Battle over Wyangala Dam and its downstream impacts is simply starting

On a summer season’s night, because the setting solar paints a flock of straw-necked ibises a glowing pink as they wing their method over Lake Cowal, it’s not arduous to think about Mal Carnegie has landed a dream job.

As supervisor of a conservation centre monitoring NSW’s largest inland pure freshwater lake, the 56-year outdated will get to introduce guests to one in every of Australia’s best “boom-bust” wildlife programs that has thrilled him all his life.

Not that it was all the time as placid because it was earlier this week for guests, with a colony of pelicans conserving a cautious distance and the odd swamp harrier stirring magpie geese right into a nervous cackle.


Lake Cowal, wedged between West Wyalong and Forbes on the Lachlan River in central NSW, was “a mecca for duck capturing” earlier than it was banned 25 years in the past, Carnegie says. “We’d have 1000’s of individuals right here on the opening day.

“Simply earlier than dawn, there would all the time be one one who fired the primary shot, after which they’d all go,” he says. “It was like World Battle three.”

The reprieve, plus the return of water, triggered a increase in biodiversity final yr with chook numbers alone swelling to 115,000. Some 36 species have been recognized within the annual depend led by College of NSW’s Richard Kingsford.

Now, although, a warfare of a distinct nature is underneath method. It doubtlessly has a a lot higher and everlasting toll for the wildlife of Lake Cowal and different Lachlan Valley wetlands.

As a part of 2019 election marketing campaign, the Berejiklian authorities pledged to raise the Wyangala Dam by 10 metres, successfully growing NSW’s second-oldest irrigation reservoir by half to 1867 gigalitres.

Mal Carnegie, manager of the Lake Cowal Conservation Centre, is concerned about what a project to lift the Wyangala Dam wall in central NSW will mean for the lake’s wildlife.

Mal Carnegie, supervisor of the Lake Cowal Conservation Centre, is worried about what a undertaking to raise the Wyangala Dam wall in central NSW will imply for the lake’s wildlife.Credit score:Nick Moir


The value tag was $650 million on the time, to be break up equally with federal Coalition counterparts, the Morrison authorities. Since then, as this masthead has reported, inner NSW paperwork present that invoice has jumped to as a lot as $2.1 billion.

The battles being waged embrace these throughout the corridors of the treasuries over learn how to fund the most expensive water undertaking within the Murray-Darling Basin. One other pits farming teams that clutch at higher water safety in a warming and drying local weather, with conservationists who worry yet one more menace to already pressured ecosystems.

Unhelpful to the governments’ case is the newest leaked NSW Cupboard doc. The Division of Trade’s “Incoming Authorities Transient” for regional water is scathing of the undertaking, declaring it would require as a lot as 80 per cent of the prices to be subsidised “given the small web advantages”.

It says the Wyangala dam “has traditionally hardly ever stuffed to capability”, with information exhibiting it has finished so simply seven instances since 1974. The newest spill occasions got here in 2000, 2012 and 2016.


“Increasing on the dam’s capability shouldn’t be anticipated to translate to greater common water allocations or considerably elevated drought resilience,” the doc states.

Early modelling signifies common water allocations as a proportion of licence entitlement will solely rise from 37 per cent to 42 per cent. Nevertheless, “this quantum of enhance might not show giant sufficient to help important trade development or improvement for the world”, the doc says.

This has not swayed NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey who’s adamant the undertaking should proceed on the very least to safe water for cities like Forbes and Cowra.

“I made it clear after I got here into this portfolio, we’re constructing dams,” Pavey says. “For too lengthy successive NSW departments have had an aversion to constructing water infrastructure, and former governments have been allergic to investing in water safety infrastructure.”

One cause to proceed is that modelling of local weather change means “we’d like coverage reforms and infrastructure tasks”, she says.

Wyangala Dam in central NSW is currently about 60 per cent full. The federal and NSW governments want to increase the dam’s capacity to boost water security in the Lachlan Valley, although a cabinet document suggests the gains will not be significant despite the hefty price tag.

Wyangala Dam in central NSW is at present about 60 per cent full. The federal and NSW governments need to enhance the dam’s capability to spice up water safety within the Lachlan Valley, though a cupboard doc suggests the beneficial properties won’t be important regardless of the hefty price ticket. Credit score:Nick Moir

A spokeswoman for the division accountable for the briefing stated the undertaking was “essential infrastructure and the federal government is engaged on the preliminary investigations and a enterprise case to find out the ultimate value of the undertaking”.


Her funding counterpart on the federal Division of Infrastructure stated it was nonetheless ready for the “detailed enterprise case” which it expects to be finalised this yr. Requests for greater than the preliminary $325 million funding “can be thought-about on its deserves by the Australian Authorities at the moment”, the spokeswoman stated.

One dam analyst says the general public had cause to be involved about large tasks due to “an absence of public availability of the paperwork, enterprise instances and due course of”.

“In Australia, we’re in peril of reverting to a 1950s mentality. We have to be cautious about harnessing water, harnessing nature. Now we have to fastidiously think about the advantages, the prices, and the dangers,” the analyst stated.

“Value blowouts are virtually all the time the norm – it’s a story the world over. In Australia, the median is a 48 per cent overrun,” the skilled stated. “The environmental results are virtually all the time under-estimated and there’s a threat of the advantages being over-estimated.”

Patrick Brown, a civil engineer, argues the cost of the dam wall project at Wyangala is unlikely to be justified given the minimal increase in security for downstream water users.

