Queensland Floods 2011 Case Study


Article

Introduction

Severe floods in 2010–11 impacted extensive areas on Australia’s east coast, especially in Queensland and Victoria. Small centres are regularly flooded, but the 2010/11 events included extensive flooding of a major city and consequent extreme economic impacts. Regular repeats of such events will force change and adaptation on communities and governments in the long term (IPCC 2012). These events provide an opportunity to explore the challenges and opportunities for adaptation facing residents and local government officers during the reconstruction period, and to identify the extent to which resilience and adaptive capacity are already present in flood-affected communities.

Research was carried out in Emerald and selected suburbs of Brisbane in Queensland, and in Donald in Victoria. People were evacuated from the flood danger in all of these places and some experienced severe losses. Emerald and Donald are both inland rural settlements that have previously faced extended drought. Suburbs in Brisbane that were flooded are in existing flood prone areas where future floods may be expected.

In Brisbane the suburbs of Chelmer, Graceville, Tennyson, and Rocklea were surveyed. These suburbs were chosen following discussion with officials at the Department of Communities, Child Safety, Youth and Families, as residents within each represent a variety of demographic groups.

This paper provides a condensed overview of the findings of this research published in the full report Impact of the 2010/11 floods and the factors that inhibit and enable household adaptation strategies by Bird et al. (2013), which is available on the NCCARF website (www.nccarf.edu.au/publications/floods-household-adaptation-strategies).

Surveying flood-affected communities

Interviews were carried out with emergency management staff, planners, engineers and administrators in local councils and state government departments responsible for flood and natural hazard risk reduction. Interviews were also conducted at the community level to gain an idea of the household experience before, during and after the floods. During the interviews, residents were asked to give information on the warnings they received, how they responded, what adjustments they made to their houses, the extent of damage to their property and what, if any, adaptations they had made, or were planning to make, to reduce future risk.

Some interviewees were recruited through door knocking in flood-affected communities. Other interviewees were approached using an opportunistic technique—where the initial respondent (council official or resident) suggested others who might be willing to participate in the research.

Questionnaires were delivered by researchers to households for self-completion, with assistance from the Community Flood Recovery Group in Donald. Questionnaires were also available online and advertised by the Central Highlands Regional Council in Emerald and regional Queensland ABC Radio. The questionnaires gathered information on householder capacity to cope with the 2010–11 events, the implementation of any current changes during the reconstruction phase, and views, expectations and plans for further adaptations. A copy of the questionnaires is included in the NCCARF report (Bird et al. 2013).

Fieldwork was undertaken in August and September 2011. Overall, 18 interviews and 62 questionnaires were completed in Brisbane, 16 interviews and 53 questionnaires were completed in Donald and 21 interviews and 95 questionnaires were completed in Emerald.

Overview of case study results

Impacts and findings from Brisbane, Queensland

The majority of Brisbane respondents were aware that their home was vulnerable to flood yet very few tried to protect their house with sandbags. This could be due, according to survey respondents, to the difficulty of obtaining sandbags in some flood-affected neighbourhoods. The most common form of adjustment prior to or during the flood was raising or relocating household items to a safe location. There was a widely held assumption that Wivenhoe Dam had ‘flood proofed’ Brisbane, and that the risk should have been minimal. A lack of awareness of flood risk was evident in some residents’ responses, due both to the long amount of time since Brisbane was last flooded and a belief that Wivenhoe Dam would prevent any potential flooding.

Flood damage was still evident around Brisbane eight months on. In all, 56 per cent of respondents had either yet to complete or start rebuilding and 15 per cent had not returned to their property on a permanent basis. This was due to a number of factors, including cost, the need to wait for insurance decisions, and there being more properties to be rebuilt than there were builders. A number of abandoned properties were evident in the case study area with a local councillor suggesting up to 10 per cent of properties may be abandoned permanently.

Respondents voiced their dissatisfaction of how the flood response had been handled; a number believed that the rest of the city had ‘moved on’ while they continued to deal with the flood’s aftermath. The emotional stress of the flood event and recovery process has had an impact on wellbeing, with 63 per cent of women and 56 per cent of men reporting that the flood had negatively affected their wellbeing, in terms of at least one of the following factors: relationships with family / friends, financial status, physical health, mental health, and general happiness. The loss of sentimental items was also deeply felt by many respondents.

Flood insurance was a source of dissatisfaction for many respondents, with 33 per cent having thought their insurance covered them for all types of flood. The percentage was even higher for those with incomes over $100 000 (57 per cent). Those residents also did not qualify for the Premier’s Relief Fund—a restriction a number of residents felt was unfair. While some respondents believed flood should be a standard inclusion on insurance policies, others expressed cynicism and distrust in the insurance industry believing they would not make flood coverage more accessible. Some considered insurance to be too expensive.

Respondents were largely positive about the considerable amount of help from volunteers provided on the first and second weekends after the flood, but there was a feeling that the volunteers, while eager, were not well organised. The volunteers were held in much higher regard than the city council and SES, but many residents reported not having seen either council workers or SES volunteers during the flood or in the immediate clean up. This was reflected in a high level of dissatisfaction with both organisations’ responses to the flood. The one exception to this was a local councillor who was held in high regard by residents for her involvement in the flood response.

