Snowy 2.0 prompts fish fears

The critically endangered stocky galaxies. Photo: Hugh Allen.

Snowy 2.0 was given the “go ahead” for Main Works by the NSW Government last week, prompting the Chair of the NSW Fisheries Scientific Committee to resign his post.

Mark Lintermans, chair of the Committee and an associate professor at the University of Canberra, resigned after expressing fears that Snowy 2.0 would drive the stocky galaxias into extinction, funnelling the invasive Redfin perch from Talbingo Reservoir along a new 27-kilometre long tunnel to Tantangara Reservoir.

“The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the taxpayer-funded project is almost 10,000 pages long,” said Mr Lintermans in an open letter co-authored with John Harris, an Adjunct Associate Professor at UNSW, “Yet it fails to resolve critical problems, and in one case seeks legal exemptions to enable Snowy 2.0 to wreak environmental damage.”  

“The environmental impact statement either ignores, or pays inadequate attention to, these environmental problems.”

A Snowy Hydro spokesperson pointed to the company’s long history of working within the local area, saying that during the EIS process, “Snowy Hydro worked with a number of independent scientific and technical experts to determine that while pest fish could potentially be moved during operations from Talbingo to Tantangara Reservoir, the risk of pest fish establishing a new population or getting further into the rivers where threatened fish are present is considered very unlikely.”

Snowy Hydro said for pest fish to move through the tunnels, they would have to overcome multiple obstacles, including:

• Pest fish and their eggs in the Talbingo Reservoir would need to find their way into the tunnel intake, which is deep in the reservoir; and then

• they would need to survive significant pressure, compression, decompression and the blade strike from the Snowy 2.0 turbines spinning at 500rpm, and arrive in Tantangara Reservoir alive; and then

• transfer in sufficient numbers and/or be able to reproduce in Tantangara Reservoir where there is less than 20% chance of survival as the habitat is considered highly unsuitable for the pest fish; and then

• would need to get through the 0.5mm fine mesh screens designed to stop all life stages (eggs) that will be installed at the outlets from Tantangara Reservoir. This world-class barrier technology will cost at least $25 million.

 The company says that although no impact is expected on the threatened species, they are investing $5 million in a captive breeding and species recovery program for the Macquarie Perch and for Stocky Galaxias. Additionally, a special weir designed with assistance of threatened species experts will be built on Tantangara Creek to protect the stocky galaxias.

Brian Free, President of the Tumut Acclimatisation Society, said he has read the EIS and attended recent meetings, and feels somewhat confident about the project’s plans.

“No one will stop it going ahead,” he said, “and we don’t really want to stop it. We’re just concerned about Redfin getting into Tantangara and Eucumbene.”

Mr Free said the Redfin are a great sport fish lower in the dam system, and many anglers specifically target the species.

“They’re good sport where they are, but we don’t want them getting up into Eucumbene,” he said.

Other “undesirable species” which might be transferred from Talbingo to Tantangara through the Snowy 2.0 pipes included the Eastern Gambusia (Gambusia holbrooki) and Climbing Galaxias (Galaxias brevipinnis).

In 2017, Charles Sturt University (CSU) was hired to give advice on the issue, assessing the new pipeline between the dams. CSU conducted an experimental study in 2018 to “test the likelihood of survival of all life stages of Redfin through the proposed development assuming no screens or deterrents were installed.”

The CSU study built models to test whether Redfin eggs, larvae, juveniles and adults could make through the pressures and stresses they would face in the Snowy 2.0 tunnels, including turbine blades.  They then tested adult Gambusia, but “time and resources did not permit the testing of other life stages or Climbing Galaxias.”

The report went on to suggest the use of barriers and screens and “offsetting measures” including targeted species protection and supplementary stocking for recreational fishing. 

Mr Lintermans criticized Snowy Hydro’s solution for the issue of fish transfers.

“Installing large-scale screens at water inlets would be the best way to prevent fish transfer from Talbingo Dam,” he said, “but Snowy Hydro has dismissed it as too costly. 

“Snowy Hydro instead proposes a dubious second-rate measure: screens to filter pumped flows leaving Tantangara reservoir, and building a barrier in the stream below the stocky galaxias habitat.”

Mr Lintermans said the best way to prevent damage from “alien species” is by stopping them at the source, rather than trying to control or remove them once they’re established. 

“We believe the measures proposed by Snowy Hydro are impractical,” he wrote. “It would be very difficult to maintain a screen fine and large enough to prevent fish eggs and larvae moving out of Tantangara reservoir and such screens would be totally ineffective at preventing the spread of EHN virus.”

To earn the government’s approval, Snowy Hydro committed to investing close to $100 million in biodiversity and environmental offset initiatives, to protect current species and improve conservation and recreation within Kosciuszko National Park.

One initiative, negotiated with the Monaro Acclimatisation Society includes a trout grow-out facility, designed to grow a “significant number of trout” up to 200mm or yearling size, according to MAS. 

“At this size they are too big for the majority of redfin to prey on,” said MAS President Steve Samuels.

“Producing trout to a more robust yearling size will give us the best chance of ensuring the Snowy Mountains trout fishery is not decimated by redfin incursion,” he said.

Mr Samuels said he was working with Deputy Director General of NSW Fisheries Sean Sloan to organize a partnership between MAS and NSW Fisheries. 

The 2000-megawatt hydro project still requires federal permission and has published an Environmental Impact Statement addressing its ecological impact.

Snowy 2.0’s Environmental Impact Statement considered 11 “key environmental aspects and impacts requiring priority investigation” in total. They are: 1. Recreational use – and amenity of conservation areas (KNP); 2. Biodiversity – terrestrial and aquatic, including transfer of undesirable aquatic species; 3. Heritage – Aboriginal cultural heritage and historic heritage; 4. Water – surface and groundwater; 5. Soils and contamination; 6. excavated rock – excavated rock and waste management, including subaqueous disposal of excavated rock; 7. Transport and access; 8. Noise, vibration and blasting impacts; 9. Air quality; 10. Social and economic impacts, including local infrastructure and services; and 11. Other risks including climate, bushfire and public safety.