The New South Wales premier, Dominic Perrottet, has declared he will put “people before plants” as he announced the Warragamba Dam will be raised 14 metres, despite the project not having environmental approval or funding.
Speaking at the western Sydney catchment on Wednesday, Perrottet announced the dam wall raising had been declared a critical state significant infrastructure project, handing final state approval to the planning minister, Anthony Roberts.
As NSW again faces the threat of widespread flooding, with a month’s worth of rain predicted to batter saturated catchments in the coming days, the premier said raising the dam wall would save lives, save properties and help future-proof western Sydney from flood risks.
“My number one priority as premier is protecting NSW communities and we know from the independent flood inquiry that the best way to protect communities downstream is to raise the wall,” he said.
Scientific advisers had warned that raising the dam wall could place the Blue Mountains’ world heritage listing and species such as the critically endangered regent honeyeater at risk.
Asked how inundating parts of the Blue Mountains area – that was this week declared a priority place in the new national threatened species action plan – was consistent with protecting it, the premier said he was putting “people before plants”.
“Saving lives, protecting property is the most important thing we can do,” he said.
“Environmental concerns, they get taken on board by the federal government. What we’re not going to have is that part of the process standing in the way of raising this wall.”
He said by deeming the wall raising a critical project, environmental and planning processes would be “streamlined to get to the point where this project is approved as quickly as possible”.
Water NSW will finish a report on the project before it is referred to the state’s Department of Planning and Environment and then it will go to the federal government.
“And then bang, we’re done. We start the work,” Perrottet said.
When pushed on why modelling used to justify the decision included about 7,000 additional homes by 2041 that had the potential to flood in a “one in 100 chance per year” event, the premier said that development needed to be done in the right place and there should be “no development on the flood plain”.
“What we need to do is tailor our approaches in relation to flood mitigation for the communities,” he said.
“We need to develop not just in western Sydney, but right across NSW. There’s not one place in NSW that is not at risk of flooding, not one. We also need to build homes … it’s a balancing act.”
The decision to declare the project critical state significant infrastructure drew swift reaction from environment groups, the state Labor opposition and the crossbench.
Harry Burkitt, of Wilderness Australia, said the move was an “opportunistic, political wedge”.
“There are three marginal seats down there, two that (Perrottet) needs to retain. That’s what this is really about,” he said.
“We still have no funding for evacuation routes, no action taken on development in the flood plain, and we’ve seen no action on adaptively managing the existing dam for flood mitigation purposes.”
Penny Sharpe, the opposition environment spokesperson, said the announcement did nothing to assist communities in the Hawkesbury Nepean region who had flooded multiple times in the past two years and were facing more flood risk this week.
“Today the premier has done nothing except sign a piece of paper on an unfunded project that might be built in eight years’ time,” she said. “As the next flooding is on its way there is no plan for immediate flood mitigation, the dam is full and communities are just going to have to deal with it as best they can.”
Sharpe said the premier’s comments about the world heritage area were also “breathtakingly ignorant”.
“The premier said today he cares more about people than plants – with this breathtakingly ignorant comment he commits his government to erasing unique Aboriginal cultural heritage and ignoring traditional owners who are required to be consulted about proposed destruction,” she said.
“He endangers the world heritage listing of the Blue Mountains National Park and the millions of tourism dollars and jobs that go with that as well as shredding any notion that his government cares about threatened species.”
The water minister, Kevin Anderson, said the plan would protect the people of western Sydney.
“The only way is up,” he said. “Build that wall. Get it up by 14 metres and that’s what we plan to do.”
Roberts said the critical infrastructure declaration would not affect the rigorous assessment and stakeholder scrutiny the proposal would need to go through.
“The proposal has already been subject to an 82-day public exhibition, which gave stakeholders a chance to provide their feedback,” he said.
The government released modelling overnight which suggested for a one-in-100-year flood in 2041, raising the dam wall could protect 8,600 people from flooding.
Only 1,700 people would not be able to evacuate under “committed development” with the dam wall at its current size, with a further 6,900 people at risk under “potential development”. This includes development announced where land has not yet been rezoned.