Picture an iconic wilderness landscape, somewhere with the highest possible international recognition, home to dozens of rare and threatened species, and featuring hundreds of significant First Nations heritage sites.
Now imagine powerful people with deep pockets and unmatched access to the halls of power realise they could potentially pocket billions of dollars if the government could be convinced to use public money to flood this same pristine location.
Far from being a hypothetical situation, this is the state of play facing 65km of wild rivers and thousands of hectares of untouched bushland in the southern Blue Mountains, on the fringe of Australia’s largest city.
While a battle between the environment and powerful economic interests is hardly unique, the outcome of this fight will set a precedent for the future of every piece of protected public land in the country.
This is because if one of the most highly protected natural landscapes in Australia – it is world heritage listed, a national park, declared wilderness, declared wild river, national heritage status – can arbitrarily be destroyed when economically convenient, then what, if anything, is safe?
First championed by the Greiner and Fahey Liberal governments nearly three decades ago, the proposal to raise Warragamba dam to mitigate downstream flooding was revived as a centrepiece in Tony Abbott’s “100 dams” plan.
While it was Mike Baird who tasked WaterNSW with assembling a team of engineers to create a concept design for this new dam, it is his replacement as premier, Gladys Berejiklian, who now champions the project.
The current proposal will see the dam wall raised 14m, holding back enough water to fill Sydney Harbour twice over. Up to 4,700 ha of national parks – including more than 1,000 ha that is world heritage listed – would be inundated for weeks or months at a time.
The official argument for the project, which is estimated to have a direct cost to taxpayers of at least $800m, is about reducing the risks faced by people who live and work on the Hawkesbury-Nepean floodplain.
A report by Infrastructure NSW following the devastating Queensland flood in 2011 proposed a range of potential responses to the risk posed by a one-in-1000-year flood to about 43,000 residents who live on the floodplain. While it ultimately recommended raising the dam wall, it acknowledged there were other infrastructure options it had not considered.
The NSW government insists community safety is the only motivation for the project, however what is rarely mentioned is that several thousand hectares of the North West Growth Centre – an area it has set aside to house a quarter of a million new residents – can’t currently be developed due to the flooding risk.
Some new residents in the area have already seen these flood risks add thousands to their insurance premiums, while others have been told they are uninsurable.
The Berejiklian government has made its priorities abundantly clear: wilderness areas, no matter how environmentally or culturally significant, come a distant second to the needs of a growing city.
Working with the federal government, they plan to pass legislation that will overturn a ban on the flooding of national parks, along with revocation of wilderness protections. While the the area can’t unilaterally be removed from its world heritage listing, the NSW government believes this is not a legal obstacle to flooding it.
Ordinary taxpayers – not the property developers and insurance companies who will profit from the dam – will foot the financial bill. The environmental impacts, which will be much more substantial and lasting, will be left for future generations to deal with.
Ecologists and flood experts have warned that sediment-laden floodwaters will drown some species and coat others with a suffocating layer of mud. When the water finally recedes, the landscape will be left scoured and eroded. Weeds, washed down the rivers, will sprout on the fertile flood debris.
What was once internationally recognised wilderness – including the lower stretches of the Kowmung, Coxs, Nattai, Kedumba, and Wollondilly rivers – will become little more than 65km of scarred landscape, irreparably damaged to facilitate Sydney’s future growth.
Among the many plants and animals that will be harmed is the threatened Camden White Gum, with approximately 40% of the trees that still survive in the wild inundated by the raised dam.
While improving flood management across the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley should be a priority for the NSW government, ample solutions that not only avoid this wholesale environmental damage – and are also more cost effective – have been ignored.