The Fight for Wild Rivers

This year an April Fools' Day joke pitched a waterfront resort as the latest Blue Mountains attraction — 'Lake Jamison Resort' as it would be known — providing not only tourism and employment opportunities but a lakefront vista for the new residential development: an exclusive gated community atop Mount Solitary.

It all sounds a little silly, but it's a timely gag as discussions heat up over a state government proposal to raise the Warragamba Dam wall. 

Raising the dam will flood 65 kilometres of wild rivers and 4,700 hectares of National Parks.
— Wild Rivers campaign
 Lake Burragorang, a man-made reservoir and part of Sydney's water catchment.

Lake Burragorang, a man-made reservoir and part of Sydney's water catchment.

For around the last 60 years Warragamba Dam has supplied drinking water to the residents of Sydney.

It was created by damming the Warragamba River and flooding the Burragorang Valley to create what is now known as Lake Burragorang (and this is where the 'Lake Jamison' joke hits close to the bone). When Burragorang Valley became Lake Burragorang, the residents were evacuated to make way as the valley — the traditional land of the Gundungurra people — was forever changed.

The video below tells the story of some of the people who once called the valley home. ABC Open says the former Burragorang Valley residents shared their story in this video to help us "appreciate that the secure supply of water to a huge and expanding metropolis like Sydney has a significant impact - on the environment, and on people." 

Urban planning is rife with challenges about how best to strike a balance that serves people, the environment, and is as sensible and future-proof as we can in good faith decipher. As the population of our cities grow, our demands on the land and environment do too.

The current proposal to raise the Warragamba Dam wall is said to be about reducing and managing flood risk, according to WaterNSW

But raising the dam wall comes with its own risks, including to the environment, and to Aboriginal sites. If the Warragamba Dam wall were to be raised, it would result in further erasure of the cultural heritage of the Gundungurra people who face losing more than 50 significant sites, including rock art and burial sites. 

 Lake Burragorang was once Burragorang valley.

Lake Burragorang was once Burragorang valley.

There's a growing number of people who say the government's proposal would not achieve its goal of flood mitigation, arguing there are more suitable alternatives.

The Save the Blue Mountains Wild Rivers campaign says raising the dam wall is an an 'improper solution' and would encourage the development of new residential estates on nearby floodplain areas.

The campaign is also concerned about the environmental risks that come with raising the dam wall, and the potential threats to water quality. 

Water Supply for Growing Cities

We have increasingly diversified options when it comes to managing flood risks and providing reliable water supply for our growing cities, according to Stuart Khan, Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of NSW.

Professor Khan, speaking a recent forum convened in Springwood to discuss the proposal to raise the Warragamba Dam wall, noted the flood risk seeking to be addressed is 'very real', as is the prospect of growing demands on Sydney's drinking water supply in the years to come — but, he said, we are not faced with "an A or B choice, there are many ways we could come at this."

"I would start from the position of assuming that Sydney's population is going to grow. We're talking about doubling the population of the Sydney Basin over the next 50 years — another 5 million people — probably some of those people are going to be living in places that are prone to floods.

"What we need to start doing is thinking about how much reliance we put on our drinking water supply, or how much reliance we put on Warragamba Dam and the other southern dams for our drinking water supply, and can we afford to start reducing that reliance. I'd argue that not only can we, but from a drinking water supply perspective, which is what I work in, there are real drivers to do that beyond the question that we are currently looking at.

"Cities around the world are looking at diversifying their water supply systems, and they're doing that in the face of climate change," said Professor Khan. "Cities are really starting to focus on how they're going to deal with extreme events. Water supply incidents, even terrorist events, situations where things go wrong: floods, droughts ... and the way that they're addressing it is by diversifying their water supply systems."

We have opportunities for diversification of Sydney's water supply, said Professor Khan.

"You could think of a system for Sydney where you might have a third of your supply coming from the dams, a third could come from potable reuse — drinking recycled water, which is absolutely realistic — and a third coming from sea water desalination, which the plant is already currently constructed to be able to increase the capacity, which could supply 30 percent of Sydney's current needs.

"Yes, we're going to grow, so those thirds are going grow in relative terms, but the potential is there to do it. And if you do that ... you reduce the reliance on Warragamba Dam, which means you can reduce the full supply level of Warragamba Dam — so that half of what is in there is drinking water supply, and the other half is open space to catch the floods when they come down," he said.

"I'm not saying this is precisely the solution, but these are the sorts of things that we will be looking at, they're the things that water planners across Sydney and across Australia are already looking at, because we know that our water supply systems in 30, 40, 50 years are actually going to look very different to our water supply systems today."

In Defence of Nature

Each objection to raising the dam wall — that it won't adequately mitigate flood risk, that there's other options for flood mitigation and water supply resilience, and that there'd be devastating environmental and cultural heritage consequences — is in and of itself reason to reconsider the proposal.

And that's before coming to an argument put forth by long-time environmentalist and former leader of The Greens Bob Brown. To fight for nature because it is wild, remote, and a provider of unparalleled beauty is often dismissed as folly and rendered unimportant in the planning processes devised by governments considering proposals such as the raising of a dam wall.

We have alternatives to destroying more wilderness ... and if we can’t draw the line at National Parks and World Heritage Areas, where on earth do we draw it?
— Bob Brown

At the recent forum in Springwood, the final question from the audience came from a young bushwalker who asked how we are to value nature when we are dealing with government planning processes to defend an environment at risk from a project such as this. Brown had this to say:

"If it’s priceless, it’s worthless… in these analysis. So if you’re trying to assess beauty, which is priceless, it’s worthless. If you’re trying to assess wildness, which is priceless, it’s worthless.

"If you’re trying to assess the uplift of the human soul and the inspiration you can get … in abundance in the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, that is devalued to nothing in the analyses that are done in our world today.

"And just one of the reasons why on all cost-benefit analysis ... they are distorted, to leave out the human soul, which is going to need so much more such places as the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and its wild rivers like the Kowmung into the future on an evermore crowded and soulless planet. And that’s where our grandchildren do come into this, and their grandchildren.

"As Jimi Hendrix said, when it gets down to it, the point of being alive is to leave the world better for the people who come after us. And yet, the things he was talking about as a musician are devalued to nothing in these cost-benefit analysis. But that’s where we as a public have to say we won’t accept that.

Beauty is important to us, wildness is, remoteness is, Indigenous heritage is. Rare and endangered species are, and plentiful species are as well. And beautiful scenes are important to our lives.
— Bob Brown

Brown continued, "There is no laboratory, there is no tech centre, there is no IT guru who can recreate the magnificence of a World Heritage Area if it is destroyed or marred.

"Now it’s very fine question that you ask — it’s one that’s going to be at the centre of the debate about this very project. And those of us who feel that we won’t allow that human soul relationship with the planet to be devalued to nothing in the making of this decision have to get active about it and that’s why we are meeting here tonight."

Learn more and get involved in the campaign to protect the wild rivers of the Blue Mountains here.