14 – When our rivers ran dry 129 development began in the 1980s, increasing through the 1990s, before reaching its full potential in 2001 when ~1.2 million ML of private storage was built, just upstream of the Lower Balonne floodplain (see Chapter 15). The staggering scale and rate of development culminated in enough private storage to take all of the average annual flow in the river system (CSIRO 2008a). The accelerating irrigation development was fuelled by a boom in floods, relatively low development costs, few legislative barriers (see Chapter 21) and little cost for water, as well as excellent returns on investments in irrigated cotton. The local economies of St George, Dirranbandi and Hebel flourished, as new businesses and professions rushed into the area to service the development boom. Much of the boom by large-scale developers was probably funded by offsetting their development costs against business interests elsewhere. Federal and state politicians from both major parties and their agencies jumped on the bandwagon, supporting this wealth creation and apparent economic success story. They brushed aside the complaints of downstream floodplain graziers or states and ignored caution about long-term impacts. Downstream communities in New South Wales were bitterly opposed, pointing out the inevitable consequences that were all too apparent on other river systems in the Murray–Darling Basin (Kingsford 2000b see Chapter 16). The communities of Hebel and Dirranbandi also divided along these lines. Before long, the damage was all too apparent. The reliable low and medium floods disappeared, sucked into large storages (Fig. 14.2), and the rivers seldom broke their banks to flood. There was no longer enough Fig. 14.2. Cubbie Station lies upstream of the Lower Balonne floodplain and has storage capacity to hold more than 500 000 ML of river water in large off-river storages, predominantly to irrigate cotton. This has decreased flooding downstream, incurring significant impacts on downstream communities (photo, R. T. Kingsford).
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