Dam-nation at Traveston. Queensland, Australia.

In our spare bedroom at home I have a poster on the wall that is titled: Everything I needed to know about life I learned from Mr Spock. It lists a series of succinct Vulcan bon mots to live by. For me, the most resonant maxim is “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.

Recently I visited the site for the proposed Traveston Dam as part of a tour of dams in the SE Queensland region. Of the six dams we visited, Traveston was an anomaly in that it was not yet built, but was merely a proposed dam site.

One of the major issues facing Australia is the security of water supplies into the future as we face global warming and climate change. This has been brought forward as a priority because of several recent years of drought and many of the dams in Queensland are at record low capacities. You know things are bad when engineers are almost ecstatically happy when a dam is only 40% full, because up until recently, some have been as low as 16%. The proposed dam at Traveston Crossing will help manage the flow of the Mary River to mitigate flooding and to supply water to the larger urban areas to the south.

About half an hour before we reached the proposed dam site at Traveston Crossing, we were shown a slickly produced video (it sounded suspiciously like propaganda) that addressed environmental and community concerns. The video also made a point of informing us that a panel of seventeen eminent engineers and three engineering professors were involved in the selection of the dam location and design. Interestingly, of the 1.6 billion dollars allocated for the construction of the dam, two-thirds of that money has been earmarked for peripheral projects including forestry plantation as a carbon offset; upgrading local roads and fire-fighting facilities; provision of sporting facilities for local clubs and 32 million dollars for a freshwater fish and turtle study centre associated with the University of Queensland.

Looks like everybody has their snout in the trough.

One thing I noticed with the video is they kept on referring to the water usage on the Murray River, located about 1000km away. It seemed to me that they were comparing apples with oranges as the Murray has been dammed for 100 years, with 70% of its water removed from the system by irrigators. According to the video, the Mary River was only going to have 10% of its water diverted, and I couldn’t see why they continually referred to the Murray as it seemed to be such a different case.

Another issue addressed by the video was the compensation packages to local landholders, which to me as an outsider with no vested interest in the area sounded like an exceptionally generous offer. Apparently 65% of the people affected by the dam have already taken up the government’s offer to buy their land and then lease it back from the authorities at a peppercorn rent for the next three years. After that, they would be charged rents at 25% of the going commercial rate until the property is inundated.

This government offer sounded to me like an excellent opportunity for the savvy operator to purchase another property while working their original property until it is no longer viable and it seemed to me to be a fair proposition. I thought the whole video presented the government as being not only concerned but also very understanding and generous towards the people it was about to dispossess.

It seems I was not alone, as there were sympathetic murmurings among the engineers on the bus, saying ‘it was the only right thing to do anyway’. As an outsider, I was pleasantly surprised by how thoughtful, considerate and magnanimous everybody involved seemed to be. Not at all what I would have expected, and it made me feel proud that I live in a country with such decent attitudes.

So it came as quite a surprise as we turned off the main highway towards the proposed dam site, that a ute (pickup truck) with a “NO DAM” sign on its back window pulled out in front of our coach to reduce our progress up the road to a walking pace.

The ute was one of those large-engined, high-powered vehicles owned by testosterone-fuelled meathead types, so it occurred to me that his concerns probably weren’t environmental.

As we turned into the proposed dam site area we were met by local landowner protestors carrying placards printed with “NO DAM”, “DON’T MURRAY THE MARY” and “THE TIME IS NIGH FOR BLIGH” (the Queensland premier).

On the bus with the dark forces

As we passed the protesters, one of them ran forward to hit the bus. This futile and impotent rap on the side of the bus elicited rolled eyes and stifled snorts from the engineers on board. There were security guards at the gate that did not let the protesters through with the bus and we were taken to where the dam wall is to be located for a talk and refreshments. As we got off the bus, I turned and asked one of the engineers who was nearby: ‘why are the protesters comparing the Mary with the Murray?’ ‘Because people like that don’t take the time to read all the reports and don’t understand the facts involved.’

During the presentation of the proposed dam’s layout and specifications, a media helicopter circled overhead. All of a sudden I had the sensation that I was in the camp of dark forces and that somehow I was involved in something that was wrong. Or at least that’s how I thought it would be perceived by somebody who was on the outside, looking in.

During our lunch, I spoke to various engineers about the protestors, and every single one of them said that people have a right to express their displeasure at projects that they didn’t agree with and that it was entirely understandable that some people would never be happy about leaving their homes; no matter what the compensation package was.

