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The Burdekin River in northern Queensland is the centrepiece of the Bradfield Scheme. Image: CSIRO.

Background

The assessment was prepared by CSIRO for the National Water Grid Authority.

The assessment initially focused on the hydrology and technical feasibility of the historic Bradfield Scheme using contemporary information and methods to verify key assertions and to assess contrasting claims.

Subsequently modern variants were studied, including:

  • the potential to use pumped pipelines and renewable energy rather than gravity diversion tunnels
  • pumped pipeline and channel diversion infrastructure to the Flinders catchment
  • diversion infrastructure to take water to the northern Murray-Darling Basin (MDB).

This study was made under highly optimistic agronomic and economic assumptions so that analyses could definitively answer whether such a scheme could ever be viable. The assumptions did not take into consideration the current regulatory environment or release water for environmental or cultural flows. Water released for these purposes would reduce the volume of water that could be diverted by the scheme.

What the assessment found

Although the historic and modern variants of the Bradfield Scheme were found to be technically feasible, the cost of diversion infrastructure added such a large premium to the cost of water that future crop revenues would never pay off the cost of the water storage diversion infrastructure alone. The maximum quantity of water that could physically be diverted was less than half what Bradfield identified.

Water resource development requires trade-offs. These trade-offs are more contentious with Bradfield-style schemes where water is transferred from one basin to another because the benefits accrued by one community occur at the expense of another.

The high financial losses, ecological impacts and community concerns associated with Bradfield-style schemes could potentially be mitigated by strategic development and staging of smaller resource developments situated closer to where the water is captured and to better match where future demands and opportunities are greatest.

[An image appears of a river in a regional community, an aerial shot. Changes to map of north western Queensland, showing rivers.]

In 1938, Dr John Bradfield proposed diverting water from north Queensland across the great divide to the west of the state.

The aim? To support regional economic development by opening up new irrigation areas.

[Zoom into the map, showing water moving across rivers, as per the proposed Bradfield Scheme.]

The scheme proposed moving water from the Upper Tully, Herbert and Burdekin Rivers in the north through a series of dams, channels and diversion tunnels.

[Map zooms out to show all of Queensland.]

In a study of Bradfield's original scheme for the National Water Grid Authority, CSIRO found that while it was technically possible the cost of the scheme would never be recovered over its lifetime, even under an unrealistically optimistic set of assumptions.

[Aerial scan of river and a dam, overflowing]

This is because it involves diverting water a long distance, with costs almost tripling due to the storage and diversion infrastructure costs.

[A harvester on a farm with grain silos in the background. A truck carrying the grain drives back towards the coast.]

It's also harder to make a profit as crops require more irrigation water and cost more to grow at remote inland locations.

[The truck drives into the distance, where towns are pinpointed - Cairns, Tully, Ingham and Townsville]

Building on the original scheme over time, other alternatives have been suggested, such as diverting water to established irrigation areas in the northern Murray-Darling Basin.

[Back to map of northern Queensland, with the modern variant Bradfield Scheme water diversion shown, moving water down to the Murray Darling Basin.]

CSIRO's study into these alternatives found that the scheme could potentially divert up to 1270 gigalitres of water to farms in the northern Murray-Darling Basin annually.

[Cut to a fruit orchard with trees all in a row. This text appears on a page: 25%/ 5 years]

That would be about 25 percent of the average annual volume of water used for irrigation in the basin over the past five years. However, this doesn't account for environmental or cultural flows.

[Cut to a harvester vehicle harvesting broadacre crop, like cotton or wheat.]

At best there is an estimated cost of 15 to 30 billion dollars for water storage and diversion infrastructure, creating significant challenges.

[Cuts to an oblique aerial shot of a dam, with a bridge and a speed boat cruising past.]

Revenue from farming would only be likely to cover less than a tenth of the costs of the scheme over its entire lifetime.

[A man in high vis, with a clipboard, stands over a construction site, where pipes are being lowered by a machine into the ground - showing hydropower.]

There is also limited capacity for hydropower generation along the water supply line.

[Wind turbines rotate, below them is a large scale solar panel installation.]

Using renewable energy would not improve the viability of Bradfield Scheme or its variants because there's no avoiding the high cost of the diversion infrastructure.

[A water source like a river, showing rocks and water birds - like herons - feeding. One bird flies away.]

The study also showed the changes in water flows would have negative impacts on some parts of the environment.

[Cuts to a group of people (farmers, environmentalists, fishers and Indigenous people) standing together, looking at the camera. A big $ symbol emerges from behind them, as does happy emojis].

Water resource development requires tradeoffs. These become more contentious when water is transferred from one area to another;

[Changes to a group of people where water is being take from - unhappy emojis arise from behind them.]

Because the benefits flowing to one community occur at the expense of another.

