A dam shame

Martin and Jacqueline Heppleston, overlooking the proposed site for Emu Swamp Dam on their property.

By Dominique Tassell

Locals have spoken out against the Granite Belt Irrigation Project’s treatment of those owning land needed for the Emu Swamp Dam, blasting them for being dishonest and greedy.

Four landholders involved in the project have reportedly been told by GBIP that the project now wants to purchase their entire properties as opposed to the previously agreed upon sections of land.

Jacqueline and Martin Heppleston have been publically supportive of Emu Swamp Dam, but are now speaking out against the way they are being treated.

“As an affected landowner, we were never given any information,” Jacqui says.

Jacqui and Martin say that while they were initially advised by GBIP to get their own lawyers, GBIP have now seemingly ceased negotiations with anyone who has a lawyer.

GBIP has to pay the legal fees of landholders involved in the project, with many involved speculating this may be why they no longer want to negotiate.

While Jacqui and Martin have always been supportive of the dam, and willing to give up a portion of their land for it, they say that on Christmas Eve last year they received a letter stating that GBIP wanted all the couple’s land.

“That was Merry Christmas.”

The couple have raised questions about what exactly GBIP wants the land for, as it is not necessary for building the dam.

GBIP reportedly wants the land as “environmental offset”.

Jacqui and Martin say that the feral animals will go wild if the land is left uncared for, and will put the livelihood of the current farmers who use the land at risk.

They say they fully understand building the dam, but GBIP’s actions are going against the initial purpose of it by taking over people’s entire properties.

The couple says they’ve put up with the instability for years, with to-and-froing on buffer zones.

They say they’ve made plans around the 200-metre buffer zone planned for the dam, planting their crop around it.

“It’s the secrecy that gets me,” they say.

The landholders and irrigators involved in the project are reportedly kept very separate, with landholders questioning whether the irrigators know that contracts have not been signed for the land.

Five irrigators have reportedly pulled out of the project, with inconsistency from GBIP regarding prices.

Another local involved in the project said watering their crops with bottled water would be cheaper.

Irrigators contributed a non-refundable deposit to GBIP for their involvement in the project.

GBIP has reportedly exhausted their waiting list and has asked irrigators to invest more into the project.

Another landholder involved in the project says they wonder how many millions have been wasted.

They said they believe GBIP has “squandered funds”.

Multiple landholders have stated that the hardest part is the uncertainty and stress associated with the project.

Maree Lynam says “it’s compounded a level of stress”.

She says that living in Toowoomba most of the week means she feels she gets a break.

She says for other landholders, “every time they wake up they have to look outside and wonder”.

Jacqui and Martin say they can’t buy another property because even if a deal was made, GBIP can “pause” the project for two years with next to no notice.

They say they would still sell their original 96 acres to GBIP, as do other landholders.

Maree says she wishes there was a definitive line drawn and says she’s had tenants spooked from renting the property due to the project.

Every landholder we spoke to has criticised the secrecy behind the project, saying GBIP gives differing information or no information at all.

“Everything was secret,” Jacqui says.

Reportedly, the contracts landholders are asked to sign to give up their land requires them not to talk to the media about it, and not to show anyone the contract itself.

Landholders have questioned why Sunwater is now reportedly involved with the project, and why bike paths and solar panels are now being added into a project that was supposed to be about providing local farms with water.

One local said they think GBIP wants to sell off or develop the extra land to make money.

“What else are they doing?”

Most people involved in the project just want answers.

“The biggest problem is the lack of transparency,” say Jacqui and Martin.

“You don’t know what they’re doing and that’s the biggest problem.”

GBIP sent out a media release yesterday, stating the project “has reached the important Go/Stop/ Pause decision point”.

In the release, Granite Belt Water Limited CEO Lloyd Taylor said “the local community remains at the heart of this project and we will always be as transparent as possible with the Southern Downs community, while we deliver this important project”.

Landholders say they’re sick of living in limbo, and the project being passed from one hand to another.

They can’t make decisions about their lives and their livelihoods at the moment, because it all hinges on details of a project that are being kept under lock and key.