Most Brisbane respondents were not considering significant changes to reduce their flood risk. While 50 per cent stated they were likely to or had modified their insurance policy, few other changes were likely to be implemented. While some properties were being raised or rebuilt at a higher level, many respondents did not see the value in this. Residents largely felt responsibility for flood mitigation was in the hands of the city council, as well as better management of Wivenhoe Dam, and felt there was little they could do personally to reduce their risk.

While cynicism towards insurance and the local council were very common, there was a strong feeling of resilience in the community. Many respondents talked of how much closer they felt to their neighbours and wider community, expressing that, while the flood was a negative experience, it had produced some positive outcomes.

Image: Risk Frontiers

Researchers came across two girls offering free drinks to flood victims and volunteers. The driver of this vehicle had lost the contents of her home in Gympie due to flooding and wanted to help others affected by the floods.

Impacts and findings from Donald, Victoria

In Donald, the perception of risk was low with few residents making adjustments to protect their family and home from flood. This is not surprising since 55 per cent of respondents indicated that their house was not vulnerable to flood and a further 37 per cent stated they were not aware their home was vulnerable. It is therefore understandable that nearly all respondents indicated nothing had prevented them from making adjustments since they did not believe it was necessary to do so.

The lack of information available to residents prior to and during the flood may also have contributed to their lack of motivation to make changes, such as raising household items, sandbagging the house, devising an evacuation plan, or preparing an evacuation kit. Residents did not receive detailed hazard information and were therefore uncertain about the risk during this specific event.

Known and trusted sources of information (e.g. the SES and ABC Radio) were unable to provide appropriate, relevant and timely advice to residents and, on the whole, residents lacked knowledge of the various measures that could be taken to reduce the impact of flooding on their home. However, it would be fair to assume that, in light of recent flooding in September 2010, respondents should have had adequate awareness of how they could protect their homes and properties. Nevertheless, the January 2011 flood was much larger than that experienced in September 2010, there was a lack of sandbags during the 2011 event, the SES was unable to gain access to Donald, and volunteers focused their efforts on specific places instead of working throughout the town where needed. The cumulative effect of all these issues resulted in many residents being ill prepared.

Most respondents’ low risk perceptions were reasonable as few reported flood damage to their house contents and building structure although more than half reported property damage and some revealed that their businesses were impacted. It is likely that some, but not all, of the recorded property/business damage occurred outside the urban area as a number of residents living within the township of Donald own and run farms on the periphery. This might explain the fact that a higher proportion of men who completed the survey indicated that they had suffered negative impacts to their wellbeing as a result of the flood as it is predominantly men who physically operate the farm. However, this result contradicts observations by social workers who reported an increase in women suffering from depression.

As with other parts of Australia that were flooded during the 2010–11 summer, the preceding prolonged drought resulted in flood mitigation efforts being placed on the backburner in Donald. Local government feared criticism from the public if they maintained or implemented flood mitigation works during the 14-year drought and some residents pushed for development in flood-prone areas based on the fact that properties had not flooded since they had lived in Donald.

Many respondents in Donald thought they had full insurance cover but very few actually knew they were covered for all types of flood. The remaining respondents, a little more than half, knew that they were not covered or were covered for storm damage only. Nearly half those who were unaware of their insurance cover indicated they had no previous experience of flood. All respondents who knew they did not have any insurance cover at the time of flood had a household income of less than $50 000, possibly indicating that full insurance cover was too expensive.

Despite many respondents believing in the likelihood of a flood in the next 10 years, many do not intend to make changes to reduce their risk. Of those who indicated they would consider changes, the most popular methods were to modify insurance policies, improve garden drainage and build permanent barriers around properties, which could prove difficult due to local government restrictions. Respondents whose wellbeing suffered after the flood perceive that they are less able to make changes to reduce flood risk compared to others in their community.

An interesting adaptation that some farmers were making for drought and flood was the planting of River Saltbush as fodder for sheep. While River Saltbush and Old Man Saltbush grass varieties survive well in high-salinity soils and drought conditions, the River Saltbush survived the flood even though it was submerged for an extended period. In comparison, Old Man Saltbush died off. These findings may prove valuable to other sheep farmers in the area.

The resident-formed ‘Donald Community Flood Recovery Group’ was awarded $135 000 in government funding to conduct a flood study that includes the simulation of a once-in-200-year event. Although policy changes are hoped to result from such studies, it may take a long time until they are implemented. Nevertheless, local residents are very positive about the group and the work they are undertaking. The dedication and persistence of this group of residents is not only encouraging to Donald residents, but should serve as a good example to other communities in Australia.

Impacts and findings from Emerald, Queensland

Despite the recent flood in 2008, two-thirds of Emerald respondents were unaware that their home was vulnerable to flood. This is surprising given the fact that the majority of respondents were living in single storey buildings, which were not raised on stumps or stilts and located in a flood-prone area. Nearly all residents undertook some form of adjustment prior to or during the flood, possibly due to the persistent and detailed flood messages communicated via SMS by the local council. Many people raised household items up from the floor, followed warning advice, sandbagged their homes or moved household items to a safe location. As with other communities, Emerald residents reported a lack of sandbags which instigated innovative ideas using pillow cases and potting mix.

