No water for food: $400m Myalup-Wellington project ‘dead in the water’ as State Government withdraws support

Headshot of Cally Dupe
Cally DupeCountryman
The Wellington Dam.
Camera IconThe Wellington Dam. Credit: DPIRD/DPIRD

A $400 million project to boost irrigated agriculture in the salinity-strangled Collie, Harvey and Waroona farming districts is dead in the water after the State Government withdrew support for the plan.

The long-awaited Myalup-Wellington project will not go ahead — at least in its anticipated form — after proponent Collie Water failed to strike an agreement with coal companies.

WA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan said the State Government had terminated the contract with Collie Water after it was unable to strike commercial agreements with Griffin Coal and Premier Coal over use of the mine voids for desalination and storage.

She said the Federal Government’s $190m funding for the project would be “held in a general WA bucket” for numerous water projects, while the State would invest its $37m share in a new-look Collie-Wellington project.

“The assessment was that the scheme could not be delivered, and we needed to pursue alternatives,” Ms MacTiernan said.

“We are working with industry and the Federal government on alternative schemes in the area for that investment and the Federal funds.”

One of the proponents of the Myalup-Wellington project, Harvey Water, is pushing on with a market-led proposal for water infrastructure in the South West.

Its plans for a new project called Collie to Coast are sitting in the second stage of the State’s market-led proposal process, but Harvey Water chief executive Bruce Hathway declined to comment while it was under assessment.

The much-lauded Myalup-Wellington project was announced in October 2018, with bipartisan support from State and Federal politicians after three years of planning and more than 20 years of assessments.

The industry-led project was spearheaded by Collie Water, a trading entity established by farming cooperative Harvey Water and Perth businessman Peter Fogarty’s business Aqua Ferre.

It expected to take six to eight years and be complete by mid-2024.

The project had been tipped to address salinity problems in the Wellington Dam, increase potable water into the Harris Dam by 10 gigalitres per year, and create up to 830 jobs during construction and operation.

It was also expected WA’s gross product by more than $570m per year by increasing irrigated area in the Collie River, Harvey and Waroona districts from 6557ha to 34,600ha.

By October 2018, all of the funds were secured — with the Federal Government tipping in $190m, the State Government $37m, and a mixture of Collie Water and private investors $169m.

Under the project, water from the salty Collie River east branch would have be piped to a mine void, reducing the salinity by almost a half over the next three years.

Water would then flow to a $200 million desalination plant in Collie and on to Harris Dam.

There the drinking water, which would be sold to WaterCorp, would be piped to Great Southern Wheatbelt towns.

Below the dam, a new weir would have been built at Burekup and 250km of new pipelines would gravity-feed water to the surrounding irrigation and agricultural districts of Collie River and Myalup.

Wellington Dam is the second-largest reservoir in WA and the biggest surface water storage in the South West, but rising salinity means much of the 85gl water allocation was not used.

The project was kickstarted by a $5.7 million Royalties for Regions investment and was one of the Liberal-Nationals Water for Food projects when they were in government in 2016.

In a story in The Sunday Times in May 2018, the project was nicknamed “Dexter’s last deal” after then-Deputy Prime Minister and Federal Nationals leader Michael McCormack decided to tick off on the funding at the funeral of Dexter Davies — a WA Nationals powerbroker and father of now-State Opposition leader Mia Davies.

South West Irrigation Asset Cooperative and South West Irrigation Management Cooperative are understood to the Harvey Water businesses behind the new the market-let proposal, but what it entails is being kept secret.

More than 200 Harvey Water members who had invested or were banking on increased water supply were directly impacted by the decision not to progress the Myalup-Wellington project.

The Federal Government committed $800,000 in the recent Budget for feasibility work to assess water infrastructure in the South West, which will be used to examine options, including an expansion of the Binningup desalination plant or building a 20gl desalination plant at Wellington Dam.

Shadow Treasurer Steve Thomas, who represents the South West in the Legislative Council, said he believed Ms MacTiernan had “her own projects” for the $190m Federal funding in mind.

“I think she has played a clever game in keeping the Federal money but abandoning the project she once supported,” he said.

“Bearing in mind it is nearly $200 million in Federal funding that she will be able to redirect.

“It is obvious to me that she has no interest in the project that the money was attributed to.”

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails