Moving North Queensland water to Murray-Darling


Barron Falls demonstrates North Queensland water excesses. Photo by Coral Sea Baz

Australia’s mismanagement of water is coming home to roost now, with the highly visible deluge in North Queensland in sharp contrast to the water-starved Murray-Darling Basin.

Far North Queensland residents and emergency workers are still struggling to cope with the worst floods in living memory. Tully, arguably the wettest place in Australia, had 955mm over 27 days since New Year’s Day, about a quarter of its annual rain. Townsville broke all records with 1,200mm falling in just nine days, which accounted for unprecedented flooding and the decision to open the floodgates of Ross River Dam.

Residents of the seaside Townsville suburb of Balgal Beach, seemingly impervious to flooding, found out otherwise.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) recorded North Queensland rainfall totals in January and the first week in February ranging from 1,036mm (Cairns) to 1,325mm (Townsville) The highest weekly total in January was 766mm at Whyanbeel Valley. Crikey, that’s a few millimetres more than the annual rainfall for Australia’s second-largest inland city, Toowoomba.

Last time we were in that fair city (September), the only green grass around was in the city’s three parks, watered by Council to celebrate the Carnival of Flowers. That was the month parts of the Western Downs were added to the 53% of Queensland’s drought-declared local government areas.

Meanwhile in Southern states, BoM made the telling observation that annual rainfall in 2018 was the seventh-lowest on record (since 1900) for the Murray-Darling Basin.  Rainfall was low over the south-eastern quarter of the mainland in 2018, with much of the region experiencing totals in the lowest 10% of records.

This is brought into sharper focus when we are told that parts of Australia’s mainland from around Newcastle in NSW to Euroa in Victoria are now included on the United Nations’ list of the Top Ten Global Water Hotspots (see further reading).

Many readers will be familiar with the crisis facing the Murray-Darling system: blue-green algae, millions of dead fish, the Darling River drying up; water being diverted for irrigation to grow water-intensive crops like cotton and rice. The recently published report by the South Australian Royal Commission found that the 2012 Murray-Darling Basin Plan must be strengthened if there is to be any chance of saving the river system. Professor Jamie Pittock of the Australian National University writes that the Commission found systemic failures of the Basin Plan, adopted in 2012 to address over-allocation of water to irrigated farming. The Commission’s 111 findings and 44 recommendations accuse federal agencies of maladministration and challenge key policies that were pursued in implementing the plan.

Amid revelations of water theft, the awful legacy of dead fish in the oxygen-deprived Darling River and outback towns running out of water, plenty of people are having their say.

This week, South Australian independent Senator Rex Patrick dared to confront the cotton industry, demanding that growers justify the use of water and the right to grow that export crop. (The same could be said of rice, Ed.)

This is a long-running saga. In 2011 an article published by the Permaculture Research Institute explored a report that revealed Australia as the world’s largest net exporter of ‘virtual’ water (exported virtual water is defined as water consumed to create crops, livestock and industrial products for export). The report blamed the agricultural sector for the vast majority of the total volume of water exported from Australia in this way (72,000 gigalitres of virtual water exported overseas every year).

I’m not a scientist, hydrologist or environmental engineer, yet the answer seems desperately obvious. We need to channel and export North Queensland water to the arid south-eastern states and inland Queensland, NSW and South Australia.

One only has to think for five minutes about the Snowy Mountains hydro-electricity/irrigation scheme to see we are more than capable of funding, building and maintaining large and ambitious infrastructure projects.

Sydney food technology engineer Terry Bowring told The Courier-Mail in 2010 about his $9 billion plan to move water from the Burdekin and other north Queensland rivers to arid parts of inland NSW, Victoria and South Australia. Mr Bowring’s plan involved channelling about 4,000 gigalitres of water a year. The water would be transported 1,800kms by canals, with 60% of the water sold to irrigators. The rest would go to cities such as Toowoomba and Brisbane for domestic use.

Mr Bowring told FOMM yesterday the plan was similar to the Bradfield scheme proposed in 1938. Until Mr Bowring’s plan surfaced (he’d been working on it for years), no-one had taken Dr John Bradfield’s scheme forward to include costings.

