Fundamental questions of water policy are set to be thrashed out as the state government embarks on a massive overhaul of its dam infrastructure.
SunWater has kicked off stakeholder consultations for the Paradise Dam improvement program, the most pressing of 18 planned dam infrastructure upgrades slated for the next 10 years.
There are concerns the project could result in Paradise Dam being lowered, with cane growers stressing the importance of water security in the Bundaberg region.
Other important issues raised by the Paradise Dam project include water pricing, the region's wider economic development, and tensions between large infrastructure projects and conservation.
SunWater’s dam improvement program is a rolling series of capital works prioritised across Queensland’s dams according to risk.
“The definition of risk in relation to dam improvement projects is considered factors that could lead to long-term safety issues,” a SunWater spokesman said.
“This includes factors such as increased populations of people living downstream of dam catchments and increased knowledge of local weather patterns.”
Since 2006 there have been seven dam improvement projects, with Paradise Dam the next cab off the rank.
The state government has pointed to low water allocations from Paradise Dam as one possible justification for reducing its walls.
But Paradise Dam supporters said it was important to safeguard future water needs, and said a recent price reduction had resulted in a growing demand for water in the region.
The LNP questioned whether the possibility of lowering Paradise Dam’s walls signalled the start of a statewide anti-dam drive.
However, Natural Resources Minister Dr Anthony Lynham strongly rejected that the state government was against dams.
"There can be no questioning of the Palaszczuk government’s commitment to water security and safety," he said.
"Last financial year this government spent more than $78.5 million on dam improvements around Queensland – a figure that has increased year on year since Labor came into office.”
Dr Lynham stressed that no decision had been made on Paradise Dam's fate.
“The facts are that the Palaszczuk government has put $36 million on the table to contribute to the costs of further work on Paradise Dam,” he said.
“Any decision will ensure the safety and best value for money for the people of the Bundaberg region and for the people of Queensland.”
LNP natural resources spokesman Dale Last said the state government had been dragging its feet on new dam projects.
"Whether it’s creating barriers to water access through high electricity costs or just removing the water altogether, Labor’s anti-farmer and anti-dam agenda hurts rural and regional Queensland," he said.
Rather than tinkering with existing water infrastructure, the LNP would actively look to build new dams and water assets in regional Queensland, Mr Last said.
"An LNP government will raise the Burdekin Falls Dam wall, get the Urannah and Nullinga Dam projects shovel-ready and finally deliver Rookwood Weir for Central Queensland.
“The LNP will also develop a 30-year water security plan for Queensland in consultation with Seqwater, SunWater and local governments and establish a mechanism for reviewing the current price targets."
Water security is an increasingly important and contentious topic as the state battles through the grip of an ongoing drought.
Irrigators and producers are concerned about the cost of water and the potential for this to rise if supply tightens in coming years. The high price of electricity to pump the water is also a concern.
A number of significant water projects are either underway or in the pipeline, including Hells Gate Dam, which has been deemed viable in a recently released feasibility study.
The $5.35 billion irrigated agricultural and power project on the upper Burdekin River has been touted as part of a long-term vision to develop Northern Australia by securing new water and energy sources to expand irrigated agriculture and grow export industries.
“The 12-month study found that the construction of a large dam on the upper Burdekin at the Hells Gates site was technically and economically feasible, with no major environmental barriers found as part of the Feasibility Study,” Townsville Enterprise CEO Patricia O’Callaghan said.
“The dam could provide water for up to 50,000 hectares of land for high value crops.”
It has the potential to create an estimated 12,000 jobs during construction and over 5000 direct and indirect jobs once completed.
Charters Towers Mayor Liz Schmidt welcomed the project.
She said phase one would see the realisation of her community’s single most important infrastructure project – Big Rocks Weir.
The study recommended a business case, including an Environmental Impact Statement be undertaken to progress the project.