Curtain Call sat down with leader of the Bradfield Party, Matthew Spurgeon, to talk about the possibility of a major water relocation project in Australia.
The following are some excerpts from the interview.
Alexandra: So, you are very much a ‘one issue’ party?
Matthew: If you follow us on Twitter you will see that we delve into a few things. We point out the hypocrisy of the Greens, who have been our biggest detractors without a shadow of a doubt. All of our negative sentiment on Twitter comes via Greens and Greens supporters. That said, we are not totally against everything they stand for by any stretch of the imagination, but we really do need to wake up to the fact that Australia needs an increase in water security and this (the Bradfield Scheme) is the process of doing it. This is the first of the great inland projects for our rivers and we are only taking 5% so we are hardly up for the criticism that has been leveled. We are one party – water security.
A: Curtain Call is all about the stars of the Culture Wars and the Bradfield Party has certainly found itself caught up in one part of the ideological conflict in Australia – that is the one raging between environmental movements and the agricultural community. How much of what you deal with is purely politics and how much is genuine debate?
M: The negativity would be 90% purely politics. The Green movement has come out in the last 24 hours supporting the mouse plague. What is that? It is nonsensical.
A: There is a purely ideological culture that is holding up infrastructure progress in general in Australia. I know that the LNP and other MPs say that they are going to support the Bradfield Scheme, but when push comes to shove they don’t because they live in fear of losing their inner city seats. They won’t support even the building of basic rural dams. Do you have a frustration with parties that change their minds after an election?
M: Absolutely. You see the government spending billions of dollars in drought relief – after the drought. Well, you can spend that now. If history tells us anything it is that there is going to be 10 years before the next major drought. But they are doing nothing to ease the next drought. All they are doing is waiting for it to happen, then they’re going to go out and throw dollars at drought relief. There just seems to be no action beforehand. It’s coming after the event. Even in the latest Queensland election there was maybe 10 minutes of talk about the Bradfield Scheme and that’s gone. Both parties were talking about it, but we haven’t heard anything since.
A: Onto the Bradfield Scheme. We are going to walk through this carefully because it is project that deserves to have a fair hearing. The Bradfield Scheme is a major water relocation project devised by the Queensland-born civil engineer Dr John Bradfield in 1938. He is also known as the bloke who designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the purpose was to both irrigate and drought proof large areas of Australia, particularly in Queensland. It was a response to everyone’s eternal annoyance at the fact that we get way too much rain at one time and then no rain at all in another. A whole heck-load of water falls in North Queensland – what then – according to the Bradfield Scheme?
M: We would be taking water and building a small weir at 350m above sea level mark on the Upper Burdekin. 45,000GL runs through there in the 3 month period year after year after year. We’ve got the data going back 60 years. We would simply divert 5% of that water along a gravity-fed channel system around about 150km south, which would be on the seaward side of the Great Dividing Range. It comes down to a low point and gravity takes the water in the same channel over the Great Dividing Range and on into Queensland. The major difference between the original Bradfield Scheme and this scheme is that we have got the advantage of technology that wasn’t available to John Bradfield. Satellites have developed a surface route that is 100% gravity fed – no ongoing costs – and we take the water via channel. It is quite a circuitous route because we are chasing levels the whole way. The key is that there is no pumping. We take a 1,300km channel and we will deposit that water at St George in Queensland where it joins the Barwon. It would then continue all the way down to near Murray Bridge, down in Adelaide.
A: Correct me if I’m wrong, but much of the modern Bradfield Scheme is very different to the original plans laid out by Bradfield and a lot of the criticism for the Bradfield Scheme actually relates to the original project, rather than the modern vision. Bradfield was thinking about changing the local climate by having open water spaces in Queensland which is of course, no longer part of the project. Which myths persist amongst your critics that you would like to dispel?
M: The cost of pumping water keeps coming up and we get sick of it. They (our critics) are responding to our pinned Tweet which clearly states that it is 100% gravity fed – there is no cost to pumping water. That’s number one. The original scheme was filling Lake Eyre permanently and letting evaporation do the transportation of water to a large extent. We do not enter the Lake Eyre basin. When we talk about water evaporating out of Lake Eyre and increasing the rainfall on the western side of the Great Dividing Range – that’s a fact, but it can be lost in translation and it’s open for some debate, like most scientific endeavours are. You talk to any of the old farmers around here on the Victorian highlands where I live, they all say that when Lake Eyre fills, we get more rain. It’s just what happens. The water evaporates into the atmosphere, comes across, when it hits the cooler areas – the higher mountains – it increases rainfall. That was the way that John Bradfield was going to irrigate New South Wales and Victoria. We are not involved in that. We are putting the water into a channel and it runs down.
A: How far fetched is this vision of the Bradfield Scheme or is it pretty much in line with your international peers?