Only a quarter of respondents indicated that their house was not impacted by the flood but more than a third suffered major impacts to their house contents or noted that house contents were completely destroyed. Repairs to flood-affected homes were slow to complete with 38 per cent of respondents stating that repairs were ongoing and, for a few, they had not yet begun. For some, this process had been delayed by a lack of builders in the town (possibly due to outside contractors unable to find or unable to afford accommodation) or due to the long process of waiting for outcomes on insurance claims.

A vast majority of people evacuated their homes and, at August 2011, several householders had not returned on a permanent basis. The housing shortage in Emerald exacerbated this situation with many evacuees forced to live with family and friends or leave town altogether. Although Emerald residents were clearly upset about the flooding disaster and the impact it had on their home, family and community, around two-thirds indicated they were neither better nor worse off following the flood in relation to their financial status, general happiness, physical health, mental health, and relationships. Where there was change, however, it was overwhelmingly negative (around a third of respondents) with respect to their financial status, general happiness, physical health, and mental health. In contrast to this result, officials discussed how the flood had a significant impact on personal relationships, particularly where others were relying on friends or family to provide accommodation. Surprisingly, those respondents with a mid-to-high household income indicated more negative impacts in terms of wellbeing compared to those in the low and low-to-mid income brackets.

Some new residents who moved to Emerald after January 2011 were renting in flood-affected houses with no flood insurance, as there were no other options available to them. The inability to acquire adequate flood insurance was a concern to many existing residents. Leading up to the flood a greater percentage (42 per cent) of Emerald respondents knew they had insurance cover for all types of flood. Of these, most were high-income earners (>$150 000), homeowners, had lived at that address for more than a year and had previous flood experience. During the rebuild, many insurance companies did not support or encourage improvements to reduce flood impact. However, there were stories of a few householders who took steps to mitigate their flood risk. For example, one homeowner who was denied full insurance cover raised their home after the 2008 flood impacted it. They were subsequently offered full cover, which they accepted.

Nevertheless, when rebuilding after the 2008 flood many residents opted to rebuild ‘better‘ (i.e. upgrade old with more desirable) instead of rebuilding with the aim of becoming more resilient to flood. This was repeated again after the 2010 flood. Understandably, residents were concerned about property values and wanted to rebuild their homes to a level that would increase a sale price. However, few respondents understood that building a more flood resilient home may possibly increase value of those located in flood hazard zones (by, e.g., replacing carpet with tiles, raising air conditioning units and power points). Many respondents who had made changes to reduce their flood-risk did so based on their own intuition and experience.

Image: Risk Frontiers

The process of raising houses in flood-prone areas is complex and expensive.

Unfortunately, the experience and knowledge gained from floods in 2008 and 2010 had not transferred to other development projects around Emerald with many new developments consisting of slab-on-ground construction, even in high flood-risk areas. More alarming was the reconstruction of the Coles shopping complex located adjacent to the Nogoa River. The entire building was gutted after the 2010 flood and tenants within the complex were unable to break their lease, according to reports. Some new developers were building homes on stilts and a new shopping complex was being constructed on higher ground, on the eastern side of the river. This was considered a positive step for the community, as it would provide service to those isolated from the main part of town (on the western side) during future floods.

Although Emerald is considered to be a wealthy town and therefore one might assume that residents are more resilient, it is obvious that wealth does not necessarily ensure that people are less vulnerable to natural hazard events. Wealth appeared to be a constraint to many people’s recovery, as most were not entitled to the Queensland Premier’s Flood Appeal payments because their annual income was above the cut-off level. Many people had lost income due to their businesses suffering flood damage, their insurance companies were not paying up, and they could not afford the repairs to their homes. Officials noted that many of these people, particularly men, were reluctant to come forward and ask for assistance. In response, local council and state government agencies, non-government organisations and community groups are working together to ensure that all flood-affected people receive help where needed.

As a result of the 2010 flood, the changes that ranked highest that had already been done or were likely to be done, were ‘modify insurance policy’ and ‘move air conditioning unit higher’. Significantly, those respondents who did not own their home at the time of the flood were unlikely, or not at all likely, to make changes following the flood (57 per cent c.f. 37 per cent who have made, or are likely to make, changes). Of those people who owned their home, there was a very significant difference between those who were unlikely, or not at all likely, to make changes following the flood (63 per cent) compared to those who have made, or are likely to make changes (28 per cent). Again, this could relate to the fact that many people wanted to rebuild ‘better’ instead of ‘more resilient’ or they lived in slab-on-ground constructions and did not think improvements were possible.

Similarities and differences inherent within each case study

Overall, Emerald residents were more proactive in their attempts to reduce their risk to flood than those in Brisbane and Donald (Table 1), which could relate to their recent experience. Emerald residents not only had more flood experience (52 per cent) than Brisbane (26 per cent) and Donald residents (32 per cent), but many of them had experienced flood in December 2008. Although Donald flooded in September 2010, this event was only minor compared to the January 2011 flood and very few residents acknowledged this as past experience.

Table 1: Adjustments made to help protect family and home prior to and during the flood.

