Wild weather, floods and drought — and, of course, climate change — have been a key focus of public, academic and political debate in the past year.
Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce tweeted on March 3: “Here in Victoria. Bushfires and drought. We must be a nation of vision. The one thing we can do to drive a solution to reduce the effects of drought is build the Bradfield Scheme.”
An ambitious plan from the 1930s, the Bradfield Scheme was aimed at diverting floodwaters from the north of the country inland.
And March’s tweet was not the first time Mr Joyce had mentioned the scheme.
Earlier in the year, in response to the devastating floods in Queensland and one of the driest years on record, he told Sky News: “We could start the process of the Bradfield Scheme”.
“The solution is moving from where we have too much to where not enough, from where there is an abundance to where there is paucity. This is something we could do.
“If that water was to come down, we would have irrigation through western Queensland towns, through western NSW.
“You’d be able to fill up the Menindee Lakes and deal with your problems basically at the lower lakes.”
The NSW Nationals also brought attention to the scheme in February, with a promise to put “$25 million on the table” to investigate building a modern version of the scheme.
“The cyclones, the perennial wet season in Queensland, we can utilise this excess precipitation for the people in NSW,” they said in a Facebook post.
“It just makes sense. We can bring the water to where we need it.”
So, is the Bradfield Scheme the solution to easing the effect of drought and floods in northern Australia?
RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.
Verdict: pie in the sky.
The viability of the Bradfield Scheme as an irrigation plan has been dismissed many times by experts over the past 80 years.
The scheme has been rebutted on scientific, engineering and economic grounds.
Statutory authorities and government departments, as well as independent researchers, have identified “miscalculations”, “tremendous costs”, “overestimations” and scientific inaccuracies contained in the proposed scheme.
They rejected its promise of moderating the climate and of delivering increased rainfall to Australia’s arid centre.
Experts told Fact Check that engineering solutions and alternative models for diverting water inland could be found, but the costs were likely prohibitive, with no guaranteed agricultural benefits.
“[It] wouldn’t deliver; wouldn’t repay the cost,” said Professor Richard Kingsford, director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of NSW.
“A mad idea for both economic and ecological reasons.”
What is the Bradfield Scheme?
In 1938, John Job Crew (JJC) Bradfield, engineer and principal designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, proposed an ambitious water infrastructure plan that became known as the Bradfield Scheme.
According to a 1947 report by William Nimmo, the chief engineer of the Stanley River Works Board, Bradfield’s 10-page typed plan had been submitted to the office of then-Queensland Premier William Forgan Smith.
It was titled: Queensland: The Conservation and Utilization of Her Water Resources.
Studying rainfall patterns, water resources and the impact of drought, Bradfield envisaged a complex hydraulic system using dams, pumps and pipes to divert floodwaters from the coastal rivers of north Queensland inland across the Great Dividing Range.
However, Bradfield’s plan was rejected by the government due to a lack of research and the anticipated high cost of the proposal.
Despite this, Bradfield reportedly continued to push his proposal through the media and in public lectures until his death in 1943.
In 1941, he had expanded his proposal to include extra dams and a larger irrigation area suitable for irrigated crops such as maize, rice and cotton.
Bradfield’s revamped scheme — titled Watering Inland Australia — was published in the Australian illustrated magazine Walkabout in June of that year, and in Rydge’s Business Journal the following October.
Again, the scheme was rejected.
Would it improve the climate?
The Bradfield Scheme had predicted that by increasing irrigation in the dry centre of Australia, the country’s farmland would be expanded, creating jobs, increasing food exports and drawing people to land that was sparsely inhabited.
“Far-reaching schemes are required to ameliorate the climate and rejuvenate inland Australia,” Bradfield wrote in Watering Inland Australia.
“Australia eventually should easily accommodate 90 million people, 30 per square mile.
“A rejuvenated inland, creating employment and settling a population in comfortable circumstances would be one part in such a long-range policy.”