M: As far as international water projects go, this is just a baby project. This is nothing. It took the Indians 3 years to build an irrigation project which is around about 100 times the amount of water that we’re talking about. Of course, they have populations that they have to feed that puts what we’re doing into the shade. Pakistan has an irrigation project – Sri Lankans 2,500 years ago built one of the greatest and most enduring irrigation schemes imaginable which is still going. So many people don’t release that at one stage 2,500 years ago, Sri Lanka had large tracts of arid land that only had rain every now and then. It is now irrigated through their tank system which is completely integrated with nature. We get quite frustrated that an irrigation project from 2,000 years ago is seen as the height of human development yet when we propose an irrigation scheme which is less water, simpler … it is met with complete and utter derision by environmental types.
A: It’s nothing compared to China’s South-to-North water project which is the largest water transfer project on the planet in three sections. They are diverting the major rivers of Asia and trying to push them up over the Himalayas, so what you are suggesting is nowhere even close to what China has been up to. My question is, is Australia capable of building this project, because if not, it’s a moot point…
M: The engineering side of this project is easily the simplest part. We could have built this 2,000 years ago. The Romans would have built it. That’s not even up for debate. The Chinese built the Grand Canal over 2,000 years ago and this is a project that is no more difficult than that – and we won’t be using slave labour…
A: Say we do built it. Upon completion, would it really drought proof the region? Because water transfer projects work in China because you are continuously diverting a percentage of the major rivers to other areas where the flood waters are a bonus quantity. I am guessing the Bradfield Scheme is a similar idea? Is it only floodwater or a continuous percentage? The other point which you might want to correct me on is that we have a lot of water falling in a short period of time which creates a capacity problem when it comes to capturing it – which is a problem for all mass water storage facilities. How are you planning on storing and distributing over a 10 year drought?
M: We will be capturing 5% of the water for 3 months of the year only which is the diversion goal, and equals 4 Sydney Harbours a year coming out of the Upper Burdekin. The CSIRO recently discovered 8 Sydney Harbours worth of underground aquifers in the Bourke region which we can use to put the water. The water gets stored underground for when it’s needed so there is zero evaporation. The storage is there for 8 years that can be pumped to the surface during a drought as well as continually putting water out so the Darling will never run dry again. In a bad year it’ll be a 33% increase in water for the region.
A: What happens if the Burdekin region is low in water for that year? What do you do if Queensland is in drought and you are unable to take water?
M: We would rely on the underground storage in Bourke.
A: So it is a set capacity that you would have to allocate?
M: Yes. It’s not unlimited water. And there will be years when we take no water because you can’t be taking water every year if there is a drought in North Queensland which very rarely happens on the coast in Townsville.
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A: It is important to clarify because water projects around the world are all different. Some of them are permanent allocations and others are not. What is the risk that if you manage to capture all this water and store it and distribute it that it will simply be bought by agricultural communities downstream for water-hungry crops which will lead to an increase in the farming industry, which will then increase the demand for water above the capacity of the project – or what do we do if environmental groups start demanding environmental flows which takes water away from your capacity? Is that a concern that has to be built into legislation to protect the water storage facility?
M: There is no doubt in Australia that the Murray Darling Basin Authority is not working. It is ridiculous what’s happening to our irrigators. The first thing is complete transparency with all water trading with a new model on water usage and water flows. Our initial proposal was ‘let’s put more water in and let the current management decide what to do with it’ that was our going in point. The more we’ve spoken to community groups it has become blatantly obvious that the Murray Darling Basin Authority has to be thrown out and started again. The whole premise has to be fixed. Same with the Commonwealth Environmental Water holder. They have lost the plot. It is so much so with this green ideology that is sweeping bureaucracy – it really is impeding everybody’s progress.
A: With green ideology, they don’t want you to build a water resource but once you have a water resource, they want to use it entirely – despite the fact that they tried to stop you from building it in the first place.
A: I’m not going to squabble about the cost because everything costs money and infrastructure projects are often costly regardless, so let’s just pretend it costs money and move on from there. Let’s talk about some genuine criticism. Do you have concerns about interstate politics because this project will obviously cross state lines. The states not only have a bad track record dealing with water infrastructure inside their own states, but we have the change of governments, we have governments led around by press opinion… What’s your worry regarding how the states will handle this project?
M: Of course there will be a lot of resentment from Queensland, because the water is sourced from Queensland and running through Queensland. There is always the risk that some lunatics in the Queensland government – and they have a few of them – will turn the water off. It needs to be a Federal project without a shadow of a doubt. One person has to be responsible, not 4 different water ministers. The whole Murray Darling Basin needs to be re-negotiated. We have a lot of doubts that the states can’t manage water across boundaries. Some of the things that have been done are plain ridiculous. Down in Victoria you’ve got the Barmah Choke. The Victorian government approved an almond plantation in the wrong spot. There is so much land up there along the Murray that an almond plantation could have gone in – it should have gone upstream at the Barmah Choke. Instead, they are destroying a forest of national significance to deliver water to an almond plantation. The reason that the Victorian government won’t fix water ownership is that the largest owner of water in Victoria is VicSuper – the government employee superannuation fund. They are the largest owner of water in all of Victoria…
A: Unfortunately water has become heavily politicised. We do not want to end up like Asia where you’ve got China playing water politics with its neighbours. We could have a state version of that where Queensland might to decide to cut off New South Wales and Victoria in the times that they really need it, so we have to be careful about how much control the states have over a plan that is meant to drought proof other states.
