A leading environmental expert explains why Barnaby Joyce’s ambitious dam building plans could be significantly constrained by economic and environmental circumstances.

The Federal Minister for Agriculture has acknowledged that funding issues still cast a shadow of uncertainty over the government’s ambitious dam building plans outlined in the Agricultural Green Paper.

Responding to concerns from listeners about the government’s dam building plans on ABC Rural Radio, Barnaby Joyce pointed out that the shortlist of dams previously compiled was only for potential sites, as opposed to confirmed projects.

Barbaby  dam“We had a compendium of a 100 possible dam sites – we never said we were going to build 100 dams,” said Joyce.

While minister is adamant that he would like to “build as many [dams] as I possibly can,” he acknowledged that funding issues had the potential to stall or constrain proposed projects.

“We’ve got range of dams before..and we’ve got to work out how much the Commonwealth needs to put towards it, how much private enterprise needs to put towards it, and how much the states are going to put towards it,” said Joyce.

According to Joyce the number of dam projects cannot be confirmed until he has greater certainty concerning the exact amount of funding made available.

“When at some point in time the Prime Minister of the country says ‘well Barny we’ll put some money on the table,’ then I can work out how much we can start to put in on direction or the other direction.”

Even when funding uncertainties are resolved, however, one expert points out that, Australia is subject to a number of economic and geographical constraints that could significantly contain or impede the government’s dam ambitions.

Dr. Joshua Larsen, a lecturer at the University of Queensland’s School of Geography Planning and Environmental Management, points out that Australia’s unique circumstances will make any efforts to dramatically increase dam infrastructure a challenge.

Dr. Joshua Larsen courtesy of the University of Queensland

Dr. Joshua Larsen courtesy of the University of Queensland

Larsen points out that Australia’s unusual geography makes it a highly difficult place for the effective siting dams, and that much of the prime real estate for such projects was taken during the last big dam building binge in the second half of the 20th century.

“Prime land [for dams] requires a combination of suitable inflows (generally a reliable water supply) and suitable topography to store the water – steeper means less surface area for the same volume and potentially lower construction costs,” said Larsen to Sourceable.

“Australia, like the rest of the world, built a lot of dams between the 50s and the end of the 80’s. Australia also has the lowest area averaged surface water runoff for any continent in the world, and is also the flattest. Therefore, we have built most of the dams we could in all the suitable locations we could, and close enough to the people or industries that would actually use the water.”

Because most of the best land for dam projects is already occupied, the opportunities for further expansion remain limited.

“Any new dam projects are therefore likely to be upgrades to existing structures, quite small in storage volume, or pushing into more marginal terrain,” said Larsen.

Larsen further points out that surge in construction costs in Australia in tandem with tepid prices for the types of commodities whose production is boosted by the building of dam infrastructure makes the projects less economically appealing undertakings.

“Total construction costs (including labour) were obviously much lower when the majority of our existing dam infrastructure was built,” he said. “In contrast to construction costs, commodity prices relevant to these irrigation projects have fluctuated about a stable or declining trend, meaning we’ll have to pay much more but make the same or even less money from these projects.”

The changing economics of dam building in Australia and the fact that they will exclusively designed for irrigation purposes, as opposed to the production of hydropower, means that a highly unlikely confluence of favourable circumstances would be needed to make such projects economically viable.

“The very high cost of new projects will need to be offset by much cheaper water prices, much higher commodity yields, or higher commodity prices,” said Larsen. “None of these are of course likely to happen, so the economics become very difficult.”

Larsen believes that greater prudence and foresight must be exercised with respect to the planning of dam projects given these difficult economics, as well as the inextricable relationship between dam infrastructure and the agricultural sector in Australia and related environmental constraints.

“The argument for or against new dams in Australia can’t be separated from the debate surrounding the future of agriculture in Australia – what do we want this to look like and what direction do we want to go?,” said Larsen.

“Then we can ask if we have the water to achieve this,. But we can’t rely on a ‘build it and they will come’ approach.”

  • No single type of works would provide a solution for our ills; but doing nothing will guarantee the problems get worse.
    The cheapest and immediately available water option is the waste and storm water output from our coastal cities.
    A pilot plant to pump that inland using surplus renewable energy would be a fraction of the cost of some dam options and deliver more water. The Scenic Rim around Brisbane already has some of the infrastructure in place.

    • Every dozen years or so some high profile person suggest pumping coastal liquids over the Great Dividing Range to the dry west. Government employees like me would pull out the old files, blow the dust off and go through all the calculations again. Lo and behold, for the right-wingers, it's never economic and for the lefties, the extra water with interesting contaminants would seriously jerk around the western environments. One of the problems is the physical: the eastern slopes are steep and the western slopes are flat so pipelines would gave to be inordinately long and the pumping costs from expensive coastal storages (= dams) would be ginormous in spite of low 'surplus renewable energy' costs. And don't look at the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme as an example; that was only possible because the GDR takes a unique S-bend there. When the economics change and we can get benefit:cost ratios greater than the necessary 1.3, governments need, then someone will pump water west. In the meantime, be consoled with the title of Ben Goldacre's latest book "I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that".

  • The question is if there is a politician with the leadership to find a team to get it started?

    • Just read what Barnaby Joyce is saying. He is only saying what this old dam man says elsewhere – there is a list of possible dams; let's go thorough the files, redo the numbers and see if we can find a goer. It's what some politician should do every decade – nothing more, nothing less. The engineers, economists agriculturalists and environmentalists will let us know if they find a candidate so that everyone gets a win. We can all be cool, dam building for Australia's profit still goes on when appropriate; Dr Joyce is quite properly taking its pulse.

  • Well you know that there are several rivers in Australia, and therefore several catchments. A nice solution that occurs to me is smaller Dams, with less lead time, 'Environmental challenges', Dollars, etc. Big isn't always best.

    Also the Ord river diversion could be one of many, i.e. Atherton tablelands average rainfall is something in the order of 7 metres, from memory. A word of warning though, we don't want these schemes to end up like the Snowy river, where it has been given a whopping 10% of original flow, not good for the river system and everyone relying onto it down stream.

  • The former NSW (ALP) state government had a major opportunity to build a dam upstream from the Warragamba, which would have increased Sydney's water storage, improved flood control and potentially created a pumped-storage resource (aka a giant battery) which would have made wind power viable. Instead, Bob Carr made the land unavailable by reclassifying it as national park, built a power-hungry desalination plant (now mothballed) and that 'utterly offensive' wind farm at Bungendore which needs to be supplemented by gas turbines (fossil fuel) to be viable.

    But let's not dwell on the past. Maybe it is time for the current state government to revisit the question of Sydney's water supply. Part of the solution is to DECOUPLE Engineering decisions from politics. Revisiting an upstream dam solution would be hugely value-adding and hence funding shouldn't be a problem.

    • Andrew, I cannot speak for other states and territories but the engineering has been done in greater or less details on probably more NSW damsites than you could imagine. And as I said to Andew Gilmour, politicians come up with 'doing something' every decade or so, so there are politicians willing to take a lead. The problem is that the economics just aren't right so there is no point looking too hard at the environment, politics etc etc. All the dams of the 1950s to 1970s came on good economic times, low environmental standards, 'there's an election soon, I feel a dam coming on' politics etc etc of an age that is no longer with us. I was part of that era so let me suggest you do listen to your aged fathers and uncles then forget what they said; do your own thinking. And be careful of 'obvious solutions' such as Edward Gilmour and Andrew Smyrnek have put forward. I refer again to Ben Goldacre "I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than you think". I wish it were otherwise, but it ain't.

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