Deniliquin Pastoral Times
Dam release could prevent repeat of 2016
Nothing has been learned from the 2016 floods, and Murray communities could pay the price.
That is what landholders are saying as they watch water levels in the Hume Dam exceed 80 per cent capacity with more rain on the horizon.
They fear the water levels will be allowed to keep building until an eventual spill, creating floods which pose a third party threat to food producers and communities along the system.
Five years ago in early August, the Hume Dam was at 68.7 per cent capacity and rising fast.
Many believe the flood that followed was ‘man-made’, attributable directly to the decisions made by the Murray Darling Basin Authority.
‘‘They didn’t want to sacrifice a full dam,’’ said Rob Locke, a farmer who was affected by the 2016 floods.
‘‘The Hume was basically full, but they waited, and when the rains came they panicked and opened up the gates.’’
Mr Locke describes what happened next as ‘‘a wall of water’’ which ripped through his property’s levee banks in ‘‘at least’’ 20 to 25 places, taking with it hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.
‘‘It was a catastrophe,’’ he said. With the Hume Dam at more than 80 per cent capacity right now, and minor flooding occurring on the Murrumbidgee, local farmers and irrigators are fearful it could happen again.
‘‘If they don’t start planning now, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble,’’ Mr Locke said.
The MDBA has promised ‘‘modest prereleases’’ of water from the dam to relieve the situation, but landholders say a similar promise was made in 2016, but that releases did not start until September. By then, it was too late.
As a result, Deniliquin’s Edward River peaked at 8.62 metres on October 17 and the Murray River at Tocumwal peaked at 7.37m. Both were above major flood level.
But according to a press release issued by the MDBA late last week, flooding is a lesser priority when it comes to management decisions.
‘‘The rules determine that dam safety is our first priority, followed by the need to maximise water in storage for future water security, and then reducing downstream flooding where possible,’’ the MDBA said.
‘‘If and when the dam fills, all flood waters will pass through the dam and into the river downstream.’’
Mr Locke said losses to the farming community following the 2016 were devastating, and compounded the stress from multiple years of drought.
He said many are still recovering from those losses.
And with last year’s cropping results some of the best in recent memory and pending crops just as promising, landholders say a failure to prevent or negate third party flooding could be far more damaging this year.
‘‘There’s still a lot of catching up to do (after the 2016 floods),’’ Mr Locke said.
‘‘This year is looking like a good year and we don’t want to lose that.’’
Mr Locke said prolonging the recovery for flood-affected Murray region farmers was that there was little to no compensation for agricultural losses.
An attempt was made to start a class action lawsuit which accused the MDBA, or the state policies by which it operates, of ‘‘failing to release water when safe to do so’’, and ‘‘creating and following a flawed policy of pursuing a 99 per cent full dam even when flooding was likely’’.
The class action through the Adley Burstyner legal firm never made it to court due to a lack of claimants, but its solicitors say a class action relating to Wivenhoe Dam set a precedent.
Earlier this year victims of the 2011 Brisbane floods were awarded $440 million in damages due to the ‘‘mismanagement’’ of the Wivenhoe Dam, after it was proven to have operated in a conservative and destructive manner.
A new attempt to hold the MDBA accountable for the mismanagement of the system, not just during the 2016 floods, was launched in 2019 by Barooga claimant Chris Brooks. It seeks at least $1.5 billion in damages.
In his separate role as Southern Riverina Irrigators chair, Mr Brooks said yesterday that there is an easy solution to preventing floods.
He said an increase in general security allocations for Murray region irrigators would ease pressure on the Hume Dam, and allow farmers to generate income which supports the national and local economy.
He said last week it beggared belief that irrigators had access to just 10 per cent of their general security entitlement while the dam was at more than 80 per cent capacity. ‘‘Does that sound fair?’’ Mr Brooks asked. While allocations were increased this week to 26 per cent, Mr Brooks said timing and transparency is the key.
He said farmers must be given sufficient forewarning of any pending increase to assist with their planning.
‘‘You need to have the water allocation and all your fertiliser in place by about September,’’ he said.
‘‘Giving us a water allocation in January or February is a complete waste of time.’’