The LNP’s $15 billion plan to drought proof Queensland
HUNDREDS of kilometres away from the halls of Queensland Parliament in Brisbane, Jim McKenzie looks out over the 26,000 hectares of drought ravaged country on his Cunnamulla property.
Drought is a devastating part of life out in the bush, but one politician has a plan to change that, to pump water from the wetlands in north Queensland through to dry, barren lands of the southwest and offer water security to hard-done graziers the New Bradfield Scheme.
It’s an ambitious infrastructure project with an estimated cost of $15 billion and the likes Queensland has rarely seen in its history.
But with it comes the promise of “droughtproofing” significant parts of the state and reinvigorating regional areas in what LNP leader Deb Frecklington hopes will sway the October 31 Queensland Election in her party’s favour for the first time in eight years.
The idea of delivering water to desperately thirsty parts of Queensland’s expansive southwest isn’t a new idea, water security schemes like the Bradfield Scheme have been around for close to 100 years but have often been touted as nothing more than a pipe dream.
“In an ideal world, there would be water security for everyone,” Mr McKenzie said.
“It would be great if they could bring water into this area, but they won’t do it if it’s not productive enough. There are places where it could go, and our beautiful black soil plains would benefit.
“But, out here you have a long way to go to get it to market, so a scheme like the New Bradfield might not include us. There is lots to take into account.”
The idea of droughtproofing eastern Australia is almost 100 years old, in a series of articles in the Charleville Western Times printed in 1947, the idea of ‘Water for the Inland’ was proposed, just nine years after the Bradfield Scheme was first floated.
But in the past few years Ms Frecklington has worked to re-imagine the concept into the New Bradfield Scheme, a multi-billion dollar project where water would be piped from north Queensland through to southern parts of the state, before it flowed on down through the basin system.
Ms Frecklington said her team would stop at nothing to get regional Queensland working again, and sees then New Bradfield Scheme as a prime opportunity to boost job opportunities and improve the state all over.
“Unlike the original Bradfield scheme, it will not need to pump water up and over the range, it will actually generate enough gravity fed hydro to power 800,000 homes,” she said.
“The other difference is the original scheme talked about draining water into Lake Ayer, that was how John Bradfield proposed... but this New Bradfield Scheme would actually divert water into the Flinders and Thomson River, then further stage connection to Warrego River to use downstream.
“The New Bradfield Scheme is more efficient and scaled back than the original.”
As ambitious as it is, many graziers, like Mr McKenzie, are concerned about the environmental impact the scheme would have, moving gigantic amounts of water from one unique part of the state to another.
“The New Bradfield Scheme would be great if it could work, but everything has its limits, and you need to take into consideration costs and environmental impact,” he said.
“In terms of environmental studies, it’s virtually impossible for it to work. It would impact greatly on the environment to shift water from one region to another, especially when the regions are so diverse and different.
Mr McKenzie said water security in Australia might look appealing as an election promise, but there was no such thing in a country as big, sparse and dry as Australia.
“At this point in time, in my opinion I think the New Bradfield Scheme is probably getting less on the drawing board the more the north develops,” he said.
LIFE ON THE LAND
The McKenzies farm sheep, goats and some cattle on their property southeast of Cunnamulla. There have been more hard years than good, and they wait anxiously for the wet winter forecasted this year.
Last year, feeding their sheep, goats and cattle became too much and they were forced to de-stock.
They’re two of the lucky ones, they had good rain back in March, enough to restock their joinings with 2400 ewes, despite that being the lowest joining they’ve had in the 20 years they have owned the property
Drought is normal out here, and as hard as times get, the McKenzies, like so many other grazing families around the state, just look to the skies, unable to do anything else.
“You always know it’s going to rain, the trouble is sometimes just sticking it out,” Mr McKenzie said.
“The thing is you have to keep yourself viable, but when you’re dry and production isn’t happening, that becomes difficult.
