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Water, water everywhere but…

Far North Queensland is in need of a long-term water strategy that considers the entire region. Without an integrated regional strategy, Far North Queensland’s community and economic growth will lag.

Fun facts: There are about 332.5 million cubic miles of water in the world. Only 2.5 per cent of that is freshwater and of that 68.7 per cent is unavailable – locked up in glaciers and ice or in the ground.

Australia has just 1 per cent of the world’s fresh water. It is the driest inhabited continent on earth and has an average yearly rainfall of only 419mm. Ironically, Australia is also one of the highest consumers of water in the world, ranked sixth behind the USA, Canada, Belgium, Turkey and Mexico.

Fortunately, Queensland’s rainfall is considerably higher at around 628mm per year (2010mm in the Tropical North), but 14 per cent of it seeps into groundwater and a massive 72 per cent goes out to sea.

It stands to reason then that capturing, storing and managing water is high on the priority lists of our regional councils, many of whom have proposals (all worthy of consideration) that do just that. But what makes one project more compelling than another? And which projects are going to give us the best chance of a secure and reliable water supply into the future?

It stands to reason then that capturing, storing and managing water is high on the priority lists of our regional councils…

To answer these questions, Regional Development Australia (RDA) convened the first of its Regional Water Summits in September. Mayors, economic development organisations and water experts from around Far North Queensland came together to discuss, debate and vote on the water infrastructure projects they believed would provide the most benefit to the region.

Eight projects were submitted for consideration:
The Cairns Regional Council Water Security Strategy –  new water supply intakes and treatment plants at Mulgrave and Kamerunga, the Gilbert River Irrigation Project – Greenhills Dam, the FNQ Water Security Project – three dams on the upper catchment of the North Johnstone River, a new Chillagoe Bore, North Johnstone River Diversion Scheme – diversion of water from the North Johnstone River to Tinaroo Falls Dam, Tablelands Irrigation Project – Woodleigh Dam, Nullinga Dam, and an alternate raw water intake on the Mossman River and untreated water storage reservoir.

Projects were compared against the cost per megalitre, water usage, timing, benefit to the region and whether they had a proponent.

Cairns Regional Council’s Water Security Strategy, the Chillagoe Bore and associated pipeline and the Gilbert River Irrigation Project are just some of the proposals that made it into the priority list on the day.

The four-stage Cairns Regional Council’s Water Security Strategy will provide drinking water supply augmentations to our regional centre. Stage one, scheduled for 2026, is critical to meeting Cairns’ imminent water supply needs. This $225m budgeted project will provide a new water supply intake on the Mulgrave River with pumps and pipeline to a new water treatment plant.

Another piece of critical water infrastructure, the new Chillagoe Bore and associated pipeline, is urgently required to supply the 188 residents of Chillagoe with drinking water. Limited reliability of groundwater from the bores that supply the Chillagoe Water Treatment Plant has resulted in Level 3 water restrictions in Chillagoe since November 2017. Costing $2.5m, Mareeba Shire Council is currently seeking grant funding to undertake the work.

The proposed 323,500ml Gilbert River Dam in Etheridge Shire will support 17,900ha of new irrigated agriculture to the west of Georgetown. At a cost of $887m, the dam will deliver economic benefit of $85m per year plus 370 construction and 2285 ongoing FTE jobs.

So, what did we discover? Economic feasibility and social urgency are key. While the economic benefit generated from water infrastructure projects is significant to our regional growth, it doesn’t outweigh the importance of a secure supply of drinking water for our cities and towns.

The next RDATN Water Summit will explore the submitted projects further with regional growers, government and other relevant stakeholders, bringing us one step closer to a unified vision to secure our most precious resource.

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