Cliefden Struggle Continues

Cliefden Flat with Fossil Hill, left, and the island
Cliefden Flat with Fossil Hill, left, and the island

IAN CURTIS Orange Speleological Society (OSS) | In the last Caves Australia Issue 198 I wrote of the alarm that has been caused by the NSW state government’s proposals to build a new dam on the Belubula River and our fear that this will inundate much of the Cliefden cave system.

I outlined what will be lost if the proposed dam is built — decorated caves, a hot spring, tufa dams, bat habitat and maternity sites, Fossil Hill, a scientific research site, cultural sites both indigenous and early colonial, valuable agricultural land ­— and the steps initiated to fight this proposal.

The Save Cliefden Caves Committee (SCCC), formed in July by OSS in conjunction with the NSW Speleological Council to organise the defence, has proven unwieldy, and split into two: a Sydney group, working through the Nature Conservation Council, and a local group headed by OSS and supported by the NSWSC and ASF.

Update since August

OSS has incorporated and its web site is up and working.

A Save Cliefden Caves Appeal has been launched through the ASF Karst Conservation Fund; money is needed to fund scientific projects and may be needed for a legal challenge.

The mapping program led by Phil Maynard (SUSS) and Bruce Howlett (OSS) has begun and several major caves (Taplow Maze and Main Cliefden among them) have already been remapped. The last mapping of Taplow Maze, 3 km long, took five years. This time it has taken a week and a weekend.

Dr Robert Zlot, funded by the ASF Karst Conservation Fund, has been to the area and demonstrated his Zebedee 3D laser mapping machine. The ABC 7.30 NSW Report on the caves, organised by the SCCC, demonstrated this machine in action.

Looking towards the needles, Island Flat and the ruins
Looking towards the needles, Island Flat and the ruins

As much of the footage was from the air, it gave to the viewing audience an idea of the rugged beauty and valuable agricultural land to be lost as well as showing several chambers in Main Cliefden. The program engendered much local interest and has led to contact with environmental and scientific groups.

A National Parks and Wildlife Service Karst Assessment Report on the value of karst outside National Parks, obtained through an FOI request, shows that Cliefden has been accorded the highest international ranking of any limestone area outside the NSW Parks estate.

OSS presented our submission to the NSW State Water Corporation about our concerns at the building of the dam and the loss of the caves. We were granted a two-hour interview with the appraisal team. As this team has to submit recommendations to the Minister by the end of the year, we had been preparing for this since the announcement was first made. The team emphasised repeatedly to us that the Needles was only one of 13 sites being examined and that several engineering, environmental and social criteria have to be met.

OSS held a meeting with NSW NPWS and presented a submission to them as well. Their OEH karst report on the value of Cliefden was central to our discussions. We made them aware of our submission to the NSW State Water Corporation and updated them on new scientific investigations under way and planned at Cliefden. NPWS was due to be consulted by State Water in relation to the Needles Dam proposal.

The Central West Environment Council (CWEC) in consultation with OSS called a public meeting in Orange and speakers from several bodies, including the Nature Conservation Council, the Inland Rivers Network, the Save Cliefden Caves Association and OSS, spoke at that meeting. A show of hands declared overwhelmingly that the audience (well over 100 people on a Tuesday night) were opposed to the building of a dam and were supportive of efforts to save the caves. Several newspaper articles have resulted from that meeting.

Meetings have been arranged between OSS representatives and state politicians and decision-makers. Questions have been asked of the Minister in the NSW Legislative Council and answers have been received in writing. Two scientific studies are under way: a bat study and a geomorphology study. Other new research is planned for early in the new year.

Bat Study

There has been no recent bat study west of the mountains, although it is known that several caves at Cliefden are home to bat populations. A study by Dr Meredith Brainwood is seeking to determine the number and species of bats present. A pilot study has commenced with anabat detectors being placed outside a number of caves and along the river corridor.

Anabat recorder outside Gable
Anabat recorder outside Gable

Preliminary analysis of results has revealed an unexpectedly high number of calls. Six species of bats have been noted. Two are listed as threatened under the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995. The next stage in the study, a look at maternity sites, will commence shortly.

Geomorphology Study

This is a research project on the geomorphology and hydrology of the caves and karst. It is looking at the relationships between the caves and the surface landforms — a study of the source of water that dissolved the caves. Did it come from shallow percolation through the soil picking up carbonic acid and draining down to dissolve passages, or was it forced up from below, either through geothermal warming or artesian pressure picking up deep-sourced acid juvenile CO2-sourced carbonic acid or sulphuric acid from oxidised pyrites?

There have been several important studies at Cliefden over the past few years. In the next Caves Australia I’ll give a brief outline of them.

State Water’s recommendation report for the preferred dam site (thirteen possibilities) is due in before the end of the year. The NSW state election is in March 2015. Politicians and the media, local and metropolitan, are aware of the values of these caves and of local dissent.

The next stage in the process is that the government will endorse a site and a detailed environmental assessment will begin. It is estimated that this may take up to two years. We have to maintain the rage and keep this issue on the agenda of all decision makers.

Donations to the ASF Karst Conservation Fund’s Save Cliefden Caves Appeal are vital to fund new research initiatives and to further the campaign. Remember, all donations over $2 are tax deductible. Donations directed to the appeal should make reference to Cliefden Caves.

Thanks to everyone for their support. This is a struggle OSS and the ASF must win.