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What is a bone-dry city worth?

By Peter Ravenscroft - posted Friday, 16 March 2007

It has now declined to rain effectively in the catchment of our two main dams, Wivenhoe and its feeder, the Somerset, since March 2004. That is, for three years straight, the amount of water in these dams has declined almost every day. There were only two minute blips in the downward slide.

The long-term annual rainfall figures say this sort of dry has happened before, with a low point in about 1915. We just did not notice. From high to high or low to low seems to take about 120 years. The last high was in 1976 just after the '74 floods, so if it repeats, which is not at all certain, it may get dryer until 2036. That is 29 years off yet. It's enough to make a cane toad weep. So we had better wake up.

Based on the percentage presently left in the three main dams and the weekly decline, Brisbane seems to have about 18 months of water left, if it does not rain hard. That does not leave time enough to build a big desalination plant, since we have not yet even made a start. We are building a very large recycling plant, a fine idea, but for this to work you have to have water to recycle. Recycling plants are not a lot of help if the dams are dry. Desalination is new water, recycled water is not, a distinction none to clear in everyone's heads yet, it seems.


A pipeline is being built as fast as possible between the Hinze Dam and Wivenhoe, but the Hinze is quite small and has to supply the Gold Coast anyway.

We are all saving water, talking to our distressed plants instead of watering them, and showering with friends, but the domestic component of water usage in South East Queensland generally is not large. It is also not easy to determine from official figures.

Agriculture does not use much; it is mainly going to industry. So householder restrictions and rainwater tanks are a very fine idea but will not solve the problem. Groundwater drilling has been tried in a desultory fashion and produced some water and some failures.

As I pushed hard for the drilling of the Nambour Basin, a total failure, I wish to claim my fair share of credit. Sorry all … bad guess … a million dollars gone west. What I suggest now, in compensation, is far more drilling, in the much bigger Maryborough Basin.

An option being considered is getting water from the northern rivers of New South Wales but I doubt they will respond with speed, since we have graciously denied them water from the Balonne for decades. We will still be talking about the legalities when the taps run dry, as the ongoing farce over the Murray River catchment has shown. Water in quantity does not cross political boundaries easily and its crossing always causes trouble. Better to be self-sufficient.

In Queensland we should stop squabbling about which politicians should have done what and get on and solve this problem once and for all. Very few of us bothered to lobby for more dams or whatever over the last few decades, so we have no right to carp.


Anyway we know who is to blame in Queensland when all the water disappears. Tiddalick the giant frog has swallowed all the water again, as always in the last 60,000 years. The game is to make him laugh and spit it out. Mudmen not required.

We need to immediately stop all non-water-related construction. We are spending billions on tunnels, and in my opinion, we are collectively more than slightly mad. It's wake up time, folks: we do not all want to be camping outside Townsville, without work, in about two years if the rain does not return. We might need a coherent evacuation plan, if we are not to do a reverse New Orleans! It could play havoc with the property market!

The real water supply solution is obvious. There is no time to build new dams, and there is only one puddle of water currently in captivity that is big enough to solve the problem. The Burdekin Falls Dam up north is full. Hang the cost. We should now build a large-diameter pipeline from Brisbane to that dam and we should do it at speed.

With a pipeline, unlike with desalination or a recycling plant, you can have any number of independent teams laying pipe at the same time, as long as you have the pipe. We should have at least ten teams on the job, with huge incentives for speed and progress. When complete, it can be used when needed, and can be backed in time with a huge desalination plant if that is going to be cheaper per litre. When not needed, the water can go to agriculture near to the dam, or to the towns and cities en route.

Proclaiming a state of emergency would cope with environmentalists and other likely legalistic delaying and carping. I admit this is cavalier attitude from a lifelong and at times professional, greenie.

Pumping water a thousand kilometres is expensive. But what will it cost, if Brisbane and its support areas run out of water? What is a bone-dry city worth?

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About the Author

Peter Ravenscroft has been a geologist since 1971, common or garden variety, and has worked in South Africa, Namibia, Fiji and Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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