An Olympic Dream

The massive expansion of the BHP mine at Olympic Dam in South Australia is splendid economic news for Australia in terms of job creation and export revenue, as is the impending opening of the Galilee Coal Basin in Queensland which has the potential to become Australia’s largest coal field.

Reports on the 24-hour news cycle tell us that BHP has signed an agreement with the South Australian Government to build a water desalinisation plant near Port Augusta, with pipelines to Olympic Dam at an estimated capital cost of four billion dollars and an annual operating and maintenance cost of $200 million. Some of the water will be used also to meet general water needs in South Australia.

This decision shows once again the unfortunate tendency of State Governments to make decisions in isolation without looking at a solution that will create economic and social opportunities across the nation as well.

The development of Olympic Dam is occurring at the same time as the Galilee coal mines are preparing to commence their operations, and are implementing their planned rail and port capacity based on Abbott Point at Bowen. All of the proposed mines face problems of considerable magnitude in finding an adequate water supply which will not decimate the water needs of farming and grazing properties in the region.

The fact is that Olympic Dam and the people of South Australia can have their water needs met totally by channeling surplus water south from tropical rivers in the Gulf Country of Queensland at lesser capital and maintenance costs than a power-consuming desalinisation plant, while the same water channels will flow through the Galilee Basin to provide the requirements of the new mines and also enhance rural industries in the region.

At the same time, in the same way, the water system can save the Murray Darling Basin by connecting into a tributary of the Darling at Tambo in Queensland and sending a nonstop supply of water down to the great farming communities of the Riverina and into the Murray, from where it can serve the water-starved fruit growing area of South Australia around Renmark.

Two added benefits are that it will:

• Keep Lake Eyre permanently filled with water, thus improving the harsh climate of Central Australia, while creating a number of farming and grazing opportunities as water flows towards the lake, such as cotton farming in the Channel Country of Queensland.

• Open a giant food bowl on the blacksoil plains around Longreach in the central west of Queensland, providing additional food security for Australia and creating for us some new export income by providing fruit and vegetables that Asians require.

After reading of BHP’s announcement about Olympic Dam, I gathered together a small team, including water engineer, Terry Bowring, and bush tourism veteran, John Thompson, to look at all of these projects from a national perspective — rather than being influenced by the insular parochial viewpoints of States.

We upgraded a lot of our initial thinking on the potential transfer of tropical water to the south that I have outlined in previous editions of Everald@Large. John Thompson, who knows the bush like the back of his hand, has drawn up a rough ‘mud map’ to give us a general idea of the concept as a work in progress. I am sure that this strategy can be vastly improved when some preliminary engineering work and environmental assessments are done.

Our starting point is based on the Gilbert River Aquifer up in the Gulf Country of Queensland. Its water level is 70 metres below its capacity and it can be used as a storage facility for dry years. A channel will be created from the Gilbert and surrounding rivers to fill the aquifer, plus a holding area from which water will flow down the Clarke River into theBurdekin. From the southern end of the Burdekin Dam, a channel will be built through the Galilee Coal Basin down to the headwaters of the Darling River system at Tambo, from where water will flow to the mouth of the Murray in South Australia without any other canal being required.

From Tambo, the Barcoo also runs within a few kilometers of the planned canal, and its water flows into Cooper Creek and down towards Lake Eyre. Just before its water reaches Lake Eyre, it crosses the Birdsville track. A canal will be built south from there and on to Olympic Dam.

Back in Queensland, an extra canal will be built for a short distance from the Gilbert River Aquifer to the Porcupine River and, further south, another small canal will link it to Landsborough Creek which flows into the Thomson near Longreach, opening up the new food bowl. The same water will flow all the way from there down Cooper Creek to a new cotton growing area in the channel country and on to Lake Eyre.

In future years, when a larger volume of water is needed to meet the requirements of all the envisioned projects, it will be easy to extend the canal north from the Gilbert River to tap into the strong flowing Norman River. Similarly, another canal can be built from the Tully River, down to the Burdekin.

The initial construction cost will be around four billion dollars, the same cost as envisaged for the desalinisation plant currently planned for the Olympic Dam — but this expenditure has the extra benefit of opening up northern and central Australia for significant economic development.

BHP would pay for the 300 kilometre canal running down the Birdsville track, plus their share of the cost of the northern canals — about two billion dollars all up, I reckon. The Galilee mines and rural users in the north and centre will pay their share as well, while operating and maintenance costs would be similarly allocated.

Storage facilities will be required progressively, but there are some real possibilities such as the Goonaghooheeny Billabong near Cooper Creek; it is 200 kilometres long — some billabong. Large storage areas will be needed in the Galilee Basin and the Longreach Food Bowl, but there are potential sites that can be investigated. Similarly, a large storage will be created near Tambo from which some water will go south to the Murray and some south-west to Olympic Dam.

All of this can be made part of a national flood mitigation program which is long overdue. Indeed, the whole project has genuine tourism potential as well.

This is an Olympic dream for Australia embracing far more than a water solution for Olympic Dam, the Galilee mines and Inland Australia generally. When Bradfield drew-up his grand water plan three quarters of a century ago, it was rejected as being uneconomic by the usual ‘negative nellies’ who abound in every generation.

At that point, Australia had half the population that it has now, and Bradfield envisaged only a growth in agriculture, not mining. Nor did Australia have food security issues or a starving world crying out for regular food supplies. We didn’t have much technology either.

More importantly, we now have the environmental science that will ensure that the good earth of our continent in enhanced, not destroyed. It simply needs the constructive and responsible ingenuity of humankind to recreate the old continent. A few thousand years ago, our inland rivers ran mightily. We can get them to run again in the way that nature always intended, while taking into account the environmental impact of twenty million people who were not around in ancient times, and turning this factor into an asset. A clear possibility is that these waterways can become the permanent scene of thousands of trees and an abundance of wildlife.

A dream of such Olympic proportions really can become a reality — and quickly. It will fire the imagination of a nation which is currently depressed by the inane debates on trivia that flow from our parliaments, and are magnified by a headline hungry media.