Kangaloon Aquifer: Water War in the Southern Highlands, 2006-2007

The Kangaloon Aquifer Water War

Information on the story of the water war in Kangaloon was compiled as part of an interdisciplinary study project for the Integrated Human Studies (IHS) Post Graduate Diploma at the University of Western Australia. The study views the dispute through a historical perspective, by examining several relevant disciplines: hydrology, ecology, history, politics, planning, water management, as well as exploring some less tangible aspects like habitat, loss, fear and spiritual connections.

The central focus question to be explored was: “how can the factors which affect fair distribution of water be understood in the interests of avoiding conflict over essential, finite resources?”

It is the opinion of the author that the groundwater in the Kangaloon Aquifer should not be used to supply water for urban use in the quantities proposed, this position being arrived at after examining the issue as objectively as possible.

Illawarra Escarpment & Avon Dam, East Kangaloon, "The Fountain" Test Bore, A young water warrior, Eucalypt Forest in the Borefield

Kangaloon and the surrounding villages of the NSW Southern Highlands are the heart of rich agricultural farmland, much of which was once cool temperate rainforest. Deep red basalt soil (from ancient volcanoes) and high rainfall, numerous springfed permanent creeks and groundwater from a large sandstone aquifer sustain the area’s fertility and a thriving 150 year old dairy industry. Nearby Robertson is still a major centre for potato growing. It is a spectacularly beautiful rural landscape, made famous in the movie “Babe”. As some dairy farmers have relocated further west or given up dairying altogether, the district has become an attractive country residential area, with both ways of life coexisting side by side.

In 2006, NSW was in the grip of severe drought. Sydney, the nearby Southern Highlands, as well as most of eastern Australia had been dry for more than 4 years. The government, realising the possibility of severe water shortages, implemented plans to find extra water to augment supply in the network of dams which supplied Sydney. Level 1 water restrictions had been imposed on Sydney in 2003 (5) and TV advertising campaigns taught Sydneysiders how water could be conserved, but it was up to individuals to alter their own consumption habits. Australian actor Jack Thompson broadcasting from Warragamba Dam’s parched, cracked floor, fronted a campaign to spruik a planned desalination plant and reassure everyone that the government had all under control should the rains not come. (6) Nightly news broadcasts reported the latest dam levels, and where, if any rain had fallen.

In country areas, people needed no graphic TV images to remind them how scarce water was becoming. Towns like Goulburn (just south of the Southern Highlands) had been on level 5 restrictions for over 2 years, the local swimming pool was closed, 150 litres per person per day (7) was the limit. Kangaloon wasn’t subject to water restrictions, because there was no town water (and still isn’t). People were responsible for collecting and managing their own water, mostly from rainwater, springs, streams or bores. Water shortage was pretty desperate too, rural industries like dairy farming were under duress, a normally lush fertile landscape was parched (but perhaps unsurprisingly greener than most places) and even the local school had the water from their tank stolen on more than one occasion.

Jack Thompson, Water For Life Campaign

 “Jack Thompson, Face of Water For Life Campaign”

With such a desperate need to make sure everyone in Sydney had water security (and with an upcoming state election this was a pressing matter), the government investigated locations that were known to have large groundwater reserves, and the Sydney Catchment Authority (SCA), responsible for water delivery to Sydney households and businesses, began to test water from the aquifer in Kangaloon. (8) By the time residents were notified that the intention was to build a huge borefeild to pump underground water into Sydney’s dams to augment supply, test pumping at the borefield site and hydrological studies had been completed, and all that remained was two months of community consultation, a 6 month full scale trial pumping test and an environmental assessment of the project, and the groundwater could start to flow. A community reference group was established, as required. Whilst the outward signs were that government was willing to participate in community discussions, the reality was that they wanted the project to proceed quickly, without obstruction. (9).

A test bore being drilled deep into sandstone. Photography by TVU Pty. Ltd., © Sydney Catchment Authority

Within weeks, local people from all walks of life had banded together to fight to stop the aquifer being mined. Residents, farmers, environmentalists, Liberal politicians, local businesses, scientists, merchant bankers, lawyers, hydrologists, the local council….. all differences were set aside as the call to arms was met with great fervour.

Paul Stephenson, David Thomson with Duchesse

Dairy Farmers Take the Fight to Bowral

On the other side, was the NSW State Government, Labor politicians, the SCA, and of course the residents of Sydney, who probably didn’t even know they were part of a war.

The SCA and the government had the financial resources and legislative power, backed by access to any scientific data that needed to be resourced to support the project going ahead. They also had a huge PR machine and a large electorate who wanted to continue without the annoyance and disruption of water restrictions. Sydney certainly could not have conceived what it would be like to run out of water, nor was it even thinkable in 21st century Sydney to be living the sort of life the people of Goulburn (and even Brisbane) were somehow managing to do.