I also found it interesting when talking to different engineers, how varied their opinions were about what was the best dam design for the area. When I pointed out the variance of their opinions, they just laughed and said “you’ll never get 100% agreement on these issues; the only way you’ll ever get agreement is to take the interested parties, lock them in a room and don’t allow them to leave until they’ve come to a consensus”. Now I know why the video made a point of alluding to the eminent engineers and professors; because they know that whatever they put forward will get questioned, and that shattered the illusion I had that engineers deal in concrete facts and absolutes.

After our short stop, we returned to the coach and were taken via a side road to avoid the protesters to see the next dam on our schedule. Borumba Dam was of interest to the tour group due to recent upgrade works to raise the dam wall height as well as repairs that had been performed on the spillway and plunge pool after some particularly heavy rains several years ago. Our coach was taken into a roped-off area guarded by security personnel (this had not happened before at the other dams) and the police were also in attendance. As we exited the bus we were led over to a covered area to hear another presentation by the project engineer responsible for the upgrade works. As we sat listening to his talk, the protesters from the previous site visit turned up. There were about twelve or fifteen of them and they waved their placards in our direction, trying to attract our attention. One large sign even said ‘feel free to talk to us’. They were quiet and very well behaved and stood behind the roped-off areas, under the gaze of red-shirted security and the police.

After the presentation, I noticed a few of the engineers talking to some of the protesters and their interactions seemed quite friendly and cordial. As I passed by the protesters myself to use the toilet facilities, I was handed a leaflet by one of them and engaged in conversation.

The spokesman for the protesters and his mate

The protester told me how they wanted to stop the dam because they didn’t want the Mary River to become overutilised like the Murray. And I told him that according to what I had heard, its utilisation was going to be nowhere near as high. He then shifted his tack, to say that the environment was going to be impacted and I pointed out to him that it was all happening on existing farmland, hardly pristine wilderness, and that the water quality downstream is expected to improve on completion of the dam. He then said to me ‘but everybody – that’s over 1000 people in the area – is against the dam’. I pointed out that 65% had already taken up the government’s offer, to which he said there are many people who do not want to leave, and some are suffering great mental stress due to the strain of having to consider moving from a place that they have lived in all their lives. He then went on to say that there had only been 18 consultations with the community and that even though the community had poured out their hearts to the consultation panel, the panel had advised that the dam should proceed. To add insult to injury, the head of the panel was put in charge of the land acquisitions.

The protester then told me that there had not been a study done to assess the risks associated with a dam collapse, so I asked him how he thought the dam would collapse? Earthquakes? He gave me a blank look and I could see he hadn’t really thought about this. So I told I him I had attended the recent dam conference with my wife, who is the engineer – not me, and one of the interesting facts presented was that earthquakes only cause 1.5% of dam failures and most dam failures are caused by overtopping of the dam during floods. Another presentation I saw a few years ago at another conference presented new research that had been done on Probable Maximum Flood estimates (based on archaeological evidence going back thousands of years). With this more current and accurate information new dams are far less likely to be overtopped than those that make up the statistics. As I spoke with the protester, I became aware of what an emotional issue it was for him, and that scientific facts and statistics weren’t really of any interest or use to him. The main fact that affected him was that he did not want to move from an area that he loved.

I later read the pamphlet that I was given and many of the points raised seemed quite valid. I found it interesting that the protesters were calling for more studies to be made about environmental impacts, potential disaster mitigation and possible upstream flooding. What really struck me was as I said goodbye to the protester, he said to me ‘this dam is never going to go ahead. We WILL stop it’. With those words I realised: no amount of studies are going to satisfy him, all his demands for further research seem to be merely delaying tactics.

No matter the social benefits of large public works, there is always going to be a section of the population who will feel aggrieved. It’s very easy for me as an outsider to say that I feel as Spock had said, that the needs of the many outweigh those of the few, because it’s not me that’s having my home taken from me.

The fact that there is always going to be a disaffected section of the population fills me with despair when I think about large infrastructure projects that are necessary and those hard decisions that must be made to bring them to fruition. It makes me wonder how anything ever gets built.

Seeking consensus amongst any group of people, be they hard-nosed engineers or emotionally driven protesters is like trying to wrangle cats and for this reason I sometimes think that anybody who gets involved in politics must be either insane or a borderline sociopathic egotist.

What kind of personality would it take to get up in front of thousands of people and try to convince the audience to become of one mind in agreement with them? In reality, there is no such thing as unanimity and the whole concept of a win-win situation is just airy-fairy wishful thinking. There’s always going to be winners and losers and nobody likes to lose.

