QUEENSLAND: by Luke McCormackNews Weekly
Flood inquiry reports confusion and delays
, August 20, 2011
More questions have been raised about the Queensland Labor government’s preparation and handling of the January floods disaster, after the release on August 1 of the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry interim report.
This has followed weeks of hearings under a $15 million budget allocation.
Two days after the interim report’s release, the Queensland Disaster Management Group met to discuss the implementation of the inquiry’s recommendations. Subsequently, Premier Anna Bligh has promised to adopt all 104 proposals that relate to the state government, and Liberal National Party (LNP) Opposition leader Campbell Newman has pledged support in a spirit of bipartisanship.
Premier Bligh established the independent commission of inquiry to examine the unprecedented flood disaster that impacted 70 per cent of the state, killed 35 people and ruined thousands of homes.
She has publicly conceded: “We knew there would be some tough lessons that would come out of it, and the commission has certainly made some sobering findings. You will find criticism of the government in this report ... I do not want something sugar-coated. I want something that will make us safer.”
On October 18, 2010, James Davidson of the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) had taken the extraordinary step of briefing Bligh’s cabinet about a fundamental change in the weather due to the onset of an unusually intense La Niña phase, which would likely bring flooding rains.
The inquiry’s 264-page report questioned why the state government did not partially drain “key storages” of Brisbane water, particularly the Wivenhoe Dam, to increase the city’s flood mitigation capacity ahead of the predicted heavy wet season. The report particularly honed in on Water Utilities Minister Stephen Robertson, who presided over months of delay and confusion among his top bureaucrats on a decision to partially drain Wivenhoe.
What subsequently transpired was a massive, last-minute release of water because fears were growing that the dam walls themselves could break.
During the hearings, Minister Robertson said he sought advice on lowering the dam level four months ahead of the summer’s rains, but the idea was “parked” on December 13.
Opposition leader Campbell Newman has called on Mr Robertson to resign, stating that the minister had “failed to act and I believe he should actually go”.
Opposition parliamentary leader Jeff Seeney told Queensland’s Legislative Assembly: “The report confirms what so many people have felt in their hearts, so many people have suspected, that the operation of Wivenhoe Dam as the city’s flood-mitigation infrastructure was less than ideal during the January floods.”
Minister Robertson says the advice he requested from the South East Queensland (SEQ) Water Grid Manager was not easy to compile, and it did not recommend releases. “To say that the agencies were challenged by that is somewhat of an understatement,” he said. “When you consider the evidence, you gain an appreciation of just how complex that investigation was.”
The inquiry reveals that the Water Grid Manager team, which subsequently sought advice from Seqwater, was the only entity from which the minister sought advice, completely ignoring the relevance of the Department of Environment and Resource Management.
On December 24, after some delays and miscommunications, the Water Grid Manager responded to the minister’s request and suggested a large-scale release was not necessary.
Misunderstandings of the relevant chain of command and of the allocation of responsibilities of the Minister for Water, the various water authorities and dam operators continued, as the inquiry revealed, beyond the January flood, even up to the present day.
This confusion led to the inquiry’s recommendation 2.2: “It should be accepted that control over temporary alteration of the full supply level of Wivenhoe, Somerset and North Pine dams is solely the function of the Queensland government acting through the responsible minister.”
The inquiry went on to recommend that if the BOM makes a similar seasonal forecast for the 2011/12 wet season as it did for 2010/11, the Queensland government should temporarily reduce the dam level at Wivenhoe to 75 per cent.
Armed with the report, Opposition leader Mr Newman has condemned the government’s response to the BOM warnings, saying he would have ordered a substantial lowering of the dam levels last year.
“The Premier undertook a press conference where she had the Bureau of Meteorology brief cabinet on the wet season,” Newman said. “Armed with the information they had, why didn’t they do something about the management of Wivenhoe Dam?”
Another recommendation asks for Seqwater to review the Wivenhoe Dam operating manual, and for an additional steering committee to oversee a more long-term review, including the strategies for releasing water in a more graduated process.
A group of 120 flood-hit Brisbane property-owners are weighing up taking a class action after the inquiry’s report opened a potential legal avenue.
Ken Madsen, of Flood-Affected Businesses and Householders, hopes the finding that Wivenhoe Dam operators breached the operating manual’s guidelines might help a class action.
The inquiry that found engineers in charge of the dam during the floods did not use the best available forecast information when deciding how much water to release. The report stated: “The finding does not therefore necessarily reflect upon the flood engineers operating the dams, nor can any particular consequence flowing from the breach be identified.”
Premier Bligh has responded, saying, “It would be up to the courts to test whether this opened an avenue for legal action by flood victims.”
The Premier said she would table this month in parliament a full written response and costings of the implementations, and further pledged that the recommendations needed by the next wet season would be done in time.
However, the Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) says councils cannot afford to implement all of the flood inquiry’s recommendations before the next wet season. LGAQ president Paul Bell says that councils are already facing years of hefty repair bills after the summer’s natural disasters.
Mr Bell also says councils need to find a way to communicate more effectively with residents about natural disasters. He says it has been among the lessons since Cyclone Yasi crossed the north Queensland coast six months ago. Mr Bell says the challenge is to design a communication system that will not overload residents and have it operating before the next wet season.
The BOM is not expected to have an accurate forecast for this summer before September.
The inquiry’s final report will be delivered in February 2012, when Premier Bligh, if she keeps her promise of governing for her full-term, will be in an election campaign mode.
Unlike the interim report, which focused on measures to avoid a repeat of this year’s floods, the full report will expose any culprits in the apparent shortcomings for preparing for the January floods disaster.
Clearly the decisions to delay water releases until the last possible moment contributed to the flooding of homes and businesses. Yet, what has so far been left unsaid, undebated and glaringly obvious is the lack of planning for new dams to address both flood mitigation and water shortages.
Surely, the Labor Party, particularly former Premier Wayne Goss and his then advisers Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan, must regret having campaigned to terminate the Wolfdene dam project upon winning government from the Nationals in 1989.
It will be interesting to see whether the LNP or the Labor Party takes a new dam policy to the next state election.
Luke McCormack is Queensland state president of the National Civic Council.