Managing floodwater is the focus of a new $10 million CSIRO study backed by the federal government's National Recovery and Resilience Agency.
"For too long, previous councils have debated the merits of flood mitigation. Today that debate is done," announced federal member for Page and assistant minister for local government, Kevin Hogan, in Lismore last week. "For everyone who is against engineering solutions to flood mitigation, the debate is over."
Those last words created a furore among non-National voters, particularly vocal in the Mount Warning hinterland, with concerns that new works will include a second drinking water dam, development of farm land to housing and the loss of Aboriginal heritage but advocates of change say there is too much at stake to delay.
Spokesman for Our Future Northern Rivers, Richard Trevan, said five years' worth of research results by the citizen organisation concurred with statements made by Shane Stone and the NRRA that current flood disaster protocol consumes 97 per cent of relief money on reparations and 3pc on mitigation.
"Lismore is officially the most flood affected post code. What is needed to fix that is a combination of every viable solution using proper models to plan for meaningful outcomes," he said. "We understand the impact of floods from personal experience. Now we need to understand the full hydro-dynamics in all flood scenarios. For too long flood mitigation has been piece-meal, patchy or non-existent."
Federal opposition candidates for the North Coast flood-prone seat backed away from endorsing hard engineered solutions with Labor's Patrick Deegan, expressed concern for downstream communities. "All options should be on the table, including land buy-backs and land swaps," he said.
Soft solutions that drive an increase in regenerative farming including tree planting to stabilise hillsides and slow water flow were endorsed by Independent Page candidate and university soil scientist Dr Hanabeth Luke said: "If we don't get on the front foot with strategic planning, millions will go to waste," she said.
In-coming NSW Greens' senator Sue Higginson, who owns farmland in the lowest part of the Richmond catchment, warned of future climate events that may fill the catchment to maximum probable levels - 2m above 2022. "It is very hard to see how we can engineer our way around our changing climate here in this catchment. We need to be realistic, we can not 'flood proof' this floodplain," she said.
While CSIRO has refused to pre-empt outcomes, there have been suggestions from Mr Hogan that soft structures like water-holding basins be built in the upper catchments and hard solutions like levees be constructed on the lower river. "Nothing is off the agenda," he said.
Codrington dairy farmer Peter Graham, who lost springing heifers upriver from Lismore and spent two nights with his son in a car parked on a flooded feed-pad at the dairy, downstream from Coraki, said nothing would slow this latest event and planning to develop vast dry-dams to catch flowing water could prove onerous.
"It's almost too late for ideas like this. The opportunity to procure land might have been available 50 years ago when one family owned the farm but today with housing subdivisions you are dealing with five maybe 12 families covering the same area," he said. "And how do you stop a flood like this with all the catchments full and then a deluge?"
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