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Feb 28, 2011

The levees that could cost millions

When a St George farmer complained that unregulated levee building was worsening floods on the Balonne, she was ignored. But when the floods came again in January, she was vindicated.

When Kylie Kilroy first raised the problem of how the unregulated construction of levees in the Balonne Shire was making flooding in her area worse in 2010, she never thought she’d be vindicated so quickly and so spectacularly.

And rest assured she’d prefer it otherwise.

Kilroy lives in a property just down the Balonne River from the town of St George. Like much of southern Queensland, this is flood plain country. It’s also the home of Barnaby Joyce and, further downstream, the ultimate testament to unregulated water usage, Cubbie Station. Cubbie is only one of many large irrigators and commercial agricultural interests in this part of Queensland.

After the floods in March 2010, Kylie began pointing out something that a lot of irrigators and big cotton farmers didn’t want to hear – that floods smaller than the area had historically seen were reaching higher and further. Crikey aired her concerns in July last year. Her property, on a bend on the Balonne about nine kilometers downstream from St George (top right hand corner below) was directly affected by a levee on the property across the river, called Kia Ora:

Kia Ora is a 12,000 hectare cotton farm bought for $60m in 2008 by the Cayman Islands-based Eastern Australia Agriculture. Prominent critics of foreign investment in Australian agriculture expressed no concerns at the time about the sale. Hamish McIntyre, who oversees Kia Ora and other EAA projects in the area, didn’t return Crikey’s phone calls.

As journalist Phil Dickie showed long ago, the St George area has witnessed decades of skewed and bizarre corrupt water management policies, providing an unregulated, pro-irrigator framework that encouraged the development of the vast Cubbie dams that trapped overland water flows that would otherwise eventually find their way into the Murray-Darling system across the border. The legacy of those decisions, and the problem of un- and under-regulated water usage, continues today, perhaps stronger than ever. Building levees is unregulated, despite their impact on the hydrology of overland flows and major flooding events. There is no state regulation of levees, and in Balonne Shire, no local government regulation. You can build a levee wherever you like on your property, regardless of how it may affect the path and extent of flooding across the area.

The Kia-Ora levee can be seen in the photo above, the thin line running down the middle, west of the river. Kilroy claims it increased the height of the March 2010 floods, sending all her property underwater. The Kilroys did their best to protect their property as the water came up to their floorboards, until the Kia-Ora levee broke.

The levee breach was captured in an aerial photo:

Kilroy’s efforts to draw attention to the issue were ignored. Politicians and journalists refused to return her calls. But then, the rains came again, over the New Year, and floods rolled through St George less than ten months after the previous deluge. As the floods were just the first of a series of natural disasters to overtake Queensland, they’ve now all but been forgotten.

Between the March 2010 breach and this year’s floods, the owners of Kia-Ora had rebuilt the levee, back to its 7m height. Eastern Australia Agriculture had inherited the levee with the property from its previous owner, Glenn Graham, but now they increased the height of the levee by a further 50 cms.

To be clear, they did so entirely legally. The law is silent on the issue of levees, no matter what its impact on the hydrology of floods in a landscape designed for periodic flooding. The owners were acting entirely within the law.

The Kilroys say the levee once again lifted flood levels, again inundating their home. This time, however, it affected other properties, too – major cotton properties rather than just family farms.

The threat to millions of dollars’ worth of crops was sufficient for an urgent meeting to be convened on 5 January involving representatives of Balonne Shire, the owners of Kia Ora, local irrigators and other property owners. The Kilroys were not invited to attend, despite the meeting vindicating the exact concerns they had been raising throughout 2010.

Tempers were rising about the issue. After an argument with a Shire Council executive at the height of the floods over the issue, Kylie was charged with public nuisance and placed on a good behaviour bond.

At the 5 January meeting, Crikey understands and has independently verified, the option of blowing up some levees, including the Kia-Ora levee, was discussed, so great was the flood threat to other crops. In the end, the meeting broke up without resolving how to proceed.

