Paradise Dam was described as “the largest infrastructure failure in the nation’s history” when it was built between 2003-2005.
Paradise Dam was described as “the largest infrastructure failure in the nation’s history” when it was built between 2003-2005.

Paradise lost: The true cost of Qld dam failure

IT has been described as "the largest infrastructure failure in the nation's history,'' by a federal senator and that synopsis, sadly enough, pretty much sums up the saga of Paradise Dam.

"Paradise Lost'' may be a better appellation for the dam 80km south west of Bundaberg which was built by the State Government, poorly constructed, may still pose a serious danger to local residences and, after helping supercharge the state's economy, is now predicted to drain $2.4 billion out of it over the next three decades as its volumes are reduced by nearly half.

As the coronavirus grabbed the nation's attention in March, the story of the Paradise Dam has been largely lost to Queenslanders who barely knew of a high level inquiry into the dam which was found to have serious problems in its construction.

Twenty kilometres North West of Biggenden and 80 kilometres south west of Bundaberg, the Paradise Dam was designed and built between 2003 and 2005 during the years then Premier Peter Beattie led the state's Labor government.

The largest roller compacted concrete (RCC) dam in Australia was built to supply the Bundaberg Irrigation Scheme.

That scheme, gazed at from the year 2020, looks like some sort of public policy dinosaur, dating back to a time when what was known as "nation building'' was regarded almost as a way of life, broadly supported by the Australian electorate.

The scheme dates back to the 1960s when sugar was still king in Bundaberg and sugar growers were draining groundwater reserves as they tapped subartesian water bores to irrigate their crops.

In 1970 the then state government under premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen embarked on an ambitious dam building project which included the construction of the Fred Haigh Dam, completed in 1975 about 50km west of Bundaberg with a storage capacity of 562,000 megalitres, and a central piece of water infrastructure crucial to the project.

The Paradise Dam was part of the scheme's second phase and built by the state government just as Bundaberg's horticultural industry was edging out sugar cane as a massive income generator in the region.

To former Labor member for the Bundaberg-based federal seat of Hinkler, Brian Courtice, the Paradise Dam was the pivotal piece of infrastructure to underwrite the horticultural boom.

That included macadamia nuts and the hugely lucrative sweet potato crops which are now a major plank in the local economy, and which should hold promise of massive export opportunities in the decade ahead.

Courtice, whose family have been growing sugar in the district for more than one century, says the irrigation provided by the Paradise Dam represented an economic opportunity with extraordinary scope.

"Our population in Australia is roughly 25 million people and the demand for food is growing proportionally and when you put that with the Asian appetite for our food, and the potential of some of the best agricultural land in the nation which exists in this region, you have a recipe for extraordinary economic growth,'' Courtice says.

"And we have taken the ball and run with it - Bundaberg is now the biggest producer of sweet potato in the nation.''

But the success story appears now to be short lived.

Works being conducted at Paradise Dam
Works being conducted at Paradise Dam

The dam first experienced real flooding in "The Summer of Disaster'' of 2010/11 and that flood resulted in damage to the primary spillway apron while a 2013 flood event also caused scouring of the riverbed immediately downstream.

Investigations were instigated and an inquiry launched.

The inquiry's 580 page report was tabled in State Parliament last May confirming the suspicions that there were stability issues with Paradise Dam specifically related to concrete mix which was probably incapable of meeting the design requirements. Commissioners John Byrne and John Carter, in their foreword to the report, noted that dam building stretched back to the Egyptians and Mesopotamians.

Dam building had evolved to the extent that society generally accepts the business of dam building as so "tried and true'' that risks associated with construction are "identifiable, quantifiable and manageable.''

The commissioners add, with some understatement: "But occasionally things may not always go to plan when building a dam.''

Things have gone so wrong with the Paradise Dam that the dam's operator SunWater is now preparing to lower the level to 42 per cent of its capacity at a cost of several hundred million dollars so the flawed infrastructure can better cope with the pressures.

Farmers and workers rally for Paradise Dam outside the Bundaberg Courthouse.
Farmers and workers rally for Paradise Dam outside the Bundaberg Courthouse.

Anger is rising among the farmers of the Bundaberg region who see the reduction in water volume as a betrayal of their future, with peak agricultural body Growcom the mouthpiece for wide community concerns. Growcom CEO David Thomson said decisions were coming out of the State Government impacting the future of an entire region, including economy and jobs, without consultation or explanation."

"It is easy to see why so much rumour surrounds these decisions, including the suggestion there's a hidden agenda to tear down Paradise Dam at all costs," he said.

American geotechnical expert Paul Rizzo believes that, although the dam is in a "distressed state", concerns about a catastrophic failure risking lives downstream were alarmist. Rizzo believes the flood-damaged dam could be stabilised using specialised anchors at a cost of under $25m.

Queensland Senator James McGrath, based in Nambour, has been watching the saga unfold closely for years, and is stunned at the potential economic fall out.

He has stood in the Federal Senate and labelled the dam the biggest infrastructure failure in the nation's history.

"There is one number that comes loud and clear out of all this and that number is $2.4bn,'' McGrath says.

"That is the projected negative economic impact of the reduction in volume of the dam on the state economy over the next 30 years.''

A sign erected near Paradise Dam.
A sign erected near Paradise Dam.

McGrath says the most worrying thing about the inquiry is that no one appears to be responsible for the dam's failure.

He says crucial construction reports have gone missing - "just disappeared'' - while it was also clear that no strength testing was carried out after construction to determine whether the layers of roller compacted concrete had properly bonded.

But while McGrath says he is conscious of community safety concerns, he does not believe the dam wall should not be lowered.

"I appreciate the safety of the community is the highest priority,'' he says.

"But now is not the time to put hundreds of businesses at risk.''

McGrath points to Rizzo's solution of using stabilising anchors to sustain the existing dam.

"The dam is crucial to the future of agriculture in the Bundaberg region,'' the senator told The Sunday Mail.

"And, from a wider perspective, we have to understand that the secret to farming is building dams - build dams and farmers and their crops will come.

"What we have in this state is a Labor Government not only not building dams, but tearing the dams that do exist.''

Water being released from Paradise Dam to allow for repairs following a flood.
Water being released from Paradise Dam to allow for repairs following a flood.