Hells Gates Dam: July 2020 Update

Turbid water below Burdekin Falls Dam

Turbid water below Burdekin Falls Dam (NQCC field trip, June 2020)

As more information comes to light from feasibility studies into the construction of Hells Gates Dam, it becomes ever clearer that this proposal is not only economically unfeasible but also a significant risk to the health of the Burdekin River and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park - particularly when considered alongside other projects proposed for the river system.

Economic Feasibility

In the last month, NQCC obtained the full technical reports for the SMEC 2018 Feasibility Study for Hells Gates Dam. Detailed reading strongly suggests that the dam is not economically feasible and would become an ongoing burden to taxpayers, with a negative or marginal projected return on investment on public funds. 

Environmental Risks

The Burrows Report of 1999 highlighted two major issues with impacts on aquatic life: (a) increased turbidity of water below Hells Gates Dam (affecting over half the length of the Burdekin River); and (b) loss of sediment to maintain Cape Bowling Green.

We are also concerned about the range of potential impacts on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP). Increased levels of nutrients released into the GBRMP often result in increased outbreaks of coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish, lower coral diversity, algal blooms (that reduce light and add their own nutrients), increased susceptibility to coral bleaching and some coral diseases. 

NQCC volunteers have made several recent field trips to Ayr and then along Cape Bowling Green, where erosion and coastal die-back were observed and recorded with drone footage. Whether or not these impacts are the direct or indirect result of the Burdekin Falls Dam is unknown, but research is ongoing.

Cape Bowling Green erosion

Exposure of black clay substrate and die-back of the tree-line at Cape Bowling Green (NQCC field trip, June 2020)

Systems Approach to the Health of the Burdekin River

In addition to Hells Gates Dam, business cases are being developed for two other projects on the Burdekin: Urannah Dam and Big Rocks Weir, as well as calls to raise the Burdekin Falls Dam wall. Each of these projects is being assessed in isolation. At present about 13% of water from the Burdekin is extracted for irrigation. If all projects proceeded then extraction of water from the Burdekin would increase to approximately 30-40%, with dramatic impacts on the environment. 

NQCC aims to protect the health of the entire Burdekin River system. This requires all proposed projects to be considered in conjunction with one another and their cumulative impacts considered. The "Burdekin Basin Water Plan", due for review in September 2023, has a limited mandate and will not serve to examine all the emerging proposals. 

Letter to the Editor Printed in the Townsville Bulletin

Letter to the Editor

Letter Text: 

Dam study is flawed
North Queensland Conservation Council

CONTROVERSIAL: The site of the proposed Hells Gates Dam on the Burdekin River. Picture: TRUDY BROWN

"A LOT of Northern Australia would win from the $5.3 billion Hells Gates Dam lifting agribusiness and general economic development.” So claims Simon Pressley, head of research for Propertyology, referring to the 2018 feasibility study conducted by Townsville Enterprise Ltd (TB, 22/07).

This sounds like good news, but deeper reading reveals significant flaws in the feasibility study and the quoted figures.

For example, the return on investment is negative for all but two of the crops investigated, capsicum and avocados.

Additionally, these estimates are somewhat misleading as they include both direct and indirect benefits, but not the indirect costs.

Detailed research conducted on behalf of the North Queensland Conservation Council (NQCC) strongly suggests the dam is not economically feasible.

With water costs from the Hells Gates Dam estimated to be 10 times those in the Lower Burdekin, subsidising such costs would become an ongoing burden to taxpayers.

Hells Gates Dam, when considered in conjunction with other proposed projects for the Burdekin River (including Big Rocks Weir, Urannah Dam and raising the Burdekin Falls Dam wall), would result in the reduction of 30-40 per cent of the Burdekin River’s flow.

This would have immense and permanent consequences for the health of the Burdekin River, coastal areas and the Great Barrier Reef.

Of greatest concern is that each proposal is being considered and assessed in isolation.

NQCC has written to the co-ordinator general of Queensland calling for a mechanism to be urgently created to ensure all projects in the Burdekin River system are examined together.

It further proposes that an independent expert panel be created to review the various studies and business cases to ensure they have addressed the economic feasibility and environmental impacts on the biggest river system in Queensland.

Actions and Next Steps

NQCC has drafted a letter urging the Queensland State Government to ensure that some mechanism is put in place to assess all these proposals together in terms of the overall Burdekin River system. 

We have also supported Mackay Conservation Group's campaign to protect the Burdekin River by making a submission on Urannah Dam, in which we highlighted the need for coherent appraisal of all dam projects. 

These issues have been presented to Townsville Enterprise Ltd. (on 8 July) and to Federal MP for Herbert Phillip Thompson (5 July). Mr Thompson undertook to write to the Federal Environment Minister to alert her to these issues.

NQCC is in the process of consulting with a range of stakeholders throughout the Lower Burdekin region. If you would like to assist us in any way, you can express interest in volunteering here and we'll be in touch! 


NQCC would like to extend our appreciation to the following:

  • NQCC Secretary John Connell and President Peter Hanley for their consistent hard work on this issue
  • David Cassells for his assistance with our letter to the State Government
  • Mackay Conservation Group for their groundwork and research into Urannah Dam 
  • Pallarenda Coffee Van for the drone footage
  • Yongala Dive and Alva Beach Tourist Park for their quad bike guides

NQCC has been engaging with this development for several years.
You can read our previous articles on this topic here.

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