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.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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