[Group of people - representing a town - with a large dollar sign emerging behind them]

So although there may be material, regional economic benefits to areas receiving the diverted water, the initial capital cost and ongoing costs are large,

[Zoom out to an aerial shot of a river, with small regional towns - symbolised by groups of people - and dollar signs cropping up to show shared, distributed wealth.]

and it may be possible to achieve better targeted regional economic benefits at much lower cost. By using water locally in the catchments where it is captured, including inland areas without the expense of costly long distance diversion infrastructure.

[The final report can be found at www.csiro.au/bradfield]

The final report can be found at www.csiro.au/bradfield.

[CSIRO logo and closing animation]

The Bradfield Scheme - A CSIRO Assessment

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Reports and factsheets

'An assessment of the historic Bradfield Scheme to divert water inland from north Queensland'

'An assessment of contemporary variations of the Bradfield Scheme'

Frequently Asked Questions

What did the project assess?

The desktop assessment initially focused on the hydrology and technical feasibility of the historic Bradfield Scheme using contemporary information and methods to verify key assertions and to assess contrasting claims.

The study evaluated the 1938 Scheme and a variation to the Scheme proposed by Bradfield in 1942.

Subsequently modern variants were also studied, and included:

  • the potential to use pumped pipelines and renewable energy rather than gravity diversion tunnels
  • pumped pipeline and channel diversion infrastructure to the Flinders catchment
  • diversion infrastructure to take water to the northern Murray-Darling Basin (MDB).

What was the assessment aiming to discover?

This assessment aimed to address whether Bradfield’s design for moving water inland was technically feasible.

This study was made under highly optimistic agronomic and economic assumptions so that analyses could definitively answer whether such a scheme could ever be viable. The assumptions did not take into consideration the current regulatory environment or release of water for environmental or cultural flows. Water released for these purposes would reduce the water available that could be diverted by the scheme.

Who conducted the assessment?

The assessment was led and conducted by Australia’s national science agency CSIRO.

What were the key findings of the Assessment?

The historic and modern variants of the Bradfield Scheme were found to be technically feasible. However, the cost of diversion infrastructure added such a large premium to the cost of water that future crop revenues would never pay off the cost of the water storage diversion infrastructure alone.

The maximum quantity of water that could physically be diverted was less than half what Bradfield identified.

The high financial losses, ecological impacts and community concerns associated with Bradfield-style schemes could potentially be mitigated by strategic development and staging of smaller resource developments situated closer to where the water is captured and to better match where future demands and opportunities are greatest.

Were environmental or cultural considerations included in this study?

The assumptions did not take into consideration the current regulatory environment, or release water for environmental or cultural flows. Water released for these purposes would reduce the water available that could be diverted by the scheme.

Has this research been independently reviewed and by whom?

Yes. The research has been peer reviewed by scientists not associated with the research within CSIRO and by external technical experts within the university, public and private sectors.

CSIRO's role is to provide independent scientific advice to inform decision-making. CSIRO places great importance on the trust placed in the organisation by governments and the Australian community.

It is not CSIRO's role to advocate particular policy positions. CSIRO research is quality-controlled and peer-reviewed to ensure that its results can be repeated and verified.

How can the results be used?

The results can be used by governments, industry and the community to inform water infrastructure investment decisions.

The assessment found that diverting water long distances is not economically viable and advantages one community at the expense of another. There are opportunities to pursue smaller resource developments situated closer to where the water is captured, and to better match where future demands and opportunities are greatest.

Has the Queensland Government been involved in this research?

This CSIRO research is separate from an assessment undertaken by the Queensland Government.

Queensland appointed a Bradfield regional assessment and development panel, which was an independent expert panel led by Ross Garnaut, to investigate the viability of a modern Bradfield-like scheme, with different objectives to the CSIRO study.

CSIRO's methods, approach and final reports were shared with the Queensland panel.

What is CSIRO's position on the expansion of agricultural development in northern Australia?

It is not CSIRO's role to advocate specific policy positions or development decisions. We provide science to underpin decision-making and help evaluate the likely outcomes from different policy or management decisions.

Will the results of this research be used to develop irrigated agriculture in northern Australia?

This research has been undertaken to improve the knowledge base for decision-making by governments, industry and the community. CSIRO does not make these decisions, nor does it participate in the decision-making process.

CSIRO's role is to provide independent scientific advice to inform decision-making. CSIRO places great importance on the trust placed in the organisation by governments and the Australian community. It is not CSIRO's role to advocate particular policy positions or management decisions.

Did government (Australian or state/territory) direct CSIRO's research in any way?

Funding for the Assessment was provided by the Australian Government through the National Water Grid Authority.

The scientific approaches used and the data collection and analyses were independent of Australian, state/territory or local governments and in full compliance with CSIRO's Ethics standards.

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