“You get to a stage where you say, if I can grow enough crops for 3000 ewes, that would be excellent. But that’s ideal.
“We had good rain over the summer, but by no stretch of the imagination are we out of the drought. We had a reprieve, but if we don’t have a wet winter, it will be a long wait for some summer rain.”
A LOOK THROUGH HISTORY
The Bradfield Scheme was originally proposed by Dr John Bradfield, the civil engineer who designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Brisbane Storey Bridge, back in 1938.
The inland irrigation project was designed to irrigate and droughtproof much of western Queensland, as well as large areas of South Australia.
The original scheme required large pipes, tunnels, pumps and dams to divert water from the upper reaches of the Tully, Herbert and Burdekin rivers, which would otherwise flow east to the Coral Sea.
Dr Bradfield proposed water would instead enter the Thomson River on the western side of the Great Dividing Range and eventually flow south west to Lake Eyre. It was estimated to provide irrigation for more than 7800km2 of agricultural Queensland land.
The original scheme had the ability to generate 370 megawatts of power and was believed it could reduce massive natural erosion problems in areas of Central Queensland.
The first critics of the scheme thought it would cause too much damage to the environment, but the LNP says their new-and-improved water security scheme is further developed.
BIG ELECTION PROMISES
The New Bradfield Scheme is being championed by the LNP as a gravity feed system, utilising the proposed Hells Gates Dam.
It would involve a series of tunnels to take water west of the range to highly productive soils that just need water to bear fruit, or in this case, crops and feed.
Under the plan, the height of the Hells Gate Dam would be almost doubled, to over 120 metres, drawing water from the South Johnstone, Tully, Herbert and Burdekin rivers into a lake potentially twice the size of the Burdekin Falls Dam.
The LNP label the scheme as a catch-and-water use scheme for irrigation and generation of hydroelectricity. Initial plans estimate the scheme would generate up to 2000 megawatts of green electricity which would power up to 800,000 Queensland homes.
Ms Frecklington doesn’t shy away from how – in her own words – the New Bradfield Scheme is a “big, bold, ambitious” election promise.
The LNP leader has adapted and developed the plans thanks to Sir Leo Hielscher and Sir Frank Moore, who she labelled “knights of industry”.
Sir Hielscher spent 19 years on the Queensland Treasury Corporation, where he was acclaimed as being one of the key figures responsible for transforming Queensland’s economy in the late 20th and early 21st century.
Sir Moore is an Australian businessman noted for his long-term proportion of Queensland’s tourism industry, responsible for creating international airports in Townsville and Cairns.
Together, they’ve developed he New Bradfield Scheme, an update on the age-old idea.
“No one has more experience than them,” she said.
“This will be a cornerstone of our plan to double the value of Queensland’s agriculture industry over the next decade.
“Building the infrastructure would also guarantee a decade worth of jobs.”
According to Ms Frecklington, preliminary cost estimate sit at $15 billion to construct within 10 years.
“We know that’s a big investment, but it’s an investment into our food industry, into regional Queensland and into jobs,” she said.
“I want to see development, and this scheme would mean tens of thousands of jobs along the way.
“This is a project investing in Queensland’s future, in our children’s future, in the future of agriculture in Queensland and all the industries that can offshoot development of this are of Queensland.”
POLITICS CLOUDING FUTURE-PROOFING
AgForce CEO Michael Guerin said water security would safeguard the future of regional and rural Queensland, but politics needed to stop getting in the way of moving forward.
“We need a bipartisan plan for water that is stuck to. We have the largest agricultural state in Australia, and the flow on effect of that impacts employment and youth confidence which in turn impacts the communities,” he said.
“You can’t run agriculture and you can’t hold regional communities together without water. New water infrastructure is absolutely vital, and without a guiding plan and politicisation, you get to the 30 year mark since the last dam was built, and as it is it’s falling apart.
