There's a wide chasm between members of the Mole River community and WaterNSW. The former is seeking answers now on how a proposed new dam will affect themselves, their surrounds and the ecology. The latter is saying it can't provide those answers until its ongoing investigations result in the Final Business Case at the end of next year.
An online community input facility didn't meet the community's need for input, and very limited face-to-face meetings with project personnel to date frustrated those keen to have their say although this is being remedied to some extent.
WaterNSW says it is continuing to engage with the local community as it develops a detailed business case for a proposed new dam on Mole River, holding information sessions in Tenterfield over recent weeks with the Mayor Peter Petty, General Manager Terry Dodds, members of local council and some landowners.
WaterNSW said it has so far held 36 landowner briefings, five stakeholder briefings, sent more than 70 emails and made almost 180 calls as part of preliminary investigative work for the Mole River project.
Members of the wider community, however, whose property is not directly impacted by the dam's potential footprint, have been venting their frustration over their unanswered questions. This includes those downstream on Mole River who don't know how their water access will be affected.
Project Director Iain McGregor said he was aware that some members of the public were unable to attend sessions in Mingoola due to COVID-19 restrictions limiting attendance numbers.
"We're very conscious that a number of people weren't able to attend a meeting in Tenterfield two weeks ago due to COVID-19 restrictions. I want to reassure anyone interested in the project that additional sessions will be held very soon," Mr McGregor said.
"These are very preliminary meetings aimed at providing key stakeholder groups a look at the timeline for the Mole River project. We will not have detailed information until the completion of the business case which is expected late next year."
WaterNSW said the business case will help inform the government's decision on whether the project is to proceed.
Others who also consider themselves stakeholders took exception to being excluded from the November 11 meeting at Mingoola Hall. Julia Harpham said they had offered to set up a PA system and other facilities to enable the meeting to be held outdoors, allowing a larger audience, but this offer was declined.
Instead a gathering of concerned citizens rallied outside the hall for the duration of the meeting, hoping submitted questions would be addressed.
WaterNSW did replied in writing to questions posed by the Mingoola Progress Association which included the yield and reliability of the dam, changes to water charges and licencing, and the effect on underground recharge, but there were no definitive answers.
Mr McGregor said specifics of most of the queried aspects will be developed as part of the Final Business Case.
The fate of existing unregulated licences and allocations, should the project be funded for delivery, will be determined by the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment under a new water sharing plan, informed by hydrological and scenario modelling to determine how much water can be extracted.
Should the business case's funding strategy include cost recovery from water users, the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) will be asked to 'ensure that the share of the cost borne by water users is fair and affordable.'
Two webinars for the general community are now scheduled for December 1 at 10am and 6pm, while webinars for potentially impacted landowners were held on November 24 at 9am and 6pm.
Aside from the lack of suitable internet reception strength to support participation in webinars, Mrs Harpham said community members were adamant that they wanted to meet with project representatives face-to-face.
To that end, WaterNSW said it is working with Mingoola Progress Association president Richard Magner to schedule several COVID-safe small group meetings for members in the week of December 7.
"We would like to acknowledge the support from the association in working with us to organise these meetings," Mr McGregor said.
"We would also like to acknowledge the support from Tenterfield Shire Council for the project and work being undertaken to develop the business case.
"We are also working with 42 Registered Aboriginal Parties and they will play a crucial role in the project as it progresses.
"More than $200,000 has been invested into the local community to date and we've engaged more than 10 local businesses."
The business case on the proposed Mole River Dam is due for completion in late 2021, and Mr McGregor said community engagement will continue through this process.
"The Border Rivers is a large catchment that services both NSW and QLD and its water supply is serviced by three relatively small catchment dams and large on-farm storages. A new dam will have the potential to secure more water in flood sequences so that in drier times more water would be available to communities, agriculture, and the environment."
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced a jointly-funded package of around $1 billion last October for the planning and delivery of three new or augmented dams in NSW. This included $24 million for a final business case for building a new dam on Mole River.
Anyone seeking further information or to register for an upcoming session can contact WaterNSW on 1800 560 729.