Bone-Dry Australia Faces Backlash Against Dam Projects

Via The Wall Street Journal, at look at how – as Australian authorities seek to maximize water use – they are clashing with indigenous communities and environmentalists over dams:

To indigenous Australians Isabel and George Coe, the hills near a 280-foot-tall dam here are part of a sacred landscape that is dotted with burials and ceremonial sites. Now, new plans by the government to raise the wall of the dam could flood many of those areas.

“We’ve already had enough of our countryside being destroyed,” said Isabel Coe, 34 years old, as she surveyed the rocks and barren trees by the man-made lake behind Wyangala Dam, about 130 miles west of Sydney. “Our whole landscape is significant: the trees, the rocks, the water, the land itself.”

Authorities in Australia, the driest inhabited continent, which last year had its lowest annual rainfall on record, are progressing with at least half a dozen new dams or dam upgrades, amid a continuing drought that contributed to last summer’s devastating wildfires. Some dams are being fast-tracked to counter the drought’s impact. Officials say the projects can create jobs in an economy reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.

That is angering some indigenous groups and alarming environmental activists who argue the dams will harm ecosystems and disturb cultural sites. Near Wyangala Dam, more than two dozen indigenous sites, including stone artifacts, culturally modified trees and at least one burial site, could be flooded. Another proposed dam, near rainforests in Australia’s north, threatens to inundate the habitat of a freshwater turtle that was discovered in the area by Australian naturalist Steve Irwin and his father and named after them.

The controversy could be a preview of what is to come as governments debate whether to increase infrastructure spending to boost their economies. In the U.S., the Democrat-controlled House recently passed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill, which included funds for roads, railways and schools.

Australia’s dam-building drive contrasts with the U.S., where efforts to remove the structures have gained momentum. Last year, a record 26 states removed 90 dams, according to advocacy group American Rivers. It has tallied more than 1,700 dam removals in the U.S. since 1912, most of them removed in the past 30 years, which it says reflect growing awareness of the benefits of free-flowing rivers and the costs associated with maintaining aging dams.

“We just haven’t reached that point yet in Australia,” said Lee Baumgartner, professor of fisheries and river management at Charles Sturt University. “Dams are such an accepted part of society. We haven’t really looked for alternatives.”

Dams trap water in reservoirs, which can then provide a reliable supply for towns, farmers and businesses during drought. Dams can also limit destruction from floods, play a role in generating hydroelectricity and boost local tourism by offering boating and fishing on man-made lakes. One project involves replacing an aging dam near Tamworth, a city about 200 miles north of Sydney, which still has emergency-level water restrictions and where residents aren’t allowed to water lawns with town water.

But dams can hinder the movement of fish in rivers, reduce downstream flows and trap sediments. So-called cold-water pollution—in which cold water deep in the reservoir is released into a river during warmer months—can kill juvenile fish.

“Dams don’t make it rain,” said Beverley Smiles, president of environmental group Inland Rivers Network. “It’s just taking water off somebody else, including the environment, so downstream communities and the environment suffer.”

There is no guarantee all the dams will be built. At least four projects—including the Wyangala Dam expansion—will need approval of Australia’s environment minister, Sussan Ley, after detailed environmental-impact studies are prepared, because of their likely impact on threatened species and ecosystems. No environmental safeguards will be relaxed, a spokesman for Ms. Ley said.

Still, at Wyangala Dam, local officials want “shovels in the ground” for early work this October, even though the full environmental-impact study won’t be publicly available until June 2021. Major construction isn’t expected to start until October 2021. But some indigenous people who live near the dam are worried the expansion is a foregone conclusion.

“The river is our life,” said Nioka Coe, 39, a relative of George and Isabel Coe. “This has been a place of healing, a place of gathering, a place for families to come from all over.”

The government water utility in charge of the project said it sought submissions from indigenous groups and that nine groups have registered to be involved. A cultural-heritage assessment process will apply to the early works and the main construction. Community information sessions were supposed to start in April, but were delayed by the pandemic.

The dam is on the Lachlan River, Australia’s fourth longest, and provides water for the towns, farms and mines in the Lachlan Valley, an area roughly the size of Indiana that is part of the biggest river system in Australia. Due to the drought, authorities have restricted the amount of water that can be taken from the dam, which is currently 17% full.

Raising the dam’s wall is expected to cost 650 million Australian dollars, or about $450 million, and increase water-storage capacity by 53% to about 1,800 gigaliters—more than three times the water in Sydney Harbour.

Melinda Pavey, the water minister for the state of New South Wales, said climate modeling shows rainfall will become less predictable, making it important to capture more water when it does rain. She said the Lachlan River would be dry if authorities hadn’t periodically released water from the dam.

“There is a level of excitement that the government is actually finally going to do something on a larger scale in this area,” said Tom Green, a sixth-generation farmer and the chairman of Lachlan Valley Water, an association of water users. “The general viewpoint across the valley is positive.”

Mr. Green, 33, said his 3,200-acre farm near the town of Forbes recently had to sell about 2,000 sheep—roughly 80% of the flock—because it became too expensive to buy hay and grain to feed them. Previously, Mr. Green grew hay and grain using irrigation water from the dam.

Downstream from Mr. Green, Jock Coupland said he couldn’t grow cotton, a summer crop that is one of his most profitable, last year because he couldn’t access water for irrigation. His winter cereal crops, which he has tried to grow using just rainwater, have failed the past three seasons amid the dry conditions.

If there is little rain in the coming months, “it doesn’t mean we’ll go out of business, but it will mean we’re not going to spend any money and we’re not going to employ people,” said Mr. Coupland, 52, whose farm is near the town of Condobolin.

A bigger dam could solve that problem by making water supply more reliable, he said.

Further downstream, the Lachlan River flows into the Great Cumbung Swamp, a wetland purchased last year in part by the Nature Conservancy. The environmental group worries a larger dam will prevent naturally occurring floods that support one of the most important waterbird-breeding grounds in eastern Australia.

George Coe, 31, is helping to organize community meetings so the local Wiradjuri people—the biggest indigenous group in New South Wales—can decide what to do about the dam project. Mr. Coe and many other Wiradjuri people live in Cowra, about 20 miles from the dam and the closest big town.

“We’re trying to get our voice out there to let it be known that this is our country still,” said Mr. Coe, standing in a forested area that could be inundated if the dam wall is raised. “We haven’t ceded our right to it.”

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