Flood risk adjustment

Brisbane

Donald

Emerald

Devised an evacuation plan

23

13

26

Prepared an evacuation kit

13

2

25

Followed warning advice on radio / television / Internet

42

17

57

Sandbagged house

13

32

40

Built temporary flood barriers around property

-

11

12

Kept drainage clear of debris

8

15

20

Raised household items up off floor

65

17

64

Moved household items to a safe place

61

9

40

Brisbane and Emerald residents suffered more damage within and around the home compared to Donald residents, whereas slightly more businesses were affected in Donald (Table 2). However, this is most likely a reflection of the survey methods since businesses were not specifically targeted in the study.

Table 2: Comparisons between estimated impacts and level of recovery.

Percent of:

Brisbane

Donald

Emerald

  • respondents who evacuated

77

27

81

  • respondents who perceived some damage to home contents

73

29

74

  • respondents who perceived some damage to building structure

85

35

76

  • respondents who perceived some damage to property / yard

93

56

87

  • respondents who perceived some damage to own business

37

41

23

  • respondents whose flood repairs are complete

31

10

58

  • respondents whose flood repairs are ongoing

44

20

38

  • respondents whose flood repairs have not started

12

-

5

  • evacuated respondents who had not returned home on a permanent basis

15

16

15

  • female respondents who suffered some negative impacts

63

36

63

  • male respondents who suffered some negative impacts

56

52

41

More residents in Emerald reported that their flood repairs were complete while more Brisbane residents reported that repairs were ongoing or had not yet begun. A similar amount of respondents from each location stated that they had not returned to their home on a permanent basis.

Most interestingly, there was a significant difference between the numbers of female respondents who suffered some negative impact to at least one of the following:

  • relationships with family and friends
  • financial status
  • physical and mental health, and
  • general happiness.

That is, 36 per cent of female Donald respondents reported some negative impact compared to 63 per cent in both Brisbane and Emerald. Moreover, there was a significant difference between male and female respondents within Donald. More male respondents (52 per cent) reported negative impacts than female (36 per cent), which is different to the situation recorded in Brisbane and Emerald.

These anomalies could relate to the many years of hardship experienced in Donald during the drought and the complexity of issues that were compounding its effects. For example, Kiem et al. (2010) found that farmers around Donald and Mildura felt that they could deal with the drought, but other factors were exacerbating the situation, such as the closure of the Australian Wheat Board, lower international agricultural commodity prices, and issues surrounding irrigation and water trading policies associated with the Murray River. It is possible that the much-anticipated but untimely arrival of the rain at harvesting time brought further disappointment and stress to male respondents.

On the other hand, rural women often take secondary employment in order to ensure the financial stability of their family (Kiem et al. 2010; Shaw, van Unen & Lang 2013) and although the rain caused crop damage at harvest time, farmers were better off now than they were during the drought. It is possible that female respondents perceived the rain as a positive thing since it had improved their financial situation.

This result contradicts observations by social workers who reported an increase in women suffering from depression. A viable reason for this anomaly cannot be offered without further investigation. However, in line with the literature and previous research (e.g. Enarson 2000, Hazeleger 2013, Women’s Health 2012), we suggest that men are more reluctant than women to present themselves for counselling but are comfortable discussing such matters anonymously. Other factors to consider are whether or not men have a stronger emotional connection to the land or are more or less affected by the financial stress of farming than women.

The result that many more respondents in Emerald knew their insurance covered them for all types of flood is not surprising since many had experienced flood in 2008 (Figure 1). Similarly, the result that fewer Emerald respondents knew they were not covered or covered for storm flood only is also expected when considering recent experiences. It is surprising that more Emerald respondents thought they were covered for all types of flood compared to Brisbane and Donald respondents.

Figure 1: Comparisons between insurance knowledge.

From the available data, it is difficult to draw any conclusions about those likely to know or not know about their type of coverage in Brisbane. The result that more Donald respondents knew they did not have any insurance cover at the time of the flood could relate to their belief that they were not vulnerable to flood. It is also possible that these respondents could not afford insurance since all had a household income of less than $50 000.

Due to the transient nature of the Emerald community, it is not surprising to learn that Emerald residents were the least likely to be living at the same place in the years to come (Table 3). In comparison, the result that most Donald respondents planned to be in the same place in years to come was expected. When the question was framed in terms of reducing flood vulnerability, fewer Emerald residents were likely to move to a flood-safe location. This result is most probably related to the fact that there is little available housing outside of the flood zones, and also because many expect to be moving anyway—the transience of a mining town population—and will accept the risk of flooding in the meantime.

Table 3: Comparisons between intentions to relocate.

Intention

Brisbane

Donald

Emerald

I plan to live where I am for many years to come

62

85

49

I plan to move elsewhere in this town in the coming years

13

6

7

I plan to move to another town in the coming years

8

2

17

Undecided /don’t know

10

6

16

Permanently move to a flood safe location (not at all likely & unlikely)

62

73

55

Despite many residents recognising that a flood is likely to occur within the next year in Brisbane and Emerald and within the next 10 years in Donald, most have not, or do not, intend to make changes. When asked what was preventing people from making changes, the most common answers were financial cost, design and construction of the home, insurance limitations, council / government restrictions to build levees on private properties, and they were renting. Others simply could not fathom how one could prevent Nature from occurring and believed that it was too hard: ‘I’m not God‘.

There were also issues associated with people wanting to replace for ‘better’ instead of ‘more flood resilient’ and this was possibly exacerbated by situations where residents witnessed businesses, councils and governments rebuilding like for like. There was little or no support coming from the insurance industry to assist people to make changes to reduce their risk.