18 thoughts on “Dam-nation at Traveston. Queensland, Australia.”

  1. A very interesting read with a fair point at the end.

    Your entry is on a personal level, but countries do the same thing on a macro scale when another country wants to take the tiniest piece of their property away; with dire consequences. Same thing; different scale.
    note: I have images of Denmark and Canada fighting over a rock in the middle of the Atlantic a few years ago. I think it was eventually settled with a handshake or a case of beer after many harsh words.
    double note: a very stupid site: http://googlefight.com/index.php?lang=en_GB&word1=Canada&word2=Denmark

  2. In the States, we have had the “same” dialog regarding drilling in the arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Long-term, it would help with our reliance on foreign oil but at what price?

    I believe quite a few animal species living in the Mary River area are on the endangered species list. Isn’t there also a problem with greenhouse emissions? Aren’t there other alternatives like desalination or water recycling?

    What happens to the people who won’t sell their land to the government? Will it just be repossessed through eminent domain?

    I understand about winners and losers, but people should at least make sure we are not all losers in the end. A certain bridge to nowhere comes to mind…

  3. “What kind of personality would it take to get up in front of thousands of people and try to convince the audience to become of one mind in agreement with them?”

    I hope we, in the US, just this month elected this type of personality. And don’t you be calling him a sociopathic egotist or insane, just yet. I’m in my airy-fairy frame of mind as I sit on this here ledge. I’m grateful he wanted the job.

  4. First off to all you kind people who have left comments; my apologies for not answering sooner. The last several days have been a blur. I’m sitting here with a sun-baked brain, freshly showered after 2 stinking hot days on a yacht diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I can still feel the boat rocking and I’m not on it!


    The idea that such rational countries like Canada and Denmark ever having a disagreement about anything seems so unlikely.

    I followed the link and you’ll be happy to know my girlfriend (or in my case, wife) whooped Pamela Andersen in a fight.


    I knew someone would want to get into the nitty-gritty about this issue and sure enough I know a lot more than what I wrote about but I didn’t put it all down because the post was far too long as it was.

    The issue of drilling for oil in pristine areas of fragile tundra in Alaska so you guys don’t have to drive sensible cars is quite a bit different to damming some farmland for water.

    As for the environmental issues, there as been an environmental impact study done and that is one of the reasons why the University of Qld is getting study centre which will act as a breeding centre for the animals impacted.

    Desalination is an extremely expensive option that has a very bad carbon outcome. Water recycling has just been torpedoed by public opinion.

    Don’t get me wrong in thinking that I’m pro the dam. To be honest the questions raised are way beyond my ability to interpret correctly. Not only do I lack the scientific education to fully understand all the various reports, I also am at a loss as to what should be done about the land owners who don’t want to move.

    Should a small group of people have the right to obstruct a project that will benefit many people? I really don’t know the answer to that one. I also don’t know what the law is, in regards to taking land off people. I suspect that the government can do what they like if they have enough public support.


    I meant no disrespect to our main man, but coming into contact with such a loaded issue so close up really made me think about people seeking any kind of power on whatever level.

  5. Hi Razz,
    when I read the first part of this post, I thought ‘how could so many people think that compensation can make up for where they grew up, where they were born (many at home, depending on how far away from a hospital they were based), where they have generations-worth of memories?
    Naturally, this sort of thing has happened time and again. One of the reasons I want so badly to be cremated when I die is that I’ve seen too many cemeteries disrupted by road-building or other town/ country planning. I’d rather have my ashes scattered to the winds in a place I love. Then again, there are problems with the ethics of crematoria. There are also issues with people who’ve farmed all their lives and have loved ones (and loved animal companions) buried under special trees on their land. That sort of thing cannot be compensated for.
    But as for Engogirl and her colleagues, my heart is there for them. This is their calling, their livelihood, their impetus. It can’t be easy for her to see this sort of upset when this is her job. Like many folk these days, it takes strength to move forward and do what we’ve been hired for because if we don’t do it, there’s a line waiting to take over.

  6. Hey Razzbuffnik… I could’ve easily been at the protest! In any case, as I projected many many moons ago, the dam won’t go ahead because the global economy is tanking big time.

    The dam is such a stoopid idea, I’m amazed it was trotted out…. again. Yes, again, because, ironically, almost 40 years ago I worked for what was then called the Irrigation and Water Supply Commission’s Project Planning branch as a design draftsman. It was decided then, after many millions spent on investigations, that it was a bad idea, and shelved. Why? Because the evaporation rate is higher than the rainfall. Most of the dam would be barely 6 foot deep… no I am not kidding, and 6 feet of water would evaporate in about a month, leaving a trickle between the banks for the lung fish to drown in…. it would only ever fill up whenever a flood occurs, and even then, from what I read, it would not necessarily be able to stop Mary Street in Gympie from getting flooded in a big wet.

