Why we need you to ‘give a dam’

Author: Dr Siwan Lovett

Contributors: Kate McKenna, Matt Morrison, Pat Gudhka, Masha Artamonova

What would you say if we told you that right now, part of the NSW Government is championing a proposal to raise the Warragamba Dam wall by up to 17 metres – an action that will flood the core of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area?

Not only is this area a world class National Park, in 2000 it was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in recognition of its Outstanding Universal Value for the whole of mankind.

It sounds incredible, doesn’t it? Having the words ‘flooding’ and ‘World Heritage Area’ in the same sentence is hard to comprehend. The raising of the wall will threaten the very biodiversity, mountains and rivers that led to international recognition of the area as being of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’.

If this plan goes ahead, the NSW Government will:

  • decimate 5,700 hectares of National Park,
  • put at risk 1,300 hectares of World Heritage Area,
  • flood and degrade more than 60 kilometres of wilderness rivers,
  • lose hundreds of Aboriginal sites and places of cultural significance.

Not to mention the impact on our native species. These areas have the best remaining grassy woodland ecosystem in New South Wales, complete with healthy populations of dingo, quoll, woodland birds and many other natives. The rising water will drive threatened species into extinction, including NSW’s rarest bird, the Regent Honeyeater, the Camden White Gum  and the Blue Mountains perch.  If the dam wall is raised it is estimated that over $2 billion in biodiversity offsets would need to be found to compensate – kind of indicates the incredible value of the area, doesn’t it? 

The Cox and Kowmung Rivers are currently still beautiful, wild and clean. Credit: Give a dam, Twitter.

The impact of raising the dam explained

Our rivers will suffer

We have a particular interest in rivers, so let’s take a look at what the raising of the dam wall will mean for the creeks, waterfalls and rivers that support the biodiversity of this region. You can see in the photo above how stunning these rivers and creeks are – the Kowmung River is a declared ‘Wild River’ – these are rivers protected for their pristine condition under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974. The 74 kilometre-long river drops 816 metres as it descends from near Oberon, giving it a steep gradient as it approaches its juncture with the Coxs River. Raising the dam wall will result in fluctuating river levels with the velocity (speed) and volume (amount) of water going up and down. When this happens, the erosion caused by the fluctuations will degrade riverbanks, so that the water will dump sediment, harming aquatic life and covering cultural sites of significance with mud.  Water quality impacts will also mean that more chlorine will need to be added to water leaving the dam so that it is drinkable, this can make people unwell and have ongoing human health impacts.  

It is also possible, despite the stated use for raising the dam wall being flood mitigation, that the new storage capability will be exploited by the increasing challenges of water security due to climate change and Sydney’s population growth.  This would result in these areas being permanently inundated and other alternatives like desal plants, water use efficiency and more innovative planning approaches being sidelined – our World Heritage Area will be irrevocably ruined.

A Blue Mountains Perch, Macquaria sp. nov., from a creek in the the Blue Mountains, New South Wales. Source: Jim Vaughan / Atlas of Living Australia. License: CC BY Attribution.

Native fish will be threatened

The Blue Mountains perch, a fish found nowhere else in Australia, will be placed under further threat.  This species is already on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Founded in 1964, the IUCN is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species. It uses a set of precise criteria to evaluate the extinction risk of thousands of species and subspecies.  Macquaria sp. nov. ‘Hawkesbury’, Blue Mountains Perch was previously considered part of Macquaria australasica, but since 1986 has been accepted as a separate taxon and is now recognised as a separate species. This species is assessed as Vulnerable based on its restricted distribution in the Hawkesbury-Nepean catchment.

And that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the environmental impacts…  but what about the cultural costs?

Gundungurra traditional owners Kazan Brown (right) and her daughter Taylor Clarke, with a scar tree on land that would be inundated by floodwater at Burnt Flat if the Warragamba Dam wall were raised. Photo credit: Wolter Peeters, SMH.

Desecration of culture

The name Warragamba comes from the Gundungurra words Warra and Gamba meaning ‘water running over rocks’ and the Blue Mountains area is rich in cultural history and connection. By the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th, many Gundungurra families from the Burragorang were dispossessed of their ancestral homes and found refuge in a safe and well-resourced part of Country known to most as The Gully, Katoomba.  The flooding of the valley completed the first cycle of dispossession from land, traditional economies and ceremony.  Now, the proposed dam wall raising will not just flood important sites like the burnt tree in the photo above, but ruin Gundungurra dreaming trails and stories. 

The Gundungurra Traditional Owners have not given Free, Prior and Informed Consent for the Dam proposal to proceed.  Over 1541 identified cultural heritage sites will be inundated by the Dam proposal. The Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Assessment Report has been severely and repeatedly criticised by both the Australian Department of Environment and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) for not appropriately assessing cultural heritage in meaningful consultation with Gundungurra community members.  

But why?

So why on earth is the proposal to raise the dam wall even being considered?  Well, it really comes down to a desire to continue to expand and extend flooplain development in Western Sydney.  The Hawkesbury-Nepean valley is home to over 70,000 people, and this number is predicted to rise to 340,000 by 2050. These predictions, it needs to be noted, are made by the property development industry who are wanting to provide homes for these people on a floodplain that does – and will most definitely continue to – flood – putting people and their homes at risk. 

Will the raising of the dam wall stop the flooding?  

The short answer is no, it will not stop the flooding because nearly half the floodwaters that have historically impacted the floodplain come from, and will continue to come from, rivers outside the Warragamba catchment. This means that no matter how high the dam wall is constructed, it will not be able to prevent flooding in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley downstream.   The Warragamba Dam has already spilled 50 times, and it will continue to do so as raising the dam wall would not have prevented these spillages from occurring.

