Halt, defend yourself, stand: Protecting Burragorang before and after Warragamba Dam

Taylor Clarke, Gundungurra

My name is Taylor Clarke. I am a proud Gundungurra woman, my people are the Bidjiwong people of Burragorang Valley. We are the custodians of lands spanning approximately 11,000 kilometres, bordering Tharawal, Darug, Wiradjuri and Ngunawal nations. Much of our Country is now within what is known as the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area (GBMWHA), and Sydney’s Water Catchment around Warragamba Dam.

My grandmother was the last of our family to be born in the valley. When she was a child, our home was evacuated in order for the construction of the dam that would flood our valley. In order to maintain access and connection to the area, my great grandfather gained employment on the construction of the dam.

The Warragamba Emergency Scheme emerged as an interim solution to Sydney’s growing water security concerns following ‘The Great Drought’, which lasted for 8 years from 1934. Wallacia was used as the base of operations for workers prior to the Scheme and the eventual construction of Warragamba Dam. Jack McGlynn, a former engineer writes; “Overlooking Warragamba Gorge was a scene of unspoilt beauty, unchanged since first settled, wildflowers in profusion, rock wallabies, and the Warragamba Gorge as straight as a gun barrel disappearing into a blue haze…

Construction of the weir on the Warragamba River, 1939. Photo supplied

The main features of the scheme included the construction of the Warragamba Weir across the Warragamba River (50 feet high), and a pumping plant and pumping station; a large underground chamber which required the excavation of 3,000 cubic metres of sandstone. The water was to be pumped from this chamber at the Warragamba Weir 26 kilometres to Prospect Reservoir.

Despite the Warragamba Emergency scheme being viewed as the solution to Sydney’s growing water security concerns, water storage at Prospect fell to an all time low of 16.5% and it is thought that it would have fallen further down to 5% without Warragamba’s contribution. The situation became so dire, and water restrictions extremely severe, that the government took the added measure of restricting the brewing of beer to two thirds of the regular total production.  Significant rain did not fall over this area until 1942.

Construction of the Dam as we know it today took 12 years, from 1948 to 1960.

It is important to note that the Emergency Scheme was functioning for 19 years before the Dam was completed, so the flooding we talk about herein is considered in two stages – first with the Emergency Scheme and then with further inundation occurring once the dam had finished construction and was filled.

The construction of a dam on the Warragamba River was first considered in 1869, then again in 1877, 1911 and 1941. It was in 1941, in the wake of a severe drought, that the Sydney Water Board agreed on the project – despite it being rejected on so many grounds (primarily around water quality and concerns of flood waters passing over the top of the dam) by both a Royal Commission and a Parliamentary Standing Committee in 1910.

It is known that little to no consultation occurred with residents at the time of the Warragamba Emergency Scheme and the following construction of Warragamba Dam. However, it has been found that there was strong opposition from residents in “The Burragorang Defence League”. They write, “The Water Board has taken the strange action of failing to interview, or even notify by letter, the residents of the Burragorang Valley that they have decided to flood them out.”

A key argument within the handout provided by this group was around the agricultural value of the Burragorang. Farmers were able to cultivate maize without the use of artificial fertilisers and the wider area was free of plant diseases that would diminish crops. This is ironic, as a big push for the project from the downstream community came from their desire to draw water from Warragamba for irrigation purposes in Penrith. It was thought that the Burragorang farmers could have supplied the whole of Sydney with fresh vegetables daily, but the pressing urgency for water security at this time far outweighed the possible value to be gained from this agricultural area.

In the 20 years before the flood, an estimated 100,000 people visited the valley to enjoy its natural beauty. The Burragorang was declared a sanctuary, protected for its precious flora and fauna, drawing in experts in these fields as well as recreational bushwalkers and campers. The Burragorang Defence League writes, “What an extraordinary position has now arisen – The Government of New South Wales is allowing the Sydney Water Board to take away from the people an area which was declared a sanctuary for their enjoyment.”