A key point in Bradfield’s theory was that, by supplying water and maintaining permanent water surfaces in the continent’s centre — like a full Lake Eyre in northern South Australia — the centre’s climate would improve with increased rainfall and lowering of temperatures.
He based this suggestion partly on prior research done by meteorologist Edwin T Quayle, who investigated increased annual rainfall around rivers, lakes and irrigated cultivations in western Victoria and South Australia.
In 1945, a committee of four meteorologists established by the Queensland government investigated the expanded Bradfield Scheme, under the direction of H N Warren, director of Meteorological Services.
The committee included Quayle, whose research Bradfield had drawn upon.
It said the potential climatic improvement was “overestimated”.
Earlier this century, another expert group reviewed the scheme, with its findings published in the Australian Meteorological Magazine in 2004.
The paper, co-authored by scientists from the Bureau of Meteorology Research Institute and CSIRO, and with the benefit of longer term data and sophisticated climate models, also considered whether flooding inland Australia could lead to climate amelioration.
To test Bradfield’s theory, the team used examples of international research on the significance of water surfaces to climate amelioration, the results of the earlier reviews of the scheme, and evaporation rates in the area.
They also used large-scale models developed by the CSIRO and the University of Melbourne, namely C-AM (CSIRO conformal cubic atmospheric model) and MUGCM (Melbourne University atmospheric general circulation model).
The experts concluded that diverting floodwaters to the centre of the country and maintaining a full Lake Eyre would change the climate only marginally, if at all.
Dr Neville Nicholls, co-author of the paper and currently emeritus professor at Monash University, told Fact Check that even if large evaporation could be avoided, there would not be substantial changes to the climate.
“We found no evidence that the scheme would help avoid droughts by increasing inland rainfall or decreasing temperature, except very close to the water body,” he said.
Would it be worth the cost?
Another major point of criticism of the Bradfield Scheme was the estimated costs of implementing it.
Bradfield had put the cost of his revised scheme in 1941 at “up to £40 million”, which translates to approximately $3.2 billion in 2018 prices.
Experts said this was likely a gross underestimation.
In 1947, hydraulic engineer William Nimmo’s critical review demonstrated that Bradfield had overestimated the “water capability supply” — the quantity of floodwater available for diversion — by 250%, while grossly underestimating the plan’s cost.
According to Nimmo’s calculations, the cost of delivering water to the Flinders River alone would be almost $6.9 billion (in 2018 dollars).
The cost of taking it over the mountains to potential irrigators would be “enormous”.
A letter from the prime minister’s office to the Farmers and Settlers’ Association of NSW that was signed by the minister for post-war reconstruction, John Dedman, referred to both the unfavourable findings of Nimmo’s report and the meteorologists’ earlier review of the scheme.
Nimmo had also found that, in places, ground elevation had been miscalculated and some water diversions would therefore require electricity to be achieved.
This would further drive up running costs.
Experts questioned whether the price of the water making it to the end of the system would be affordable for irrigators.
At the time, according to reports, Nimmo had calculated that the cost to irrigators would be 25 to 30 times the cost of water being supplied to Victorian and New South Wales farms by the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
Another study carried out in 1982 by Cameron McNamara, consulting engineers for the Queensland Government, also identified “underestimated costs” and “engineering miscalculations” of the original Bradfield Scheme.
That study also questioned the suitability of the land to be irrigated for certain crops.
Around the same time, others continued to champion a scheme of this nature.
In late 1981, for example, a Queensland Northern Peninsula Area (NPA) Water Resources sub-committee — comprising Dr Eric Heidecker, Roy Stainkey and Bob Katter Jnr — introduced the Revised Bradfield Scheme for specific diversions.
However, this iteration of Bradfield’s idea also failed to gain traction.
University of NSW Professor Richard Kingsford told Fact Check that while the cost of implementing the Bradfield Scheme today was estimated to be in the billions of dollars, the main consideration was whether the resultant productivity gains would be enough to justify the cost of diverting the water.