Perhaps the strongest signal that the proposal to raise the dam wall is flawed, came on Friday the 15th of October when our country’s largest insurer, the Insurance Australia Group, declared at its Annual General Meeting it was no longer backing the project.   The Insurance Council of Australia’s CEO Andrew Hall said raising the height of the Warragamba Dam wall would not resolve issues created by land use failings that have increased flood risks in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley.  He went on to say that the money being proposed to spend on raising the Warragamba Dam wall would be better spent on claiming back some of the areas that never should have been developed in Western Sydney – the legacy of poor planning cannot be solved simply.

“Even if we do raise the dam wall, that should never give false comfort because dam walls overtop no matter how big you build a dam,” 

– Andrew Hall, CEO, Insurance Council of Australia

This statement by Andrew Hall is one that really resonates with a key concern of our team – it is morally wrong to provide people with ‘false comfort’ that their homes and families are going to be safe if the dam wall is raised.  For people already living on the floodplain they need to understand the risks, yet Commissioner of Resilience NSW, Shane Fitzsimmons, said a survey last catastrophe season found many people in the region were unaware they were in a flood plain, while often residents in disaster prone areas in the state don’t personalise risks, particularly if an event hasn’t recently occurred.  

So what needs to happen to protect Western Sydney floodplain communities?  There are many alternative options to raising the Warragamba Dam wall that would protect existing floodplain communities.  A combined approach of multiple options has been recommended as the most cost-effective means of flood risk mitigation.  For example, limiting further development on the floodplain and providing escape routes for people so that when floods do come, communities can get to safety.  Our podcast with Jamie Pittock explains these options further, so have a listen if you would like to know more about the options available.

Why is raising the dam wall being considered?

In order to justify why raising the dam wall is required to reduce the risk of future flooding to residents and businesses across Western Sydney, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) has been released.  The EIS is 4,000+ pages long but don’t think that this quantity reflects quality… 

Despite the EIS having been in preparation for more than 5 years, the environmental and cultural surveys on which it relies are woefully inadequate. A team of reviewers from the National Parks Association of NSW have identified the following key areas of concern with the EIS contents (and omissions):

  • The damage to upstream national parks and state conservation areas has been underestimated in the EIS due to inadequate field work and by erroneously omitting areas of flood damage during the biodiversity offset valuation.
  • The EIS analysis undertook a naïve examination of changes in flood inundation above the dam due to the proposed dam wall raising.  Instead of examining the damaging effects of operating a flood mitigation dam on the upstream environment, the EIS created an erroneous “straw argument” to remove all areas flooded by the existing dam from its consideration.
  • By omitting the areas most affected by temporary flood inundation, those nearest the full supply level, damage to important wild places were denied in the EIS.  The environmental impacts to the World Heritage listed Kowmung, protected as a wild river for its pristine condition under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974, were dismissed in the EIS.
  • As already mentioned, no wilderness impact analysis was attempted in the EIS, using say, an assessment of disturbance to remoteness values or damage to its ecological integrity by assessing potential weed incursion, stream sedimentation and soil loss beside streams. 
  • Only about a quarter of the impact area was assessed for Aboriginal Cultural Heritage and threatened species surveys did not meet minimum area guidelines. Just three and a half hours were spent surveying for koalas and a day surveying for platypus across 65 kilometres of watercourse that will be intermittently inundated by the raised dam wall.  The necessary wildlife expert reports required when surveys are lacking were omitted. 
  • Raising the dam wall will encourage further ill-advised development in vulnerable areas without providing any guarantee of future protection. What we need is better urban planning, not short-sighted fixes that will only encourage development in flood prone areas.

What are we doing about it?

The ARRC have taken a few steps to raise our concerns and take action to prevent the raising of the Warragamba Dam wall:

  • We’ve wrote a letter to Minister Rob Stokes asking that the exhibition period for the Environmental Impact Statement be extended – the new date is the 29th of November 2021.
  • We have released a podcast episode with Bob Debus to raise awareness of the negative impact this proposal and raising the wall will have.
  • We are recording a podcast with Kazan Brown from the Gundungurra people (available week beginning Monday 25th October).
  • We are submitting EIS submissions as an organisation and as individual team members.

How can you take action?

If any of these impacts have resonated with you, we strongly encourage you to have your say by writing a submission against the Environmental Impact Statement. We only have until the 29th of November to show the NSW Government that we do not support the raising of the Warragamba Dam wall.  

  • To read the Environmental Impact Statement and/or make a submission directly on the NSW Planning Portal, please do so here. For more detailed submissions, and if you wish to add attachments, we recommend this link.
  • For quicker submissions, the Colong Foundation For Wilderness have provided a submission form here, which is easier to use. It directly sends submissions to the NSW Planning Portal.

Things to consider in your submission:

  • The rationale is flawed. Raising the dam wall will not protect people and homes as the dam wall will overtop no matter how big you build a dam.
  • The precedent of ignoring Australia’s responsibility as a signatory to the World Heritage Convention and a requirement to do everything in its powers to protect the ecological integrity of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area.  If the EIS is approved what will this mean for our other World Heritage Areas?
  • The failure to protect the values of Wild Rivers like the Kowmung River, and the degradation of declared National Parks.
  • Ignoring the The Gundungurra Traditional Owners who have not given Free, Prior and Informed Consent for the Dam proposal to proceed.  
  • The moral and ethical consequences of creating a false sense of security for people living on the floodplain when their families and homes will be at risk of flooding.
  • The immense environmental and cultural costs that will result if the dam wall is raised.

Thank you for being part of our community, we hope you join us in opposing the raising of the Warragamba Dam wall – together we can make a difference.

– Siwan, Pat, Matt, Antia, Lori, Mikayla, Kate and Masha