The New South Wales premier, Dominic Perrottet, has pledged to go it alone and pay for the raising of the Warragamba Dam out of the state budget, if the federal government refuses to split the cost of the controversial plan.
But Perrottet was unable to confirm if key reports required before the $1.6bn proposal can move ahead would be finished ahead of the March 2023 state election.
The proposal to raise the dam wall has been widely criticised by environmentalists and traditional owners. It is expected to feature heavily in the upcoming state election, particularly in Sydney’s western suburbs which have been affected by floods throughout 2022.
On Tuesday, Perrottet declined to give a timeline for when the environmental assessments would be completed, saying that bureaucrats were working on the environmental impact statement and an independent report by WaterNSW.
“My expectation is that this matter is expedited,” he said.
“That’s why we’ve called it critical infrastructure. I don’t want red tape and bureaucracy getting in the way of getting this project achieved.”
Earlier this month Perrottet declared the raising of the dam wall as a critical, significant state infrastructure project, handing final state approval to the planning minister, Anthony Roberts.
The federal government has refused to commit funds to the project, repeatedly stating that the information provided thus far had not been sufficient to make a determination. It will require federal environmental signoff.
Scientific advisers have warned that raising the dam wall could place the Blue Mountains’ world heritage listing and endangered species at risk.
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Asked at the time how inundating parts of the Blue Mountains area – which was this week declared a priority location in the new national threatened species action plan – was consistent with protecting it, the premier said he was putting “people before plants”.
On Tuesday he invoked climate change as a reason to push ahead with the project.
“You can’t put a price on protecting human lives and ultimately this is a project that I would expect the commonwealth government to provide 50/50 funding,” he said.
“In an environment we are living in now, where the climate is changing, we expect more catastrophic events into the future … these are the types of investments that will make a real difference to people’s lives.”
Earlier in the week, the NSW treasurer, Matt Kean, said the project was unviable without federal funding. On Tuesday, his position changed to support the premier, adding that it would be funded in “a financially responsible way”.
The opposition water spokesperson, Rose Jackson, said despite the talk there was no money allocated for the plan in the budget.
“The people of western Sydney and Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley need real answers right now,” she told reporters.
“There’s no funding for the project, there’s no timeline for the project, there’s no timeline for the EIS (environmental impact statement).”
Earlier in the week Kean accused the federal government of favouring Labor states in infrastructure funding, which Perrottet reiterated.
“NSW always seems to do poorly when it comes to federal government investment at budget time,” Perrottet said.
“The reason that occurs … is because the NSW government continues to invest record amounts in infrastructure. Because there’s so much happening … we seem to get penalised at budget time.”