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Emotional & social impact of the proposed Tillegra Dam

May 12th, 2008 by admin | 3


The following is a moving heartfelt talk given by Nikki Coleman at the Wise Ways to Water Weekend at Wangat Lodge on Saturday 12 April 2008…

Ken Rubeli asked me to talk today about some of the emotional and social effects this dam(n) proposal has had on me as a landholder in the proposed inundated area.Naida's painting

I began by asking myself this question:
‘Why is having to sell one’s land so devastating?
Don’t people move many times in their lives, buying and selling, uprooting and resettling?’

The thing I keep coming back to is ‘Connection to place’.

If you buy a piece of land with the intention of creating a home, perhaps also a livelihood, that will be yours for next 10 or 20 years you are already feeling some connection to that place.
If your children then grow up on that land and at least one of them intends to stay there and live and work there, that connection is getting stronger.
If your grandchildren are also born there, the family history, the ancestral roots, are going ever deeper. It is now not only about your vision for the future but also about your past. The land is becoming part of your identity.
Family members might die and their ashes may be spread or buried on the land. Yet another layer of significance is added.

For me, it is both about putting down roots and being one of the branches of a tree that was planted long ago. We use the idea of the Family Tree to describe our extended family connections. Perhaps the land, for many, is the Family Roots. Ancestral Country. Indigenous Australians express it as “My Country”. The land becomes a member of the family, the constant matriarch. She is the mother to whom we want to always be able to return, who nurtures us, nourishes us. We will come and go but our Mother Earth remains.

My family’s roots in the Williams Valley were first put down around 1868 when my great grandfather, Edwin Smith, came over the hill from Bandon Grove and ‘made a selection’ of land near Munni House. Soon after he bought Munni, the house and surrounding property. The property remained in our family for over 120 years. Edwin’s wife, Florence, came from Grafton and brought with her a Macadamia nut that she planted at her new home. It is now the enormous Macadamia tree you can see in the front garden at Munni.

Edwin and Florence’s oldest son, Grafton, was my grandfather. He took over Munni from his father and lived there for many years with his wife Marjorie and their 6 children. My mother, Alexandra, was their youngest child and had a wonderful childhood growing up at Munni with her brothers and sisters. Mum’s oldest brother Eddo, took over Munni when he married Naida and they lived there for more than half a century, raising their 4 children and running a very successful beef and dairy farm. The property remained in our family until Eddo’s death and the subsequent sale of Munni to HWC in 2006.

HWC know Munni to have great symbolic, as well as historic, significance to the area and using it as their office or headquarters to hold meetings with affected landholders and to negotiate the involuntary sale of properties in the inundated area was both clever and ruthless on their part. When I finally walked in to the house to talk to the Hunter Water reps at the end of last year it was just horrible. What was once my cousin’s bedroom was now an office with whiteboards and maps of the proposed dam.

Although Mum moved to Sydney when she married my father, the saying “you can take the girl out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the girl” was so true of her. From her I learnt that innate sense of conservation that so many country people have – reuse or repair rather than throw away, and NEVER WASTE WATER. We knew at a very early age not to run the water whilst doing our teeth and we always emptied our hot water bottles onto the garden. Still do. My mum used to tell me how her father, Grafton, would turn off the shower in the middle of winter while he shampooed his hair and then only turn it back on to rinse off. And this is in winters cold enough to freeze the chooks’ water that it was my mum’s job to crack on frosty winter mornings. I don’t think they had shower timers in those days but sounds like he could do his in well under 2 minutes! Relying on rainwater tanks for your water not only is good water management, it also gives us a very finite way of understanding our water use. When the tank is empty, there is simply no more water!

So the valley has been part of me all my life. Not only in mum’s recounting of stories from her childhood and the way growing up there shaped her, but more particularly my own history. I have such happy memories of spending many weekends and school holidays either at Munni, with my Munni cousins, or round the bend at Manns Hill at “the Hut”, my Uncle Snow’s property. My kids still help get fresh milk from the dairy at Manns Hill, just as we did as children. I still love catching up with my Munni cousins at Philly’s place and my other cousins at the Hut. I love the sense of family history I get when I come here, of family connection and continuity.

As I got older I started to understand that there was a threat to this magnificent valley. I first heard of the dam in the late 1980’s when the Smith family clan converged on Dungog for a meeting at the St James Theatre, the theatre where my mum told me she first learned to dance, and where we held her Memorial Service when she died. People were out in full force, many locals and many like myself, who had familial ties to the area. Damn the Dam read the placards! Tim Fisher, representing the Coalition, came to put forward his dam proposal and met with significant opposition.

