Opponents to the sell-off of water from the Woolgoolga dam to Costa Berries.
Opponents to the sell-off of water from the Woolgoolga dam to Costa Berries. Janine Watson

Dam water sell-off to save jobs goes to vote

"I FIRMLY believe we don't have a lot of time until businesses start collapsing in our area."

These were the words of Coffs Harbour City Councillor George Cecato in urging his fellow councillors to support a motion, which would allow the sale of water from Woolgoolga Dam to the agricultural industry.

Woolgoolga dam , newmans road. 14 JAN 2020
Woolgoolga dam , newmans road. 14 JAN 2020 Trevor Veale

A controversial deal to sell up to 75 per cent of the dam's water to Costa Berries was announced in the lead-up to Christmas even though council's water access licence for the dam states it must only be used for 'domestic or stock purposes'.

When the Natural Resources Access Regulator (NRAR) became aware of the deal they stepped in and deemed it illegal.

With drought dragging on, and many berry growers set to run out of water in a matter of weeks, an extraordinary meeting was called to discuss making an application to NSW Department of Primary Industries to amend council's access licence to allow for the sale of water to the agriculture industry.

In addition to amending the purpose of the licence the motion stipulates: 'equitable access to the agricultural/ irrigation sector of up to 100 megalitres (approximately 45 per cent of current water volume)'.

Speaking strongly in support of the motion Cr Cecato painted a grim picture.

"Every fibre of my body believes that business is one of the magic glues that holds our community together.

"This is a very fair and equitable motion.
"It doesn't ask we drain the whole dam; it asks approximately 45 per cent or 100 megalitres.
"This will be divided between all those who need it and who can prove they need it."

Cr Sally Townley argued for an alternative motion, which would see the licence amended to allow the sale of water to the agriculture industry, but include a number of other parameters in relation to the amount of water sold; equitable distribution; and further environmental investigation into the toxins that may be held within the dam sediment for example.

"I am supportive of seeking the State Govt's approval to change permitted use for agricultural irrigation, but I don't think we are in a position to set this figure of 100 megalitres - there is no basis for this figure.  It has been plucked from what the lobby and industry groups have asked for," Cr Townley said.

"We are talking about servicing large scale corporate farms here. The amount of water is never going to slate the thirst of those massive growers.

"I feel sorry for the people around Nana Glen and Glenreagh whose dams got emptied for the public good to fight the recent fires.  I would like to see them being sought out and offered water."

When her alternative motion was put to the vote only Mayor Denise Knight and Deputy Mayor Tegan Swan voted for it, but councillors Keith Rhoades, George Cecato, Michael Adendorf and Paul Amos were against it.

The original motion was then put to the vote with Cr Townley and Mayor Knight the only ones opposing it.

Cr John Arkan did not attend the meeting.

Members of the Save Woolgoolga Dam including Merryn Crocker left feeling frustrated at the lack of consideration given to their concerns.

"It seems like Sally Townley is a voice in the wilderness, but it was really encouraging to see Denise (Knight) vote the way she did.

"There was just no real counter argument to the concerns about toxicity, logistics and licensing."

For Ray Willing it's the lack of transparency surrounding the deal that residents should be concerned about.

"It's extraordinary this amount of non-disclosure," he said.  

"Council is starting to look like an ethical void."

Berries Australia welcomed the decision of Coffs Harbour City Council to allow growers in the local region to access water from the Woolgoolga Dam.

The council voted to make an application to the NSW Department of Primary Industry and Environment to amend the purpose for which the dam water can be used, specifically to allow its use in agricultural practices, including berry growing.

"In making its decision, the council rightly noted that the drought impacts being experienced by the agricultural sector in the region and the flow on impacts to the local community warranted action being taken to extend access to the Woolgoolga Dam for the purpose of using the water in agriculture," Berries Australia president Peter McPherson said.

He said the local berry industry looks forward to working with the Coffs Harbour City Council to ensure the water is accessed in a timely and equitable manner, while ensuring appropriate environmental measures are complied with.

"Council deserves credit for recognising the urgency of the matter and voting to allow growers access to water from the Woolgoolga Dam," Mr McPherson said.

"Without this water, the local industry faced an uncertain future, in which not only crops, but also the livelihoods of many thousands of people who rely on the industry's existence are in jeopardy."

What happens next as Coffs Harbour City Council proceeds with the water purchase deal 

  • An urgent request to alter the current Water Access Licence for Woolgoolga Dam is to be sent to the NSW Government to allow the water to be used for agricultural irrigation during the current drought.
  • Council will make an urgent application to the NSW Department of Primary Industry and Environment to amend the dam's existing Water Access Licence to include agriculture/irrigation.
  • If the department approves the licence amendment, council will then provide up to 100 megalitres (approximately 45% of the dam's water) for local agricultural producers on a fair and equal basis. The water use would be reviewed again on March 31 2020.

Staff suggested that, if the licence is amended, the distribution of the available water could be managed by:

  • Using Smart Meters to monitor the allocation of the available water among producers to ensure the proposed 100 megalitre total limit is not exceeded.
  • Ensuring fair distribution among users through a water sharing register and allocating volumes of water to each user via Raw Water Access Licences. Actual quantities of water delivered by commercial carriers to each licensed end-user will be recorded by commercial carriers into log books which will be overseen by council.
  • Having council staff manage the water access point at Newmans Road and restrict its use to 7am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, and 8am to 12 noon on Saturdays due to its proximity to homes. The second water access point on Solitary Islands Way will not be initially restricted.
  • Minimising any impacts to the dam's visual amenity and its habitat diversity by only removing 100 megalitres, which will reduce the water depth from 9.7m to approximately 7m.