Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Civil Damages to flow from Wivenhoe dam breach

The Bligh government faces potentially huge damages claims from flooded residents and businesses after a finding by the Queensland floods inquiry that the operator of Wivenhoe Dam "breached" the official manual over the releases of water into the river system.

Premier Anna Bligh, who received the royal commission-style inquiry's interim report yesterday, acknowledged the breach by the flood engineers who were managing the dam's water releases "may well be ultimately tested in the courts".

The inquiry also pinpointed a lack of flood preparedness by the Queensland government, systemic dysfunction and confusion across bureaucracies involved in water management, a failure of the Water Minister, Stephen Robertson, to ensure timely risk-management before the flood, and other problems.

It has recommended a "precautionary approach is best" and a reduction in the Wivenhoe Dam to 75 per cent of its supply level for drinking water if future weather forecasts are as serious as the forecasts that were made late last year.
The inquiry's finding that the manual was breached strips the owner and operator of the dam, the Queensland government and SEQWater, of legal indemnification and paves the way for claims for compensation.

More than 17,000 homes and businesses were partially inundated at an estimated cost of $5 billion in the January floods. Many people are yet to return to their homes.

The inquiry qualified its finding that "there was a failure to comply with the Wivenhoe manual" by observing that the flood engineers "were acting in the honest belief that the Wivenhoe manual did not" compel them to adopt a strategy based on forecast rainfall.

A successful legal action would need to prove that the breach had a direct and adverse impact on the levels of inundation and damage, senior lawyers told The Australian yesterday.

The breach occurred because the flood engineers did not rely on "forecast rainfall" when they were determining the timing and volume of dam releases at critical stages of the flood event.

During periods of very heavy rain and with more forecast by the Bureau of Meteorology, the engineers made relatively low releases based on a "no further rainfall" model instead of the manual's requirement to be using "the best forecast rainfall".

A spokesman for SEQWater said yesterday the agency was continuing to review the interim report. The limited releases of water early in the flood event meant the dam was holding on to water unnecessarily and would more rapidly run out of capacity as its inflow increased.

As the dam's lake rose to worrying levels, the operators dramatically increased the releases to a peak flow of 7500 cubic metres a second - twice the volume known to cause damage to low-lying properties - and this started what hydrologists described as a "flood wave".

The inquiry's expert witness, hydrologist Mark Babister, has separately found that while the dam's releases comprised more than half of the total flood in the Brisbane River, the flood engineers achieved as good a result as could be expected. Ms Bligh vowed to implement all the recommendations of what she described as "a blueprint for us to manage future disasters better".

"We owe it to those people who suffered in this disaster to learn the lessons and act on them," she said.

After 31 days of public hearings that traversed central and southern Queensland, Justice Holmes released 175 detailed recommendations ranging from an overhaul of the dam's manual to standardised training for police officers in call centres, a single point of tasking for emergency rescue helicopters "as a priority", better liaison with the army and Red Cross and mandatory disaster plans for councils.

The interim report strongly criticised the actions of Toowoomba senior constable Jason Wheeler, who "wasted time" admonishing a woman trapped in rapidly rising flash flooding at a busy CBD intersection in the hilltop city. The woman, Donna Rice, 43, and her 13-year-old son Jordan later died after being swept away from their car.

The interim report said although Constable Wheeler assumed the caller was not in danger, he had "failed to ask obvious and relevant questions" to determine the potential danger.

The inquiry heard the number of trained swift-water rescue technicians across Queensland was "manifestly inadequate", leading to rescues being delayed or carried out by the public because there was not enough staff. "The fire service did not have enough firefighters trained as swift-water rescue technicians (Level 2) to meet the demands of the 2010-11 floods," the report said.

It called for the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service to consider providing basic swift-water rescue training to all auxiliary firefighters in flood-prone areas.

The interim report also urged a statewide campaign about the dangers of driving through flooded roads, highlighting nine deaths in such circumstances during the summer. It called for practical training for council-based local disaster management groups before the next wet season and better use of SMS alerts for extreme weather and floods.

The report said that if a task was considered too big for one council area, personnel from other local governments should be deployed.

The Local Government Association of Queensland president Paul Bell said councils were working to increase engagement with local communities.


  1. Time now I think for all levels of Government to formulate "extreme weather" policies. The worlds weather is changing and fast. One thing Governments can do is to legislate so that all major commercial buildings, ie Coles/Woolworths contain evacuation shelters in their communities. These corporate giants need to give back to the communities which support them. Evacuation shelters need not be the responsibility of the taxpayer. Also as Ross has mentioned before, is there a disaster management plan in place for the Tinaroo Dam? What about another major flooding and change in river course of the Barron River? Our sewerage system in Cairns is also decades old, laid down in the 1960s and early 1970s, can it withstand long and prolonged rainfall and flooding? Massive drainage works were carried out in the 1970s and 1980s, are they adequate now? Ross???

  2. Terry, thank you for your contribution and insight. What saddens me is that the Government is not firing on all cylinders when it comes to climate change. It needs to be consistent with all its actions, not just selected issues otherwise it will loose creditability

  3. You are right Ross. We need a comprehensive policy addressing so many issues to deal with climate change. Disaster prevention and management across the nation, in every region, for a start. Evacuation shelters, cities and towns having rehearsal drills, forward planning for the rising seas. The job is huge, but it can be done.


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