies to provide them with water. It is not a very secure position for them to be in, and, as I said, with these new mine developments water is becoming scarce for those industries. And Emerald, while its water will not benefit directly from these dams, is at risk. If we cannot find new sources of water these new mines will come to Fairbairn Dam near Emerald and seek to take the water from there, and that will mean lower agricultural production in the Emerald region, and fewer jobs. And it will not be expanding our agriculture or our food bowl but detracting from it, and I do not want to see that.

I think we have outlined an agenda as a government to build dams, and we need to try to see these come to fruition now. Dams are hard things for the private sector to do alone, because they are very large projects that pay off over many years and they are exposed to great regulatory risks from government, both around the quantity of water that is provided and around the pricing of that water over time. That is all regulated by governments. There is therefore a need for the public sector to take some of those risks, to share those risks with the private sector to ensure that these viable projects which are going to provide great community benefits in terms of jobs, in terms of food and in terms of better water security go ahead.

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