Warragamba Dam decision must pass exhaustive environmental scrutiny

The NSW government has put out contradictory signals this week about its highly controversial project to raise the wall of Warragamba Dam.

On the one hand, it seems to be pushing ahead with the project to raise the dam wall by up to 17 metres to reduce the risk of flooding downstream. After more than three years of analysis, the Department of Planning has finally put out for public consultation an environmental impact statement, which is an essential stage in moving from the drawing board to the construction stage.

The EIS justifies the $1 billion-plus project by revealing it will protect about 5000 homes from a 9-metre rise in flood waters that can be expected in a once-in-100-year flood.

The EIS argues that climate change increases the need for the project because the size of the once-in-100-year flood in the Hawkesbury Nepean basin will increase by about 1 metre by the end of the century.

Planning Minister Rob Stokes has, however, tried to forestall opposition from environmentalists who say that the project will cause irreparable damage by inundating world heritage-listed areas of the Blue Mountains for long periods.

He announced that he would not declare the dam project to be of “critical state significance” under planning laws.

Had he done so, it would have made his job a lot easier because it would have shielded his decision on approving the dam from appeal to the Land and Environment Court.

Many other large projects, such as WestConnex and the Pacific Highway as well as water projects such as the Wyangala Dam upgrade in the state’s Central West, have been fast tracked in this way.

Yet, Mr Stokes argued that given his “important obligations” under UNESCO’s world heritage register he wanted the project to face scrutiny.

The Herald welcomes this decision given the complexity and importance of the project. Environmentalists have already argued that the EIS has underestimated the impact of regular flooding on areas such as the Kowmung River, one of the last wild rivers near Sydney, and on Indigenous cultural sites.

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