The attractions of the relatively high rainfall of the upper reaches of the Williams Valley, combined with a rare geological site at Tillegra, have greatly shaped history within the valley in a unique sense. The Tillegra area is a potentially outstanding location for the building of a major dam. The attraction of this rare feature from an engineering perspective along with the desire to utilise the water of the Williams River for the long-term needs of populations outside the valley has led to a perhaps unique situation. This is one of a specific location being proposed, protested against and withdrawn as a dam site on no less than three occasions within a little more than half a century.
The attractions of the higher rainfall and hence water flows, coming off the Barrington Tops down into the Williams valley district were evident over 100 years ago when the Chichester Dam was proposed and built in the 1920s with minimum, if any protests. It is unclear if the Tillegra site was examined at that time but the building of the Chichester Dam meant that further dam proposals were not made for another generation.
Then in 1951 it was announced that: ‘A major dam … is likely to be built on the Williams River’. This was to be ‘at Tillegra about seven miles from Dungog’. At the same time a ‘protest meeting at Tillegra’ was held. The arguments and protests over the flooding of the Williams Valley by a dam at Tillegra went on for at least four years when in 1955, ‘over 30 residents of the Tillegra area and others affected by the proposed dam at Tillegra, showed appreciation of the services rendered by Mr J. A. Ferguson in preventing the carrying out of the proposal’. It was stated at the time that: ‘The loss of 30 or 40 farms would have meant a lot to the town and to the [butter] factory’.
While not directed at the Tillegra site, a number of dam proposals were made in subsequent years, such as in 1965 when there was talk of a dam on the Barrington Tops, and again in 1978 with talk of a dam on the Williams above Salisbury, with reference to the fact that a dam ‘at Tillegra would be strongly objected to…. There is too much valuable arable land in this area’.
In 1981 it was announced that: ‘Landholders [are] totally opposed’ to ‘a water storage on the Williams River at Tillegra’. A ‘Save the Williams Valley Committee’ was formed and it was declared that the loss of $1,000,000 in revenue to Dungog would result from the effects on this dairying area. Three years later, in 1984, the argument continued with announcements that the ‘Save the Williams Valley Committee refuses to accept defeat’ and further that ‘the committee is not aware that any land has yet been bought’. But it was not until 1989 with a ‘protest rally on council steps’ and declarations of ‘Damn the Dam!’ that the government began to listen to the views of the local community. Finally, it was announced in 1990 that the dam proposal would be withdrawn.
Then in November 2006, the NSW government for a third time announced its intention to build a dam at Tillegra. This was the most serious attempt to date, as this time the water authority was authorised to begin buying property and this, combined with a much impoverished valley due to the decline of the dairy industry, meant that Hunter Water was able to purchase nearly all the land required. This land buying resulted in a substantial displacement of communities and families who had resided in the Williams Valley for many generations. Additionally, the Dungog Shire community was more divided than ever before, with significant elements supporting a dam for economic reasons, while the main arguments against the dam this time were environmental. The protests continued for four years until, in November 2010, it was announced that the Tillegra Dam would not go ahead.
The Tillegra site’s combination of geology and water resources has greatly influence human life on the Williams River without so far any dam-thing actually taking place. This is perhaps unique in the history of community protest and governmental decision-making.