As farmers experience tightening water allocations for the second year in a row from Tinaroo Dam, squeezing their production and profit, the latest developments on a feasibility study for a $425 million Nullinga Dam project have put Far North Queensland’s water planning in the spotlight.
The water storage – inland on the Walsh River, about 55 kilometres south west of Cairns – has been assessed under the state government’s Building Queensland program.
The alert on the status of the report was sounded by deputy opposition leader, Deb Frecklington, who late last week claimed the state government was refusing to release a “critical” feasibility study into the dam, “leaving locals in the lurch”.
“Far north Queensland farmers and ratepayers are being hung out to dry by a government that couldn’t care less that locals are running out of water,” she said. “While primary producers and Mareeba locals are suffering under water restrictions, Labor refuses to release the feasibility study into Nullinga Dam.”
Treasurer and Acting Water Supply Minister, Curtis Pitt, acknowledged that Building Queensland had completed a preliminary business case for Nullinga Dam, said to be “an important step in assessing the economic feasibility” of the dam.
However, an announcement by MSF Sugar last Friday, as reported in the Cairns Post, guaranteeing it would draw water from the project, if it came into being, and pave the way for huge agricultural growth in the far north, has caused a government rethink.
MSF Sugar chief executive Mike Barry said the company was “happy to support and underwrite” the project because it was “vital” to their Tableland expansion plans.
Mr Pitt said the government would take the new information into consideration when deciding whether the project should proceed to the next stage.
The approval of any one of four water harvesting and storage proposals in the Atherton Tableland region would have the full support of community leaders, according to the mayor of the Tablelands Regional Council, Joe Paronella.
“I’d like to see at least one of four projects happening,” he said.
They include the Tableland Irrigation Project on the Herbert River, a project on the Tully Millstream, and the Johnstone River water diversion, which is Cr Paronella’s preferred option.
It would divert water from the Johnstone River to the Barron River, and eventually to Tinaroo Dam, when the North Johnstone river was in flood.
“I suspect if that was to happen, you’d not see the dam level like it was last year and looking likely to be worse this year,” Cr Paronella said. “If we have no rain by Christmas, Tinaroo Dam will be down to 22 per cent.”
Last year the dam level got as low as 31pc.
Cr Paronella said farmers were currently restricted to using 60pc of their allocations.
“The Johnstone River diversion is the cheapest option to make reliable water available for agriculture,” he said. “Nullinga would fill a big hole for farmers but it wouldn’t solve the problem for Tinaroo.”
The Nullinga Dam business case was promised to be delivered by Building Queensland in two stages, the first involving the development of a preliminary business case.
That was to investigate the potential for Nullinga Dam and other options to address the identified future water supply shortfall in the region.
The scope of work included water demand assessments, preliminary analysis of costs, risks and benefits, consultation with key stakeholders and recommendations for the future of the project.
Subject to its outcomes and government approval to proceed, the second stage will involve Building Queensland undertaking a full business case.