    It gives me great pleasure to say the dam will now never see the light of day as the debt burden of the stoopid growth economy we live in collapses the Matrix, for good.

  7. Epic

    Yep, nothing lasts for ever. Land ownership is a strange thing here in Australia. When you buy land here, you’re really only buying the first few metres down and all the rest including the air above belongs to the crown.

    Large mining companies that have bought the mineral rights under your land can just come on in and dig up “your” land and there’s not a thing you can do about it.

    As for Engogirl being an engineer, she does finite element analysis using CFD (computational fluid dynamics) and dam work is only about a quarter of what she’s involved in. Engogirl’s dam work is usually involved in the upgrading of existing dams. Like I said in the post, many of the engineers on the bus could fully understand and empathise with the protesters. After all they’re people with families and homes as well.


    I told the protesters that I knew you and they also said they knew you as well. The whole situation was quite surreal.

    The protesters had some pretty negative preconceptions about engineers in general. They seemed to me to be quite bigoted actually. There was also one woman who, it appeared to me, who want to deliberately cause some kind of physical confrontation as she tried to sneak around the security. What I think that the protesters didn’t realise was that many of the people on the bus had absolutely nothing to do with the dam and had no idea that here was any controversy about it. They were just on a tour of 6 dams of South East Queensland after a conference.

    Conversation on the bus between the engineers was for the most part quite sympathetic towards the protester’s concerns. It would seem that engineers, even can imagine what it’s like to be forced off land that you love. As I mentioned in the article above, there was also differing opinions about the dam on many levels as well. As for stupid ideas, a desalination plant just about tops them all though!

    Like I said, I’m glad I’m not in the position to have to make decisions about such things because I’d be hopeless at it.

  8. With all due respect to your better half…. I too have a problem with engineers. Sometimes. Engineers have done fantastic things at times, but in this day and age they are used by the system (in my opinion) to fix social problems. This dam is a classic example. We suffer from too many people in SE QLD, and the solution is a dumb dam.
    Now take Brisbane’s Lord Mayor. Too much traffic (too many people in fact), so build lots of tunnels. People like him (an engineer) can only see engineering solutions. In a recent storm in Brissy, one of his tunnels was shut down for days because it filled with water, and there was no power to drive the pump to bail them out!
    Our system (which as you know I call the Matrix http://damnthematrix.wordpress.com/) is now so complex that it doesn’t take much to compromise its integrity. Complex systems are fragile. You can immobilise a complex system like a car by snipping one strategic wire.
    And now the entire Matrix is failing because it’s indebted over its head. Goodbye Matrix!

  9. Population issue is THE elephant in the room…. we need to reduce, but nobody wants to discuss it. When Peak Oil and the debt crisis hit, people will have to move. Where to, I don’t know. I’m here to stay though! At least we live fairly sustainably.

  10. Mike

    You hit the nail on the head with this whole issue (that I’m addressing in my post) in a few ways.

    First off, you (like most of the rest of us) think that it should be someone else that has to make the sacrifices.

    Secondly, you’re (like most of the rest of us) not really offering a viable and equitable solution.

    Thirdly, you see yourself (like most of the rest of us) as setting the value system that the decisions should be based on.

    Trouble is Mike, we live in a society with other people and like it of not we have to take into account their opinions whether we like it or not; or whether we think they are right or wrong.

    Or, as I like to say, “People! Can’t live with em; not allowed to kill em!”

    Time for you to run for parliament again mate! Then you can make people do what you think is right.

  11. Well Razzbuffnik at least we are 100% self sufficient in water and don’t need any dams! We haven’t made sacrifices so much as restructured our lives completely. The solution is that people need to reduce their consumption, food needs to be produced locally (and the Mary Valley is a very fertile piece of farmland).
    We think our life has improved tremendously since reducing our dependence on the Matrix (and what we are doing can be seen on my blog).
    As far as taking other people’s opinions on board, if their actions impact on me and my family, particularly our kids’ future, then stuff’em… we only have one planet to live on!
    We are doing a lot to re-educate people around here… we (as in Glenda and I and about 20 others) have started a Transition Town Movement in Cooran. I have just finished the first edition of our new local paper, and we are hopeful to assist the Mary Valley folk do the same. see http://www.transitiontowns.org and http://transitionculture.org/