The essential problems in Balonne Shire remains: there is no regulation of levee building, and no apparent interest on the part of Balonne Shire Council to address the lack of regulation (its CEO declined to return Crikey’s call). St George is a small town and multi-million dollar corporate agriculture and irrigation companies dominate it. Corporate agriculture speaks with a powerful voice in this town, louder perhaps than local residents. In the absence of regulation, big property owners will take what action they can to protect millions of dollars’ worth of cotton crops.

The scale of the problem may be starting to get through, however. Senator Joyce, who is not merely a local but shadow minister for water, told Crikey in a written statement

“I am aware of the concerns in the Balonne area that levies in particular places may have exacerbated flooding in other places. My understanding is that hydrologists have been engaged to investigate this issue. I would expect that this enquiry and the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry would investigate these matters fully and I would be guided by their decisions and recommendations before coming to any view on this matter.”

In response to Crikey’s query about support for a Senate inquiry, Joyce responded, “I note that there are already two inquiries in the hydrological management and productive capacity of the Murray Darling Basin in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Concerns raised in the Balonne area would be appropriate matters to be investigated by these inquiries.”

In the interim, the levees remain, and so does the regulatory gap that permits them. The next flood will again see the Kilroys inundated, forced to turn their front porch into a sanctuary for stock, while they wonder if the reinforced levees will give way and let the water drain away.

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13 thoughts on “The levees that could cost millions

  1. Harvey Tarvydas

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    Good on you BK and Crikey.
    Your efforts in matters like these set you apart from the others.
    Ignorance, stupidity and laziness compete with each other for pride of place in many human endeavours and non-endeavours.
    And then there is Crikey in a different competition that the others don’t know about.
    Cheers, you win.

  2. Mr Squid

    ask mr joyce if he or the LP or the NP or the LNP have ever received election donations from cubbie or other irrigators in the area. the answer is yes, by the way and in a big way. mr joyce is utterly compromised as water minister. he is a major part of the problem throughout the murray-darling catchment.

  3. kuke

    Thanks Bernard – important, unreported stuff.

    These levies resemble an early arms race against climate change. The huge costs and consequences of adaptation will be borne by many, but the rich and powerful will have their interests seen to first.

    Aside: surely downstream landholders have a stake in this too?

  4. Lady White Peace

    Barnaby Joyce is all self righteousness when it comes to dumping on the Labor party and the issues which are vital to the worker and of course he is comfy in the cubbie house and takes their money to keep his big mouth shut…. He has a big mouth they must pay big dollars to keep it shut! Oops of course its not a bribe did I say bribe ?? No of course not it’s an election donation !

  5. Harvey Tarvydas

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    If you are right then the shadow water minister should be turned into a fish, then he can swim in it for the rest of his life and regularly tell us how it’s going.

  6. Harvey Tarvydas

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    Ignorance, Stupidity and Laziness are certainly outpaced by Bribes in any competition but because of their bad name and look Bribes nearly always let Ignorance, Stupidity andLaziness win.

  7. Barry 09

    We need a Royal Commission into Barney Cubbie station Joyce and his Overseas (Arab) Mates, stealing and flooding Aussie Farmers .

  8. zut alors

    ‘St George is a small town and multi-million dollar corporate agriculture and irrigation companies dominate it.’

    And we all have an inkling how much multi-nationals care for the land, don’t we?

  9. oggy

    Thanks for this article BK,it encapsulates the problems for this country going forward,climate variability,AGW effects on top,water usage,environmental needs,corruption/graft thats leads to Qld State Govt ignoring the obvious.
    The previous posts are spot on,I find it hard to be humorous or satirical on this issue because some people have behaved in a cynical uncaring and greedy manner which goes to the core of what kind of society we really value.

  10. Liamj

    One distant day, rural voters will finally understand just how much the Libs & the Nats have betrayed them .. i hope Heffernan & Joyce both have a stash in Switzerland ready for that eventuality, cos they wont be able to go home again.