Speech on the Water NSW Amendment (Warragamba Dam) Bill 2018

In Parliament | 26.09.18

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE (16:42): I do not support the Water NSW Amendment (Warragamba Dam) Bill 2018. The Hon. Paul Green said that hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if we are to be subjected to the threat of flooding in this area of Sydney it would be best to heed the warnings of emergency services and the planning department not to build on the flood plain. The Government's proposal is to enable an additional 134,000 people to live on this flood plain. This bill should be named the "Water NSW Amendment (Warragamba Dam Development in Western Sydney) Bill" as that is what it is about. It is about development at all costs. It is about ill thought-out development on the flood plain. It is about opening up more land for overdevelopment.

Recently the Premier spoke about wanting to put a brake on overdevelopment but she could do that right here and now by saying, "We are not going to open up this flood plain for further development. We are not going to put the lives of 134,000 people in harm's way as a result of flooding." That is the point I want to make before I refer to significant environmental issues. With the Warragamba Dam proposal there is no need for this bill. The Government is preparing an environmental impact statement [EIS]. It could go through the EIS process and if at the conclusion of that process the project stacked up and it was necessary to change the law, as is proposed in this bill, that is something that we could look at. There is no need for the matter to proceed in this way. We must look more closely at the complex issues involving water, population growth and land management in Sydney. That is where all these issues come together.

This is the second of the Government's bills that directly attacks the National Parks and Wildlife Act and undermines land protection that has been put in place at the highest level. The Government states that this land needs to be conserved for the future for a range of reasons—threatened species, water and, increasingly, carbon sequestration. The first bill, the Kosciuszko Wild Horses Heritage Bill 2018, which was introduced by the Deputy Premier and member for Monaro essentially suspended the National Parks and Wildlife Act to put feral horses at the top of its list of considerations when managing that fragile and important park.

This bill seeks to allow inundation of the World Heritage listed Blue Mountains National Park. If enacted, the bill will amend the Water NSW Act 2014 to allow for the temporary inundation of national park land resulting from the raising of the wall of the Warragamba Dam and the operation of the dam for downstream flood mitigation purposes. This bill gives Water NSW the power to write a plan of management on how to flood the Blue Mountains World Heritage site. It establishes a dangerous precedent by allowing the State Government to take unilateral action that could damage national parks, World Heritage areas, wilderness areas and other high conservation areas.

A World Heritage listing is not to be taken lightly. An area does not easily achieve World Heritage status. In New South Wales nine places have been given World Heritage listing. A World Heritage listing means it is recognised around the world that an area has such outstanding universal values that its conservation is important for current and future generations. People want governments to be forward thinking and looking to the future. A World Heritage listing tries to achieve that by saying that the highest level of protection must be given to these lands to protect wildlife, flora, water and wilderness, and to provide some worthy places on the planet.

In New South Wales only nine areas have World Heritage status. A number of areas recognise our convict heritage—Cockatoo Island, Hyde Park Barracks, Old Government House, the Old Great Northern Road, Lord Howe Island and the Sydney Opera House. Three natural areas have been given World Heritage status—the Gondwana Rainforests, a stretch of rainforest in the north of the State; the Willandra Lakes region; and the Greater Blue Mountains National Park. It took a long time to obtain World Heritage listing for the Blue Mountains National Park which has important environmental values that are worthy not only to the people of New South Wales but also to the entire planet.

With the stroke of a pen the Government said, "It is okay. We will flood that park," which should make members in this Chamber pause, in particular, Government members, who in the past cared deeply about the National Parks and Wildlife Service, about land protection and about the environment. Unfortunately only a few Government members care about these issues. If this bill is passed the Blue Mountains National Park World Heritage status could be lost. What we are doing is contrary to the World Heritage Convention which I will put on the record. Section 96 of the World Heritage Convention states:

Protection and management of World Heritage properties should ensure that their Outstanding Universal Value, including the conditions of integrity and/or authenticity at the time of inscription, are sustained or enhanced over time ... Drowning the national park does not do that. Section 97 provides:

All properties inscribed on the World Heritage List must have adequate long-term legislative, regulatory, institutional and/or traditional protection and management to ensure their safeguarding.

This bill does not safeguard them at all. Section 98 of the guidelines provides:

Legislative and regulatory measures at national and local levels should assure the protection of the property from social, economic and other pressures or changes that might negatively impact the Outstanding Universal Value, including the integrity and/or authenticity of the property.

If we allow the inundation of the area we will negatively impact its outstanding universal value. Some very important threatened species live in the national park. Members who spent time at the recent budget estimates hearing will know that I questioned the Minister for the Environment about the regent honeyeater. She was unable to recognise it. I do not expect the Minister to be able to name every endangered bird, but there are only around 400 regent honeyeaters left on the planet and a significant population has been found within the Warragamba Special Area. In recent times under the current Minister the Office of Environment and Heritage basically told WaterNSW that it knows that the birds are there but it does not want any further studies done because it is about to drown all of their habitat. That is what are talking about here.

Importantly, other threatened species that we could lose if this bill is passed include gang-gang cockatoos, little lorikeets and glossy black cockatoos. We could also lose populations of Camden white gum, Kowmung hakea, Kanangra wattle and few-seeded bossiaea. The reality is that we have choices. If we are not prepared to respect World Heritage listing and do everything in our power to protect our national parks we should just pick up and go home. If this bill is passed it will mean that national parks and World Heritage listings count for nothing in this State. That is not a State we want to live in.

