John Bradfield is hardly a household name, but references to the Bradfield Scheme get bandied about from time to time, 80 years after the engineer devised his ambitious plan to divert flood waters from Australia’s north to its arid centre.
One Nation senator Pauline Hanson mentioned the scheme while withholding support for the re-elected Coalition Government’s promised $158 billion income tax cuts.
She told Channel Nine she was not ready to vote for the bill ahead of “more important issues”.
“I want to see a coal-fired power station built in Australia to reduce electricity prices and I want to see the Bradfield Scheme to ensure water security in Australia,” she said.
This is not the first time that Bradfield’s complex hydraulic plan has been drawn into the political debate; that the scheme could ensure water security is a myth that refuses to die
Reused and recycled
In a media release ahead of the election, Senator Hanson 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.”
In February, the NSW Nationals, including Deputy Premier John Barilaro, promised to put “$25 million on the table” to investigate building a modern version of the scheme, calling on other states and the Commonwealth to contribute.
Fact Check took a closer look at the Bradfield Scheme during this year’s election campaign following repeated comments by former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce.
Statutory authorities, government organisations and independent researchers have all debunked the original scheme on scientific, engineering and financial grounds — while later versions have also been dismissed by federal and state governments.
Experts pointed out to Fact Check that ideas such as Bradfield’s ambitious — but flawed — scheme tended to resurface in times of water crisis, and while alternative models for diverting water inland could be devised, the costs were prohibitive without guaranteed agricultural benefits.
In considering Senator Hanson’s support for the Bradfield Scheme as a means of “ensuring water security”, Fact Check reprised the comments of experts.
What is the Bradfield Scheme?
In 1938, John Job Crew (JJC) Bradfield, who was the principal designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, proposed an ambitious water infrastructure plan that became known as the Bradfield Scheme.
Using a hydraulic system of dams, pumps and pipes, Bradfield proposed diverting flood waters from the coastal rivers of northern Queensland inland and across the Great Dividing Range.
His theory was that by increasing irrigation and sustaining bodies of water in central Australia would ameliorate the climate, leading to increased rainfall, an expansion of fertile farmlands, greater agricultural production and food exports, and the creation of additional jobs.
Bradfield’s original plan — and his revised and expanded version of 1941 — were rejected by governments of the time. He continued to push his proposal until his death in 1943.
Decades of rejection
Fact Check’s original investigation cited the findings of statutory authorities, government departments and independent researchers who looked at aspects of the scheme and reported “miscalculations”, “tremendous costs” and scientific inaccuracies.
Despite this overwhelming rejection, the Bradfield Scheme is recycled every few years in the form of feasibility schemes, revisions and hybrids, only to be dismissed or rejected once more.
Albert Van Dijk, a professor at Australian National University, previously told Fact Check that scientists used the term “pipe dream” to describe such optimistic but outdated notions.
“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 Tom Griffiths agreed that, historically, the “reviving” of the Bradfield Scheme coincided with droughts, floods and times of crisis in general.
Professor Van Dijk and University of NSW Professor Richard 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.”
Rejuvenating Australia’s arid centre
Bradfield’s view was that by diverting water and maintaining permanent water surfaces in the continent’s centre (like a full Lake Eyre in northern South Australia), the climate would improve overall.
The theory was that rainfall would increase as a result, temperatures would fall and fertile farmland would replace the desert landscape.
“Far-reaching schemes are required to ameliorate the climate and rejuvenate inland Australia,” Bradfield wrote in his plan 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.”
However, reviews of Bradfield’s scheme in 1945 and early this century have debunked this suggestion.
In 1945, a committee of four meteorologists established by the Queensland government under the direction of H N Warren, then Director of Meteorological Services, concluded that Bradfield’s expected increase in rainfall “could not be substantiated” and the potential climatic improvement was “overestimated”.
In 2004, another expert group produced similar findings after reviewing the scheme with the benefit of longer-term data and sophisticated climate models.
Dr Neville Nicholls, co-author of the paper and now an 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.
Couldn’t justify the cost
A major point of criticism regarding the Bradfield Scheme has been the estimated cost 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.
A 1947 critical review showed that the plan had overestimated the “water capability supply” — the amount of water available for diversion — by 250%, while underestimating the cost.
At the same time, the final price for the irrigators was reportedly calculated at 25 to 30 times the cost of water supplied to Victorian and NSW farms via the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
Professor Kingsford told Fact Check that the main consideration was whether the resultant productivity gains would be enough to justify the cost of diverting the water — estimated to be in the billions of dollars.
“[It] wouldn’t deliver; wouldn’t repay the cost,” he said bluntly.
Dr Daniel Connell, a research fellow at the Australian National University, agreed that the scheme would only be possible with “massive government subsidies, which [would] 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 to implement — and cheaper — than Bradfield’s, but the extent of any potential agricultural productivity was likely to be fiercely contested.
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 [then] 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 flood waters 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”.
Principal researcher: Christina Arampatzi
- Pauline Hanson, The Today Show Twitter, June 9, 2019
- Pauline Hanson, Media Release, April 11, 2019
- NSW Nationals, Facebook Post, February 25, 2019
- Barnaby Joyce, Twitter, March 3, 2019
- Premier Peter Beattie, ABC News Article, February 19, 2007
- Bob Katter, House of Representatives, June 27, 2018
- 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