If Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery is looking for something to call his legacy when he eventually leaves office, it’s hard to find anything more worthy than Wollongong’s flooding problems.
With a topography creating ideal conditions for flash floods, Wollongong was always going to need serious measures to protect against the unstoppable force of water.
Over the years, however, the construction of the railway line and what is now the M1 Princes Motorway, with many small culverts underneath that have not been enlarged, has created a dam wall for some suburbs.
Meanwhile, creeks and waterways are clogged and overgrown, some inappropriate developments have been allowed, and creeks have been diverted around new developments. But water is not fooled by street names and it goes where it’s easiest.
Decades of underinvestment in flood mitigation means the cost of creating the drainage system Wollongong’s topography demands would run into the tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars.
But residents expecting Cr Bradbery to become the champion Wollongong needs, to find solutions and take the lead as a matter or urgency, will be disappointed.
In effect, the Lord Mayor says the issue is beyond his control.
He admits funding is ‘‘vastly inadequate’’ but concedes the problem is too big to fix in anyone’s lifetime. So residents can expect the same piece-by-piece approach practised since 1998.
Residents already pay a stormwater levy, they have copped rate rises, but they can’t expect a significant boost in flood spending. Business as usual.
Wollongong’s flood problems are threefold.
Firstly, 16 years after the 1998 floods, large parts of the city do not have complete floodplain management plans. For some, action is years away, and progress is slow.
Secondly, Wollongong’s network of creeks is inadequate, is consistently overgrown or clogged, and the culverts under railway lines and freeways are often too small. High-priority mitigation works remain undone in several areas because of the cost. Some of these creeks are on council land, some are on private property and some run through land owned by state government agencies.
Thirdly is the council’s culvert blockage policy which dictates modelling should assume every drain less than six metres across is 100 per cent blocked in a major flood. So some areas are now ‘‘high-risk’’ when they have never been flooded, with impacts on property values and insurance premiums.
Residents complain council is ‘‘privatising the risk’’ by putting off major mitigation works but sharpening maps so they are now classed as being in high-risk areas.
Cr Bradbery complained that the council was ‘‘between a rock and a hard place’’ - criticised because some flood plans were incomplete, but also because some completed plans might have problems with their risk mapping.
With respect, this complaint is disingenuous. The people of Wollongong want plans and mitigation works to be completed soon, instead of just being promised for years.
And when plans are done, they want them done properly.
If errors are made that have an impact on properties, they want the council to be willing to listen to advice, and revise where necessary.
The council’s flood studies and management plans include expert monitoring and evaluation of the levels various points in the catchment reach in flood events.
But the monitoring is rendered largely irrelevant by the blockage policy applying the same level of distress to culverts at the hands of wildly differing flood events.
In parts of Figtree, a one-in-100-year flood is modelled to have the same effect on blockage as a one-in-20-year event. This is illogical.
The Lord Mayor has proved he is willing to listen to advice – mostly from the council staff. It’s a more complicated issue when the council staff are criticised for using a flawed methodology which affects conclusions.
Advice may need to be sought from a range of experts.
The Mercury has spoken with experienced engineers who believe problems with the flood mapping stem from the crude logic of the council’s blockage policy.
Its simplistic methodology has even been dumped by one of the engineers who came up with the process, and who has revised it at least twice to take into consideration site-specific variations at a particular creek. But council remains unwilling to change its policy.
When more advanced science exists, it should not be ignored.
People understand the money needed is beyond council’s means. But they want to see that everything possible is being done to find it.