Nevertheless, there were some factors that encouraged people to make changes. These included the history of flood events, the inconvenience and stress associated with being flooded, a need to protect the children, belongings and assets, and a desire to have peace of mind. Additionally, people stated the pain and heartache experienced during the floods was a significant factor driving their desire to reduce their vulnerability.

Image: Risk Frontiers

One example of preparing property for flood is the construction of a concrete wall which is reinforced along the river-side with a trench that forms the garden bed. The property owner worked with a carpenter, concreter, plumber and several engineers to develop this measure.

Conclusion

The survey results provide a great deal of valuable information on the various barriers and opportunities people face in making changes to reduce their vulnerability to flood prior to, during and after an event. A number of significant factors identified as either enabling or inhibiting response, recovery and/or adaptation are direct experience, outcome expectancy, communication and information, governance and physical protection, insurance, financial restraint and relief assistance, housing including design/construction, rental properties, builders and guidance, health and wellbeing, relocation, and volunteers and community initiatives.

A dominant finding from the study is that a greater number of constraints inhibit adaptation than factors that enable adaptive change and behaviour. Balanced against the criticisms and fault identification the study showed that resilient communities do get on with their lives and largely drive recovery themselves. The extensive qualitative comments and opinions garnered from interviews and questionnaires reflect high levels of acceptance of catastrophe and stoic endurance. This does not necessarily translate to adaptation to future events and a changed hazard landscape, but it does reflect strong resilience in the community. As strong resilience exists in the community the next step to adaptation is a logical and achievable transition. Resilience can be built on to advance adaptive behaviour, but it needs to be nurtured and facilitated by external agencies.

References

Bird, D, King, D, Haynes, K, Box, P, Okada, T & Nairn, K 2013, Impact of the 2010/11 floods and the factors that inhibit and enable household adaptation strategies. Report for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility. Gold Coast, Australia.

Enarson, E 2000, Gender and Natural Disasters. InFocus Programme on Crisis Response and Reconstruction. Working Paper 1. Recovery and Reconstruction Department. Geneva.

Hazeleger, T 2013, Gender and disaster recovery. The Australian Journal of Emergency Management. At: www.em.gov.au/Publications/Australianjournalofemergencymanagement/Currentissue/Pages/AJEM28TWO/Genderanddisasterrecovery.aspx [11 June 2013].

IPCC, 2012, Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. A Special Report of Working Groups I and II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Kiem, AS, Askew, L E, Sherval, M, Verdon-Kidd, D C, Clifton, C, Austin, E, McGuirk, PM & Berry, H 2010, Drought and the Future of Rural Communities: Drought impacts and adaptation in regional Victoria, Australia. Report for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility. Gold Coast, Australia.

Shaw, C, van Unen, J, Lang, V 2013, Women’s Voices from the Floodplains: an economic gender lens on responses in disaster affected areas in Queensland and Victoria. economic Security4Women. Justice Equality Rights Access International. Kangaroo Ground, VIC.

Women’s Health 2013, Through women’s eyes: disaster resilience. At: www.whealth.com.au/documents/work/Resilience_Women_and_Men.pdf [11 June 2013].

About the authors

Dr Deanne Bird is a social science Research Fellow specialising in disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. Deanne is currently investigating Indigenous adaption in relation to extreme events and climate change in northern Australia.

Assoc Prof. David King is an Associate Professor of Geography in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at James Cook University, and is Director of the Centre for Disaster Studies, and the Centre for Tropical Urban and Regional Planning. He is a Fellow of the Planning Institute of Australia.

Pamela Box is a PhD student in the Department of Environment and Geography at Macquarie University studying shared responsibility in flood risk management in Australia.

Tetsuya Okada is a researcher and translator at Risk Frontiers as well as a PhD student at Macquarie University studying post-disaster recovery and risk reduction measures, focusing on the 2011 Queensland–Victoria floods in Australia and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Dr Katharine Haynes is a senior Research Fellow specialising in disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. Katharine’s research interests include the implementation and adaptation of policy and organisational procedure, the science–policy interface, risk communication, and community and youth-based disaster risk reduction.

Flood events are a natural occurrence that can have significant detrimental impacts but can also provide important environmental benefits.

Floods help spread organic material, nutrients, and sediments which enrich floodplain soils. They also replenish water resources and trigger life processes (such as breeding events, migration, and seed dispersal) in flora and fauna adapted to these cycles, while good soil moisture can allow crops and pastures to be established.

The time scale over which losses and benefits of a flood are a critical factor in examining the impacts of a flooding event.  In the short term, an individual flood event may appear to be an ecological disaster, with unsightly deposition of sediment and debris, destruction of plants and animals, and even local species extinctions. However, in the long term, flood events that are part of the natural cycle will ensure the viability of the plants and animals adapted to flood-prone environments and the functioning of those ecosystems.  They also replenish ground water, surface water and drinking water supplies.

The severity of floods is dependent on natural water movement across drainage divisions and river basins, and is affected by land use and management practices. Built infrastructure and land clearing can affect the natural flow of water across the landscape, and can affect the velocity and depth of surface water flows and consequential damage.

