Featured in Tasmanian Country Newspaper 10th June 2022
Devil in the detail of dam safety
It is nice to see some rain starting to fill our dams, as autumn has, on the whole, been a bit dry. In saying that, some parts of Tasmania’s South East experienced their highest daily-recorded rainfall for May. As the water flows through the catchments, and in some cases into farm storage, I am conscious of the extreme weather others are experiencing across some parts of the mainland and the challenges too much rain creates. A little bit of water is great, but as we know all too well, too much can be dangerous.
As farmers we are adept at balancing risks and mitigating danger every day. From operating heavy equipment, handling the odd cranky large animal, and in some cases, managing the impacts of excess rainfall in dams that store large quantities of water. Our ability as farmers to effectively harness rainfall has always been an extremely important part of Tasmania’s farming landscape. We are well aware that Tasmania receives about 13% of Australia’s average annual rainfall across 1% of the nation’s landmass. While we are lucky to receive valuable rain, the large bodies of water we store can also pose a risk, if not properly managed.
So the conversations happening with a number of farmers around the state, regarding dam safety reporting requirements, are topical as the effects of La Niña continue.
According to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania (if you didn’t know already that’s DPIPWE’s new name) there are more than 10,000 dams across the state on private property. This number excludes all the Hydro Tasmania storages and mine tailings dams etc. The Australian National Committee on Large Dams (ANCOLD) sets the guidelines for dam safety. It categorises’ dam risk by potential consequence. Every dam has a risk rating according to ANCOLD criteria. Dams across Tasmania are also regulated under The Water Management Act 1999 ('the Act') and the Water Management (Safety of Dams) Regulations 2015. More information on the requirements of the Act and Regulations is available on the Department’s website https://nre.tas.gov.au/water/d... .
Of the more than 10,000 private dams (most of which are farm dams), there are about 329 dams with a fairly high ‘dam consequence’ rating, which the Department is currently looking into, to ensure their safety is adequately monitored and mandatory reporting is centrally tracked. On the whole, I think the process the Department is going through regarding dam safety is well intentioned, sincere and necessary. All farmers want their infrastructure to be safe and functional for those on our properties and, in the case of water storages, those adjoining and downstream of our properties. Where the process gets a little convoluted, and lost in translation between intention and result, is the ambiguity regarding expected costs of compliance (current and ongoing) and, in some cases, where the ongoing cost burden rests.
There are 18 firms listed on the Department’s website that can complete the process of assessing, monitoring and reporting dam-safety status on behalf of farmers, yet there are no guidelines regarding expected costs for dam type or size and acceptable timeframes for the work to be completed. There are also about five instances of which the TFGA is currently aware of where the category risk rating of some dams have changed due to council zoning changes and infrastructure development typically downstream of existing dams.
The burden of who should foot the bill of the ongoing inspection and monitoring costs, where the dam consequence rating has been changed due to planning decisions, needs constructive discussion between the parties involved. We also need to ensure councils as the planning authority are more cognisant of farm infrastructure during their planning processes. Perhaps we could explore options being used in other states, such as the collaborative approach being taken in Victoria, where batches of paperwork are being processed together by one provider, saving time and money in regards administrative processes.
As I said before, I think the track the Department is going down with farmers who are being impacted by changes is necessary and well intentioned, but there are still opportunities to improve the practicalities of what is currently a complex and convoluted system to ultimately enhance the workability of the process.
TFGA Water Committee Chair
Image: Dam outside Evandale.