New legislation to allow the raising of the Warragamba Dam wall was passed by the New South Wales government on Wednesday, which could see the temporary inundation of Lake Burragorang and permanent loss of Indigenous heritage sites.
The bill amends the Water NSW Act 2014, enabling the government’s plan to raise the 142-metre-high dam wall by 14 metres for flood mitigation purposes. The government says this will reduce the overall risk of flooding downstream in Western Sydney and allow more time for evacuation in the case of major weather events.
However, the higher wall would trigger temporary inundation of upstream land, an area dotted with more than 50 Indigenous cultural sites, including rock art, meeting places and burial sites, which would be forever damaged if flooded.
The area is home to vulnerable and endangered flora, such as the Camden white gum and the Kowmung hakea, as well as forests of old growth trees. It's also the breeding ground for the critically-endangered regent honeyeater.
Traditional Owners, the Labor Party, the Greens and conservationists strongly oppose the plan and are calling for alternative measures.
Project critics have condemned the move as "blatant disregard" for an Australian world heritage site, with some claiming the government’s real motivation is to open up land for development.
Community group Give A Dam spokesman Harry Burkitt warns the state government will have a "serious fight" on its hands if it pushes ahead.
"It is unbelievable to think in this day in age a government would legalise the flooding of a world heritage area and not consider alternative flood mitigation measures to protect downstream communities," Mr Burkitt said in statement on Thursday.
Traditional Owners not giving up
Despite the uphill battle, the Gundungurra people are not giving up the fight.
Gundungurra woman and Traditional Owner Taylor Clarke spoke at the Standing Committee on State Development inquiry into the bill earlier this month, to express fears that the temporary inundation of the Burragorang Valley would significantly and indelibly impact her people.
“We are talking about losing a history that is significant to all Australians, not just the Gundungurra people. This is an issue that we all have a stake in,” Ms Clarke told the hearing.
“The valley is home to the only intact painting of a waratah connected to the Dreaming. There are many burial sites, including non-Indigenous, and paintings, meeting places, the Jooriland homestead and more that I would draw your attention to.”
Earlier this year, the Katoomba-based Gundungurra Aboriginal Heritage Association lodged an application to have the valley declared a NSW Aboriginal Place.
The application is being reviewed by the Office of Environment and Heritage.
"This is a complex Aboriginal Place nomination over a large geographical area and is currently being assessed," an Office of Environment and Heritage told NITV News in a statement.
Despite the legislation being passed, the raising of the dam wall will only go ahead if it gets approval from both state and federal governments.
“The amendment, once in place, will not have any effect unless the Warragamba Dam Raising proposal receives state and Australian government environmental planning approval, and the NSW government makes a final investment decision,” Taylor Martin MLC, Chair of the Standing Committee on State Development told NITV News.
An environmental impact statement for the project is yet to be released which will then be subject to state government approval before it's given the green light.