Mr Bowring said the costings were based on experiences from the US, where he worked for some five years. The system would take six years to build but only four or five years to recover costs.

As with the Bradfield scheme, critics said the Bowring plan was uneconomic and impractical. The telling thing is that it would only take about 13% of the water that flows from the Burdekin to the ocean. Typically, more water flows to sea from the Burdekin than the Murray-Darling Basin and all city dams combined.

Mr Bowring, who is in his 80s, said he has no intention of pursuing the plan, but will make his research available for future use.

The other side of this argument was provided by the (then) Federal Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

The 28-page report generally scotches the idea, which is often raised when there are weather extremes in the north or the south.

“Moving water long distances is costly, energy intensive, and can have significant environmental, social and cultural impacts,” (item 1 under Key Facts).

“Using water that is locally available is generally more cost effective than transporting water long distances. Current studies show that local options, such as water conservation, desalination and recycling, cost around $1–2 per thousand litres; a supply from 1500 kilometres (km) away would cost around $5–6 per thousand litres.”

However the immediate problem is to make the Murray-Darling system a Federal and State priority, no matter the financial or political cost. It is shocking to consider that outback towns like Walgett, Wilcannia and Bourke have either run out of drinking water or are under extreme water stress. These events seem to have flown beneath the media radar that picked up on the early 2018 water crisis in Cape Town (South Africa).

The real danger is the risk to the fragile ecosystem of a river system that spans 77,000 kilometres of rivers over one million square kilometres across four States and the ACT. Environmental challenges include excessive water being diverted for agricultural, the blue-green algae that killed millions of fish, and salinity (in 2016-17, 1.84 million tonnes of salt was flushed out to sea through the Murray mouth).

As the Australian Conservation Foundation summed up, in an advertisement posted on social media:

“The heart-breaking death of these fish is no natural disaster. Powerful corporate interests and their cashed up lobbyists are bleeding our rivers dry. For too long, state and federal governments have let them get away with it.”

Further reading: (a (long), technical article by Watermark Australia’s Dr Wayne Chamley).

FOMM backpages:






  1. Given that the M-D plan for environmental water is always compromised by the consideration of communities along its length‎ I propose moving the people to FNQ!

  2. As I read your blog, I was reminded of the life-saving 19th-20th C. Goldfields Pipeline Scheme in WA, where Irish engineer C.Y. O’Connor devised the supply of water from Mundaring Weir to Coolgardie, some 560kms. He died by suicide a year before his scheme was proven successful.

  3. John Wightman (Dr)

    Yup – cotton has no logical place in Australian agriculture. It needs too much water (8 MeL/ha if no rain falls), bleeds too many pollutants (leached fertilizers and pesticides) into the rivers and creates a huge pest problem that spreads to other crops. But the same goes for most of the agricultural systems that people try to impose on Australia’s hinterland. When will people work out that if you try to grow cattle in places where either there is no food for them to eat (and it has to be shipped in) or they drown by the 1000, it is not a viable industry. But the farmers are all good National party voters and climate change deniers and nobody will give them the message that their business is not viable and that they are a dying race and need to find a proper job!!

  4. Thanks RJ. After an initial failure, the pipeline scheme succeeded, but O’Connor never got to see it.The lake created by Mundaring Weir is now known as Lake O’Connor. It still provides drinking water for towns along the pipeline to Kalgoorlie.

  5. People seriously underestimate the friction losses involved in pumping water, and probably assume that there’ll be a natural flow from top to bottom of the map.
    Bit surprised at you Bob.

  6. Yes Randall, a hydrologist was explaining the very same to me yesterday – Not sure I quite get it but I accept that friction losses and evaporation makes these water-moving schemes problematic. My point was that Bradfield put forward the need and the solution in 1938 and not one government since has done much more than what we see today.

  7. Edward Littleborough

    Glad I found you again – I changed my email and forgot to tell you. I see you got some comments about this, Bob. A thorny subject but as usual if no-one can make a buck out of it, they’re not interested.

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