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Byron Shire
February 8, 2023

A broken creek gauge system could cost lives

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WARNING: Some flood survivors may be triggered by this report.

The Channon gauge had locals believing that everything was fine at a time when Nan and Hugh Nicholson had the creek approaching their back door, with more rain on the way. Photo Nan Nicholson.

On the night of February 27,  Nan and Hugh Nicholson had first-hand experience of a failed flood warning system. The water was at their front step, higher than it had ever been before. It was raining harder by the minute and the creek was rising rapidly.

‘The BoM said Terania Creek was steady, but it was rising so fast we thought we might not get out of our drive,’ says Nan. ‘With the worst of the rain to come we thought we’d better warn the SES. I called them at 11.05pm to tell them the BoM was wrong. But the SES person I spoke to could not understand why I was phoning.’

Resident Annie Kia is a member of The Channon Resilience group. She says the fact that four creek gauges were not working during the March flood shows we need fail-safe systems. ’It’s not just creek gauges. The rain gauge at Terania wasn’t working, and the BoM published zero rain at The Channon during torrential downpours.’

Over the years the manual gauges have been swept away, this one has survived – battered and bent – not far from the automatic creek gauge shed at The Channon. In an extreme event, reading this gauge would be hazardous if not impossible. Photo Annie Kia.

In the Keerrong valley there were some very narrow escapes. One flood story tells of a resident who was stranded for more than 24 hours.

Ms Kia says the lack of data on the Terania catchment is dangerous for people in the Keerrong valley. ‘If they can’t see what’s happening upstream they can’t get themselves and their cattle out of harms way. If we had manual creek gauges we could provide the information needed for Keerrong as well as Lismore.’

It’s hard to decipher who has sovereignty over the gauges which seem to be owned, in some cases, by multiple entities and often maintained by others.

The Echo contacted the BoM* and Lismore Council two weeks ago with questions regarding the creek gauges, in particular, The Channon gauge. Both entities said they were swamped but would get back to our questions as soon as possible.

Response from the Lismore Council

The faulty Creek Gauge at The Channon. Could lives be sacrificed for lack of a working gauge?Photo Tree Faerie.

Yesterday Lismore City Council responded to The Echo saying that Lismore Council owns and maintains the gauge at The Channon. A LLC spokesperson said Council owns and maintains 15 other water level stations, 14 rainfall stations and two repeater stations and base stations.

Gauge data is received by Council and under legislation is shared with the BoM. The BoM also have direct access to the gauge if need be. Council also shares the data with the SES.

The gauge is part of the overall network of information in our catchments that provide valuable catchment height data. When a gauge is disabled or missing, the BoM still model data of surrounding gauges. SES also has a network of people called spotters who go and read gauges manually to verify data.

Yet, the system failed.

The people of The Channon, Keerrong and towns all down the line need to be safe – they need a warning system that doesn’t leave them stranded and feeling like they are going to drown.

A motion to fix the problem

Even The Channon creek gauge warning sign is in need of repair.

Questions from the community and media appear to have galvanised Lismore Council.

At Tuesday’s Council meeting Councillor Big Rob moved a motion that Council contact the Australia Bureau of Meteorology to formally request the prioritisation of replacing and/or repairing infrastructure used to provide rain and river data across the Northern Rivers, and requests the installation of additional infrastructure be considered by the BoM to provide more accurate and detailed publicly accessible data which may better assist with forecasting flood levels; prioritises the replacing and/or repairing of infrastructure used to provide rain and river data across the local government area, and;  installs additional infrastructure to provide more accurate and detailed publicly accessible data which may better assist with forecasting flood levels, once funding becomes available.

Cr Elly Bird said she wanted to reiterate the importance of local knowledge. ‘The data and the research that informed the original councillor request came from a member of the community who lives and observed those gauges and the data points and the fact that they don’t work.

‘We need to be able to read that data to know that there is good data being fed into the systems because the other thing that we observe is that warnings are generated based on modelling and predictions that don’t necessarily actually align with the data that we see live on the website.’

Cr Bird said the key to preparedness in the community is to understand how to read that data. ‘We need to understand what’s happening at each of the gauges up in the creek systems and to use that information to make our own decisions and our own knowledge about what is coming our way and what flood we might be about to experience.

Floodplain Risk Management Plan

If this is going to happen, we need to know about it in advance. Wilsons River, 31 March 2022. Photo David Lowe.

Cr Vanessa Ekins said that further what Councillor Bird had said, it was identified in the Floodplain Committee and a strong recommendation from the Floodplain Risk Management Plan, that this work is undertaken. ‘A submission was made to the DPI [NSW Department of Primary Industries] for this very thing. Local knowledge came up through the Floodplain Risk Management Plan consultation process that we were engaged in before it was paused, and hopefully, we’re going to keep to continue with it now.

Cr Ekins said that one of the things that came up in the Floodplain Committee was the use of CCTV cameras to provide an accessible dashboard with live feeds of where floods were up to at various gauges. ‘That’s kind of information that people really thirsty for. So, I was really pleased to see in the staff comment here that we’re going to continue to try and access funding and I know that our Floodplain Committee will do everything it can to progress the Floodplain Risk Management Plan.

Cr Cook added to Cr Big Rob’s motion that LCC also apply for the 2022 grant which closes on May 5.

She as also suggested to the GM that a footnote be added to the application suggesting that their previous response denying Council’s application was also premature considering what happened in Lismore after Council received their letter [the floods].

Cr Krieg asked for a vote on the motion which was passed unanimously.

*The Echo is still awaiting a response from the BoM media team.

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  1. Something it seems everyone can agree on: we need more stream gauges and better data, interwoven with local knowledge on how to interpret that data. This should go hand in hand with many more rain-gauges across the catchment. Most of all the whole system needs true resilience , with toughened hardware, toughened communication networks, and multiple fail-over mechanisms, including the fallback of manual readings.
    That some data collector/transmitters weren’t working , and others failed, tells us we can and MUST improve.

    Perhaps it’s time for one national body to have responsibility for such data collection and its free, real-time publication. The scattered approach to responsibility clearly hasn’t worked. That data gathered could then be used by multiple entities to use in, and improve, varying predictive models., while being free for all to examine. A kind of competitive modelling scenario – as we already see some developing.


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