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The ultimate pipedream?

By Tom Richman - posted Thursday, 19 October 2006

Drought proofing South East Queensland in anticipation of 1.04 million additional residents by 2026 (or 3.9 million in total), as well as providing for the industries that employ them, will require government to find an additional 250 megalitres (Ml) of water per day on top of the 1,000Ml per day we presently use, together totalling 456,250Ml a year.

While damming, greater aquifer use, wastewater recycling, conservation and desalination will provide some relief, it's become increasingly clear to politicians of every stripe that the highest volume of water for the dollar might possibly come from transporting it from where it's in abundance to areas of shortfall. Indeed, during the recent Queensland State Election campaign there was a less than subtle competition over which political party or party member had the most promising scheme to accomplish such a feat.

For example, National and Family First Parties as well as the ALP led State Government have all proposed piping water 1,200km from the Burdekin Basin near Townsville to Brisbane, with Premier Beattie, after an initial balk, going so far as to allocate more than $2 million for a year-long feasibility study to be conducted by the Coordinator-General in conjunction with his Water Grid for SE Queensland. In addition, Kevin Byrne, the Liberal Mayor of Cairns, has argued for a water pipeline from Papua New Guinea to the state's southeast via a dam near Mareeba, with costs to be shared by "piggybacking" it along a 4,000km liquid natural gas pipeline earmarked for the same corridor.


Meanwhile, Federal member Malcolm Turnbull and some relevant New South Wales mayors have been promoting the idea of transporting water to SE Queensland from the other side of the McPherson Range abutting the NSW border, where it's argued that any one of the Richmond, Clarence or Mann River catchments (each experiencing an average rainfall of 1,200 mm a year and known collectively as the Northern Rivers) could have some of their excess water piped over the range to dams or a wastewater treatment plant in Brisbane via a sequence of pumping stations.

Why their proposals won't work as submitted

Although these proposals are steps in the right direction and well intended, each is, unfortunately, partially or wholly reliant on out-of-date information, advocates routes that are less than optimal topographically or technologically, are politically untenable and appear to be costed on the run, or not at all: flaws, we suggest, that would (and should) cause the rejection of any one of them.

For instance:

The promise of an endless Burdekin Basin water supply, on which the first two proposals are predicated, was based on a 2002 study completed at a time when sugar prices were depressed and, as a result, saw minimal water use for irrigation. Similarly, it was written before the water-hungry mining boom was in full stride. It also doesn't take into account the numerous aquifers around the Burdekin River catchment that need refilling first.

The LNG pipeline, originally intended to run from PNG to Brisbane, is now set to end in Townsville, meaning the water side of the equation would no longer be able to piggyback the final 1,300 kms of Mayor Byrne's proposal, thereby eliminating the possibility of cross subsidisation for that portion. Moreover, we believe this shortfall will still be maintained even if the project is brought under new management, which now seems to be the case.

The Premier's latest version of his pipeline corridor from the Burdekin River Basin to Brisbane goes by way of existing and new dams en route, each interconnected. Unfortunately, it also travels along too many undulating and elevated parts of the coastal range to get away from relying on additional, costly pumping and booster stations, let alone expensive lifts over the Burdekin, Fitzroy and Burnett catchments into the upper Brisbane Valley.


The NSW Government apparently sees the Northern Rivers option as uneconomic due, in large part, to pumping requirements, not a little cross-border parochialism and some very concerned farmers fearful of water shortages (like those caused by the Cubbie cotton station's negative impact on flow to the Murray Darling Basin). Critics also make reference to a 1999 study that found if the Clarence River system was called on to "divert substantial quantities of water" it would "present significant risks to the health of riverine ecosystems and those activities and values dependent on them". It's assumed this conclusion applies to the Richmond and Mann Rivers as well.

Despite these caveats there are some virtues for these proposals but they need significant reformulating before there's any meaningful contribution to the resolution of SE Queensland's water crisis. With this in mind the best parts have been extracted, and have been adapted by adding well researched "corrections" as well as some cost saving alternatives to offer two options for consideration:

A two-stage water pipeline from PNG to SE Queensland: our northern option

Lake Kutubu at an altitude of 808m down to Townsville:

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First published in the Spring 2006 issue of King's Counsel, the biannual newsletter of King & Co Property Consultants.

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About the Author

Tom Richman, writes and edits the King's Counsel, a biannual newsletter of King & Co Property Consultants. He holds a BA, MA and M. Phil (Oxon) and is a member of the Property Council of Australia (QLD), the Infrastructure Association of Queensland as well as the Brisbane Development Association.

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