The people of the Kangaloon district, deprived of real participation in the decision making process, and with no avenue for appeal, had no choice but to resort to fighting. They had no political voice, as the sitting local member was part of the Liberal opposition party. The planning and approval loopholes for major infrastructure projects had meant that the local council, who also opposed the project, had no voice in the process.

So they took their battle to the streets, parading slogan emblazoned cattle through the local towns, gathering signatures for petitions. Local protest meetings and rallies were packed and vocal. Signs on every farm gate and tree lambasted the SCA and the government. Many of the signs are still there. Media was courted, politicians lobbied, blogs were full of facts, fiction, commentary and outrage, submissions were assembled, and of course, the community reference group continued to meet with the SCA, and whilst it had little impact on the decision, meetings were at least a source of information for those on the battlefront.

The Big Spud, Robertson

The Big Spud, Robertson

The local community accused the SCA of hastily preparing reports which even when caution and further studies were advised, the SCA ignored. They accused government of pushing the project through at all cost, not having assessed the environmental impact on the region properly. They questioned the validity of the hydrology studies and were concerned about the transparency of the project, from the large cost of establishing the borefield, and the vested interest of the companies involved in the infrastructure setup. They questioned the independence of the consultants who advised on the hydrological and ecological studies and the degree of independence of the company commissioned to conduct the environmental assessment, to which there would be no right of appeal. (10)

Kangaloon was outraged that water was to be removed from their district, with unknown consequences, to be sent to Sydney which was not really engaged in serious attempts to reduce their water use to a sustainable amount as people of nearby Goulburn had been doing for 2 years. Even the SCA’s optimistic calculations of the amount of water to be mined meant that the borefield pumping (over a year) would supply only the equivalent of 7 days water at Sydney’s rate of consumption. (10)

But mostly, they feared the unknown consequences of removing underground water in such large volumes. Farmers in the district had observed the water dropping in their own bores as the SCA drew water from the aquifer. Wetlands which had remained green throughout the drought had become parched and brown from the test bores located next to them. River flow was affected and independent hydrological advice was starting to reveal that the models generated by the SCA to justify drawing water from the aquifer, were incorrect. They were being told that rainfall refilled the aquifer quickly, yet isotope studies revealed

Latham's Snipe

Wingecarribee Swamp, Latham’s Snipe

fossil water which meant that recharge of the bore was coming from within the rock layers, not entirely from rainfall. (11) Large quantities of iron sludge being pumped from the test bores was far in excess of what was being predicted.

People feared for their livelihood, their farms and the local environment. The dairy industry feared this would be their demise. Environmentalists were concerned for the whole district, wetlands, forests and farms.

The SCA accused farmers of being only interested in financial compensation when they agreed to pay to deepening bores if the water table dropped. The SCA saw it as an upstream vs downstream issue, and were prepared to deal with any environmental consequences by monitoring as they went and by allowing nature time to recover after they had finished the water drawdown. They saw it as a choice between minimal risk to a few farmers so that millions of people would not have to go without water.

Leaks in cracked pipes in the borefield quickly drew accusations of vandalism from the SCA and the news even made Sydney papers, and Kangaloonies cheered on the fictitious Robin Hood!

In 1997, a local wetland had collapsed due to over mining of the peat in the ancient swamp. Recovery efforts to maintain what was left had led to 9 years of close study of the swamp environment, which was home to many endangered species, migratory birds and rare orchids. (12) The incomplete nature of the studies of the aquifer meant that there was no certainty that the peat swamp was independent of the groundwater of the aquifer.

Signs of the times

Lobbying of the Liberal Federal Minister for Water and the Environment (Malcolm Turnbull) led to intervention in the aquifer project in order to protect the endangered species of this and other directly affected wetlands. One of the protected birds was the Latham’s Snipe, this bird fast became the media’s frontman for saving the Kangaloon groundwater, Latham being the name of a recent political adversary of the environment minister! (13)

Rains in early 2007 broke the drought, and the government announced that the project was to be shelved as the “emergency” was over, and water from the aquifer was no longer required. (14)

Since then, a desalination plant has been constructed and is operational in Sydney. An environmental assessment (9) has been finalised for the “off the agenda” borefeild, and land and water rights aquisitions have taken place in Kangaloon. The battle may be finished, but many, including the SCA, suspect that that the war is not over yet.

I have included a link to a slideshow of photos taken in the area,and some shots taken by Denis Wilson. A strange investigation, of water, when you can’t see it, all under the ground!

Joni Mitchel and Willie Neslon with a mellow take on Bob Nolan’s “Cool Water”.

Pru Goward, local NSW State Government Member, Malcolm Turnbull, then Federal Minister Water & Environment
Still on a tree in Kangaloon, 2011
Still on a tree in Kangaloon, 2011

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