QUEENSLAND:   Brisbane ill-prepared for coming wet season

News Weekly, October 15, 2011 by Luke McCormack  http://newsweekly.com.au/article.php?id=4947 

The Queensland Bligh Labor Government has recently stated that it will not, at present, lower Brisbane dam levels before the coming wet season. The decision was a response to the Floods Inquiry Report and advice from the Bureau of Meteorology, Seqwater, the Department of Environment and Resource Management, the Queensland Water Commission and the SEQ Water Grid Manager. The Bureau has predicted that conditions will not be as severe as last year, though chances of above-average rainfall are 60 to 70 per cent across most of Queensland.

The Minister for Natural Resources, Rachel Nolan, however, took the precaution of saying that the decision will be reassessed each time the Bureau updates its forecast as the wet season approaches.

On September 28, the Bureau issued its monthly update, entitled “Odds firm for a La Niña in 2011”.

It stated: “The continuing cooling trend in the central Pacific Ocean since early winter is consistent with a developing La Niña event. Atmospheric indicators are also trending towards typical La Niña values. Trade winds have been persistently stronger than normal in the central and western Pacific Ocean, and the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) this week reached the threshold value of +8. Sustained values at this level are an indication of La Niña.”

News Weekly interviewed Stewart Franks, a scientist and associate professor at the school of engineering in the University of Newcastle, NSW, who said, “The Bureau is consistently conservative in its forecasts. For example, the equivalent government agency in the US was publicising the re-emergence of a 2011 La Niña several months ago.”

Dr Franks’ research specialises in analyses of the La Niña and El Niño events as they affect Australia. Franks fears that many corporations and governments do not appreciate the changing risks associated with the shifting patterns between the two conditions.

He said: “These La Niña / El Niño events are not random; they occur in clusters, and a complete shift in dominance, from one to the other, occurs in 10- to 20-year — sometimes 30-year — cycles.

“Another example of the Bureau’s timidity is in their forecasting language. Similar to last year’s forecast, they recently predicted ‘above average chance of above-average rainfall’. What they don’t say, but should, is that there is a greater chance of the sort of rainfall events that are associated with catastrophic flooding.

“What is more, their suggestion that this summer does not look as bad as 2010, is hollow because it is too early to tell, and the indicators are simply not there to make that assertion.”

Brisbane residents who rely mainly on the Wivenhoe Dam to prevent flooding would be justified in demanding a more precautionary approach. As News Weekly readers would be aware, Brisbane suffers from a water catchment capability that is, at the least, one dam short.

With the large Wivenhoe dam solely responsible for managing both drought and flood mitigation, Brisbane water authorities and state governments will always be gambling each time summer approaches: do we or don’t we release some water?

The government has neglected to address the most obvious flaw in the water management strategy for Brisbane: the need for another dam. In terms of location, it is hard to improve on the strategic choice of the former Wolfdene dam project on the Albert River. That dam, which never came to pass after Wayne Goss’s Labor Government ditched the plan on coming to power in 1989, would have been equivalent in size to Wivenhoe.

Additionally, the benefit of dams on the Coomera River, the top end of the Lockyer and Murphy’s Creeks, should be evaluated. The flooding of these creeks last January destroyed the towns of Grantham and Murphy’s Creek, with the loss of many lives.

Labor must be regretting its back-flip on the Mary River dam proposal (a reaction to the drought). The Mary River proposal was contentious partly due to the shallow terrain requiring much land for little water storage. In fact, there is anther dam site in the head-waters of the Mary River that is a much better prospect and which was reportedly surveyed in the 1980s.

Only this week on ABC radio in Brisbane, callers were advocating the old Bradfield scheme. Engineer Dr John Bradfield (1867-1943), who designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Brisbane’s Story Bridge, devised a plan in 1938 to irrigate central Queensland and parts of northern NSW. The scheme required pipes and tunnels to divert inland some of the monsoonal rainfall from the Tully, Herbert and Burdekin rivers.

Regardless of the merits of these particular schemes, one thing is certain: the do-nothing attitude of successive governments is a culpable abdication of their responsibility to the people of Queensland. Forward planning, to allow for innovation, growth, cropping, drinking water catchment and decentralisation of population, is a duty for all levels of government.

Professor Franks predicts: “If history is any indicator, given the recent cluster of La Niña events we can expect a 10- to 20-year period of La Niña dominance, which means that floods, not droughts, will be the natural disaster for eastern Australia to manage.

“Australia has the most variable climate of all the continents and therefore dam-building for flood and drought mitigation should be one of the highest priorities for Australian governments, yet at present the so-called ‘Green agenda’ makes that quite difficult.”

Luke McCormack is Queensland state president of the National Civic Council.

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