IN THE letters columns of the Huon Valley News of February 3, Franklin resident Martin Riddle provided what is probably the most objective account yet of the state of play in the Huon Valley water scheme’s pumphouse and pipeline controversies.
His situationer was timely considering the Australian auditor-general’s recent criticism of the allocation, by the former Howard government in the lead-up to the last federal election, of money to water projects nationwide.
Radio National’s AM, on February 5, reported that an audit of the Howard government’s $1.6 billion Water Smart Australia program “has found projects in marginal electorates were funded against the advice of the National Water Commission”. Federal Water Minister Penny Wong was reported as saying the auditor-general’s observations would be “carefully considered”; and federal Greens spokesperson Rachel Siewert said: “I would very strongly urge the government to go back and look at those projects to see if . . . the decisions made were . . . the best decisions and the best projects were funded.”
The RN report makes it worth considering whether the entire Huon Valley water scheme, developed without community consultation over several years by the council (and now in the process of being implemented by the infant and, apparently, still organisationally unstable Southern Water body, which is owned by a dozen southern councils), should be reviewed.
The cost of this dubious scheme seems to be soaring towards $30 million, a sum of money that could be better spent on more appropriate public services, such as medical centres and education. And, in light of the prospect of significant climate change, it is time to pause and consider whether the beleaguered old Huon River is, in the long run, capable of providing community water that might more reasonably be obtained in the manner of all those people not on the present system — via roof run-off into tanks.
(The Franklin federal electorate is marginal and it is reasonable to think that vote-buying could well have been on political leaders’ minds when they promised a dollar-for-dollar funding of a water system that, on examination today, might not be the right one for the valley.)
Martin Riddle’s summation of the two Franklin forums was a huge help to those of us trying to follow Southern Water’s efforts to make the best of the flawed and, until a few months ago, secret water scheme it inherited from the Huon Valley Council.
Southern Water already has all the hallmarks of becoming yet another gigantic state government bureaucratic and organisational bungle, but — whatever its future, and of water management statewide — in Franklin the urgent question is whether it is still possible to prevent a pipeline being laid along the historic canal that was cut, with convict labour, through the Huon River’s South Egg Island in 1838.
Riddle’s account of the forums arranged by Southern Water indicates that it is now unlikely that Southern Water will put a pumphouse across the road from the Palais. News that the hare-brained pumphouse location, contained in the plan handed by council to Southern Water, is likely to be abandoned in favour of another site is good news to Franklin residents, especially those whose businesses and homes are near the Palais.
Poor old Franklin already has enough problems with its waterside image, made even worse last February when the council committed an act of cultural barbarism by demolishing the historic oval-side football clubrooms. (That the demolition raid occurred without notice, at first light and under police surveillance was a measure of council’s fears of public opposition to its intentions.)
More worrying to valley residents with a sense of history and an aversion to cultural barbarism is the likelihood that — unless sufficient community pressure is brought to bear on DPIPWE to win its permission to allow a pipe to be buried across South Egg Island — Southern Water will be forced to lay it along the canal.
What is at issue here is the welfare of a valuable piece of Huon history — the South Egg Island canal, which should already have earned its right to be preserved without modification.
As a relative newcomer to the valley, I became aware of the canal last year when, in the dying light of a perfect autumn evening, Living Boat Trust Grebes rowed us Cygnetians through it after picking us up at the Cradoc ramp. (In a show of cross-river camaraderie, we were on our way to the Franklin Arts Ball.)
Early this month, I reinforced my memories of that mystical canal moment when my son and I paddled our kayak through it in the late afternoon. As we travelled east-west, at the bottom of the tide, we found ourselves concentrating on staying within the narrowed mainstream, so we were not able to observe our wider surrounds.
It was on our return journey, just short of dusk on a perfect summer’s evening, that we were able to seriously absorb the charm and beauty of this very special place.
The canal, as its name implies, is a human creation. Yet time and the healing powers of nature have sculpted its environment so delicately that, as one quietly slips into it, the sensation is not just of peace and seclusion; rather, it is of having drifted way back — long before convict unfortunates slaved at the whim of their masters — into an atmosphere redolent of the primeval.
Paddles stilled, we sat and marvelled at the tranquillity. When a raptor flapped quietly northwards beneath the canopy, two doves that had been contentedly coo-ing on a low perch frantically fled south, full speed ahead. We, as a part of nature herself, were watching nature at work — and what we saw was, indeed, good.
There is no way we could have been so entranced had we been sitting alongside a huge, clearly human-manufactured, pipeline pinned to the side of the canal.
We became acutely aware that, in the 170 or so years since the canal was first cut, nature had reclaimed her own — and we felt that she still welcomes unthreatening visitors to appreciate her works of art that have healed what was once a human scar.
It would be a crime to lay a pipeline along this living monument to nature’s ability to set the world aright despite humans’ relentless determination to do the wrong thing by their planet home.
The quicker the South Egg Island canal is granted heritage recognition and protection the better.
Meanwhile, more urgently, the answer to the threat to the canal lies in Southern Water’s appeal at the Franklin forums for community pressure on DPIPWE to grant permission to allow the pipeline to be buried on the island rather than installed along one side of the canal.
DPIPWE officers reading this Guessing Game might ponder whether there is a case for weighing environmental damage to a narrow strip of land on South Egg Island against the aesthetic damage that would be caused to the natural image of the canal through the presence of a huge pipeline.
Sure, there would be momentary disruption of vegetation and fauna while the pipe was being buried across the island, but, as in the wake of wildfire, nature would quickly repair the damage and flora/fauna disruption would be minimal and temporary.
Meanwhile, back in the canal, there would be no new sign of human depredation.
Here are a few shots taken last year when Living Boat Trust Grebe training boats carried Cygnet Franklin Arts Ball-goers through the canal after picking them up at the Cradoc ramp. I think probably the first and second show the canal best:
PS: Southern Water’s application for approval to lay the pipeline through the South Egg Island canal (even though it would prefer to bury the pipeline across the island) is to be considered this week by the Huon Valley Council at its monthly ordinary meeting (Wednesday, February 10, at 6pm).
— Bob Hawkins is a Huon Valley ratepayer and an advocate for transparency in all democratic institutions. He is not a member of any political organisation.