I have met with traditional owners from the Gundungurra Tribal Council Aboriginal Corporation and been to the special catchment area. I was fortunate to be taken there by WaterNSW and see what the impact of ongoing flooding could be. I have stood with traditional owners as they have pointed out areas that are still not mapped properly and are sacred to them and a part of their stories. Areas for women's business and for men's business will simply be flooded and destroyed forever. We must not forget that those traditional owners lost much of their cultural heritage when the original dam was put in place. There are still outstanding issues relating to compensation for them.

The Hon. Rick Colless: You drink the water from the dam.

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE: I know I drink the water from Warragamba Dam. I have no problem with that. But if we are as serious about Aboriginal heritage as we claim to be—and I note again that this Government is yet to bring forward its much-promised Aboriginal cultural heritage bill—we cannot ignore the voices of first nations people, particularly the Gundungurra. I recognise Aunty Sharon Brown and thank her for taking the time to show me around the area and discuss the impacts. We have to be serious about this and understand that flooding will destroy those areas forever.

We also need to address two key issues beyond the environment. I have already talked about development. If the Government is serious about avoiding overdevelopment an easy way for it to slow things down is to say that we will not build on flood plains where people's homes and lives are put at risk. But that is not what the Government is proposing. I recommend the work of Associate Professor Jamie Pittock from the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University. He has written a fantastic paper that I am sure the committee will examine during its inquiry. He says the following about flood risk in the Hawkesbury-Nepean flood plain:

Flood risk has been exacerbated by local councils and the NSW Government approving housing developments on low lying lands over several decades.

This is not about this Government or the last Government. We have all allowed the development to happen. We should press pause on it before we double the amount of housing on the flood plain. It is time to say no. Associate Professor Pittock continues:

Unfortunately, flood risk is likely to worsen given NSW Government plans to dramatically expand the number of people living on the floodplain in north-west Sydney, combined with increased frequency of severe storm events due to climate change.

The professor is very critical of the way in which the Government has responded. Again, we have talked about the complexity of this; I do not think anyone is underestimating its seriousness. This is about life, housing and the way in which we provide water to our growing city. The problem is that in its response the Government has put forward only one solution, and that is the raising of the Warragamba Dam wall. Associate Professor Pittock says:

The strategy discards a number of response options before focusing on a proposal to spend $690 million to raise Warragamba Dam wall by 14 metres ... This proposal would result in flooding of up to 4,700 hectares of the Blue Mountains National Parks and World Heritage Area, including 65 km of wilderness watercourses, populations of 48 threatened species, as well as numerous sites of cultural significance ...

The Government has not looked at the cost of road damage and flood damage. It has not looked at other evacuation routes or the upgrading of other roads that could make a difference and allow the national park not to be ruined. And for all of the justification by the Government, Jamie Pittock makes the following killer point:

Importantly, no configuration of Warragamba Dam will prevent flooding in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley ... An average of 45% of floodwaters originate from catchment areas that are not upstream of Warragamba Dam ... This means that even if a raised Warragamba Dam was to hold back some flood waters, other catchments could still cause significant flooding in the valley. In fact, flood waters from the Grose River alone can cause moderate to major flooding of Richmond in the lower Hawkesbury.

After all the discussion the Government is not prepared to look at the alternatives and its proposal will not fix the problem it says it will fix. This bill should not be supported. It is unnecessary because a process is currently underway and the environmental impact assessment can proceed without a need to change the law. The Government should have to show that the project stacks up before we move to abandon our protection of a World Heritage area. The bill should not proceed because it will not deal with the flooding it attempts to address. Instead, the Government is hiding behind its agenda for massive development on a flood plain that all experts continue to say we should not develop and that agencies and several governments have resisted for many years.

For reasons that we can only speculate on, this Government—which is addicted to development wherever it can put it—is looking to put more people in harm's way on flood-prone land that people would not be allowed to build on in most places in the world. We need to remember the member for Penrith standing up at the Penrith Lakes development and saying, "Here you go. Housing as far as the eye can see." There is a video of it. He was standing next to a flood gauge at the time because he was in the middle of a flood plain. This is not about flood protection; it is about putting more people in harm's way.

My final point is an environmental one. What is the use of having World Heritage listed areas or of saying that we have places of universal value to people not only in Sydney but also across the planet? There are 48 species living in the area that are not found anywhere else. People before us from both sides of politics supported the listing of the national park as a World Heritage area. One of our most visited tourist sites is right on our doorstep. We are lucky to have a wilderness area within a day's reach of Sydney.

The idea that we simply say, "We need to build a few more houses. We need to cram a few more people in. It's okay, we're going to flood it and we're going to ruin it" should give great pause for thought for anyone who is looking at the highest levels of land protection and understanding the pressures of population. That is not going to go away or get better. We have to draw some lines in the sand somewhere and surely that is a world heritage protected national park. I make a plea for the First Nation Gundungurra people. They are not asking for much; they are asking for us to recognise their special cultural history—a history that has been taken away in more ways than we care to talk about or even acknowledge. This flooding should not be allowed to happen without a full understanding of the heritage and the importance of the stories of the area and what will be lost. I cannot emphasise enough that Labor opposes this bill. I urge other members who have pause for thought to do the same.

Legislative Council, 26 September 2018