NCWQ Environment Report: November 2019

By Pat Pepper,NCWQ Environment Adviser

The Problem: Too much water or more often not enough is a perennial problem in Australia. Recently billions of megalitres (ML) of water flooded out to sea while major parts of southern Queensland, NSW, and South Australia remained in extreme drought. Feb 2019 The situation remains dire for some regional areas. Will our extreme climate variability get worse with climate change?

In addition to being a waste, flood water pouring into the sea can cause environmental damage. e.g. Since 2014, many reefs in the northern, central and southern regions of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park have been affected by a range of disturbances, including freshwater flood plumes. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority 2019, Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2019: In Brief, GBRMPA, Townsville.

Regional towns are running out of water with dam levels dangerously low e.g. Current level and volume for Stanthorpe are 17% and 351 megalitres (ML) and, based on latest data and targeted usage, expected to run out in December 2019/January 2020.  The drought is having a devastating effect on vineyards, fruit and vegetable crops in the area.

Drought is a significant issue for the Murray Darling Basin and continues to impact on its environment, industries and communities.

Significant fish deaths associated with low and cease-to- flows and pool stratification occurred in the Menindee lakes and the Lower Darling River below Weir 32 in 2018–19. ‘Commonwealth Environmental Water Portfolio Management Plan: Lower Murray-Darling 2019–20, Commonwealth of Australia, 2019’ Since the Barwon River in the northern Murray-Darling Basin had dried back to poor quality waterholes, threatening native fish, some water was released from Glenlyon Dam on 24 April and Copeton Dam on 2 May 2019.


The effect of the drought is not just an environmental and regional and rural issue.  All Australians who value eating food produced in Australia because of the high standard of food health requirements here, could suffer if producers do not survive.

What can be done:

Bradfield Scheme:  In 1938 Dr John Bradfield, a Queensland born civil engineer and designer of the Sydney Harbour and Story Bridge, devised a visionary scheme aimed at drought proofing a vast area of inland Australia.  A wide variety of crops including rice, cotton, wheat and tree crops would be grown and feed for cattle and sheep produced. Water would be diverted using large pipes, tunnels, pumps and dams from the Tully, the Herbert and the Burdekin Rivers, across the Great Dividing Range into the Flinders and then the Thomson River and eventually into Lake Eyre.

Timbury F.R.V. (1944) The Battle for the Inland The Case for the Bradfield and Idriess  Plans  Appendix Utilizing Queensland’s Coastal Floodwaters in the Central and Western Districts Scheme iurlined by Dr J.J. C. Bradfield. Feb 2019


Criticisms included

  • elevation measurements were taken with a barometer leading to inaccuracies in land heights
  • methodology used to calculate flow estimates

However, since Bradfield’s time GPS readings and decades of accurate stream discharge records are now available.

In a Revised Bradfield’s Scheme – proposed diversion of the Upper Tully, Herbert and  Burdekin Rivers on to the Inland Plains of North and Central Queensland (1981), the above shortcomings were addressed.

A dam at Hell’s Gate was the most important feature of Bradfield’s Scheme. As a critic pointed out Bradfield had the elevation wrong and  water would not flow from the Burdekin at Hell’s Gate Dam Reservoir into the Flinders River. But the same critic proposed the answer to this problem with a diversion dam (1735 feet elevation) at a site on the Burdekin near Lake Lucy some 400 feet higher than the Hell’s Gate site. The Revised Bradfield Scheme” Queensland Northern Peninsula Area Water Resources sub-committee (1981) Dr Eric Heidecker, Roy Stainkey, and Bob Katter Jnr MLA.


While Bradfield’s proposal had water flowing to Lake Eyre where it was claimed that a full Lake Eyre would moderate the air temperature in the region by the absorption of sunlight by the water instead of heat radiation from dry land into the air. Hope et al. concluded  that there is no evidence that large-scale permanent water surfaces in inland Australia would result in widespread climate amelioration. Hope, P; N Nicholls; JL McGregor (2004). “The rainfall response to permanent inland water in Australia” Aust.Met.Mag 53.251-262.   The Revised Scheme did not advocate  the water running into Lake Eyre. The Revised Bradfield Scheme” Queensland Northern Peninsula Area Water Resources sub-committee (1981) Dr Eric Heidecker, Roy Stainkey, and Bob Katter Jnr MLA.

 Permission details CC BY-SA 4.0 view terms

File:Australia River systems Named.svg Created: ‎08‎ ‎April‎ ‎2019


NSW Proposals:  Consideration has been given to turning the headwaters of the Clarence inland via a network of pipes and pumps to feed it into headwaters of the Border rivers system. In addition the possibility of diverting flows from the Manning, Macleay and Hunter rivers inland has been considered . The capital cost of the four projects is estimated to be over $6bn. Concerns about the impact of diverting 7% to 10% of freshwater flows on prawn fisheries at the mouth of the Clarence would need addressing.

