"Why water means wealth
Last week I made my first trip to Kununurra to see the astounding Ord River scheme. Lake Argyle holds the equivalent of over 20 times the size of Sydney Harbour all year around.
The Ord has had its problems and controversies over the years; however we now have a government in Western Australia that finally has the courage and vision to build the Ord to a scale that might at least give it a chance. At the moment only 15,000 hectares of land around the Ord is irrigated. This is vastly too small to be efficient.
Just around my home town of St George there are 76,000 hectares of irrigation. That is supported by a 101,000 ML dam, the Beardmore dam, although there are much larger private storages as well. Last year those storages helped produce over $600 million of cotton, $200 million of grain and then there are melons, onions, grapes, beef and kangaroo meat as well.
All produced by just around 5,000 people. If the rest of the nation were this productive, we would be the richest nation on earth.
Lake Argyle is 100 times the size of Beardmore dam yet it only supports an irrigation area roughly the same size as the government irrigation scheme in my area and vastly smaller than privately developed farms around St George.
Whatever you think of the past economic success of the Ord, there is no doubt about the environmental benefits that can be achieved when you dam something.
Before the Ord was dammed it was a seasonal river, retreating to a series of disconnected pools in the dry season. Now it flows at 45 cubic metres per second, all day every day. Lake Argyle is now one of Australia's 64 internationally recognised Ramsar wetlands.
Some bureaucrats from the Federal Department of Environment, more familiar with the variable rivers in Australia's south east, asked how often water is released from the Ord. The response came back "every bloody day". It took the Ord Corporation 8 weeks to convince the bureaucrats that this was actually the case.
This is only a minor example of the bureaucratic interference that has occurred in the attempt to expand the Ord River scheme.
Because Lake Argyle is a Ramsar listed wetland, any plan to use its waters must be approved by the Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. This meant that environmental bureaucrats from Canberra had the final say on whether the project could go ahead. The environmental legislation over an environment created by a man made structure which would not have been created if today’s environmental legislation was in place.
Reportedly this process was drawn out and frustrating. Department officials asked the Ord proponents to provide evidence that a road they were intending to build would not limit the migration of finches. The reply came back, finches can fly! So we intend them to fly over the road, like every other (invective) bird!
In the end, to get the project approved, the Ord had to agree to pay $1.5 million to fund shark research in the Indian Ocean as an “environmental offset”. The shark research had nothing to do with the Ord scheme; it was effectively just a tax on this project. A shark tax on the outback. Green legislation is an emotion followed by a paradox with the goal being lead weight." End quote.
Note how massive is the size of the water storage and how relatively small the developed irrigation area. Comments such as those we hear from Senator Bill Heffernan about moving our irrigation to the North are, in my view, nonsense. I am all for developing the North and for further growth in the South with additional storages.
I do not underestimate the challenges of developing large scale tropical irrigated agriculture, but Australia has not baulked at similar challenges in the past. However, we are very good at temperate irrigated agriculture and northern development should be an addition not an alternative.