Patrick Brown, a civil engineer, argues the price of the dam wall undertaking at Wyangala is unlikely to be justified given the minimal enhance in safety for downstream water customers.Credit score:Nick Moir

Patrick Brown is a civil engineer who has labored for Medical doctors with Borders and is now with consultants Slattery & Johnson. Because the writer of an impartial engineer’s report on the undertaking he says the plan to raise Wyangala’s wall from 85 metres to 95 metres and widened by 110 metres brings many challenges.

For one factor, the enlargement will want 1.four million cubic metres of rockfill and require greater than 40,000 truck actions. If as anticipated the undertaking takes 4 years, the haulage quantities to at least one truck motion on common each 16 minutes, nine-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week, he says.

“A quarry that provided the present embankment is more likely to be appropriate. To entry that materials, although, it means the dam can have minimize by half or extra its allowable capability throughout these years.

“You continue to have to have ‘airspace’ within the dam’ in case there’s a flood,” Brown says, standing beside the present wall.

Work crews at the gates of Wyangala Dam: the business case for lifting the wall is yet to be made public.

Work crews on the gates of Wyangala Dam: the enterprise case for lifting the wall is but to be made public.Credit score:Nick Moir

An extra situation is cap on water extraction has been in place for the Lachlan Valley for the reason that mid-1990s. For cities or different clients similar to gold mines to get extra water means “you’ll have to take that water from one other consumer”, Brown says.

Nevertheless, Mary Ewing, govt officer of Lachlan Valley Water, a physique representing irrigators, is assured the upper dam wall “will support water safety within the valley”.

“We’ve had extremely variable inflows, notably during the last 20 years,” she says, including the necessity to enhance reliability might solely enhance with local weather change additional altering rainfall patterns and elevating temperatures. “If what we’re seeing is much less dependable provide sooner or later, we have to plan for it nicely upfront.”

Ewing can also be desirous to see the enterprise case, together with the advantages of flood mitigation from an even bigger dam. She notes the large flood in 2016 minimize the Newell Freeway for six weeks, hit native companies and wiped $530 million off crop values within the Lachlan and Macquarie valleys.

Cowra mayor Invoice West additionally backs elevated capability for Wyangala however doesn’t anticipate “any direct contribution from Council”.

“Council helps the elevated capability of Wyangala Dam and would see it as a generational alternative to create extra water safety and higher certainty for all those that depend on water within the Lachlan Valley,” West says.

Dry times: Lake Cowal is an ephemeral lake and dries out completely at times. This image is from February 2019.

Dry instances: Lake Cowal is an ephemeral lake and dries out fully at instances. This picture is from February 2019.Credit score:Mal Carnegie, Lake Cowal Conservation Centre

Stuart Khan is a Professor on the College of NSW’s Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering and an advisor to the Nationwide Water Grid Authority. He says dams have performed “a vital function in making Australian cities and cities viable”, and the event of steady agricultural industries.

“It’s fully comprehensible that folks affiliate the development of dams with nation-building and progress,” he says. “This appeals to politicians and because of this so many politicians want to be seen as dam builders.”

“Nonetheless, greatest follow must be that each one choices are thought-about when deciding what undertaking ought to proceed.

“This could embrace the development of latest dams, however alongside different technique of addressing water wants, similar to desalination and recycling, and likewise non-infrastructure options, similar to adjusting water allocations or group water restrictions,” Khan says.

The Commonwealth Environmental Water Workplace (CEWO) and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority are among the many businesses involved about what an even bigger dam will imply for the atmosphere.

“A raised Wyangala Dam has the potential to considerably alter the river and floodplain hydrology and therefore change the ecology downstream,” a CEWO spokesman says. “No element has been supplied by the undertaking proponent, WaterNSW, on the proposed working guidelines for the enlarged dam, which would offer a foundation for evaluation of the impacts.”

A Murray-Darling Basin Authority spokeswoman echoes the view: “Any new dams or expanded dams throughout the Basin must be operated in a method that’s according to the Basin Plan”.

“This consists of conserving throughout the sustainable diversion limits and making certain there isn’t any web discount within the safety of Deliberate Environmental Water.”

Kingsford, who heads UNSW’s Centre for Ecosystem Science, says one consequence of trapping extra floodwaters is downstream wetlands such because the Nice Cumbung Swamp and Lake Cowal that require large flows to set off giant breeding occasions can be much less more likely to obtain them.

A flock of pelicans occupy a dry patch in the middle of Lake Cowal, the second largest inland freshwater lake in NSW.

A flock of pelicans occupy a dry patch in the midst of Lake Cowal, the second largest inland freshwater lake in NSW.Credit score:Nick Moir

Lake Cowal “is a powerful lake for its biodiversity”, he says. It usually boasts species just like the freckled duck and is a crucial space for the endangered Australasian bittern.

“It has an unimaginable variety of waterbirds as a result of it has a lot habitat selection, with open water areas and reeds,” Kingsford says. “It will possibly construct up giant numbers of fish which are a magnet for pelicans of their 1000’s.”


“It’s extremely depending on the Lachlan and so an enlarged Wyangala can have a significant impression on its biodiversity together with its threatened species.”

Carnegie, a third-generation farmer himself till the close by Evolution gold mine compelled him off his land, says 10,000 folks visited his lake-side centre in 2019 earlier than COVID-19 hit tourism. Numbers will seemingly resume their development supplied the lake can proceed to fill and drain.

“Individuals are simply eager about a panorama that may change [like this one] as naturally as it may be this present day,” he says.

“We’d like these large floods to make a big effect and the dam undertaking reduces the chance of getting that occasion.”

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