Moore-Hielscher Updated Bradfield Scheme: Recently Sir Leo Hielscher and Sir Frank Moore have put forward an updated Bradfield Scheme which would open vast areas of Queensland  to high-value food and fibre production while creating renewable hydroelectric power and saving the Great Barrier Reef from pollution. They claim the concept is financially, socially, environmentally viable and engineering wise feasible. It requires establishing a Queensland Northern Rivers Authority (QNRA) similar to the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority.  Some of the 91500 gigalitres (GL) available in North Eastern Queensland from South Johnstone, Hebert and Tully River would be captured and gravity fed to the Upper Burdekin River. Some tunnels less in length to those in Brisbane would be required. From a dam at Hell’s Gate, water would then be gravity fed to the fertile black-soil country west of Charters Towers to Richmond Downs. In Stage two surplus water from the Thomson River would be fed to the Warrego River which is the start of the Murray-Darling system.


They claim flooding would be mitigated in Innisfail, Tully and Ingham and contaminated water would be stopped from reaching the Great Barrier Reef. The Murray-Darling river system would never run dry, boosting the nation’s food security. The Murray Darling System holds 22700 GL , much less than the  91500  and 130500 gigalitres going into the ocean in NEQ and The Gulf of Carpentaria respectively. Overall cost is estimated to be 15 billion but there would be no capital cost to the Government. As a Statutory Body the QNRA would be empowered to raise its own funding with Government Guarantees.; ; Alan Jones Breakfast Show –Interview with Sir Leo Hielscher Peta Credlin – Interview with Sir Leo Hielscher and Des Houghton

Hell’s Gate Dam in North Queensland : A feasibility study undertaken on a $5.35 billion irrigated agricultural and power project on the upper Burdekin River found the project to be technically and economically feasible, with no major environmental barriers. The project comprises a 2110 GL dam, a pumped hydroelectric scheme of up to 1200 MW, a 20 MW solar farm and 15 MW run-of- river hyrdo facility at the toe of the dam and a pipeline from Hells Gate Dam to Ross River Dam. It would provide long-term water security for the region and supply water to a 50,000 hectare irrigated agriculture scheme and grow export industries.

The current plan for Hell’s Gate has a full supply level of only 372 m Australian Height Datum (AHD), Sir Leo Hielscher is proposing increasing the height of the proposed dam by 100m to 470m AHD, sufficient for the gravitational conveyance of water over the Great Dividing Range.

Would it not be wise to increase the height in the initial build?

Under the Northern Australia Water Resource Assessment program, CSIRO has conducted extensive feasibility studies identifying and evaluating surface and groundwater capture-and-storage options, providing detailed information on land suitability, identifying and testing the commercial viability of agriculture and aquaculture, and assessing potential environmental, social, indigenous and economic impacts and risks. Three catchments were identified

  • in the Fitzroy catchment, water harvesting (water pumped into ringtanks) could potentially support 160,000 ha growing one dry-season crop a year in 85 per cent of years. Independent of surface water, groundwater could potentially support up to 30,000 ha of hay production in all years
  • in the Darwin catchments, a combination of major dams, farm-scale offstream storage and groundwater could potentially support up to 90,000 ha of dry-season horticulture and mango trees
  • in the Mitchell catchment, large instream dams could potentially support 140,000 ha of year-round irrigation. Alternatively, water harvesting could potentially enable up to 200,000 ha, growing one dry-season crop per year. With the expertise needed to conduct these extensive feasibility studies CSIRO should be well placed to investigate the feasibility of an Upgraded Bradfield Scheme to address the need for reliable water for regional communities and industries and the environment with the relevant Government Departments and Authorities.

The National Water Grid has been established by the Federal Government to plan and deliver reliable and cost effective water nationwide by:

  • investigating and establishing large-scale water diversion projects for farmers and regional communities by bringing together leading scientists to harvest and harness water in the most efficient and reliable way
  • developing a Water Grid that will provide the pipeline of all established, current and future water infrastructure projects and to identify any missing links. Would the Moore-Hielscher Updated Bradfield Scheme be a good place to start investigating? Water Security throughout the country and in all sectors is vitally important.  Could the 91500GL flowing into the ocean from NEQ, 130500GL from the  Gulf of Carpentaria and 81200 GL from the Kimberly be better used producing food and fibre, creating renewable hydroelectric power,  relieving and invigorating the outback towns  and preserving the environment, in particular the Great Barrier Reef and the Murray Darling Basin?

Since Bradfield first articulated his vision, variations of the scheme have been championed by politicians of both persuasions and reviews undertaken.  Has the time come for a bipartisan approach to adopting the concept to relieve inland communities and the environment?


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