The 2010-11 flood events and the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry

The 2010–11 wet season brought unprecedented rain and flooding to Queensland, resulting in 35 people tragically losing their lives and the declaration of 78% of the state as a disaster zone. 

The scale of the disaster led to the establishment, on 17 January 2011, of the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry to examine the events leading to the floods, all aspects of the response and the subsequent aftermath, and to make recommendations about things that could be improved for the future. 

The 177 recommendations contained in the Commission’s Final Report were delegated for delivery by the Queensland Government to one of five implementation groups, each chaired by a Director-General. 

The former Director-General of the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP) chaired the Environment and Mines Implementation Group (EMIG), which was responsible for the delivery of all recommendations from Chapter 13 of the Commission’s report. 

During 2012–13, all Chapter 13 recommendations assigned to EHP were completed. The remaining two recommendations pertaining to the management of abandoned mines will be finalised by the end of 2013. 

In meeting its responsibilities, the Queensland Government has developed a range of responses and tools to better prepare for extreme weather events, and support the resource industry to recover from these events when they occur. They include:

  • The implementation of new risk assessment approach and pre-wet season mine inspections which increase preparedness for the each wet season.
  • Providing assistance to mine operators in applying for amendments to environmental authorities.
  • Incorporating model conditions for discharges to facilitate water releases whilst ensuring the protection of the environment.
  • Making amendments to the Environmental Protection Act 1994 to allow for Temporary Emissions Licences to authorise the discharge of water in response to emergency events, such as those associated with ex-Tropical Cyclone Oswald in January 2013.
  • Undertaking reviews of, and designing improvements to, the management of abandoned mines in Queensland.
  • Improving data capture and monitoring systems across government, through the design of a new Point Source reporting tool – the “Wastewater Tracking and Electronic Reporting System” (WaTERS) to monitor mine discharges.
  • Enhanced monitoring to ensure mine water releases do not cause adverse impacts upon freshwater or marine water quality, flora or fauna.

Fitzroy Basin—a case study of the 2010–11 flood events

One of the recommendations of the Queensland Floods Commission’s Final Report, tasked EHP  “to determine, as far as possible, the impact of mine discharges during the 2010/2011 wet season on freshwater and marine water quality, and flora and fauna” (Recommendation 13.6). 

The investigation was directed by both the Commission’s recommendation and the government response to it. It led to the production of a report “Assessing the impact of mine discharges during the 2010-11 wet season: Prepared in response to Recommendation 13.6 of the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry Final Report and the Queensland Government Response”. 

A case study, focusing on the Fitzroy Basin was used for this investigation.  This region was selected because of the proximity of this mining region to the Great Barrier Reef, and because the Lower Fitzroy River is the source of Rockhampton’s drinking water supply.

The investigation found that most of the surface water flows that were captured on mine sites in this region during the 2010–11 wet season were unable to be discharged to the system. 

 As a result, although an estimated 6.7 million megalitres of water was reported to have flowed past Rockhampton, only 33,500 megalitres, or 0.5% of the total water flow, was sourced from coal mine releases. 

It is further estimated that more than 280,000 megalitres of water remains stored in mines’ pits in this region.

Due to the relatively small volume of water discharged from mines in the Fitzroy region, compared to the volume flowing during the 2010-11 wet season, the study found that mine discharges did not significantly contribute to environmental impacts. However, the report also found that because significant volumes of flood waters from this event were captured on mine sites, the impacts associated with their release are yet to be determined, and will require good management and effective licensing of mine sites to reduce further water accumulation and to ensure that releases do not impact the aquatic environment.

Government Response

The 2010-11 flood events and its impact on the environment

What were the general environmental impacts of the 2010–11 flood events in Queensland?

The 2010–11 flood events had significant impacts on terrestrial biodiversity, habitats, and wildlife.  In some areas, flood waters rose slowly, allowing many animals to escape immediate effects. However in other areas, the impact of fast flowing water, particularly on small or burrowing animals would have been more serious.

Food and habitat shortages presented longer-term impacts on those that survived, and specific programs were designed to assist some endangered species, such as the cassowary and the mahogany glider, to recover. 

The impact on freshwater systems was more positive than had been expected, with some streams and estuaries actually improving in condition as a result of the positive influence of high water flows. Similarly, inundations to wetlands supported the establishment of biological diversity, and allowed the spread and breeding of waterbirds across the state.

The major impacts on marine environments were associated with: sedimentation and turbidity; litter and human-built waste deposited from the land; toxicants, nutrients and mineral deposition; algae and phytoplankton blooms; and reduced salinity, associated with freshwater plumes to marine environments.

These impacts affected the health of the seagrass and coral communities along the coast, and those species on which they depend. Dugong and turtle strandings increased dramatically following the flood events, while dolphin deaths also increased. Other impacts were associated with stress following the displacement of fish from their former territories.

Did mine water discharges during the 2010–11 flood events have an environmental impact?

Surface water flows over cleared or mined landscapes and the discharge of captured flood waters from mine sites have the potential to cause erosion, increase the sedimentation of water courses and to contribute to freshwater flows and turbidity impacts in marine environments.

To determine the contribution of mine water discharges to observed flood impacts during this event, release volumes were compared to total water flows in the Fitzroy Basin. 