For the construction of the Dam, the land was reacquired by the government, and roughly 170 Aboriginal and settler families were forced to relocate – expected to make this sacrifice to ensure water security for the growing needs of Greater Sydney. Over 4,800 hectares of the Valley was submerged, an estimated 80% of sites sacred to Gundungurra people below the waterline have been lost forever – among these sites; scar trees, painting and carving sites, burials, ceremony grounds and the songlines.

When the residents were forced to leave, they took with them what records we did have, the stories, photos, documents and family trees of those who called Burragorang home. As Aboriginal people, our history is oral. Our knowledge of place and story is passed from one mouth to another and as such, we have lost a lot that we will never find again.  My mum, Kazan Brown, has spent much of her life making connections with these families again and piecing the story back together. This work is something I have always hoped to continue.

The most recent incarnation of Warragamba Dam development is to raise the wall by 17 metres, in order to mitigate flooding on the Hawkesbury-Nepean flood plain. My people are now working to oppose this proposal. It is extraordinary that after so much of our culture has already been lost, the NSW Government would now consider a proposal that will inundate a further 4,700 hectares of the Burragorang Valley.

In many ways it has been incredibly disheartening, researching for this article, to read the words of Burragorang Valley 80 years ago, raising the same concerns and going through the same fraught processes that we are going through now. But as frustrating as this has been, I also feel so much more responsibility to continue this work, for my ancestors but also for the wider community who called Burragorang home and who were not able to continue this fight for their home.

We will never give up this fight. The words of my ancestor George Riley ring true today, and echo with the voices of generations of Gundungurra people and Burragorang residents behind me – “Garra-bee-yanga yinga-go! Halt, defend yourself, stand!” a call to arms, to defend our home against those who seek to destroy it.

So, where is the GIVE A DAM campaign at now?

Harry Burkitt, Colong Foundation for Wilderness

I guess in contemporary Australian politics it would seem unremarkable, but the policies of the present NSW Government have become explicitly hostile to even undertaking a robust and thorough environmental and cultural assessment of the dam proposal. The NSW Government Minister responsible for environment and cultural assessments, the Hon. Stuart Ayres MP, has in a single breath dismissed the need for an assessment of the serious threats posed to the World Heritage Area.

I provide below some extracts from a recent radio interview Minister Ayres gave on 2GB about the assessments for the project, for which he himself is responsible for.

“We are not giving up any more time. We are not bowing to what is for all intents and purposes environmental terrorism, telling people they can’t do things to protect their life and their property… That is what I am elected to do, to strike the right balance between people’s safety and the environment. That’s what we are doing. We have assessed all of the other options and raising the dam wall is by far and away the best option.”

It is abundantly clear from the Minister’s own remarks that the environmental and cultural assessments are not intended to objectively or thoroughly evaluate the impact raising Warragamba Dam wall would have on the Outstanding Universal Values of GBMWHA. Indeed, the Minister has asserted his own belief that severe environmental and cultural impacts within the GBMWHA are justified regardless of any assessment processes currently taking place. Further examples of this prejudiced approach can be seen in the environmental offsetting process established for the project, details of which were aired recently on ABC 7.30 and are well worth a watch on YouTube. [Concerns about environmental impact of plan to raise height of Warragamba Dam wall | 7.30 ]

The most concerning aspect of the belligerent predisposition of Stuart Ayres, and his agency Infrastructure NSW, are their complete disinterest in considering alternative flood management strategies for the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley, including the option to not place an additional 134,000 people on floodplains around Windsor and Richmond over the next 30 years (which is the current policy of the NSW Government). Not to mention the need for evacuation roads, levees, progressive buy-back schemes of flood prone properties and the management of the existing dam’s storage level – all options which the Australian insurance industry is now backing over the dam raising proposal.

When far cheaper, more effective and sustainable solutions to flood management abound you really do wonder what drives this zombie dam project further down the planning pipeline. Maybe it’s Stuart Ayres’ vanity, or maybe it’s more sinister motivations of floodplain developers? Regardless, it almost goes without saying that traditional owners, conservationists and our friends across the international conservation community will not be resting until this project is put to rest.

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