Warragamba Dam: what’s driving the NSW government’s bid to raise the wall?

Premier Dominic Perrottet says his number one priority is protecting people, but others point to political factors

The New South Wales premier, Dominic Perrottet, has announced the raising of the Warragamba Dam wall is now a critical state significant infrastructure (CSSI) project.

With Sydney forecast to receive yet more heavy rain in coming days, Perrottet says “my number one priority as premier is protecting NSW communities”.

“Streamlining” the project, he says, via a special declaration was the best way to do that.

Yet this decision is mostly about politics in western Sydney as the state approaches an election off the back of three consecutive La Niña years.

But before we get to that let’s have a look at the details.

What is proposed?

The government says it wants to raise the Warragamba Dam wall by 14 metres to mitigate flood risk in the Hawkesbury-Nepean region.

Its official documentation talks about raising the storage capacity by 14 metres. The dam’s side walls and roadway, however, would be raised by 17 metres, which would enable the storage to be raised further in future.

This is a long-discussed project with a controversial history. The project’s proponent, Water NSW, submitted its environmental impact assessment in September last year.

In January it was revealed NSW environment officials had told the government large parts of the document needed to be reworked because the analysis failed to properly assess or justify the potential damage caused by inundation of the greater Blue Mountains world heritage area.

Perrottet describes his government’s focus as “people before plants”, but water experts – such as Jamie Pittock from the Australian National University – point out that, on average, 45% of flood waters that reach the valley come from catchments that would not be controlled by the dam.

Pittock, a longtime critic of the project, argues the proposal is driven by a desire to expand residential and commercial development in the flood plain.

“The premier may say he is putting people before plants. I say he is putting developers before people,” he says.

What will the special designation change?

A CSSI is a special designation in NSW that governments can apply when they consider a project essential for the state. According to the legislation, a CSSI declaration limits the ability of communities to seek judicial review of an approval decision and from seeking to enforce the conditions of an approval. It also weakens the ability of state regulators to use all of their enforcement powers.

The former NSW planning minister Rob Stokes refused to give the project critical status just 12 months ago.

Environment groups have been quick to criticise Perrottet’s announcement as a move they say “severely curtails” the public’s ability to scrutinise the project.

“What has changed to make the NSW government take this drastic step? This looks like a cynical manoeuvre to sweep aside community opposition to this monumental act of ecological and cultural vandalism,” says the Nature Conservation Council of NSW’s chief executive, Jacqui Mumford.

“This project has been rejected by countless organisations, ecologists, archaeologists, hydrologists and traditional owners. The only group pushing for this is the developer lobby.”

What the CSSI designation does not change is that – even in the likely event a NSW Coalition government approves the project – it still requires a decision at a federal level under national environmental laws. That decision must consider the likely impact on world heritage values, cultural heritage and threatened species including the critically endangered regent honeyeater.

On Tuesday, the Albanese government named the Blue Mountains as a priority place under its new threatened species action plan.

Why is it politically relevant?

Harry Burkitt of Wilderness Australia says Perrottet’s announcement is an “opportunistic, political wedge” ahead of the March state election in which the government and the opposition are jostling to secure critical western Sydney seats.

“There are three marginal seats down there, two that [Perrottet] needs to retain. That’s what this is really about,” he says.

“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.”

The opposition is sceptical of the dam wall proposal, concerned about its environmental and cultural impact, and does not necessarily believe it will fix the problem the government is trying to solve.

In recent days the opposition leader, Chris Minns, has talked about options such as lowering the dam’s full supply level by 12 metres – a proposal Stuart Khan from the school of civil and environmental engineering at the University of New South Wales has called on governments to consider.

“The premier has done nothing except sign a piece of paper on an unfunded project that might be built in eight years’ time,” Labor’s environment spokesperson, Penny Sharpe, says.

“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.”

Did the flood inquiry mention the dam?

The independent inquiry into the February and March flooding did not recommend the dam be raised and instead made recommendations to stop building on flood plains and arrange buybacks for people already living on them – neither of which have been acted on yet.

With the area threatening to flood again, some are suggesting the announcement may have been rushed to give the government some action to point at, even if final approvals for the wall raising are still a long while off.

The opposition’s water spokesperson, Rose Jackson, says “the poor folks of western Sydney and the Hawkesbury-Nepean deserve so much better”.

Contributors

Lisa Cox and Tamsin Rose

The GuardianTramp

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