This analysis found that an estimated 6.7 million megalitres of water was reported to have flowed past Rockhampton during the 2010-11 flood events. Yet only 33,500 megalitres of this total, or 0.5% of the total water flow, related to coal mine water releases. 

Due to the relatively small contribution that mine water releases had upon total water flows during the 2010–11 flood events, the contribution of mine water to flood related environmental impacts was negligible.

How were mine water releases regulated in 2010–11?

The government regulates mining in accordance with a suite of legislation, with operational conditions for any activities that have the potential to cause environmental harm managed in accordance with the Environmental Protection Act 1994.

Under this Act, the government issues environmental authorities to resource companies which provide site-specific requirements for the release of mine-affected water. 

To take advantage of dilution opportunities, water releases were, and continue to be, generally linked to rainfall events and natural flows in receiving waters.

Environmental authority conditions are developed in consultation with resource companies using all available data to ensure that they are not only site specific, but provide protection to the environment and water users downstream of the mine. 

What was the impact of this regulatory framework upon mines?

The regulatory framework that was in place during the 2010–11 flood events was argued to have hindered the ability of mines to respond as they needed.

Transitional environmental programs (TEPs) were sought to provide a means by which mine managers could operate outside of their agreed environmental authority, allowing more flexibility in discharge arrangements. 

Once approved, TEPs allowed mines to release water during high flow events, with most TEPs allowing higher electrical conductivity in releases; an extension of time to discharge; smaller receiving water flows and amendments to monitoring requirements.  

Was all the flood water captured on mine sites released?

Although mine water releases have only contributed up to to 0.5% of total water flows since the 2010–11 wet season, unreleased flood waters captured during the 2010-11 flood event still remain on mine sites. It is estimated that around 250,000 megalitres of ‘legacy water’ is still stored on mines in mine pits.

The longer this water is stored on mines, the more it tends to deteriorate in terms of water quality. In addition, until it is discharged, it is also preventing mines from operating at their full capacities. 

The Queensland Government is undertaking a range of activities to work with industry to reduce the volume of this stored water and where necessary, authorise its release in a manner that ensures the delivery of a safe and secure water supply for the community, and the protection of the environmental values of our state’s freshwater and marine environments.

Queensland Government actions to improve mine water management since the 2010-11 flood events

How has the regulatory framework been improved to prevent the accumulation of water on mines in the future?

The Queensland Government has developed a package of initiatives to improve coal mine water management, especially in times of floods. These initiatives include feasibility studies, pilot programs, enhanced water quality monitoring, the provision of increased support to industry, and the introduction of new regulatory tools.  In addition, a range of mechanisms to support the mining industry to be able to manage the impact of floods have been introduced, including:

  • model conditions that allow higher discharges of mine water during high flow events (maximising the dilution of mine-affected water) have been developed
  • amendments have been made to the Environmental Protection Act 1994 to streamline assessment processes, and to allow authority condition changes during emergency and flood events.

The department also undertakes a pro-active compliance program where higher-risk mine sites are inspected prior to the wet season each year to determine their preparedness and to identify any water management issues that may be present on site, prior to the wet season. This gives operators the opportunity to take any actions necessary to ensure compliance with EA conditions, to prevent the further accumulation of legacy water, and to reduce the likelihood of unauthorised releases.

What new regulatory tools are now available?

Temporary emissions licences (TELs) are a new authority available to be issued under the Environmental Protection Act 1994 to allow for a fast response to emergent events.

A TEL is a permit that temporarily relaxes or modifies specified conditions of an environmental authority (EA). A TEL is a flexible tool that can be used to appropriately manage the environmental impacts of contaminant releases to the environment during emergency events, where the original approval has not reasonably anticipated such an event.

For mine water releases, TELs allow a quick response to flow events that can allow for releases during the appropriate flow volumes so that the releases have very low risk of impact. TELs can also be used to reduce risks to mine water being released uncontrollably during big flow events.

In 2013, 15 TELs were issued to a range of industries and businesses including mines, sewage and water treatment plants and landfills. In the Fitzroy Basin, three TELs were issued to coal mines to allow the release of 5,231 ML of mine affected water.

Managing the legacy water that remains in mine pits from the 2010–11 flood events

How is legacy water being managed?

In response to the volume of legacy flood water that remained on mine sites following the 2010–11 wet season, four coal mines in the Fitzroy region were provided approval to conduct an enhanced mine water release pilot during the 2012–13 wet season.

Under this pilot program, these mines had their environmental authorities amended to allow the release of accumulated water under certain natural water flow conditions.

Over the 2012-13 wet season there were four flow events that were sufficient to allow the release of around 10,000 megalitres of stored water without affecting drinking water quality or the marine environment.

This pilot is part of a long-term strategy to improve mine water management across the Fitzroy Basin, and it was closely regulated by the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. 

The pilot was expanded during 2014 to include an additional four mines, bringing the total to eight.

How were the mine sites in the pilot project selected?

The eight pilot mine sites—Goonyella Riverside, Peak Downs, Saraji, Norwich Park, Oaky Creek, Ensham, Blackwater and Gregory-Crinum—, were selected to be involved in the pilot program because they had the infrastructure to be able to remove large volumes of water from their pits. 

The sites have all met the prerequisites of the operational policy (PDF, 215KB), having demonstrated a commitment to improvements in water management, and have made relevant investments in infrastructure.