M: We all know that China is capable of doing anything and there will be times in the not too distant future where they will simply – there are 11 dams on the Mekong River – they will turn the water off. They will put their Southern neighbours into a permanent man-made drought at the drop of a hat. There will be 50 million – or more – legitimate refugees on our doorstop because of China blocking water.
A: What about the social issues. You have existing private property, farmland, and indigenous sites which any kind of major water transfer project would have to traverse. Has there been any work done by the Bradfield Party on just how big this problem might be or is it not a problem at all due to the regions you are working in?
M: What we would do is pay for the land. We are going to be going through private property and that is reasonably easy to do, it simply a matter of offering free water. It is a business decisions. Where we go through Aboriginal lands, that will be far more difficult to manage because it is not monetarily based. That said, at every 5km or 10km along the channel, we have man made water holes. It will be a wildlife refuge. We don’t want wildlife in the channel so we will take water out of the channel for water holes the entire length of the channel. We assume that would be beneficial for indigenous culture with high populations of animals and drought proofing for animals and for people as well. The negotiations are more difficult than building it.
A: What about the maintenance and upkeep? You’ve got in the region of 2,000km of pipeline which is concrete. Then you’ve got the concrete weirs. That all has a lifespan of roughly 100 years which at the pace our states work, they’ll be crumbling just as the last parts are completed… What are your concerns there?
M: For sure it will be cost effective. With the 3 month of the year water take, there will be periods where the water level in the channel will either be very low or not there which makes it easier for maintenance. There is potential for hydro along the route (those reading can Google ‘turbulent water system’) there is low flow, low pressure hydro which can be incorporated which gives us something else to sell. In India and America they are putting solar farms on top of the channel.
A: Let’s not go down that path. That sounds like a nightmare. Talk about maintenance – the solar panels will be your maintenance problem. One of the big problems that I sympathise with and have observed in other countries that have done similar water projects is the effect of the reduction of flood on local fisheries. So we have the Great Barrier Reef Lagoon that some people have raised concerns about? Disrupting water flow from big rivers does have repercussions on fish nurseries. What do you say to those criticisms?
M: We are certainly not a flood mitigation program because taking 5% of the water in that period is not going to stop floods. Unfortunately we are not going to stop houses getting flooded in the Burdekin Valley and in Townsville because we are not taking that much water. We will reduce the high level by very small amounts. There should be some reductions in the amount of water rushing over commercial farmland. When it does that, it is picking up chemicals and fertilisers that are not normally in the Australian environment and taking those on its way to the sea. When there are huge floods in Townsville, there are a lot of containments that go into the Great Barrier Reef that are not natural. We will reduce that but we are not stopping flooding.
A: There are really two questions that matter. The first is whether or not it is technically possible – which everyone agrees that it is. The second is whether or not it is the best solution to the problem of water in Australia. Technologies have changed a lot since Bradfield drew up his scheme and that is why it has been altered. We always have to be careful that we are not pursuing a romantic engineering vision for the sake of it rather than coming up with our own solutions. So, I will put this to you, are there are other solutions that you considered like the desalination plants which we see in the Middle East which support massive agricultural industries and are scalable. It wouldn’t matter if you had a 20 year drought in Queensland – you’d still have water. I know that desalination gets a bad reputation in Australia, but that is because we have been using it to top up dams and it is not on all the time – in other words, it is not a proper desalination system.
M: Desalination is excruciatingly expense. We have water. The one thing which the Middle East doesn’t have is water. We have an abundance of water in Northern Australia. Bob Katter mentioned the other day that if Townsville-up was its own country it would be the third wettest country in the world. We have a lot of water. We can deliver water at a small fraction of the cost that a desalination plant runs at. Adelaide, the driest capital city, even in the drought the government had to pay them to turn on their desalination plant because Adelaide takes its water from the Murray Darling.
A: To be fair, Australia’s desalination plants are terribly managed by all the state governments.
M: On a dollar per litre, it’s a small fraction of the cost. And it also brings vitality and life to inland Australia. These areas have been the backbone of Australia. Yes, you’re right, that is romanticising it, but we can also change the population density of some of the cities. We don’t want to end up like some of the Asian and American cities – we need to have a good population spread across the country and that’s what the Bradfield Scheme offers.
A: Your project offers water access across the whole back of the Queensland arm. You are offering water to a larger amount of land and also for environmental purposes – which is very admirable.
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Alexandra Marshall (@ellymelly on social media) is the host of "Curtain Call", a Good Sauce show exploring the leading personalities in the culture war. She writes on liberty, philosophy and geopolitics. You can find her on Twitter or read her articles over at her blog.
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