The greening of central Australia

Date: 20.07.2012

Central Australia is presently an environmental wonderland of new growth and myriad wildlife. Everald Compton has a plan to take northern water through the Red Centre to aid infrastructure development and keep the water flowing.

The greening of central Australia
Waterways to green Australia

BHP Billiton announced approval for US$1.2 billion in pre-commitment capital for the first phase of the Olympic Dam Project to develop an open pit mine in South Australia earlier this year.

Olympic Dam is a mining centre in South Australia located some 550km north-north west of the state's capital, Adelaide. It is the site of an extremely large iron oxide copper gold deposit producing cooper, uranium, gold and silver. The site hosts an underground mine as well as an integrated metallurgical processing plant. It is the fourth largest copper deposit and the largest-known single deposit of uranium in the world, though uranium represents only a minority of the mine's total revenue.

The funding will facilitate the procurement of long-lead items such as trucks and accommodation, infrastructure development and early site works for the first phase of the project.

"Given the quality of this resource, the Olympic Dam Project team is completing studies to create one of the world's largest open pit mines with the potential to increase copper production from around 180,000 tonnes per annum to 750,000 tonnes per annum and beyond," BHP Billiton CEO Martin Kloppers said at the time of the announcement.

BHP Billiton has received approval from the Commonwealth, South Australia and Northern Territory governments to significantly expand its mining and processing operations.

The Olympic Dam mine uses 35 million litres of Great Artesian Basin water each day, making it the largest industrial user of underground water in the Southern Hemisphere.

Water is pumped along an underground pipeline from two bore fields located 110km and 200km to the north of the mine. The salty bore requires desalination before it is used. Some studies have indicated that extraction of water is causing nearby mound springs to dry, which is impacting rare and endangered flora nad fauna.

Contaminated water from mining operations is passed through a series of sealed ponds where it evaporates.


The massive expansion of the BHP mine at Olympic Dam is splendid economic news for Australia in terms of job creation and export revenue, as is the impending opening of the Galilee Coal Basin in Queensland, which has the potential to become Australia's largest coal field.

Reports tell us BHP has signed an agreement with the SA Government to build a water desalination plant near Port Augusta, with pipelines to Olympic Dam at an estimated capital cost of $4 billion and an annual operating and maintenance cost of $200 million. Some of the water will be used to meet general water needs in SA also.

This decision shows once again the unfortunate tendency of state governments to make decisions in isolation without looking at a solution that will create economic and social opportunities across the nation as well.

The development of Olympic Dam is occurring at the same time as the Galilee coal mines are preparing to commence operations, and are implementing their planned rial and port capacity based on Abbott Point at Bowen.

All of the proposed mines face problems of considerable magnitude in finding an adequate water supply which will not decimate the water needs of farming and grazing properties in the region.

That fact is, Olympic Dam and the people of SA can have their water needs totally met by channeling surplus water south from tropical rivers in the Gulf Country of Queensland at lesser capital and maintenance costs than a power-consuming desalination plant, while the same water channels will flow through the Galilee Basin to provide the requirements of the new mines and also enahnce rural industries in the region.

At the same time, in the same way, the water system can save the Murray Darling Basin by connecting into a tributary of the Darling at Tambo in Queenslnad and sending a non-stop supply of water down to the great farming communities of the Riverina and into the Murray, where it can serve the water-starved fruit growing area around Renmark.

Two additional benefits are that:

  • Lake Eyre will be permanently filled with water, improving the harsh climate of central Australia and creating a number of farming and grazing opportunities as water flows towards the lake (such as cotton farming in the Channel Country of Queensland)
  • a giant food bowl will be opened on the black soil plains around Longreach in the central west of Queensland, providing extra food security for Australia and creating new export income by providing fruit and vegetables

I gathered together a small team, including water engineer Terry Bowring, and bush veteran John Thompson, to look at all the projects from a national perspective.

Thompson, who knows the bush like the back of his hand, drew up a rough mud map to give a general idea of the concept as a work-in-progress. Our starting point is based on the Gilbert River Aquifer up in the Gulf Country of Queensland. Its water level is 70m below its capacity and it can be used as a storage facility for dry years. A channel will be created from the Gilbert and surrounding rivers to fill the aquifer, plus a holding area from which water will flow down the Clarke River into the Burdekin. From the southern end of the Burdekin Dam, a channel will be built through the Galilee Coal Basin down to the headwaters of the Darling River System at Tambo, where water will flow to the mouth of the Murray in SA without any other canal being required.

From Tambo, the Barcoo also runs within a few kilometres of the planned canal, and its water flows into Copper Creek and down towards Lake Eyre. Just before its water reaches Lake Eyre, it crosses the Birdsville Track, and a canal will be built south from there and on to Olympic Dam.

In Queensland, an extra canal will be built for a short distance from the Gilbert River Aquifer to the Porcupine River and, further south, another small canal will link it to Landsborough Creek which flows into the Thomson near Longreach opening up the new food bowl.

In future years when a larger volume of water is needed to meet the requirements of all the envisioned projects, it will be easy to extend the canal north from the Gilbert River to tap into the strong flowing Norman River. Similarly, another canal can be built from the Tully River down to the Burdekin.

The initial construction will be around $4 billion, the same costs as envisaged for the desalination plant currently planned for Olympic Dam, but this expenditure has the extra benefit of opening up north and central Australia for significant economic development.

BHP would pay for the 300km canal running down the Birdsville Track, plus its share of the costs of the northern canals (about $2 billion dollars all up, I reckon). The Galilee mines and rural users in the north and centre would pay their share as well, while operating and maintenance costs would be similarly allocated.

All of this can be made part of the national flood mitigation program, which is long overdue.

This is an Olympic dream for Australia embracing far more than a water solution for Olympic Dam, the Galilee mines and inland Australia generally. A dream of such Olympic proportions can become reality - and quickly. It will fire the imagination of a nation which is currently depressed by the inane debates on trivia that flow from our parliaments, and are magnified by a headline ungry media.