Coalition anger as dam water flows out to sea in drought-hit Queensland

Decision taken to reduce Paradise dam to 42% capacity amid concerns over its structural integrity in the event of a flood

Four hundred million litres of fresh water is flowing out to sea from storage in drought-afflicted Queensland every day, sparking a fresh rift between Coalition MPs and the state’s Labor government.

As the federal government considers a fresh round of drought measures to respond to the record dry spell, the Queensland government has angered federal MPs by releasing more than 100,000 megalitres of water from the Paradise dam over a 10-week period.

The controversial decision was taken to reduce the dam to 42% capacity because of concerns over its structural integrity in the event of a flood.

But after reaching “full supply capacity” of the water storage system on Monday, the operator of the government-owned dam, Sunwater, has begun releasing 400 megalitres of freshwater out to sea each day from a barrage near Bundaberg.

The dramatic reduction in water levels has raised concerns not only for the impact on water security in the drought-affected region, but also on wildlife, including platypus, turtles and mulloway.

In response, the Nationals MPs Keith Pitt and Ken O’Dowd have written to the state natural resources minister, Anthony Lynham, to call for a “fully transparent and public” explanation for the work, and a call to delay any permanent changes to the dam’s capacity.

“We, the undersigned, are devastated to see 400 megalitres of precious water flowing from Paradise Dam over the Ben Anderson Barrage and out to sea each day, when we are experiencing one of the most serious droughts in decades,” the letter, co-signed with state LNP MPs, says.

“Our communities deserve to know the full details and the full extent of the safety concerns, how the issue will be fixed, whether the dam will ever be returned to full capacity or what other options you have to ensure our region’s water security.”

A spokesman for Sunwater said water was being released “to allow for essential works to improve the dam’s stability during extreme rain events”.

“The decision to release water during a time of drought was not taken lightly and was made to allow for better community safety,” the spokesman said.

Of the 1,730 megalitres currently being released each day from Paradise Dam, 1,330 megalitres is being utilised across the Bundaberg WaterSupply Scheme, with farmers connected to the network able to access the water. The remaining 400 megalitres is being released to sea, but the operator said the amount may change depending on in-flows and customer demand for water.

While there has been promotion for the “free water” on offer before the water reaches the final barrage, not all farmers are able to tap into the irrigation network, or need the water immediately.

“Sunwater is working with the community to investigate all options to maximise the water being released from Paradise Dam,” the spokesman said.

The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, has said the reduction in capacity will allow work to lower the dam wall by five metres, saying it was “fundamentally a safety issue and it is a paramount safety issue”.

But the state government has not released a report into the structural problems of the dam, which was opened in 2006 and cost $240m, saying it is commercial in confidence.

The issue is likely to further heighten tensions between the federal government and the state over the drought response, with the Coalition pointing the finger at the states for not building new dams.

Last month the drought minister, David Littleproud, said the states had to be dragged “kicking and screaming” to build dams.

“The states have been responsible for urban water since federation and should be taking the lead,” Littleproud said.

“They’re just not keeping up with their growing populations.”

But the Queensland government has returned fire, calling the federal government’s signature drought future fund a “slap in the face” for the state’s farmers.

The Coalition is also under pressure from farming groups and Labor to do more, as it fends off criticism about its national drought policy.

On Tuesday the shadow agriculture minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, accused the government of “drought policy chaos” after Littleproud appeared to contradict Morrison over the government’s farm household allowance changes.

“It’s past-time we had a national drought policy and put an end to the chaotic, piecemeal and ad hoc approach we’ve had from the Morrison Government,” Fitzgibbon said.

Littleproud had suggested no one would be cut off the farm household payment after the four-year limit was reached.

“I’m prepared to make it quite clear, right here tonight, that this government will not be taking those off those supplementary payments,” he told the ABC on Monday.

A spokesman for Littleproud clarified that he was referring to lump sum payments that could be continued if needed.


Sarah Martin Chief political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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