Hells Gates Dam - Frequently Asked Questions

The Hells Gates Dam and Irrigation Scheme presents a transformational economic development for Northern Australia. Hells Gates Dam will be a key enabler for the region’s population growth, open prime agricultural land and will unlock new industries such as hydrogen.

The detailed business case for Hells Gates Dam was submitted to the State and Federal Governments in May 2022 and it stacks up.

If your question is not answered below, please email hellsgate@tel.com.au and the team will get back to you.

Why Hells Gates Dam?

The Hells Gates Dam and Irrigation Scheme presents a transformational economic development for Northern Australia, comprising of a unique agricultural project, that will double the value of crop production regionally utilising world leading land management and high-tech agriculture practises. Hells Gates Dam will be a key enabler for the region’s population growth and will open new industries such as hydrogen.

Hells Gates Dam presents a unique opportunity for the optimal use of currently unused water allocations within the vast Burdekin catchment if both dams (and the new Big Rocks Weir) were operated as a combined system. This would assist in minimising environmental flow impacts and maximising water supply reliability for both new and existing water allocation holders.

What is the Hells Gates Dam project?

The project is a large employment generator, both during construction and once operational, and is able to build on existing transport and supply chains.

  • comprises a 2,100 GL dam and three weirs, enabling 60,000 hectares of irrigated agriculture
  • offers scalable opportunities for both the dam and the irrigation schemes
  • will deliver a state-of-the-art scheme, building on the learnings from previous irrigation scheme developments
  • prioritises sustainable agricultural production and environmental sustainability, including for the lower Burdekin catchment and the Great Barrier Reef
  • enables reliable and dependable water supply to a mixed-cropping agricultural development with a combination of perennials, annuals and broadacre cropping to meet national and global demand
  • provides for the production of renewable energy through the dam’s Toe of Dam hydropower (hydroelectric) scheme located at the base of the dam.

Is there market demand for this project?

The sheer scale of land and reliable water supply has been identified by irrigation farming investors as a highly attractive proposition, relative to other existing irrigation schemes.

It provides a rare opportunity to expand the North Queensland economy with enormous flow-on benefits to Townsville and adjacent regions, as well as representing a significant new agricultural development at the state and national level.

There will not be one proponent for the entire area due to the scale of the project. However it has been forecasted from the Expression of Interest phase that there will be a mix of large and small-scale farming similar to the farming landscape in the Lower Burdekin today.

Does this project deliver on State and Federal Government economic policy priorities?

The project delivers on State and Federal Government economic policy priorities, including the objectives of the White Paper on Developing Northern Australia (2015) that outlined the Australian Government’s vision for the future of Northern Australia. The project also aligns with key strategic policy documents such as the Australian Agriculture’s Plan for a $100bn Industry. Currently, national agricultural production is $71.2bn, with a target of an additional $28.8bn over the next eight years. To reach the target, the rate of value growth needs to more than double the current production rates (1.9% to 4.7%).

What are the key benefits of Hells Gates Dam?

Hells Gates Dam is nation-building and will:

  • Provide water security and reliability for the region.
  • Unlock the region’s green hydrogen potential.
  • Open 60,000 hectares of agricultural land.
  • Double the value of crop production regionally which will result in the Burdekin Basin becoming the largest contributor to Queensland’s non-livestock agricultural output and account for an additional 3% of the total national annual crop production.
  • Create more than 10,000 jobs during construction and more than 3,000 ongoing jobs.
  • Have a Benefit Cost Ratio of 1.05 for the full scheme.
  • Generate a $6bn increase in GRP from agricultural projects, positively impacting the entire supply chain from the farm to export terminals in Townsville and beyond.
  • Positive outcomes for the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Enhance the Lower Burdekin.

Will Hells Gates Dam have any adverse impacts on the Great Barrier Reef and the environment?

The Hells Gates Dam and Irrigation Scheme presents positive Great Barrier Reef outcomes due to the following key features:

  • The Hells Gates Dam and Irrigation Scheme will reduce sediment and nutrient loads delivered to the downstream Burdekin Falls Dam due to world leading land management and agricultural practices within the project area (e.g. buffer strips along waterways, recycle pits, controlled nutrient application, capturing runoff for re-use, compliance with the Reef Regulations), and water taken by the scheme and evaporation from the dam. Current land practice is dominated by grazing and there is extensive gully erosion, which is delivering large volumes of sediment and associated particulate nutrients into the Burdekin River and Burdekin Falls Dam.
  • Expanding irrigated agriculture in the upper (rather than lower) parts of the Burdekin Basin, will provide additional system buffering capacity against pollutant export to the Great Barrier Reef. The large water volume of Lake Dalrymple provides a buffering effect the holding time in the lake allows for sediments (and associated particulate nutrients) to settle out of suspension before being released to the lower Burdekin River and the Great Barrier Reef. There is limited buffering of pollutant runoff from sugar cane areas of the Lower Burdekin, which flow into coastal ecosystems and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park via surface and groundwater.
  • In the Lower Burdekin area, high rates of fertiliser application and large losses of irrigation water to waterways, wetlands and coastal ecosystems can significantly impact ecosystem health and function such as nutrient enrichment, water oxygen depletion and fish kills. Rising water tables are also evident in the Lower Burdekin irrigation areas, which can lead to water logging, increased salinity in the root zone and altered productivity.
  • The Hells Gates Dam and Irrigation Scheme provides the opportunity to establish best-practice innovative technology in the irrigation scheme, land and water management in the Burdekin Basin, which would reduce sediment and nutrient loads flowing to the coastal ecosystems and the Great Barrier Reef. The Upper Burdekin is also significantly less susceptible to groundwater level increases and consequent secondary salinity, which is currently an issue in the Lower Burdekin area.
  • Given the scientific rigor and stringent legislative requirements associated with the Reef 2050 Plan and management of the Great Barrier Reef, the Hells Gates Dam and Irrigation Scheme has been developed with world leading water and land management practices to enable the safeguarding of the world heritage listed Great Barrier Reef.

