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(Cairns... Far North Queensland)


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Selwyn Johnston



One person, with the support of the community, can make a difference



The Greatest Scheme of All

As the driest inhabited continent on Earth, it has been a continual dream of many Australians to be able to bring water to the arid inland, opening up the millions of hectares therein to agriculture, population and economic growth.

To date the only large-scale water diversion scheme implemented in Australia is the Snowy Mountains Scheme. But there have been many other schemes that were imaginatively conceived to increase water availability in Australia, but for various reasons have not been implemented.

Perhaps the most famous, and most controversial, of these has been...

The Bradfield Scheme

Dr. J. J. C. Bradfield CMG D.Sc. M.E. (1867-1943), born at Sandgate, Queensland and educated at Ipswich and the University of Sydney, designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge; was the consulting engineer on the Story bridge across the Brisbane River; helped design and plan the University of Queensland; engineered the building of Sydney’s electric railway system; and was deputy Chancellor of the University of Sydney from 1942 until his death.

He was associated with a great range of engineering work including the Cataract Dam near Sydney and the Burrinjuck Dam, which formed part of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area.

But Dr. Bradfield is possibly better known for something that he did not build, his magnificent plan for the watering of the inland Australia which he presented to the Queensland government in 1938, following a lifelong interest in irrigation and water conservation.

The arid interior of the Australian continent and intermittent flow of the vast river system that drains towards Lake Eyre have acted as a challenge to many men with dreams who sought to make the dry lands blossom.

These dreams have two recurring features… the filling of the dry bed of Lake Eyre in the centre of Australia in the hope that evaporation from the water surface would increase rainfall in the vicinity, and the diversion of Queensland coastal rivers to feed the watercourses of the inland system.

Dr. Bradfield’s plan involved diverting the waters of the upper reaches of the Johnson, Tully, Herbert, Burdekin and Flinders Rivers one into the other, then into the Thompson, thence into Lake Eyre, refilling it and, with evaporation, creating a climate change and rainfall throughout inland Australia.

The Lake Eyre Basin has a total catchment of approximately one fifth of Australia’s landmass (1.17 million square kilometres), with an average annual rainfall of no more that 230 millimetres… less than 10 inches.

On the other hand, the tropical north-eastern section of Queensland is a land of many rivers draining an area of 970,000 square kilometres with an average rainfall of 790 millimetres. It contains the highest rainfall areas in Australia.

It was such an obvious waste of Australia’s most valuable asset, WATER, that drove Dr. Bradfield to spend some of his later years riding through Queensland’s "super wet" belt, surveying his dream.

On horseback, and armed with only the most basic of surveying equipment, Dr. Bradfield fought his way through the dense rainforests of the mountains behind Innisfail and Ingham, to come up with the design for his grand plan. Such was his skill that later engineers and surveyors could find very little fault with the overall concept of his plan, and the sites he picked for his dams.

But, as mostly the case with men well ahead of their time, Dr. Bradfield’s dream of turning Central Australia into what he called his "Ghirraween" (A Place of Flowers), also had its detractors.

Following his first concrete proposal of the scheme in 1938 in a report to the Queensland government, and having great excitement and a large and loyal basis of support, it wasn’t long before the criticisms started to come.

In evidence on the Bradfield Scheme to the Commonwealth Rural Reconstruction Commission, an engineer - H. P. Moss, A.M.I.E. (Aust.) - told the commission that some parts of the scheme were feasible, that many of Bradfield’s claims could not be justified, and that no firm opinion could be expressed on other points without further technical investigation.

A more detailed assessment was made in 1974 by W. H. R. Nimmo, chief engineer of the Stanley River Works Board - later head of the Queensland Water Resources Commission - in a report to the Queensland government on Bradfield's 1938 proposals.

His general conclusions were that some portions of the Scheme were physically impossible - for instance, the building of a suitable dam with sufficient storage capacity at Hells Gates; that, at best, less than a third of the diverted flow of 170,000 litres of water per second envisaged by Bradfield would be attainable by any feasible modification of his original plans; and that, finally, much of the water suggested for diversion from the Tully, Herbert and Burdekin rivers would soon be required for use on the coast in power generation and irrigation.

Following a resurgence of interest in the Bradfield Scheme, sparked by criticism of the Burdekin Falls Dam project, in 1981 Dr Eric Heicecker, Senior Lecturer in Geology at Queens-land University; Roy Stainkey, a fourth generation Mid-West sheepman; and Bob Katter MP, then Queensland Minister for Northern Development, produced the Queensland NPA Water Resources Sub-Committee Report.

