Snowy sell-off scuttled

If you ever thought you can’t make a difference to an arrogant government, the halted sale of Snowy Hydro should make you think again.

The Greens legal advice showing that the sale was illegal really upset the PM’s applecart. This was the main motivator that saw a turn-around, although the press gallery were not wanting to focus on this. A huge groundswell of older conservative voters getting outraged, evidence of files being shredded, farmers and rural lobby groups fuming, Alan Jones damning the PM and the sudden city ground-swell over a rural issue, added to the sudden back-flip from three governments on the 2nd June. Rarely has such a decision been reneged on so quickly. Only days before, the NSW, Victorian and Federal Governments were staunchly supporting the absolute need to sell Snowy Hydro. Now if only we can harness such public outrage for our forests, or at least to make the pollies stick to the promise of environmental flows for the Snowy River.

History of the scheme

In the 1890s Banjo Patterson made this river famous by a whip-cracking cowboy chasing brumbies. Sixty years later the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electricity Scheme started, adding to the river’s fame. This scheme harnessed the river’s might in the largest and boldest engineering project that Australia has ever undertaken.

The scheme’s precious water enabled irrigated agriculture to start up in drier inland areas. The hydroelectric power it generated, rocketed industrial growth along the eastern seaboard.

It takes 99% of the Snowy’s water to generate power, after which most is turned inland and emptied into the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers for use by thirsty irrigation farmers, who are now totally dependent on the Snowy’s water. Instead of feeding the mid and lower reaches of the Snowy River in NSW and Victoria, its water instead covers over a million acres of crops and keeps the inland rivers from being sucked totally dry by agriculture.

Water – now the issue

Selling off power stations has happened before, but never have governments attempted to sell a precious river (having control of when and how released is as good as owning the river). As time goes by, the fresh water that powers the hydro scheme will become much more critical to this nation than electricity ever will be. In the near future, water could be more precious than oil. This is not just a minor stream generating minor amounts of power; it is the lifeblood of the SE coast.

Snowy Hydro runs seven power stations, 16 major dams (containing up to 13 times that of Sydney Harbour!), 145km of interconnected tunnels and 80km of aqueducts. Yet was offered for peanuts.

Environmental flows

So with the sale scuttled, getting environmental flows back into the Snowy is the back on the agenda. In 2000, when Craig Ingram was voted in as East Gippsland’s independent Member of Parliament, he tipped out the National Party candidate on the single issue of ‘Save the Snowy². Ingram then managed to get the NSW and Victorian governments to promise an initial 21% of the Snowy’s flow restored, rising to 28% by 2012 (actually a river needs 100% of its water for true environmental flows). What we have seen to date is a big fanfare around the release of 4% from the Mowamba Wier in 2002 that was shut off again in early 2006. Getting the Snowy its water back is not looking hopeful and Craig Ingram seems to have lost some of his passion and commitment since that agreement.

Jill / ABC Landline 21.5.06 / ABC 2.6.06

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