OPPOSITION Leader Tony Abbott says Australia must overcome its "dam phobia" if the country is to unlock its potential.
A draft Coalition discussion paper proposing the construction of up to 100 dams across the country was leaked to the media, with some of the details published on Thursday.
The News Limited report indicated most of the proposed dams had been flagged for northern Australia and would be used for irrigation in a bid to double the nation's food production.
But a number of projects are mooted for northern New South Wales, with water to be piped north to the Logan River in Queensland.
The discussion paper was written by a Coalition taskforce comprising Andrew Robb (chair), Barnaby Joyce (deputy chair), Greg Hunt, Ian Macdonald, Simon Birmingham and Bill Heffernan. News Limited reported the Coalition did not necessarily endorse all of the proposals.
Mr Abbott said while the document was only a draft it was a "good paper". He said the nation was "hungry for vision" and was craving big ideas.
"We've been touring the country ... talking to people, getting their advice, getting their guidance, getting their input, and these are the proposals put to us by others, including in some cases state Labor governments," Mr Abbott told reporters in Queanbeyan.
"What we want to avoid is the dam phobia which has afflicted our country for at least a generation.
"I'm talking about the potential of our country to be better than we are. And we certainly shouldn't have this green extremism which says all dams are bad at all times, everywhere."
Mr Abbott said projects requiring public funding would undergo a "rigorous cost benefit analysis", but added some dams could be built without public money because of the economic spin-offs.
Senator Joyce said Australians should not be afraid to "take the next step" for the good of the country.
He revealed the discussion paper had been developed over the past two years, with the taskforce visiting a number of potential dam sites.
Building dams was a "key" Coalition policy and was something that "must happen for Australia", he said.
"This is not a fly by night idea. This is a wealth of information and detailed investigations and homework behind it," Senator Joyce said.
He predicted there would be opposition to the idea but rejected the notion that every dam was "evil".
All dam projects would be subject to an environmental study, he said, as the Coalition did not want to "decimate key environmental assets".
Not surprisingly the government attempted to make hay from the second Coalition leak in a week, with the issue featuring during question time.
Environment Minister Tony Burke said the ideas underpinning the paper defied logic.
"Because what they proposed in that document and what government policy absolutely rejects is that you can use your dams in this magical way that they will provide against drought, provide against flood and provide renewable energy," Mr Burke said.
"If you're managing a dam to avoid drought, your dam has to be constantly full, if you're managing your dam to avoid floods, you need to keep your dam empty and if you're managing your dam to be able to provide hydroelectricity, you need to keep your dam flowing."
Plan "fanciful" and "barking mad"
A SENIOR water economics expert has dubbed a Coalition proposal to build 100 dams across the country "fanciful" and "barking mad".
The leaked Coalition draft discussion paper, to build $30 billion worth of new dams around the country, was reported by the Daily Telegraph on Thursday.
Reports revealed the paper - compiled after years of consultation by the conservative parties' Dams Taskforce - included five new dams in northern New South Wales, but most projects would span north Australia.
Those included a proposal for a new dam in the Kimberley, with water piped or shipped 1500km south to Perth.
Coalition Regional Australia spokesman Senator Barnaby Joyce said it was a "key policy" for the Coalition and the conservative parties had been doing their homework.
Senator Joyce said the country should not be scared of new proposals, softening the ground for more public discussion of the Coalition proposals.
"We should not be scared of taking the next step. Now I know there will be cynics out there that say that every dam is evil and to anything to do with dams is environmental vandalism," he said.
"A lot of this information was already there but has been collated in such a form that this is a list that you can choose from and pick the ones most suited for economic development, most suited for commercial return and building on our vision for taking Australia to the next step."
But Dr Jamie Pittock, a senior lecturer at the Australian National University's Fenner School of the Environment and Society, said building new dams was rarely warranted.
"I made a submission to the dams taskforce in July 2011 and spoke to Andrew Robb and Barnaby Joyce - I told them there was little, if any, need for any more dams," Dr Pittock said.
"There is a rare instance where a new dam is not a bad idea, if it was built upstream of an existing dam and used to pump water and deliver more hydroelectricity further upstream."
Dr Pittock said a lot of the projects being proposed were economically unviable, and to fund them would involve massive tax-payer subsidies.
Reports also revealed the proposals could form part of an overarching Coalition strategy for flood mitigation.
But Dr Pittock said using dams for such a purpose was also contradictory, as was seen during the 2010-11 floods in Brisbane.
"If you are using a dam for flood mitigation, you can only ever really use half of it for storage capacity, and as we saw at Wivenhoe, even when that capacity is left open, the flood can still breach the dam wall.
"They would be better to spend that money relocating developments in risky areas to prevent it, rather than trying to use dams for flood mitigation."
Dr Pittock also said any proposal to build a dam in the Kimberley and then pipe the water as far as Perth was "barking mad".
"If you're going to waste that much money on energy pumping the water, and water wasted through transmission and evaporation loses - it's going to lose more water than you'll deliver," Dr Pittock said.
"Both the Coalition and Labor have kept the Northern Australia Taskforce going, and time and again they and the CSIRO have recommended against any major dams in the north.
"That isn't really a viable proposition - what keeps the prawning industry and even livestock industry viable in the north is that there's a big wet, and that replenishes the aquifers, keeping the region alive for eight months of the year."
Dr Pittock said numerous government taskforces and inquiries had recommended if any major water developments were to occur in the north, they should based on smaller water holdings, and sustainable irrigated agriculture.
"We're not going to have a Cubbie Station in the north - that's simply not viable to have huge areas of water storages, all that water would simply evaporate."
"The smarter thing to do would be to use the existing local water resources sustainably, and then hand that over to private enterprise to develop.
"Many of the 100 dam proposals are simply fanciful, they are not economically viable and would require vast amount of government subsidies to be viable.
"It's time to move on and focus on the projects that could actually be viable."
But while he was critical of the draft policy document, Dr Pittock said there were things any government could address, with a major infrastructure backlog on existing dams.
He said many dams were built more than 30 years ago, and could do with infrastructure upgrades.
"A lot of the existing dams were built a while ago, and the infrastructure is ageing - there are better ways we could use what we already have, so I think that's what we should really be looking at."
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