  12. There’s one other thing you ought to now. In 1974, Brisbane had a major flood, one of those 1 in 100 years event. As a consequence, the government decided that we needed a dam to mitigate any further similar events. This dam is now known as the Wivenhoe dam.. you might even have visited it on your tour? I also worked on that project when I was with the I&WSC, and in fact almost single handedly worked out how much water it held, without a computer! It took MONTHS!
    Anyhow, this dam was built in an area where it hardly ever rains. It’s also very poor farmland, and as far as I know, irrigation water was never taken out of it in any substantial amounts. Apart from the small town of Esk, hardly anyone lives there. The idea of this dam was that in an extraordinary event like a cyclone crossing the coast North of Brisbane, it would dump its water load in the Brisbane River catchment, and fill the dam instead of flooding Brisbane.
    Over a period of some twenty years, it did actually almost fill up. As growth eroded Brisbane’s water supply capacity, some bright spark decided we should tap into Wivenhoe, and in no time flat, the dam was virtually drained. And so was born Brisbane’s water crisis.
    Now of course engineers were not responsible for this… but they did go along with it. The Matrix pays well!
    Presently, we have had some unusual weather, with much rain coming from the west. Our rain usually comes from the Ocean to the East, and Wivenhoe Dam is currently just over 40% full. How long will it last? How much more growth must we endure before those in charge come to their senses? Who knows…. but one thing I’m certain of, all these engineering works are totally unsustainable and will not pass the test of time.

  13. Mike

    We did visit Wivenhoe and you’ll be interested to know that my wife was involved the up-grade of the spillway to increase capacity and flood mitigation. It might come as a bit of a surprise that due to revised maximum probable flood levels it was calculated that the spillway should be up-graded.

    The main reason I posted about the Traveston dam is because I was more interested in the interaction between various parties in such large public works.

    Engineers aren’t usually the decision makers in these sort of matters. They’re just tools to execute ideas, much like concrete workers, crane operators, or draftsmen.

    You have latched onto what you think is important in what I was talking about; the need for the dam at all, and that’s totally understandable (since I’ve known you for so long and listened to you thoughts about such matters). Like I said before, I don’t feel that I have a thorough understanding of the matter to really form an opinion on whether the dam should be built or not. I’d also say that you don’t seem to be that interested in people that don’t share your values. Which brings me the philosophical question of whether people with different values should listen to you?

    My article is more about (at least in my mind) the various opinions and how hard it is to reach consensus. By the way, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the all the anti dam protestors care that much for the environment. I bet the guy in the overpowered ute didn’t give a hoot about the environment when he bought his gas guzzler. The main thing I picked up on was that they didn’t want to move and that they were calling for more studies as a delaying tactic.

    Growth is happening whether you like it or not and government is trying to manage the situation. Just like the discussions with the engineers on the bus, consensus anywhere is almost impossible to reach and like I said before there are always going to be winners and losers.

    One of the elephants in the room we haven’t really discussed is that of the temptation for corruption when such large amounts of money are involved. A lot a people will benefit monetarily if the dam goes ahead and like I said before the video on the bus was suspiciously slick.

    As you know all this talk is actually moot because it looks like the dam isn’t going to go ahead anyway, if the recent news is anything to go by.

    Perhaps on your next run for parliament you could run on a platform of forced sterilisation and relocation for over use of water!

  14. Just revisited this…. it’s interesting allowing a few months to intervene in a heated discussion!

    As we should all know by now, the dam was canned, as expected. By me at any rate. The State Government went into deficit in its last budget for the first time in I don’t know when, and the Feds saved their arses, they no longer have to build the dam. It was all a face saving exercise.

    Re growth, this neck of the woods is growing so fast that everybody’s up in arms about it. Every poll I’ve seen on this shows more than 80% of the people who live here do not want more people! It also makes this area the third least affordable region to live in IN THE WORLD, behind Vancouver and Sydney…

    Who needs it.

  15. Mike

    If your area becomes so unaffordable to live in, then perhaps less people will move there and you can keep your Shangri La for yourself and all the other less evolved people can live…….. who am I kidding?

    Who cares, as long as they don’t impact on you….. right?

  16. I am that demonstrator at Traveston and Borumba Dam.Yes,I said we would not let them build Traveston and we did not.I am not a Greeny. I am a farmer who hates to see wasted money and wasted land. By stopping Traveston we saved Queenslanders a fortune, and saved the Mary River from strangulation.I consider that to be a job well done.

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