Bernard Keane and Nikki Bricknell write:

Water allocation in Australia has focused on managing usage and scarcity.  Irrigators and  farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin have long been concerned about the impact  of Queensland’s far more deregulated approach to water management, particularly of floodplain water after major rain events.

But during  major floods, it’s not retaining water but ensuring it can escape that becomes a potentially life-threatening problem.

In  March this year, floods devastated many of Queensland’s rural towns, including St George, between the Balonne River and the Moolabah Weir. Premier Anna Bligh estimated the cost of the floods at hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet, according to locals, much of the damage could have been prevented if the proliferation of unregulated levees had not prevented the natural flow of  water into the floodplains.

St George local Kylie Kilroy claims that unregulated levee banks built since regulation was dropped in 1990, exacerbated the flooding in March.   When the floods began in March and the water levels rose to 12 metres, she thought her her land would be safe and dry — after all, her property was dry in 1990 when the  flood waters reached 12.26 metres deep.  But at 12.02 metres, a full 24 centimetres  lower than 20 years ago, her land was covered in water, pushed there by the force of the flooding river crashing into the levees.  The waters  continued to rise to 13.5 metres before one of the 7 metre-tall levee banks down river finally broke under the pressure of two rivers.

Under Queensland laws, regulation of levees is left to local councils where, several sources who did not wish to be identified say, large irrigators can exercise significant influence.  Balonne Shire Council, home to St  George and many of the worst flood-affected regions, currently has no regulation of levees. But next door, Goondiwindi Regional Council introduced a law in 2004 that prohibited construction of levee banks without permission and regulated the construction and maintenance of levee banks.  These laws were in effect less than three hours’ drive  from St George.

The issue has affected other property owners.  Michael Anderson, a member of the Northern Rivers Aboriginal Nations Group that advises the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and owner of a property that backs onto Cubbie Station, blamed levees for exacerbating the March floods.

In the St George area, there’s nothing neighbouring  farmers can do about these levees.  The local has sought help from local and state governments, and has even reached out to St George local  and Coalition water spokesman Barnaby Joyce without luck.  Ring tanks, elevated circular dams capable of holding megalitres of water, are regulated by the Queensland government, to ensure that they don’t burst —  understandable at those volumes.  Regulation of levees, on the other hand, is left to local councils, despite holding potentially greater volumes of water.

The Queensland  Water Act 2000 states that “a person may take overland flow water or take  or interfere with subartesian water for any purpose unless … there is a  moratorium notice, a water resource plan or a wild river declaration that  limits or alters the water that may be taken or interfered with”.  The  Water Resource Plan for the Border Rivers (covering the Balonne Shire Council)  only talks about water allocation, but does not regulate the placement of levees, only their flow and the use of the water thus captured.

Levees constructed along river banks that  potentially add an extra metre of flooding to some areas are thus completely unregulated in the Balonne area.  There’s no guarantee that the nearby levees won’t contribute to flooding in the area again, placing stock, property and, potentially, lives at risk.

This story has been corrected: as originally published, it referred to 4m levee banks downriver from St George. The correct height is 7m.

Peter Fray

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