How are risks associated with the pilot project managed?

Legacy mine water has the potential to contain significant amounts of salt.  To monitor the effects of the mine water releases under the pilot project, the Queensland Government established an expanded water monitoring program which collects, analyses and interprets the results of water samples at key sites in the catchment independent of the mining companies.

The Fitzroy Basin Mine Release Pilot Operational Policy developed by EHP, guides the monitoring of pilot water releases to ensure downstream drinking water supplies and aquatic ecosystems of in-stream salinity levels in the Fitzroy Basin are not affected by the program.

Water quality monitoring is undertaken by the Department of Natural Resources and Mines to manage the cumulative impacts of multiple releases in order to ensure regional water quality objectives are maintained.

The results of this monitoring program informed the decision to expand the scale of the Pilot scheme in 2014 to include the additional four mines.

In order to maintain the protection of  drinking water supplies in the Lower Fitzroy, one of the key tenets of the operational policy has been to establish a maximum electrical conductivity (salinity) level at The Gap of 650μS/cm.  In most circumstances, no mine water releases can be undertaken while this level is exceeded. EHP may decide to allow releases above this limit based on are stream flows, rainfall forecasts, and expert hydrology and water quality advice.

What did the water quality monitoring of the pilot project find in the 2012–13 and 2013–14 wet seasons?

The results of monitoring to date can be found on the Managing Fitzroy River water quality website.

While there was no effect on drinking water quality, some exceedences of aesthetic guidelines for the environment and drinking water were recorded.

Most of these exceedences occurred across all monitored sites in the region, not just those impacted by releases by the pilot mines. 

As in previous years, mine water releases would have had a minimal impact with total mine water releases during the 2012–13 and 2013–14 wet seasons, representing only 0.3% and 0.13% respectively of the total volume of water flows through the system.

Ongoing Queensland Government water monitoring activities

How are mine water releases continuing to be monitored?

The monitoring of contaminants released from mines and their potential impact on the downstream environment is primarily at the release point as this is where the environmental impacts are likely to be greatest. 

All mines are required, by conditions of their EA, to monitor the impacts of any mine-affected water releases and report the findings EHP. This data is then used to develop updated conditions and to identify trends and impacts that may result in changes to a mine’s EA.

During times of heavy rainfall and flooding, EHP staff also monitor the impact of floods on mining operations located in the region, remaining in constant contact with mines and actively seeking information about impacts on production and any water management issues on site.

This allows EHP to make informed decisions within a short timeframe to reduce the potential impact of floods on mining operations.  This monitoring work complements pre-wet season mine inspections undertaken as part of core business associated with regulating mining activities.

What other water quality monitoring activities are being undertaken by the Queensland Government?

EHP is also working with other government departments to oversee the completion of their Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry recommendations and to improve water quality monitoring. 

This includes work undertaken by the Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts, to develop a point source database (the Waste Water Tracking and Electronic Reporting System (WaTERS)) for water quality monitoring data obtained from mine operators.  This  reporting tool will allow companies to submit their monitoring data electronically, and enable more rapid compliance checks, better sharing of data.

More broadly, the Queensland Government is also working collaboratively with the Commonwealth Government, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and mine operators through the Fitzroy Partnership for River Health, to share available data, and prepare an annual report card on the health of the waters in the Fitzroy Basin.

The government’s Reef Water Quality Protection Plan also provides a strategy for improving the quality of water in the Great Barrier Reef though improved land management in reef catchments, including the Fitzroy Basin.

Queensland Government marine fauna monitoring activities

How does EHP monitor the impact of floods events on marine fauna?

In addition to water quality monitoring, EHP also monitors the impacts of flood events upon the marine environment.

This includes monitoring:

  • fluctuations in the annual breeding rates of freshwater turtle species in the lower Fitzroy as an index of turtle population dynamics in response to river conditions
  • green turtle health indices in foraging populations within Port Curtis and additional control sites removed from out flow from rivers with extensive mining in the catchment
  • the temporal and spatial occurrence of sick, injured and dead marine wildlife (turtles, dugong, whales, dolphin) in Queensland.

This monitoring data is collated in the department’s stranding database, StrandNet, along with cause of death where this has been established.  Information on marine wildlife strandings has been recorded since 1996 along the eastern Queensland coast from Mossman to the New South Wales border.

The statewide stranding data for dugong, marine turtles and cetaceans (whales and dolphin) is summarised for each year in the annual stranding reports.

Has the monitoring found any long-term impacts of the 2010–11 flood events on marine fauna?

Following observations of increased strandings post the 2010–11 wet season, EHP biologists in collaboration with university veterinarians, toxicologists and disease specialists have been monitoring the health and condition of green turtles foraging throughout eastern Queensland. In addition, fluctuations in the size of the annual nesting population are also monitored annually at multiple beaches.

While there were unprecedented high mortalities of green turtles and dugong during 2011, there has been a progressive decline in the annual stranding rate through 2012 to the present in 2013.

However the current rate of strandings for green turtles still exceeds the stranding rates recorded during the years preceding the 2010–11 floods.

Monitoring results have also established that the number of nesting female turtles visiting beaches during the 2012–13 breeding season was extremely low.  However, monitoring undertaken in the foraging areas showed green turtles in abundance, but not in breeding condition.

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