But for my Auntie Naida, this was only one of many, many actions she took to try and stop the proposal for damming the valley. She and Eddo and the other people in the valley have lived with this spectre since the early 1950’s and time and time again had managed to have it taken off the agenda.

Naida is a woman of amazing verve and gumption and has long been at the forefront of the anti-dam battle. In the 80’s, her hand-painted signs could be seen all the way up the valley, on trees in paddocks and even painted straight onto the road. I remember one sign right at Tillegra Bridge that really it brought it home for me. It said something like “You would now be 90 feet underwater if the dam is built”. But the best one was a huge “NO DAM” that she painted on the roof of one of the sheds at Munni. When I rang Naida the other day, she told me that she had to burn all the photos she had of her signs and the Save the Williams Valley campaign from that era. She explained that she had to let go because the fight had nearly destroyed her.
Naida not only paints protest signs, she is a painter in her on right. I look at this picture of hers and think of all those who have had history in the Williams Valley. She painted this after hearing another local tell of the way Aboriginal women from this area used to stun the fish in the Williams River with a particular flower.

There is an obvious similarity between the situation for the landholders and residents in the proposed inundated area today, and those who lived here before the white settlers arrived. For Indigenous Australians, as we are all well aware, there was no Compulsory Acquisition because there was not compensation. And there was no freedom to relocate. I can only guess at the personal and cultural despair this has created for Aboriginal people but this is a topic way beyond the scope of what we are discussing here today. I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Gringai people.

Although it appeared the dam was defeated in the late 80’s, in actual fact a motion was passed in parliament that paved the way for future attempts to dam this valley. And instead of building a dam, HWC got very smart and created the first and most successful user-pays system of water management in the country. Now, in 2008, Newcastle has no need of a new dam – it has a very healthy water supply. But somehow someone always wants this dam, it’s just the justification for building it that keeps changing.

When I sat down to think about how to describe the emotional impact of losing our property to this dam project, all the adjectives that came to mind seemed to start with the letter “D”.

The first one was devastating. This describes the incredible shock we all got when the dam was announced on November 13, 2006, out of the blue.

That was followed immediately by despair – the utter sense of hopelessness when the worst nightmare for our land became a reality. The government wants the land and there is nothing we can do to stop them. Despair at the feeling of utter powerlessness.

And when there is no sense of hope, the depression sets in. I was horrified when my 9-year-old son informed me, about June last year, that I hadn’t smiled or laughed since the dam was announced.

There have been a lot of references by those trying to discredit the No Tillegra Dam Group, to the fact that there are very few in the group from the inundated area. I wonder have those who make this claim thought about why this is the case?

Why haven’t we heard the loud voices of those most affected by this dam? Why don’t they join the fight, and do something?

I can understand this inaction completely. For some it is just too painful. For others, it is too late. People are so tired of fighting this dam. And depression saps you of energy and the sense of hope that is needed to fight. I have even found preparing to talk today about what this means to me emotionally, a very distressing exercise. But for me, taking action is my way of dealing with the stress and despair. For many others, retreating as far away from the subject as possible is a survival tactic. How dare other people make the assumption that those who are in the proposed inundation area are OK with this dam!

Wayne Brorson, the Land Valuer in the Dungog area who has been the independent valuer representing the landholders in the proposed inundation area who are forced to sell by the threat of Compulsory Acquisition, wrote this to me in an email yesterday:
“I don’t doubt or underestimate the emotional trauma. I have represented every owner who has sold. Apart from a few who have been short term owners, I have witnessed incredible turmoil and I have found it very difficult at times.”

Each family has its own story. Many of the families have long ago left, no longer able to live with the uncertainty of the dam spectre. Some have already sold and are leasing the land back form the HWC with leases that will expire at the end of this year. Some will get no financial compensation because they don’t own the land they have lived and worked on all their lives.

For some the emotional impact has such a profound effect on their lives they never really recover. I believe studies have been done on the community of Jindabyne and the enormous legacy of depression and despair that project caused. Tom Boorer could tell you about the impact building the Chichester Dam had on his family.

The thing I find most shocking, unbelievable and ultimately really sad, is the lack of support the general Dungog community, and its elected representatives, has shown towards the people going through this journey that has been forced upon them. Where is the sense of outrage that the govt would do this to their neighbours and friends, to one of the valleys in their area? Driving into the town several days after the dam was announced, I expected to see a huge banner strung across Dowling St saying “No Dam”, and people looking perturbed and worried. I expected to see and hear media reports of the Dungog Mayor and the Councillors denouncing the decision. I expected to hear on the radio and see in the local paper, expressions of support and the commitment to represent those who would be affected. They could have made statements about the destruction of an entire community, a neighbourhood, the loss of livelihood and destruction of futures planned. Instead we have seen divisiveness and occasional mumblings in the local paper about how well compensated people have been. This dam has already had a very negative impact on the broader Dungog community.

