It has been touted as Western Sydney’s answer to Barangaroo, and a NSW government plan to turn a dusty quarry into a lakeside urban wonderland may prove just as divisive.
The government has revived a decades-old vision to flood what was once Australia’s largest quarry near Penrith, creating the city’s biggest body of water outside Sydney Harbour.
Known as the Penrith Lakes Parkland, the scheme would likely require billions of litres of water to be pumped from the sensitive Nepean River to create a series of artificial lakes and 26 kilometres of foreshore.
A new neighbourhood of up to 4900 homes could be built at the site, which sits on a floodplain, despite previous official warnings that lives could be lost if evacuation was delayed during a flood.
Minister for Sport and Recreation Stuart Ayres is seeking public and industry feedback on the project he described as “complex yet exciting”.
Ambitious plans for Penrith Lakes stretch back to the 1980s, and have included fun parks, marinas, helipads and hotels. A regatta centre and whitewater stadium already exist at the site.
The quarry, five times the size of Centennial Parklands, is expected to be exhausted in mid-2015. Under a long-standing agreement, land will then be transferred to the government for parkland development.
Planning Minister Pru Goward has likened the site’s size and potential to central Sydney’s Barangaroo.
The government’s 20-year draft Penrith Lakes plan, released this month, outlined a recreational water park similar in surface area to Sydney Harbour east of the bridge, where people can “walk, cycle, swim, paddle and play”.
Quarry pits would be filled by pumping water from the nearby Nepean River, where water extraction has long stressed the river system.
A 2007 plan by the former Labor government said 30 billion litres of water would be required to create the lakes. Refills would also be needed as water evaporates.
University of Western Sydney environmental scientist Ian Wright warned that such large-scale extraction could reduce the river’s flow, affecting fish movements and risking weed and algal outbreaks.
A Planning Department spokesman said water extraction would be subject to conditions, including limits on daily pumping, and the approved project “will be consistent with the overall water-sharing plan for the whole catchment”.
A new residential neighbourhood would help fund the public infrastructure, and it is understood the government is open to overtures from developers for other commercial development.
However in 2006, the State Emergency Service warned the flood risk was so great that even a forecast of very heavy rain could trigger an evacuation and “hundreds, if not thousands of lives could be lost” if this was delayed.
NSW Greens MP John Kaye said the development would “add to pressure to raise the Warragamba dam wall, despite the huge economic and environmental impacts”.
The plan says any urban land to be developed will “take into account flood evacuation requirements”. The SES is updating evacuation arrangements for the floodplain.