An aerial photograph of Paradise Dam, which is currently at 75 per cent.
An aerial photograph of Paradise Dam, which is currently at 75 per cent.

Lawyer’s opinion: Paradise lost in a sad dam debacle

OPINION by Tom Marland

Food for Thought and Thought for Food


The last large-scale dam built in Australia was the Paradise Dam on the Burnett River in 2005.

It's original construction was a debacle.

The contractor went broke halfway through construction and the construction costs went over budget.

This didn't stop the then Premier of Queensland Peter Beattie declaring it as a major success which would deliver $800 million per year into the local economy.

And he was right.

Based on the water security of Paradise Dam, the Bundaberg region has seen a huge expansion of agricultural production over the past decade.

Bundaberg has become one of the largest macadamia, avocado, sugar cane and small crops growing regions in Australia bringing much needed economic growth, employment and investment to the Wide Bay region.

In 2011 and 2013, large scale flooding in the upper reaches of the Burnett River reportedly caused damage to the dam wall and spill way and there were fears the dam would fail.

One wonders how a dam built only eight years earlier and was designed for a one in 1000 year event could not withstand predicted flooding events.

Initial estimates to fix the damage were $24 million, before ballooning to $65 million.

Now, rather than fixing the dam, Sunwater has decided to simply lower the spill way by five metres and reduce its capacity to 42% (126,000ML) of its original constructed capacity.

In 2015, Paradise was down to 9.5% capacity.

In the current dry periods, at the planned future capacity, it would now be completely dry.

Whilst the floods caused damage to the dam it is believed that defects in its original construction is the reason why Sunwater is now lowering its capacity fearing future flood events may cause the dam to fail completely.

Paradise Dam was not constructed using traditional poured cement but utilised a quicker and cheaper construction methodology called roller compacted concrete (RCC).

Unlike conventional concrete, which needs several days to set, RCC can be built up non-stop in 30 cm dry layers of concrete being compacted by using rollers.

This makes the process quicker and cheaper. And in the case of Paradise, nastier.

Now, in the middle of a prolonged drought, Sunwater will release 105,000ML of water over the next 10 weeks. The water will be offered for "free" to farmers.

The Minister for Natural Resources, Anthony Lynham, has declared this a "win" for farmers.

Firstly, water is never "free". In the Burnett catchment the costs of electricity to pump water have increase by 500% in the last 10 years - helping government owned power companies reap $1.7 billion in profits in 2018 alone.

Burnett irrigators are already making decisions not to use water because of the high cost of pumping it.

Secondly, the dry conditions and the lack of infield rain means that areas of crops are already reduced and the limited 10-week window will see the majority of the water flow out to sea.

Thirdly, the long-term net result will see the water security for irrigators cut by 60% and because of competing demand, prices for water will inevitably go up, investment certainty will go down and economic return will follow the same path.

The failure of Paradise Dam, the mismanagement by Sunwater and the lack of leadership from Government now places the entire Bundaberg and Burnett River irrigation industry at risk and the economies which it supports.

It appears that Paradise was flawed from the start.

The question is - how long has Sunwater and the State Government known about this?

The next question is - what are they going to do to fix it?

My suggestion is to take some of the obscene profits made from government owned power utilities at the expense of hard-working farmers and build a new and bigger dam to replace Paradise.

Call it Paradise version 2.0 and built it properly.


Tom Marland is a well known lawyer from Bundaberg who also run a farm as well as the popular Facebook blog Food for Thought and Thought for Food.

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