How can we build the high speed train network needed to connect all capital cities within 20 years, and how can doing so help in other vital infrastructure areas?

Australia’s water and irrigation systems in need of a radical and co-ordinated national upgrade. Australia has spent more than $6 billion on desalination plants – which are expensive to maintain – to secure access to water for our major cities since 2008. We now need irrigation systems to secure our access to environmental flows and regional water resources. Man-made climate change may only be mitigated through mega investments in water, power and rail infrastructure.

There can be no argument that building infrastructure to drought proof Australia has many risks, including the political capital required to get large schemes off the ground. One need only consider the attempt to dam the Mary River in Queensland to understand the environmental issues and political risk of developing infrastructure.

Options for drought proofing Australia’s interior and regional areas have narrowed. While successive federal governments have considered infrastructure as an urgent priority, there appears to be no coordinated effort to link Australia’s future water, power and rail infrastructure.

Australia has not undertaken large nation building projects other than highways since the Snowy River Scheme, which was completed in 1974. A revised “Bradfield scheme” to link the Northern Australian water sources to the Southern states and able to deliver water in both directions would be an effective way to increase agricultural production, improve sustainability, and increase environmental flows in the Murray Darling river system. Proposals for high speed rail from Cairns to Brisbane, Brisbane to Sydney, Sydney to Melbourne are more feasible as they can compete with air travel as our skies become more congested. Rather than build more air capacity, fast rail is a serious option.

Aquaducts and pipes require a power source, and an infrastructure corridor. Fast rail requires a relatively flat corridor, and both require major civil intervention, tunneling, concrete and precast plant. So why not combine the two?

In many areas, the requirements for fast rail are synchronous with the requirements for an irrigation system from Northern Australia to the Southern States. Why can’t these large infrastructure projects be planned and combined into a rail and water, infrastructure corridor to link all major current and future urban populations.

Once reliable water sources are created, much of the interior of our continent can be transformed. As with other dry nations, we can use our water to create larger regional populations and reduce the reliance on large urban areas. Without an effort to link infrastructure on a national level, are our goals for a thriving and prosperous future for our cities unattainable? Without our intervention, will many of our major waterways become fetid and toxic blue green algae sewers?

As Australia adjusts to the economic realities of the end of the cycle for commodities, we would do well to consider US president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal – spending on regional infrastructure to pump prime the US and world’s economy during the depression. Today, we face many similar issues, with huge youth unemployment, rising poverty and a lack of infrastructure spending in our cities and regions.

The Hoover Dam, once known as Boulder Dam, is a concrete arch-gravity dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, on the border between the US states of Nevada and Arizona. It was constructed between 1931 and 1936 during the Great Depression and was dedicated on September 30, 1935 by Roosevelt as part of his New Deal infrastructure projects designed to revive American industry after the depression. The Hoover Dam is part of an irrigation system which has been vital to the economic development of the region, without which estimates suggest this part of the US could not support even 20 per cent of its current population.

In the US, Federal policy makers are grappling with similar issues. In a recent column in USA Today, author Gary Wockner asked whether public private partnerships could save America’s threatened water systems from climate change. He noted that the Colorado River has experienced a 15-year drought.

“About 70% of the water is drained out to supply agriculture and related interests; the other 30% or so goes to industry and cities, where it has helped fuel the massive real estate industry in southwestern U.S. states, including Southern California,” he wrote.

“A 2015 study commissioned by a business group, Protect The Flows, stated that the Colorado River provides $1.4 trillion in economic activity every year for southwestern states. Further, much of this complete damming and destruction of the river since at least 1956 has been paid for by U.S. taxpayers, but in many cases, particularly agriculture, the federal government practically gives the water away to private interests through significant subsidies.”

In a direct comparison to the Colorado river irrigation scheme, the Murray-Darling Basin supports human economic activity, including dry land and irrigated agriculture, mining, fisheries, forestry, recreation and tourism. The basin contributes around 40 per cent of Australia’s total agricultural output per year and it contains 70 per cent of Australia’s irrigated farmland.

The Murray-Darling Basin also supplies drinking and the domestic water for over two million people and provides important habitats for biodiversity including more than 30,000 wetlands, such as the Macquarie Marshes in north-western New South Wales and the Coorong at the mouth of Southern Australia. The Murray Darling system flow has often been reduced to a toxic sludge which is unusable for agriculture and a danger to the environment and human consumption.

The Snowy River Scheme on completion consisted of 16 major dams, seven power stations and a pumping station, plus 225 kilometres of tunnels, pipelines and aqueducts. I consider the scheme to be the last significant attempt at nation building irrigation and power infrastructure. Too often, our infrastructure has been planned and executed without a national coordinated and connected plan.

Consider the huge investment in desalination plants including:

  • Western Australia’s plant located at Taranto Road, approximately 150 kilometres south of Perth, which cost approximately $AU1.4 billion
  • Kurnell Desalination Plant NSW. The plant was refinanced with a book value in excess of $AU2 billion in early 2012. The Kurnell desalination plant is located in South Sydney
  • The Gold Coast Desalination Plant, Queensland, which cost approximately $AU1.2 billion
  • A reverse osmosis (RO) seawater desalination facility located at Tugun, adjacent to the Gold Coast Airport, South East Queensland
  • The Adelaide Desalination Plant, Australia. The Southern Seawater Desalination Plant, with an estimated  cost of $AU955 million
  • The Adelaide Desalination project, which involves the construction of two 50-gigalitre capacity sea water reverse osmosis (SWRO) desalination plants and a 13-kilometre transfer pipeline. This makes it one of the most complex hydro-electric schemes in the world. Only two per cent of the entire construction is visible above the ground
  • The desalination plant in SA was to cost $400 million but the state government version ended up costing $1.8 billion.

This investment to secure urban water means around $AU7.4 billion spent on desalination plants in Australia since 2008, excluding running and maintenance.

A “Bradfield scheme” could connect the northern supply of fresh water through a connected network of reservoirs, dams, pipes and aqueducts for an initial budget of $AU20 billion, with a further $AU30 billion to ensure additional environmental flows of water to the Murray Darling system.

Considering Australia has invested around 10 times that in desalination over a decade, and noting consideration that such a scheme would take over a decade to complete in a coordinated measure, this would be a continued investment as made for desalination for the coming decades. Combine some infrastructure with fast rail and power, and the benefits multiply.

Australian policy makers, urban planners, engineers and designers need to contemplate what the environmental cost may be should our water infrastructure remain disconnected, in a world where climate change is projected to increase average temperatures by around two degrees Celsius within 50 years, before carbon abatement  and other measures can begin to take effect.

Can we afford for our cities, our agriculture not to invest in nation building infrastructure? With the consensus on climate change now accepted by most policy makers, and even with our current use and deployment of water resources in a dry continent, can we afford not to invest in a networked coordinated “Bradfield scheme,” to send water from the north through to the southern states? What would the benefit to the Australian economy of several decades of planned expenditure on modern water, rail and power infrastructure be?

I feel it’s an opportunity we can no longer pass up.