“Regional communities and industry suffer from all this talk and no action. Water infrastructure and the New Bradfield Scheme is a great conversation to have, but the utter frustration is that there is no water plan we can stick to.
“The political process frustrates any chance of progress.”
Mr Guerin said the idea of droughtproofing Queensland, as exemplified in the New Bradfield Scheme, would have enormously positive impacts for communities, but they’re hesitant to believe it until they see action.
“Early work shows it would have an overwhelmingly positive impact on communities and industry and is part of a wider solution,” he said of scheme.
“The fact is, there’s too much water in the north and not enough in the south. We need to put our ability to manage water effectively and efficiently into action.
“The absolute frustration is that these are all big, bright ideas. Our members are used to drought, but there needs to be a plan on how we can get better at managing the impact it has.”
Ms Frecklington is no stranger to drought, having grown up in regional Queensland and raised her children the same way.
“Drought is crippling, and we need to plan for it. We need to ensure we have the right systems in place so we do plan for the dry years,” she said.
“I’ve personally been through it from a farming operations point of view, and I’ve also seen the hardships it puts on families.
“It’s shocking when people talk about their neighbours taking their own lives, or families no longer being able to afford to send their children to boarding school.
“It’s crippling personal impacts, but it’s also made worse from onerous government regulations.
“That’s why I’m so determined to put regional Queensland first.”
THIS IS WHAT WE NEED
Warrego MP Ann Leahy sees drought day-in-day-out when travelling across her expansive electorate bigger than the entire island of Tasmania, but what concerns her the most is the scale of this current drought.
“What stands out is the number of people who say this drought is tougher than the 1965 drought,” she said.
“Water security and drought is the single biggest issue facing regional Queensland, that’s why the LNP has a plan to deliver water security and droughtproof our state.
“A Deb Frecklington LNP government will build the droughtproofing water infrastructure Queensland needs to support farmers and their communities. We’re backing give major dam projects in central and north Queensland, the biggest of which is the New Bradfield Scheme.
“This scheme will give western Queensland confidence. Where there is water, there is wealth, jobs and vibrant thriving communities.”
While the Warrego electorate wouldn’t be the first to benefit from the scheme, Ms Leahy is confident that down the track, graziers would reap the rewards.
“The initial stages of the New Bradfield Scheme are for dam building, irrigation and hydroelectric plants in the north west,” she said.
“It is anticipated that future stages of the scheme would focus on improving the water security for southwest Queensland.
“The scheme is estimated to irrigate around 80,000 square kilometres. This will increase the fodder crops grown during drought, and result in lower fodder freight costs for many in southern Queensland.
“It will help my constituents by giving them a greater range of options during drought periods for fodder sources and stock agistment.”
GHOST TOWNS THE ALTERNATIVE
Mr Guerin said AgForce is deeply concerned of what a lack of cohesive water plan would mean to regional Queensland, potentially wiping towns off the map.
“Last year we saw a net minus ten per cent migration… nobody is moving there and the young people don’t have confidence so they aren’t staying,” he said.
“It’s so common now to see regional towns with empty houses and shops for lease, we see the slow drain that comes with young people having less confidence in their ability to build a career in regional Queensland.
“If we continue down the trajectory we’re on, with no bipartisan approach, we will lose population and enterprise and regions. In ten years’ time, if things haven’t changed, we will end up with ghost towns.”
Mr Guerin said water is the key to ensuring that doesn’t happen.
“Water sustains life, and if we can have conversations about putting a water plan together to stick by, bound by good science and is time bound, for the sake of regional Queensland, we must make those decisions,” he said.
“Maybe then, we can reverse that outlook. If we don’t, there will be a struggle to find another way to reverse that damage. We need that foundation.
“Water infrastructure forms part of preparing our state for the next drought, because that is a normal part of the Australian climate. We are just missing partnership between government and industry.
“We shouldn’t see water being trucked to communities. Water is a basic human need, it holds communities together and it should be the concern of everybody.”