Do I have a right to speak for those who have lived and still do live in this valley? I’m not even a full-time resident of the valley!

I can only tell my own story in order to explain why being well compensated financially, and perhaps buying somewhere else in the area, is not the point.

As I mentioned before, Mum grew up at Munni House but lived most of her adult life in Sydney. But in the year 2000 she moved back ‘home’ to the Williams Valley. Her place is the small property just past the windy bits after the Tillegra Bridge. We looked down on it today when where we walking to the trig point.

Mum was an enthusiastic supporter of the local Landcare initiatives and had begun planting trees on her property. When she died in 2002 we planted a ‘Memorial forest’ for her and scattered her ashes on the seedling trees.

It was bloody hard yakka planting those trees, all one thousand or so of them! Many of them are now four or five times my height with some almost as high as the established casuarinas at the river. The other day, I was excited to see an Azure Kingfisher on the gate to our shed where we stay – that’s the first time I have ever seen one away from the protection of the river. Sitting on the verandah of our shed and hearing the birds singing their little hearts out is the most beautiful sound. It is one we have only started to hear in the last year or so, since the trees have grown into a small forest.

If this dam happens, we will all lose some of the most beautiful and the most viable agricultural land in this country. But those people, who are connected with this land personally, will lose their history, their roots, their sense of belonging.

My cousins and I will lose the place where the ashes of my grandfather and grandmother were buried. My cousin Phillippa will lose her home, in the valley where she grew up. Her mother Naida, will lose the valley she almost gave her life to save. For my Uncle Snow and his children, he will lose the dairy he put so much of his life into even, though he lived in Sydney. His children will lose the place that has always been part of their lives, that they love with a fierce passion.

For me, I will lose the place where we scattered my mother’s ashes and the place where we planted a forest in her memory. I will lose the vision I had for my children, to feel this continuity with their past and their future in this connection to place. For all of us in the proposed inundated area, we will lose our valley.

Nikki Coleman

3 Comments on “Emotional & social impact of the proposed Tillegra Dam”

  1. Jan McDonald said:

    Hi Nikki

    I used to live both at Wangat and Wallarobba, and I knew your mum well. She was a wonderful woman. I have just read your speech and just wanted to let you know how potent and moving it was.
    My favourite place to take family and friends for ‘a drive’ was up the Tillegra valley – thinking of it disappearing is devestating – your loss, and that of others with direct familial connections, must be heartbreaking.
    We must continue to fight. I just wanted to let you know you have my support. It is my intention to be at the protest this Friday in Newcastle.

    Regards, Jan

  2. Terry Hill said:


    I am an old Novacastrian expat living in Alexandria, Virginia. I am in the process of building a new home on a small city lot that I have lived on for 27 years, As it turns out, I will not be able to live in it and will have to sell. Not my choice.

    Coming to terms with this reality is very difficult. I really identified with the feelings you described above. There has been a death, a death of the future self. While i don’t want to go through that again I am grateful that that the experience has allowed my to get in touch with a deeper self, one that has a level of compassion that I never knew I had and, as a result O am able to experience a greater connection with others and the world around me.


    Terry Hill

  3. Mark Simpson said:

    Nikki, I have been lucky enough to visit the area and stay with Ken and Helen (and Robert) and Wangat Lodge for two years running, we are booked to come back again next year.
    Last year, Ken took us all on a walk over the hill at Dusodie to look at the proposed site of the Tillegra Dam, I took some photo’s of this area and I was a little upset to think this perfect land would be flooded, and it was my first time seeing the area.
    The group we were with had discussions on this dam and it was said the dam was being built to sustain water for the Central Coast (where I live) and also the Chichester dam water is not being used. Why the powers that be cannot see the damage they will cause to the land for no good reason, considering there is another dam not too far away that is not being used to its full extent, is just not justifiable.
    Now, I understand the info I have been given may be a little biased, it makes sense, so why do they need another dam? I love this part of our country and I am only a visitor, I have no roots here (or branches) but the natural environment of this area should be preserved along with history of the original people, both Aboriginal and early settlers.
    Here is one of the photos I took looking down (possibly to Munni House).

    I sincerely hope the dam does not go ahead, we don’t need it, we need conservation.

    I’d like to help if I can.

    Kind Regards
    Mark Simpson