This report proposed using the waters from the upper reaches of the four coastal streams and diverting them onto the Mid-West and Central Western Plains for irrigation of crops, cattle fattening, timber farms and drought mitigation for sheep.

Consequently, the Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen announced that the Queensland government was going to move for ward with this revised scheme, and secured a commitment of $5 million from the then Federal government.

The Queensland government once again commissioned another study into its feasibility... this became known as the Cameron McNamara Report. Although only a limited report, Cameron McNamara said: "Our study shows that Bradfield's original concept of inter basin transfer across the Great Dividing Range is physically possible. However, many of Bradfield's details have to be modified in the light of the greater information now available."

Basing their criticisms primarily on what they saw as the high costs of getting water to the farm gate, Cameron McNamara went on to say: "To justify the high cost of such a scheme, the water would have to be used for intensive cropping."

But, getting close to the truth that is now emerging about the Bradfield Scheme - its ability to provide a massive employment boost to Australia, Cameron McNamara said: "Such a scheme would, however, generate substantial direct employment and even more through multiplier effects."

This Report, strongly support by Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and the then Queensland government raised sufficient interest for the Federal government to include Bradfield in the $640 million 5-Year Bicentennial Water Resources supplementary programme.

Although $5 million was allocated for feasibility on the Revised Bradfield Scheme even this supplementary section of the Bicentennial programme was axed by the incoming Hawke government. However, this was enough to prompt the Queensland government to come up with the most in-depth report yet.

Following Fraser’s 1983 defeat, when the Bicentennial programme was axed by the incoming Hawke Labor government, the Bjelke-Petersen government commissioned its own study by a consortium of Australia’s leading water engineers.

Bringing together four of Australia’s best-known hydraulic engineering firms - Gutteridge Haskins & Davey, Monro & Johnson, McIntyre & Associates, and Cameron McNamara - the State government formed the Bradfield Study consortium in 1984.

This report was never released!

Cabinet directed the Office of Northern Development to produce a Cost Benefit Assessment of the Consortium Report, indicating also Ways and Means. The Northern Development assessment was completed late in 1989.

With the fall of the National Party government, neither report was ever made public. The Consortium Report & Assessment and the Feasibility Study were both public documents but neither was published by the new Goss government.

In July 1993, a major breakthrough occurred when all of the relevant Shire Councils of North & Central Queensland banded together to form the Northern Australia Water Development Council.

This body is intent on seeing that the Bradfield Scheme is now given a fair hearing, and intends to liaise with both the Federal and State governments to bring about this second great national project - a project that will take Australia to its next level of development.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme gave Australia the post-war boost it needed to become a nation of strength in the 1950’s … the N.A.W.D.C. believes that The Bradfield Scheme will take the nation into the 21st Century as a regional leader.

In times such as we are experiencing now of high unemployment, and low economic growth, Australia should be looking to massive public works programmes, such as The Bradfield Scheme, to boost employment.

Compare our current situation with what happened in the United States under Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt with his New Deal during the 1930’s Depression.

Instead of paying people unemployment benefits - paying them not to work, Roosevelt instituted a programme that saw the building of the massive Tennessee Valley Authority project, and other such monuments to clear economic thinking in hard times such as the Hoover Dam - then the largest dam in the world - and the strategic planting of 2,000 square miles of trees to revitalise the degraded and droughted mid-west - the US heartland.

"While Roosevelt was paying people to work and building the USA into the great nation it is today, Australia was doing just the opposite."

"Australia experienced the highest level of unemployment of any nation in the world during the Great Depression - more than 30 percent - we have apparently learnt nothing. With real unemployment levels hovering to-wards 20%, we are repeating the mistakes of the thirties."

By creating a large public works project such as The Bradfield Scheme, the N.A.W.D.C. hopes to give Australia the economic boost it needs to not only once again make it The Lucky Country, but The Lucky WATERED Country.

Another major breakthrough in convincing the politicians in Canberra of the need for a long-term, national look at Australia’s rural infrastructure occurred in early 1995, when a bipartisan group of Federal politicians from across the full Party political spectrum came together to support the concept of a National Water Distribution Scheme (NWDS).

Comprising WA. Labor Shadow Minister for the North, Ernie Bridge OAM, Bob Katter MP, former Leader of the National Party Rt. Ian Sinclair, former Labor Minister for Transport Bob Brown, WA Liberal Senator Winston Crane, SA Liberal Member for Grey Barry Wakelin, and NPA Member for Parkes (NSW) Michael Cobb.


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Written and Authorised by Selwyn Johnston, Cairns FNQ 4870