A company’s vision for an advanced agricultural industry could spark the next Murray-Darling Basin

 

One of Australia’s most ambitious water and energy projects has found its legs in the Greater Whitsunday region, with Bowen River Utilities leading a rethink in how energy production, water management and irrigation can be done.

The Bowen River Scheme is designed to increase food, water and energy security in the region by harnessing the Bowen River to create a new dam, powering a 1000 megawatt hydroelectric generator while supplying water to more than 9000 hectares of farmland.

“It’s an ambitious task, but when you break down the arguments that have prevented innovation in this space and look at where energy investment is going, it’s the next logical step for the region,” said John Cotter, Managing Director of Bowen River Utilities.

Mr Cotter said Queensland’s business community has floated the idea of mixed utilities for decades, but evolving community expectations and public policies have raised doubts about the feasibility of private investment.

“Selling water is normally something the state-owned monopoly does and there’s never been much appetite from them to take on the risk of integrating energy production.

“Water investment has traditionally been a loss-making exercise in which the government produces water, taxpayers provide a subsidy and the community receive a share of the benefits, but that’s all changing,” Mr Cotter said.

According to Mr Cotter, the business case for providing water for domestic or agricultural consumption has struggled to attract investment on its own, but adding electricity production for purchase on the national energy grid could turn the proposal into the next Murray-Darling Basin.

“The Murray Darling Basin has taught us that there is value in delivering water where it’s needed most.

“By combining food, energy and dams under a single operation, we can have internal cross subsidies that link up so that governments and institutional investors can participate fairly with the right partner taking on the right amount of risk,” Mr Cotter said.

Bowen River Utilities has been backed by Infrastructure Australia, the Regional Investment Corporation, the National Water Grid Authority and the National Infrastructure Development Fund as a means to drive economic, environmental and social benefits for the region.

Tipped as one of Australia’s top biofood corridors, environmental assessments show the proposal manages nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment runoff by controlling the river system, supporting world class food production and contributing to the preservation of the Great Barrier Reef.

Slated to be shovel ready by 2022, Mr Cotter said the proposal will create manufacturing and agricultural jobs in the region, stabilising population levels in the nearby towns of Collinsville and Moranbah by diversifying their local economies.

But more needs to be done to prepare workers for the jobs needed to realise its full potential.

“To build a green agricultural industry, we need better physical and digital infrastructure like the NBN because local businesses are struggling under the weight of existing infrastructure,” Mr Cotter said.

“It’ll also take about two years to fill the skills gap needed to begin construction, thanks to the great work done by Queensland universities and TAFEs,” Mr Cotter said.

“We have a two-year indigenous training program as well, but we simply don’t think there’s enough labour for the long-term jobs.

“Having skilled leaders, teachers and institutional partners who can drive innovation in soil science, water management, indigenous land care practices and feral pest control will help underwrite the new jobs market in the region,” Mr Cotter said.

Bowen River Utilities is one of a handful of mega projects destined for Queensland between now and the end of financial year 2022/23 and is the largest project of its kind in the Greater Whitsunday region.

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