Access to reliable, affordable water is one of the most critical factors in the sustainability and future growth of agriculture in Queensland. Following the unprecedented upheaval of 2020, there is an opportunity for the sector to provide a platform for Queensland’s economic recovery, especially in regional Queensland, if existing and prospective investors can be confident that they can access affordable, reliable and secure irrigation water.
One route to unlocking the potential of Queensland agriculture is to build new, affordable irrigation schemes and supporting bulk water assets (dams) particularly where there is the prospect of high value, export focused agricultural production. Queensland has numerous potential new water projects that would provide significant benefit to regional economies and communities. Some of these projects are headed by the state government and their corporations but an increasing number of irrigation projects are being industry-led, including several proposed dams.
The question for the Queensland Government is how it will treat privately-owned bulk water assets, particularly in light of its own experience of funding, maintaining and insuring them, then managing international dam safety requirements which have resulted in costly upgrades. With many of these issues recently highlighted by the construction failures and flood damage impacting Paradise Dam in Bundaberg, the negative flow on impacts to local irrigators and substantial damage to business and investment confidence.
Of Australia’s 650 large dams, half are more than 50-years old and over 50 have been in operation for more than a century. Queensland has a relatively small number, with Sunwater and Seqwater owning and operating 49 (nearly half), of Queensland’s referable dams. The Queensland Government must consider what risks these additional privately owned bulk water assets have, how are they different from government-owned assets, how they can be managed to safeguard customers, and critically the broader community, whilst allowing industry to simply get on with it.
January’s report from the United Nations University, Institute for Water, Environment and Health brings a stark reality to some of this uncertainty. The report acknowledges that by 2050, most people will live downstream of a large dam built in the 20th century with most reaching their design life, while climate change is putting some dams under stresses they were never designed for. Of course, the risk profile of this issue is very context-specific, depending on a range of factors from number and location of the dams, design, age, condition and maintenance.
The Queensland Government must provide irrigation water project proponents with clarity on the policy and other settings required for privately owned water infrastructure to proceed, particularly bulk water assets. We are already seeing an indication of some thinking on this, you need only look at the differences in the recently released environmental impact statement documentation for raising the Burdekin Falls Dam and building the proposed Urannah Dam to see that consideration has commenced. However, questions around decommissioning or retrofitting dams at end of design life, the societal impacts associated with decommissioning a dam, the rising costs of maintenance and dam safety compliance, decreasing risk appetite from insurers to provide cover for what is classed as a high hazard form of infrastructure, and government’s role should a private entity fail, all remain outstanding.