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The Burnett River Dam: the politics of environmental management in Qld

By Graeme Armstrong - posted Wednesday, 20 August 2003

A number of events are taking place in Queensland that are significant for the future of environmental and water management.

Foremost is recent comment by the current Minister of Environment, Dean Wells, stating: "If there's an election undertaking, then that overrides any studies that might be done."

This presumably means no economic or environmental studies were taken into consideration in the approval process for the Burnett River Dam, including the latest report entitled Burnett Region Least Cost Planning Study commissioned by the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency from The Institute of Sustainable Futures.


The second event is the imminent move by the Commonwealth government to accredit the states to assume certain responsibilities under the EPBC Act 1999 through bi-lateral agreements.

The politics of the Burnett River Dam

The Queensland government passed the Water Act 2000 to provide for sustainable water infrastructure development. At the time this was heralded as a major step forward for sustainable management.

During the 1999 state election the Labour Party made an election promise to build a 300,000ML dam on the Burnett River at Paradise, east of Bundaberg. It is widely thought this promise was an attempt to win the marginal state seats of Bundaberg and Burnett - which they did.

Once elected, the state government initiated The Water Infrastructure Planning and Development Implementation Plan. This was to be implemented by the Department of Natural Resources using information provided by the EPA. To advance this planning process, which must comply with the Council of Australian Governments water reform agenda, the Department of Natural Resources developed a Water Allocation and Management Plan (WAMP).

The WAMP - using the integrated quantity quality model (IQQM) flow model subsequently assessed and approved by the Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology - recommended an environmental flow for the Burnett River of 81 per cent. This determined that further water harvesting of only 62,000ML could be allowed before serious environmental damage would occur.

Upon receiving these recommendations the Queensland government amended the Water Act 2000 by the Water Infrastructure Development (Burnett Basin) Amendment Act 2001.


This over-rode the government's own departmental approval to build the Burnett River Dam, which would allow 196,000ML to be extracted from the river and reduce environmental flows to 72 per cent with a 40 per cent annual recurrence interval (ARI). This refers to small flows which flush out nutrients, weeds and salt and provide habitat requirements for animals and plants. The IQQM recommended that the 1.5 year ARI be set at 74 per cent of natural flow.

The Amendment Water Act 2001 was widely criticised for ignoring the recommendations of the WAMP and for being politically motivated.

During the assessment process for an earlier impoundment on the Burnett River, Walla Weir, the then federal Environment Minister, Senator Robert Hill, commissioned a report from retired CSIRO chairman, Dr. Boardman.

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About the Author

Graeme Armstrong currently researches spinifex in the Kimberley. He has undertaken consultancy work for a regional body and received funding from NHT.

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