What are the impacts on Cultural Heritage?

Australia is rich with indigenous history and any green field development in this country will have sites of significance – this is not unique to the Hells Gates Dam project. Similar findings were reported at the Australian Singapore Military Training initiative next door to this project.

Engagement and consultation with Traditional Owners has been an important component of the Detailed Business Case, including the development of a framework for cultural heritage engagement that was presented to the North Queensland Land Council on behalf of Gugu Badhun and Ngrragoonda Aboriginal Corporations. Both Corporations have expressed concerns due to the expected loss of heritage for the area and both groups have set out expectations to be considered for engagement through all future project stages. The project must not only address agricultural and economic development service needs but also the needs of the Traditional Owners.

Where will the water come from for Hells Gates Dam?

Improved water resource management outcomes for the Burdekin Basin would be achieved if the project and the existing Burdekin Falls Dam were operated as a combined system, e.g. 200,000ML of water is allocated to “losses” for the Burdekin Falls Dam. This would enhance water security for the Burdekin Falls Dam during low rainfall periods, while still allowing high flow events – which are critical to the health of the coastal ecosystems (including the Great Barrier Reef) – to be passed through the system.

There's no water allocation in the Burdekin Basin Water Plan?

The Burdekin Basin Water Plan was developed in 2007 and the Hells Gates Dam project did not exist 15 years ago, therefore there is no water allocation within this plan. However, the detailed business case shows several pathways how water would be allocated without impacting existing water allocations to farmers.

The plan will be revised next year, and Townsville Enterprise will provide an official submission to have the Hells Gates included in the next revision.

Can't you just raise the Burdekin Dam wall?

To secure water for our future, we must build capacity. Townsville Enterprise supports the raising of the Burdekin Dam wall by two metres, however, it is only part of the solution. Raising the dam wall will not add additional capacity, allow population and agricultural growth or enable hydrogen production.

Why is water security important to the region?

There hasn’t been a new dam built in North Queensland in nearly four decades. Over this time our population has doubled. Water security and reliability is integral for population growth, opening agricultural land and to enable hydrogen production.  

Where is Hells Gates Dam located?

Hells Gates Dam is located in the Upper Burdekin just 160 kilometres northwest of Townsville and 120km northwest of Charters Towers.

What are the next steps for the project?

To successfully realise the benefits and opportunities of this project, several issues need to be resolved as part of any subsequent detailed pre-construction and Environmental Impact Statement Phase.

  • Working with state government in sourcing water allocation through a revised Burdekin Water Plan.
  • Demand for water and source of funding – initial market sounding showed interest in 60,000 hectares of irrigated farming, including from large agricultural organisations. Further engagement with investors to reach initial commitment.
  • The primary approvals pathway including: controlled action referral under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999; and a request for coordinated project status for the full project to be assessed under a bilateral Environmental Impact Statement assessment process under the Queensland State Development and Public Works Organisation Act 1971.
  • Further studies and assessments will also be required over the inundation area to fully understand the project impacts, including under the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act Qld 2003, in consultation with the traditional owners of the land.
  • To minimise any temporary cashflow differences, further financing analysis is proposed to be undertaken during the next phase of the project in proponent led consultations between the State and Federal Government. This work is likely to be informed by outcomes of discussions on future project proponent roles and will involve early engagement with the Queensland and Australian Governments.

Will Hells Gates Dam provide workforce opportunities?

Hells Gates Dam will create more than 10,000 jobs during construction and more than 3,000 ongoing jobs.

Who will build and own the dam?

The detailed business case recommended the State through its bulk water provider, Sun Water, be the future proponent of the Dam. As Sun Water runs the Burdekin Dam system, it makes sense for them to also manage Hells Gates Dam as this system will enhance the Lower Burdekin.

Is the Hells Gates Dam the first phase of the Bradfield Scheme?

No. The Hells Gates Dam is a stand-alone project which aims to ensure water security and reliability for North Queensland enabling population growth, high value agriculture and emerging industry development. 

Will landholders be forced to grow high value agriculture?

No. The detailed business case does not recommend compulsory acquisition for the irrigation area. It is up to the landholders to determine which activities they pursue on their land.

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