With much of Australia suffering severe drought, water security has become a major political issue in the state of Queensland.

Although the Far North of the state is in the tropics, around 67 per cent of Queensland is officially drought-declared and some areas have now endured seven years of low rainfall. Rural and regional communities which rely on farming have been hit the hardest.

The Federal Government in Canberra responded to the crisis back in 2015 by offering dam construction funding to state administrations, but Queensland’s Labour State Government has yet to build a single dam.

The state’s opposition, the Liberal National Party (LNP) led by Deb Frecklington, has strong roots in regional Queensland and has taken up the challenge of delivering new dams and water infrastructure.

At the end of last year the LNP announced it would back a new version of the Bradfield Scheme, the drought relief project first proposed in the 1930s by celebrated engineer John Bradfield – the designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

New Bradfied scheme

However, the LNP’s New Bradfield Scheme is vastly different to Bradfield’s original vision.

“In regional Queensland, water means jobs,” Frecklington said. “It’s that simple. If we don’t have water security many of our regions will not have a viable economic future. The coronavirus has inflicted huge economic damage on Queensland, as it has everywhere. But because of the drought, regional Queensland was already suffering long before coronavirus came along.”

Drought has been a concern for generations of Queenslanders and it’s what drove John Bradfield to devise his first plan 80 years ago. His plan would have diverted water to South Australia from the northern rivers in Queensland’s tropical region, but there were serious flaws in his scheme.

“Bradfield actually thought he could make it rain by filling South Australia’s Lake Eyre with water. He was a great engineer … but he was not a great climatologist,” Frecklington says. “However, the concept of transferring water from the wettest parts of Australia into the dry interior was sound – if it could be done efficiently.

“Our plan for the New Bradfield Scheme will do just that. We will transfer water efficiently from North Queensland – on the eastern side of the Great Dividing Range – to the drier but potentially highly-fertile lands on the western side of the range. Our plan will do more than just move water, of course. It will also generate jobs and create prosperity in many neglected parts of our state.” 

Burdekin Falls Dam in Queensland, Australia. During the 2019 floods in North Queensland, the volume of water spilling over the dam would have filled Sydney Harbour in just five hours. The Liberal National Party says that the New Bradfield water diversion scheme would capture North Queensland’s water and use it to secure the future of rural communities.

Bold and ambitious

The New Bradfield Scheme was developed by two of Queensland’s most respected and visionary captains of industry – Sir Leo Hielscher and Sir Frank Moore.

As a long-serving Under-Treasurer of Queensland and then chair of the Queensland Treasury Corporation, Hielscher is regarded as the most important architect of the state’s economic transformation over the last half-century. While Moore was the founding chairman of the Queensland Tourist and Travel Corporation and spearheaded the creation of international airports in Cairns and Townsville in the state’s north. Together, the two men have spent years developing an entirely new water infrastructure project inspired by Bradfield’s original concept.

“There is no doubt that the New Bradfield Scheme is bold and ambitious,” Frecklington admits. “It will be the biggest project of its kind in Queensland. But the overwhelmingly positive reaction to this project tells me that Queenslanders want their governments to start building for the future.

“Queenslanders know our state has huge potential and they want their leaders to unlock that potential. Queensland needs to get its economic X-factor back and the new Bradfield Scheme will achieve it.”

The size and scope of the New Bradfield Scheme is impressive:

  • The New Bradfield Scheme would significantly increase the height of the proposed Hell’s Gate Dam in North Queensland to over 100m, drawing water from the South Johnstone, Tully, Herbert and Burdekin rivers into a lake well over twice the size of the Burdekin Falls Dam.
  • While the original Bradfield Scheme required expensive pumping to transfer water over the range, the New Bradfield Scheme would use gravity to feed water from the larger Hell’s Gate Dam through tunnels across the range.
  • The water would be used to irrigate around 80,000 square kilometres of rich blacksoil plains to the south and west of Hughenden – an area substantially larger than Tasmania.
  • Instead of draining into Lake Eyre – as John Bradfield proposed – the New Bradfield Scheme would divert water into the Warrego River and the northern basin of the Murray-Darling System, where it will be reserved for use by Queensland farmers.
  • Instead of consuming electricity, the New Bradfield Scheme would generate enough hydroelectricity to power 800,000 Queensland homes.

The project complements the LNP’s previously-announced plans to improve water security on the eastern side of the Great Dividing Range by starting work on the Nullinga Dam, Urannah Dam, Rookwood Weir and raising the Burdekin Falls Dam. 

“During the 2019 floods in North Queensland, the volume of water spilling over Burdekin Falls Dam would have filled Sydney Harbour in just five hours,” Frecklington said. “That water all went out to the sea – but the New Bradfield Scheme would capture North Queensland’s water and use it to secure the future of rural communities.”

If elected in October 2020, a Deb Frecklington LNP Government will commission the Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to begin advanced planning for the New Bradfield Scheme.

The project would require billions of dollars of investment and take over a decade to construct, but Frecklington said the time had come for leaders in Queensland and Canberra to work together to tackle the huge financial and human costs of the drought.

“Tens of thousands of jobs would be created through the construction of the New Bradfield Scheme and the expansion of high-value agriculture,” she said. “Asia’s increasing demand for food will drive a surge in our food and fibre exports.  The economic future of struggling regional communities would be secured and we can help drought proof Queensland. Just balance those benefits against the huge cost of the present drought.”

Indeed, the Commonwealth Bank estimates the drought is costing Australia A$12 billion a year. Drought means higher food prices for consumers as well as lost revenue and higher spending for all levels of government.

“Beating the drought makes economic sense for every Australian,” Frecklington believes. “The New Bradfield Scheme is an incredible opportunity for Queensland. It’s time to seize it.” 

Low water during drought at Lake Tinaroo in Queensland. Sixty seven percent of Queensland is officially drought-declared and some areas have now endured seven years of low rainfall.