“[It] wouldn’t deliver; wouldn’t repay the cost,” he said.
Dr Daniel Connell, a research fellow at the Australian National University, agreed that the scheme would only be possible with “massive government subsidies which far exceed the value of what would be produced”.
“It’s much cheaper to desalinate water, the cost of which now makes that option feasible for a wealthy city, but still far above what is needed to make agriculture financially viable,” he said.
Experts told Fact Check that alternative models and schemes could be easier — and cheaper — to implement than Bradfield’s, but the extent of any potential agricultural productivity was likely to be fiercely contested.
The environmental impact of diverting floodwater
Professor Kingsford told Fact Check that beyond the recent devastating events in Queensland, floods in general had “a significant role to play in the ecosystem”.
“In the Murray-Darling, we have large areas that are dying with not enough water because, essentially, we have taken the floods away,” he said.
“You take all that water away and you put it somewhere else, you get a collapse of those ecosystems, which has happened in the Nile Delta, it’s happening in the Yangtze [in China] at the moment.”
Diverting floodwaters from their natural paths could cause wide movement of invasive species, collapse marine and estuary ecosystems, and even cause economic damage to coastal communities, according to experts.
He also pointed out that the Snowy Mountains Scheme was like a mini-Bradfield in that it had diverted water successfully to irrigators, although at the same time “it has devastated the [Snowy] river”.
Still making waves, even after decades of rejection
The Bradfield Scheme has continued to get a nod from politicians of varying political hue, including former Queensland premier Peter Beattie (2007) and independent federal MP Bob Katter (2018).
On April 11, One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson kicked off her 2019 Federal Election campaign with a media release that promised: “We will build the hybrid Bradfield Water Scheme and drought-proof much of the country, while solving the issue of water for the Murray Darling.”
Professor Albert Van Dijk, of the Australian National University, told Fact Check that scientists used the term “pipe dream” for such optimistic but outdated ideas.
“Grandiose ideas like these have historically resurfaced every time that elections are held during a drought,” he noted.
“They have been thoroughly debunked as both uneconomical and hugely damaging. There’s really no point debating them again.”
ANU Emeritus Professor of History Tim Griffiths agreed that, historically, the “reviving” of the Bradfield Scheme coincided with droughts, floods and times of crisis in general.
Professors Van Dijk and Kingsford both agreed that there was no easy fix for drought.
“We have to essentially be able to live with the droughts that come regularly to our continent,” Professor Kingsford said.
“The problem is they are getting stronger and more intense as a result of climate change.”
In recent years, federal and state governments have commissioned various studies into Australia’s infrastructure and water security.
Fact Check was unable to find any direct reference to the Bradfield Scheme among them.
The Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO were unable to provide any more recent research on John Bradfield’s ambitious infrastructure plan.
Principal researcher: Christina Arampatzi
- Barnaby Joyce, Twitter, March 3, 2019
- Barnaby Joyce, Sky News Opinion Interview, February 2, 2019
- NSW Nationals, Facebook Post, February 25, 2019
- The Bradfield Scheme: Comments by W.H.R Nimmo (1947), Queensland Government Library Services
- Watering Inland Australia (collection: just add water), National Archives of Australia
- Watering Inland Australia , by J.J.C Bradfield (1941), National Archives of Australia
- Watering Inland Australia, by J.J.C Bradfield (1941), Queensland Government Services
- The Bradfield Scheme, critical reviews and discussions, National Archives of Australia
- The rainfall response to permanent inland water in Australia, Australian Meteorological Magazine, March 2004
- Irrigation vision ‘still article of faith’, The Canberra Times, Trove, January 27, 1983
- Barry Jones MP, House of Representatives, December 8, 1983
- The Revised Bradfield Scheme (a proposition), Queensland Parliament, November, 1981
- Premier Peter Beattie, ABC News Article, February 19, 2007
- Bob Katter, House of Representatives, June 27, 2018
- Pauline Hanson, Media Release, April 11, 2019