Urannah dam doesn't make sense

Urannah dam has created many jobs over the years but only in the economics and engineering community. Over the past 50 years 18 studies have been undertaken into the feasibility of the dam by both government and non-government organisations. They have all concluded the same thing, the dam doesn't stack up. So we were surprised when the Federal Government floated the idea it would fund another $3 million feasibility study into the dam.

That feasibility study appears to be going nowhere. Media reports late last year indicate that the consortium that has been awarded the funding is wracked with infighting over how the money would be allocated so no work has been done. The Queensland Government has proposed that the money should be allocated to Sunwater. But when Sunwater last investigated Urannah dam it found the dam to be uneconomic.

Background

Kenny DoddThe proposed Urannah Dam is located within the Bowen and Broken River catchments, 95km north-east of Mackay adjacent to Eungella National Park. If it went ahead it would be built on land that is currently leased by the Queensland Government to the Urannah Properties Association. It is subject to a native title claim registered by the Widi people in 2006, which covers an area of approximately 5,400 square kilometres. The dam site contains important initiation grounds among other cultural heritage values. The Widi people continue to campaign strongly to retain their native title rights over the land. 

Economic analysis

Constructing Urannah Dam has been estimated to cost between $250 and $300 million. In 2016 Mackay Conservation Group engaged an engineer, Thomas Williams, to undertake a Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) of Urannah Dam. He determined that the dam would be uneconomic as it would return only $0.75 for every $1.00 invested. He found that there are cheaper ways to provide water for industrial purposes in the Galilee and Bowen Basins.

The economic, engineering, hydrological, agroeconomic feasibility of Urannah Dam has been examined multiple times over the last 50 years. Williams identified the Economic and Financial Pre-feasibility Analysis of the Urannah Project by MacArthur Business in 2001 as being by far the most comprehensive report on the proposed dam to date. MacArthur found no economic justification to construct the dam for industrial or other purposes. Furthermore, assessments by the Dept of Natural Resources & Mines and Sunwater determined the cost of providing water from Urannah Dam would be at least 5.5% greater than the cost of providing water from the Burdekin Falls Dam.

Williams applied various discount rates between 5 and 12.5% to the construction of Urannah Dam and to the cost of raising the height of the Burdekin Falls Dam wall. It is clear that Urannah Dam is the most expensive option to provide additional water regardless of which discount rate is applied.

Cost benefit analysis has shown that Urannah Dam will only generate a return on investment when water from it is used for industrial, urban and other high priority purposes and that the demand for those uses is not sufficient to fully utilise the available water. Using water from the dam for agriculture and other medium priority uses is simply not economically feasible.

This has been recognised by government in the Burdekin Basin Water Plan. Under the plan, 150,000 ML of water is allocated for water infrastructure in the Bowen and Broken subcatchment areas. Section 32(c) of the Water Plan limits use of that water to high priority purposes such as urban, mining or electricity production. Despite the claims by politicians that it is intended to provide water for farmers, water from Urannah Dam can not be used for agriculture or other medium priority uses.

Alternative water supply options

It would cost about $15 million to raise the height of the Burdekin Falls dam by two metres and would provide an additional 150,000 megalitres of water each year, which is the same volume that Urannah Dam would provide. However that may not be necessary. 

Burdekin Falls Dam currently contains 50,000 megalitres per annum of unused water allocations. In 2002 the Dept of Natural Resource & Mines that 66,000 megalitres of water can be saved each year in the lower Burdekin catchment through the introduction of water use efficiency measures.

The combined total of unallocated water and the volume of water that can be saved through efficiency measures in the lower Burdekin catchment is 116,000 ML, which is more than three-quarters of the volume of water provided by Urannah Dam. That can be provided at low cost and with significant efficiency and environmental benefits. The unused water allocation in Burdekin Falls Dam indicates there is currently no demand for any additonal water to support agriculture or other uses in the lower part of the Burdekin catchment.

Jobs

Estimates of  the number of jobs created by the dam vary between 4,000 direct and indirect jobs identified by the Mackay Regional Water Study and 154 to 184 jobs identified in the MacArthur Business report. As there has been no recent analysis, the number of jobs potentially created by Urannah Dam in todays economic climate is unknown.

Environmental impacts

Broken River near Urannah CreekAs part of his cost-benefit analysis, Williams conservatively estimated the environmental damage caused by the dam would cost at least $270 million. If constructed, the dam will:

  • Inundate 10,500 hectares, including 68 kilometres of rivers and streams;
  • Flood nationally important wetlands in Urannah Creek, Massey Creek and Broken River;
  • Destroy most of the remaining habitat of the endemic Irwin’s Turtle;
  • Destroy threatened flora and fauna including the squatter pigeon, koala, northern spotted quoll, black-throated finch, powerful owl, masked owl, rainbow bee-eater, star finch, red goshawk, glossy black-cockatoo and Eucalyptus raveretiana;
  • Destroy the habitat of migratory birds including the spectacled monarch, black-faced monarch and cicada bird;
  • Alter natural flow regimes, which will significantly increase the risk of salinity and toxic algal blooms occurring downstream from the dam during prolonged low flow periods; and
  • Increase the levels of sediment and agricultural nutrients entering the Great Barrier Reef from new agricultural develoipment enabled by the dam.

Ian Sutton, a biologist, conducted a flora and fauna survey of the Urannah catchment in 2004. He found 20 vegetation species and 30 fauna species. 

Rainfall reliability

There have been no large rainfall events (greater than 440mm) in the Bowen-Broken catchment since 1992, which strongly indicates the catchment where Urannah Dam is located is becoming drier. Due to the reduced rainfall trend, there is a considerable risk that Urannah Dam will never fill, which will significantly affect its environmental and economic performance.

What can you do?

Go to urannah.com.au and subscribe to the River People mailing list to be kept up to date with what is happening in the campaign to keep Urannah Creek free from a dam.

Contact Mackay Conservation Group and help us build alternative ecologically sustainable economic plans for the region.


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