Muddy waters further complicate Maribyrnong flood inquiry

As we predicted last month, the inquiry into October’s Maribyrnong flood is already descending into something of a boondoggle. Under attack by the Greens, who have labelled it a smokescreen, incredulous water experts and furious residents, who are petitioning for better disaster relief, its failings are growing ever more apparent.

Janeann Fowkes in her Maribyrnong house. Flood-damaged sections of the walls have been removed.Credit:Jason South

This week there have been serious doubts raised about the effectiveness or otherwise of the early-warning system that was supposed to give residents in affected areas enough time to evacuate. Melbourne Water’s Flood Integrated Decision Support System, rolled out in 2015, runs flood modelling based on data from 21 river and rain gauges along the river’s 1400-square-kilometre catchment, and rain forecasts.

Had everything gone to plan, residents and businesses would have received a cascading series of alerts to warn them first of the potential danger and then of imminent flooding, such as community meetings, door-knocking, texts and finally sirens. Instead, as Clay Lucas and Sophie Aubrey report, Melbourne Water’s modelling first forecast major flood levels at Maribyrnong on October 11 and 12. Then, the day before the flood, it downgraded its warning and predicted only a moderate flood. The forecast was for 2.4 metres, which was upgraded in the dead of night to 2.9 metres at Maribyrnong. The river ultimately peaked at 4.2 metres.

Many locals have said that by the time they were adequately alerted to the wall of muddy water bearing down on their homes, it was too late. They had to be rescued by State Emergency Services boats. More than 520 properties were swamped in Maribyrnong alone.

You would assume this would be a major focus of any investigation. Yet, as we have previously noted with some disquiet, the inquiry, run under the auspices of Melbourne Water, has such narrow terms of reference that while it will consider flood modelling, it will avoid investigating the warning system. Given the new evidence, this is an extraordinary omission.

The monitoring infrastructure was a major focus of the far more comprehensive review into the floods of 2010-11 headed by former police chief commissioner Neil Comrie, who found it suffered from “significant shortcomings”.

Among his many recommendations, Comrie called for a review into the system’s forecasting and prediction capabilities, a review into flash flooding warnings “with a particular focus on urban centres with a history of flash flooding” (i.e. Maribyrnong), any necessary upgrades of stream and rain gauges, a review of the Bureau of Meteorology’s radar coverage and for the bureau to ensure it supplied flood data in real time to incident control centres, which oversee the multiple agencies that respond to emergencies. This should have been the end of it, but clearly it was not. Why? Under the terms of the current inquiry, we’ll never know.

Melbourne Water managing director Nerina Di Lorenzo has claimed a broader review would take too long and that some events were outside the authority’s responsibility. As we have stated previously, this is unacceptable.

It should at least be extended to include a thorough examination of the warning and monitoring system, including whether all the recommendations of the Comrie report were implemented.

Residents whose homes and streets were flooded deserve nothing less, as does Maribyrnong Council, which has to date removed more than 160 tonnes of mud and slurry from roads and drains and 120,000 cubic metres of debris from open spaces. Failing this, a fully independent inquiry is surely necessary, one that can report to Parliament on all aspects of the floods, including the shortcomings of Melbourne Water’s approach.

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