The decision by a Northern Rivers water authority to turn its back on a new town water dam near Lismore is pitting farmers against environmentalists over a proposal to extract deep aquifer ground water from the nearby Alstonville Plateau.
A group calling itself Our Future Northern Rivers, led by macadamia grower Austin Curtin, a former National Party candidate for the seat of Lismore now held by Labor's Janelle Saffin, has called on the silent majority of ratepayers to speak up about the county council's decision to turn its back on decades of planning.
Member for Lismore, Ms Saffin, meanwhile, has publicly sided with former NSW premier Bob Carr who toured the dam site last year and declared on Twitter that remnant rainforest endangered by flooding would destroy 6 per cent of the remaining 1pc of the Big Scrub.
There are also concerns from traditional custodians of the area about history being drowned under water.
When water supply authority Rous County Council called for community feedback last year on whether they should proceed with a new dam, it received 1298 opposition submissions. In response five of the eight councillors, including those from Byron Bay Lismore and Ballina, voted to dump the dam plan and proceed with alternative studies into ground water extraction and toilet to tap recycling. The surprising move went against its own staff recommendations which called for a new dam to capture high annual rainfall and to gravity feed clean drinking water to all 110,000 customers - a figure that is expected to reach 150,000 by 2060.
The council is currently accepting new submissions until late May.
The new dam site near between The Channon and Dunoon covers 240 hectares and could supply 50 gigalitres or 3.5 times the current volume, fed from a catchment 50 square kilometres in size spreading along the southern slopes of the Nightcap Range.
"During the public exhibition of the Future Water Project in 2020, Rous received numerous submissions, including feedback from traditional custodians of the area," said the county council. "This feedback raised concerns about potentially substantial impacts to both the environment and cultural heritage."
Now farmers on the Alstonville Plateau are concerned that a plan to take water from deep level aquifers beneath rolling fields of macadamia nuts and avocados will impact on their primary production.
"Why throw the option of a new dam out the window?" asked Mr Austin during the launch of Our Futures Northern Rivers this week. "Water from that supply will be the most affordable. The community will know what they are getting. They will have a locked-in guaranteed price."
Mr Austin said the proposed dam site - with nearly half of that land already owned by the county council - was mostly degraded with lantana, camphor and privet.
In 2018 a proposal to supply bottled water from the same aquifer met with angry opposition from farmers, greens, councillors and residents worked together to block the proposal put forward by Victorian businessman Tim Carey.
"People get caught up in the emotion," he said at the time. "The whole bottled water industry uses .001 per cent of all groundwater while the vast majority goes to agriculture."
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